Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

Book Four

Snake Root

1

The Night at Pecos

A month after the Bishop’s visit to Albuquerque and Ácoma, the genial Father Gallegos was formally suspended, and Father Vaillant himself took charge of the parish. At first there was bitter feeling; the rich rancheros and the merry ladies of Albuquerque were very hostile to the French priest. He began his reforms at once. Everything was changed. The holy-days, which had been occasions of revelry under Padre Gallegos, were now days of austere devotion. The fickle Mexican population soon found as much diversion in being devout as they had once found in being scandalous. Father Vaillant wrote to his sister Philomène, in France, that the temper of his parish was like that of a boys’ school; under one master the lads try to excel one another in mischief and disobedience, under another they vie with each other in acts of loyalty. The Novena preceding Christmas, which had long been celebrated by dances and hilarious merrymaking, was this year a great revival of religious zeal.

Though Father Vaillant had all the duties of a parish priest at Albuquerque, he was still Vicar General, and in February the Bishop dispatched him on urgent business to Las Vegas. He did not return on the day that he was expected, and when several days passed with no word from him, Father Latour began to feel some anxiety.

One morning at day-break a very sick Indian boy rode into the Bishop’s courtyard on Father Joseph’s white mule, Contento, bringing bad news. The Padre, he said, had stopped at his village in the Pecos mountains where black measles had broken out, to give the sacrament to the dying, and had fallen ill of the sickness. The boy himself had been well when he started for Santa Fé, but had become sick on the way.

The Bishop had the messenger put into the wood-house, an isolated building at the end of the garden, where the Sisters of Loretto could tend him. He instructed the Mother Superior to pack a bag with such medicines and comforts for the sick as he could carry, and told Fructosa, his cook, to put up for him the provisions he usually took on horseback journeys. When his man brought a pack-mule and his own mule, Angelica, to the door, Father Latour, already in his rough riding-breeches and buck-skin jacket, looked at the handsome beast and shook his head.

“No, leave her with Contento. The new army mule is heavier, and will do for this journey.”

The Bishop rode out of Santa Fé two hours after the Indian messenger rode in. He was going direct to the pueblo of Pecos, where he would pick up Jacinto. It was late in the afternoon when he reached the pueblo, lying low on its red rock ledges, half-surrounded by a crown of fir-clad mountains, and facing a sea of junipers and cedars. The Bishop had meant to get fresh horses at Pecos and push on through the mountains, but Jacinto and the older Indians who gathered about the horseman strongly advised him to spend the night there and start in the early morning. The sun was shining brilliantly in a blue sky, but in the west, behind the mountain, lay a great stationary black cloud, opaque and motionless as a ledge of rock. The old men looked at it and shook their heads.

“Very big wind,” said the governor gravely.

Unwillingly the Bishop dismounted and gave his mules to Jacinto; it seemed to him that he was wasting time. There was still an hour before nightfall, and he spent that hour pacing up and down the crust of bare rock between the village and the ruin of the old mission church. The sun was sinking, a red ball which threw a copper glow over the pine-covered ridge of mountains, and edged that inky, ominous cloud with molten silver. The great red earth walls of the mission, red as brick-dust, yawned gloomily before him, — part of the roof had fallen in, and the rest would soon go.

At this moment Father Joseph was lying dangerously ill in the dirt and discomfort of an Indian village in winter. Why, the Bishop was asking himself, had he ever brought his friend to this life of hardship and danger? Father Vaillant had been frail from childhood, though he had the endurance resulting from exhaustless enthusiasm. The Brothers at Montferrand were not given to coddling boys, but every year they used to send this one away for a rest in the high Volvic mountains, because his vitality ran down under the confinement of college life. Twice, while he and Father Latour were missionaries in Ohio, Joseph had been at death’s door; once so ill with cholera that the newspapers had printed his name in the death list. On that occasion their Ohio Bishop had christened him Trompe-la-Mort. Yes, Father Latour told himself, Blanchet had outwitted death so often, there was always the chance he would do it again.

Walking about the walls of the ruin, the Bishop discovered that the sacristy was dry and clean, and he decided to spend the night there, wrapped in his blankets, on one of the earthen benches that ran about the inner walls. While he was examining this room, the wind began to howl about the old church, and darkness fell quickly. From the low doorways of the pueblo ruddy fire-light was gleaming — singularly grateful to the eye. Waiting for him on the rocks, he recognized the slight figure of Jacinto, his blanket drawn close about his head, his shoulders bowed to the wind.

The young Indian said that supper was ready, and the Bishop followed him to his particular lair in those rows of little houses all alike and all built together. There was a ladder before Jacinto’s door which led up to a second storey, but that was the dwelling of another family; the roof of Jacinto’s house made a veranda for the family above him. The Bishop bent his head under the low doorway and stepped down; the floor of the room was a long step below the door-sill — the Indian way of preventing drafts. The room into which he descended was long and narrow, smoothly whitewashed, and clean, to the eye, at least, because of its very bareness. There was nothing on the walls but a few fox pelts and strings of gourds and red peppers. The richly coloured blankets of which Jacinto was very proud were folded in piles on the earth settle, — it was there he and his wife slept, near the fireplace. The earth of that settle became warm during the day and held its heat until morning, like the Russian peasants’ stove-bed. Over the fire a pot of beans and dried meat was simmering. The burning piñon logs filled the room with sweet-smelling smoke. Clara, Jacinto’s wife, smiled at the priest as he entered. She ladled out the stew, and the Bishop and Jacinto sat down on the floor beside the fire, each with his bowl. Between them Clara put a basin full of hot corn-bread baked with squash seeds, — an Indian delicacy comparable to raisin bread among the whites. The Bishop said a blessing and broke the bread with his hands. While the two men ate, the young woman watched them and stirred a tiny cradle of deerskin which hung by thongs from the roof poles. Jacinto, when questioned, said sadly that the baby was ailing. Father Latour did not ask to see it; it would be swathed in layers of wrappings, he knew; even its face and head would be covered against drafts. Indian babies were never bathed in winter, and it was useless to suggest treatment for the sick ones. On that subject the Indian ear was closed to advice.

It was a pity, too, that he could do nothing for Jacinto’s baby. Cradles were not many in the pueblo of Pecos. The tribe was dying out; infant mortality was heavy, and the young couples did not reproduce freely, — the life-force seemed low. Smallpox and measles had taken heavy toll here time and again.

Of course there were other explanations, credited by many good people in Santa Fé. Pecos had more than its share of dark legends, — perhaps that was because it had been too tempting to white men, and had had more than its share of history. It was said that this people had from time immemorial kept a ceremonial fire burning in some cave in the mountain, a fire that had never been allowed to go out, and had never been revealed to white men. The story was that the service of this fire sapped the strength of the young men appointed to serve it, — always the best of the tribe. Father Latour thought this hardly probable. Why should it be very arduous, in a mountain full of timber, to feed a fire so small that its whereabouts had been concealed for centuries?

There was also the snake story, reported by the early explorers, both Spanish and American, and believed ever since: that this tribe was peculiarly addicted to snake worship, that they kept rattlesnakes concealed in their houses, and somewhere in the mountain guarded an enormous serpent which they brought to the pueblo for certain feasts. It was said that they sacrificed young babies to the great snake, and thus diminished their numbers.

It seemed much more likely that the contagious diseases brought by white men were the real cause of the shrinkage of the tribe. Among the Indians, measles, scarlatina and whooping-cough were as deadly as typhus or cholera. Certainly, the tribe was decreasing every year. Jacinto’s house was at one end of the living pueblo; behind it were long rock ridges of dead pueblo, — empty houses ruined by weather and now scarcely more than piles of earth and stone. The population of the living streets was less than one hundred adults.* This was all that was left of the rich and populous Cicuyè of Coronado’s expedition. Then, by his report, there were six thousand souls in the Indian town. They had rich fields irrigated from the Pecos River. The streams were full of fish, the mountain was full of game. The pueblo, indeed, seemed to lie upon the knees of these verdant mountains, like a favoured child. Out yonder, on the juniper-spotted plateau in front of the village, the Spaniards had camped, exacting a heavy tribute of corn and furs and cotton garments from their hapless hosts. It was from here, the story went, that they set forth in the spring on their ill-fated search for the seven golden cities of Quivera, taking with them slaves and concubines ravished from the Pecos people.

As Father Latour sat by the fire and listened to the wind sweeping down from the mountains and howling over the plateau, he thought of these things; and he could not help wondering whether Jacinto, sitting silent by the same fire, was thinking of them, too. The wind, he knew, was blowing out of the inky cloud bank that lay behind the mountain at sunset; but it might well be blowing out of a remote, black past. The only human voice raised against it was the feeble wailing of the sick child in the cradle. Clara ate noiselessly in a corner, Jacinto looked into the fire.

The Bishop read his breviary by the fire-light for an hour. Then, warmed to the bone and assured that his roll of blankets was warmed through, he rose to go. Jacinto followed with the blankets and one of his own buffalo robes. They went along a line of red doorways and across the bare rock to the gaunt ruin, whose lateral walls, with their buttresses, still braved the storm and let in the starlight.

2

Stone Lips

It was not difficult for the Bishop to waken early. After midnight his body became more and more chilled and cramped. He said his prayers before he rolled out of his blankets, remembering Father Vaillant’s maxim that if you said your prayers first, you would find plenty of time for other things afterward.

Going through the silent pueblo to Jacinto’s door, the Bishop woke him and asked him to make a fire. While the Indian went to get the mules ready, Father Latour got his coffee-pot and tin cup out of his saddle-bags, and a round loaf of Mexican bread. With bread and black coffee, he could travel day after day. Jacinto was for starting without breakfast, but Father Latour made him sit down and share his loaf. Bread is never too plenty in Indian households. Clara was still lying on the settle with her baby.

At four o’clock they were on the road, Jacinto riding the mule that carried the blankets. He knew the trails through his own mountains well enough to follow them in the dark. Toward noon the Bishop suggested a halt to rest the mules, but his guide looked at the sky and shook his head. The sun was nowhere to be seen, the air was thick and grey and smelled of snow. Very soon the snow began to fall — lightly at first, but all the while becoming heavier. The vista of pine trees ahead of them grew shorter and shorter through the vast powdering of descending flakes. A little after mid-day a burst of wind sent the snow whirling in coils about the two travellers, and a great storm broke. The wind was like a hurricane at sea, and the air became blind with snow. The Bishop could scarcely see his guide — saw only parts of him, now a head, now a shoulder, now only the black rump of his mule. Pine trees by the way stood out for a moment, then disappeared absolutely in the whirlpool of snow. Trail and landmarks, the mountain itself, were obliterated.

Jacinto sprang from his mule and unstrapped the roll of blankets. Throwing the saddle-bags to the Bishop, he shouted, “Come, I know a place. Be quick, Padre.”

The Bishop protested they could not leave the mules. Jacinto said the mules must take their chance.

For Father Latour the next hour was a test of endurance. He was blind and breathless, panting through his open mouth. He clambered over half-visible rocks, fell over prostrate trees, sank into deep holes and struggled out, always following the red blankets on the shoulders of the Indian boy, which stuck out when the boy himself was lost to sight.

Suddenly the snow seemed thinner. The guide stopped short. They were standing, the Bishop made out, under an overhanging wall of rock which made a barrier against the storm. Jacinto dropped the blankets from his shoulder and seemed to be preparing to climb the cliff. Looking up, the Bishop saw a peculiar formation in the rocks; two rounded ledges, one directly over the other, with a mouth-like opening between. They suggested two great stone lips, slightly parted and thrust outward. Up to this mouth Jacinto climbed quickly by footholds well known to him. Having mounted, he lay down on the lower lip, and helped the Bishop to clamber up. He told Father Latour to wait for him on this projection while he brought up the baggage.

A few moments later the Bishop slid after Jacinto and the blankets, through the orifice, into the throat of the cave. Within stood a wooden ladder, like that used in kivas, and down this he easily made his way to the floor.

He found himself in a lofty cavern, shaped somewhat like a Gothic chapel, of vague outline, — the only light within was that which came through the narrow aperture between the stone lips. Great as was his need of shelter, the Bishop, on his way down the ladder, was struck by a reluctance, an extreme distaste for the place. The air in the cave was glacial, penetrated to the very bones, and he detected at once a fetid odour, not very strong but highly disagreeable. Some twenty feet or so above his head the open mouth let in grey daylight like a high transom.

While he stood gazing about, trying to reckon the size of the cave, his guide was intensely preoccupied in making a careful examination of the floor and walls. At the foot of the ladder lay a heap of half-burned logs. There had been a fire there, and it had been extinguished with fresh earth, — a pile of dust covered what had been the heart of the fire. Against the cavern wall was a heap of piñon faggots, neatly piled. After he had made a minute examination of the floor, the guide began cautiously to move this pile of wood, taking the sticks up one by one, and putting them in another spot. The Bishop supposed he would make a fire at once, but he seemed in no haste to do so. Indeed, when he had moved the wood he sat down upon the floor and fell into reflection. Father Latour urged him to build a fire without further delay.

“Padre,” said the Indian boy, “I do not know if it was right to bring you here. This place is used by my people for ceremonies and is known only to us. When you go out from here, you must forget.”

“I will forget, certainly. But unless we can have a fire, we had better go back into the storm. I feel ill here already.”

Jacinto unrolled the blankets and threw the dryest one about the shivering priest. Then he bent over the pile of ashes and charred wood, but what he did was to select a number of small stones that had been used to fence in the burning embers. These he gathered in his sarape and carried to the rear wall of the cavern, where, a little above his head, there seemed to be a hole. It was about as large as a very big watermelon, of an irregular oval shape.

Holes of that shape are common in the black volcanic cliffs of the Pajarito Plateau, where they occur in great numbers. This one was solitary, dark, and seemed to lead into another cavern. Though it lay higher than Jacinto’s head, it was not beyond easy reach of his arms, and to the Bishop’s astonishment he began deftly and noiselessly to place the stones he had collected within the mouth of this orifice, fitting them together until he had entirely closed it. He then cut wedges from the piñon faggots and inserted them into the cracks between the stones. Finally, he took a handful of the earth that had been used to smother the dead fire, and mixed it with the wet snow that had blown in between the stone lips. With this thick mud he plastered over his masonry, and smoothed it with his palm. The whole operation did not take a quarter of an hour.

Without comment or explanation he then proceeded to build a fire. The odour so disagreeable to the Bishop soon vanished before the fragrance of the burning logs. The heat seemed to purify the rank air at the same time that it took away the deathly chill, but the dizzy noise in Father Latour’s head persisted. At first he thought it was a vertigo, a roaring in his ears brought on by cold and changes in his circulation. But as he grew warm and relaxed, he perceived an extraordinary vibration in this cavern; it hummed like a hive of bees, like a heavy roll of distant drums. After a time he asked Jacinto whether he, too, noticed this. The slim Indian boy smiled for the first time since they had entered the cave. He took up a faggot for a torch, and beckoned the Padre to follow him along a tunnel which ran back into the mountain, where the roof grew much lower, almost within reach of the hand. There Jacinto knelt down over a fissure in the stone floor, like a crack in china, which was plastered up with clay. Digging some of this out with his hunting knife, he put his ear on the opening, listened a few seconds, and motioned the Bishop to do likewise.

Father Latour lay with his ear to this crack for a long while, despite the cold that arose from it. He told himself he was listening to one of the oldest voices of the earth. What he heard was the sound of a great underground river, flowing through a resounding cavern. The water was far, far below, perhaps as deep as the foot of the mountain, a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock. It was not a rushing noise, but the sound of a great flood moving with majesty and power.

“It is terrible,” he said at last, as he rose.

“Si, Padre.” Jacinto began spitting on the clay he had gouged out of the seam, and plastered it up again.

When they returned to the fire, the patch of daylight up between the two lips had grown much paler. The Bishop saw it die with regret. He took from his saddlebags his coffee-pot and a loaf of bread and a goat cheese. Jacinto climbed up to the lower ledge of the entrance, shook a pine tree, and filled the coffee-pot and one of the blankets with fresh snow. While his guide was thus engaged, the Bishop took a swallow of old Taos whisky from his pocket flask. He never liked to drink spirits in the presence of an Indian.

Jacinto declared that he thought himself lucky to get bread and black coffee. As he handed the Bishop back his tin cup after drinking its contents, he rubbed his hand over his wide sash with a smile of pleasure that showed all his white teeth.

“We had good luck to be near here,” he said. “When we leave the mules, I think I can find my way here, but I am not sure. I have not been here very many times. You was scare, Padre?”

The Bishop reflected. “You hardly gave me time to be scared, boy. Were you?”

The Indian shrugged his shoulders. “I think not to return to pueblo,” he admitted.

Father Latour read his breviary long by the light of the fire. Since early morning his mind had been on other than spiritual things. At last he felt that he could sleep. He made Jacinto repeat a Pater Noster with him, as he always did on their night camps, rolled himself in his blankets, and stretched out, feet to the fire. He had it in his mind, however, to waken in the night and study a little the curious hole his guide had so carefully closed. After he put on the mud, Jacinto had never looked in the direction of that hole again, and Father Latour, observing Indian good manners, had tried not to glance toward it.

He did waken, and the fire was still giving off a rich glow of light in that lofty Gothic chamber. But there against the wall was his guide, standing on some invisible foothold, his arms outstretched against the rock, his body flattened against it, his ear over that patch of fresh mud, listening; listening with supersensual ear, it seemed, and he looked to be supported against the rock by the intensity of his solicitude. The Bishop closed his eyes without making a sound and wondered why he had supposed he could catch his guide asleep.

The next morning they crawled out through the stone lips, and dropped into a gleaming white world. The snow-clad mountains were red in the rising sun. The Bishop stood looking down over ridge after ridge of wintry fir trees with the tender morning breaking over them, all their branches laden with soft, rose-coloured clouds of virgin snow.

Jacinto said it would not be worth while to look for the mules. When the snow melted, he would recover the saddles and bridles. They floundered on foot some eight miles to a squatter’s cabin, rented horses, and completed their journey by starlight. When they reached Father Vaillant, he was sitting up in a bed of buffalo skins, his fever broken, already on the way to recovery. Another good friend had reached him before the Bishop. Kit Carson, on a deer hunt in the mountains with two Taos Indians, had heard that this village was stricken and that the Vicario was there. He hurried to the rescue, and got into the pueblo with a pack of venison meat just before the storm broke. As soon as Father Vaillant could sit in the saddle, Carson and the Bishop took him back to Santa Fé, breaking the journey into four days because of his enfeebled state.

The Bishop kept his word, and never spoke of Jacinto’s cave to anyone, but he did not cease from wondering about it. It flashed into his mind from time to time, and always with a shudder of repugnance quite unjustified by anything he had experienced there. It had been a hospitable shelter to him in his extremity. Yet afterward he remembered the storm itself, even his exhaustion, with a tingling sense of pleasure. But the cave, which had probably saved his life, he remembered with horror. No tales of wonder, he told himself, would ever tempt him into a cavern hereafter.

At home again, in his own house, he still felt a certain curiosity about this ceremonial cave, and Jacinto’s puzzling behaviour. It seemed almost to lend a colour of probability to some of those unpleasant stories about the Pecos religion. He was already convinced that neither the white men nor the Mexicans in Santa Fé understood anything about Indian beliefs or the workings of the Indian mind.

Kit Carson had told him that the proprietor of the trading post between Glorieta Pass and the Pecos pueblo had grown up a neighbour to these Indians, and knew as much about them as anybody. His parents had kept the trading post before him, and his mother was the first white woman in that neighborhood. The trader’s name was Zeb Orchard; he lived alone in the mountains, selling salt and sugar and whisky and tobacco to red men and white. Carson said that he was honest and truthful, a good friend to the Indians, and had at one time wanted to marry a Pecos girl, but his old mother, who was very proud of being “white,” would not hear to it, and so he had remained a single man and a recluse.

Father Latour made a point of stopping for the night with this trader on one of his missionary journeys, in order to question him about the Pecos customs and ceremonies.

Orchard said that the legend about the undying fire was unquestionably true; but it was kept burning, not in the mountain, but in their own pueblo. It was a smothered fire in a clay oven, and had been burning in one of the kivas ever since the pueblo was founded, centuries ago. About the snake stories, he was not certain. He had seen rattlesnakes around the pueblo, to be sure, but there were rattlers everywhere. A Pecos boy had been bitten on the ankle some years ago, and had come to him for whisky; he swelled up and was very sick, like any other boy.

The Bishop asked Orchard if he thought it probable that the Indians kept a great serpent in concealment somewhere, as was commonly reported.

“They do keep some sort of varmint out in the mountain, that they bring in for their religious ceremonies,” the trader said. “But I don’t know if it’s a snake or not. No white man knows anything about Indian religion, Padre.”

As they talked further, Orchard admitted that when he was a boy he had been very curious about these snake stories himself, and once, at their festival time, he had spied on the Pecos men, though that was not a very safe thing to do. He had lain in ambush for two nights on the mountain, and he saw a party of Indians bringing in a chest by torch-light. It was about the size of a woman’s trunk, and it was heavy enough to bend the young aspen poles on which it was hung. “If I’d seen white men bringing in a chest after dark,” he observed, “I could have made a guess at what was in it; money, or whisky, or fire-arms. But seeing it was Indians, I can’t say. It might have been only queer-shaped rocks their ancestors had taken a notion to. The things they value most are worth nothing to us. They’ve got their own superstitions, and their minds will go round and round in the same old ruts till Judgment Day.”

Father Latour remarked that their veneration for old customs was a quality he liked in the Indians, and that it played a great part in his own religion.

The trader told him he might make good Catholics among the Indians, but he would never separate them from their own beliefs. “Their priests have their own kind of mysteries. I don’t know how much of it is real and how much is made up. I remember something that happened when I was a little fellow. One night a Pecos girl, with her baby in her arms, ran into the kitchen here and begged my mother to hide her until after the festival, for she’d seen signs between the caciques, and was sure they were going to feed her baby to the snake. Whether it was true or not, she certainly believed it, poor thing, and Mother let her stay. It made a great impression on me at the time.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30