Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

Book Three

The Mass at ÁComa


The Wooden Parrot

During the first year after his arrival in Santa Fé, the Bishop was actually in his diocese only about four months. Six months of that first year were consumed in attending the Plenary Council at Baltimore, to which he had been summoned. He went on horseback over the Santa Fé trail to St. Louis, nearly a thousand miles, then by steamboat to Pittsburgh, across the mountains to Cumberland, and on to Washington by the new railroad. The return journey was even slower, as he had with him the five nuns who came to found the school of Our Lady of Light. He reached Santa Fé late in September.

So far, Bishop Latour had been mainly employed on business that took him far away from his Vicarate. His great diocese was still an unimaginable mystery to him. He was eager to be abroad in it, to know his people; to escape for a little from the cares of building and founding, and to go westward among the old isolated Indian missions; Santo Domingo, breeder of horses; Isleta, whitened with gypsum; Laguna, of wide pastures; and finally, cloud-set Ácoma.

In the golden October weather the Bishop, with his blankets and coffee-pot, attended by Jacinto, a young Indian from the Pecos pueblo, whom he employed as guide, set off to visit the Indian missions in the west. He spent a night and a day at Albuquerque, with the genial and popular Padre Gallegos. After Santa Fé, Albuquerque was the most important parish in the diocese; the priest belonged to an influential Mexican family, and he and the rancheros had run their church to suit themselves, making a very gay affair of it. Though Padre Gallegos was ten years older than the Bishop, he would still dance the fandango five nights running, as if he could never have enough of it. He had many friends in the American colony, with whom he played poker and went hunting, when he was not dancing with the Mexicans. His cellar was well stocked with wines from El Paso del Norte, whisky from Taos, and grape brandy from Bernalillo. He was genuinely hospitable, and the gambler down on his luck, the soldier sobering up, were always welcome at his table. The Padre was adored by a rich Mexican widow, who was hostess at his supper parties, engaged his servants for him, made lace for the altar and napery for his table. Every Sunday her carriage, the only closed one in Albuquerque, waited in the plaza after Mass, and when the priest had put off his vestments, he came out and was driven away to the lady’s hacienda for dinner.

The Bishop and Father Vaillant had thoroughly examined the case of Father Gallegos, and meant to end this scandalous state of things well before Christmas. But on this visit Father Latour exhibited neither astonishment nor displeasure at anything, and Padre Gallegos was cordial and most ceremoniously polite. When the Bishop permitted himself to express some surprise that there was not a confirmation class awaiting him, the Padre explained smoothly that it was his custom to confirm infants at their baptism.

“It is all the same in a Christian community like ours. We know they will receive religious instruction as they grow up, so we make good Catholics of them in the beginning. Why not?”

The Padre was uneasy lest the Bishop should require his attendance on this trip out among the missions. He had no liking for scanty food and a bed on the rocks. So, though he had been dancing only a few nights before, he received his Superior with one foot bandaged up in an Indian moccasin, and complained of a severe attack of gout. Asked when he had last celebrated Mass at Ácoma, he made no direct reply. It used to be his custom, he said, to go there in Passion Week, but the Ácoma Indians were unreclaimed heathen at heart, and had no wish to be bothered with the Mass. The last time he went out there, he was unable to get into the church at all. The Indians pretended they had not the key; that the Governor had it, and that he had gone on “Indian business” up into the Cebolleta mountains.

The Bishop did not wish Padre Gallegos’s company upon his journey, was very glad not to have the embarrassment of refusing it, and he rode away from Albuquerque after polite farewells. Yet, he reflected, there was something very engaging about Gallegos as a man. As a priest, he was impossible; he was too self-satisfied and popular ever to change his ways, and he certainly could not change his face. He did not look quite like a professional gambler, but something smooth and twinkling in his countenance suggested an underhanded mode of life. There was but one course: to suspend the man from the exercise of all priestly functions, and bid the smaller native priests take warning.

Father Vaillant had told the Bishop that he must by all means stop a night at Isleta, as he would like the priest there — Padre Jesus de Baca, an old white-haired man, almost blind, who had been at Isleta many years and had won the confidence and affection of his Indians.

When he approached this pueblo of Isleta, gleaming white across a low plain of grey sand, Father Latour’s spirits rose. It was beautiful, that warm, rich whiteness of the church and the clustered town, shaded by a few bright acacia trees, with their intense blue-green like the colour of old paper window-blinds. That tree always awakened pleasant memories, recalling a garden in the south of France where he used to visit young cousins. As he rode up to the church, the old priest came out to meet him, and after his salutation stood looking at Father Latour, shading his failing eyes with his hand.

“And can this be my Bishop? So young a man?” he exclaimed.

They went into the priest’s house by way of a garden, walled in behind the church. This enclosure was full of domesticated cactus plants, of many varieties and great size (it seemed the Padre loved them), and among these hung wicker cages made of willow twigs, full of parrots. There were even parrots hopping about the sanded paths — with one wing clipped to keep them at home. Father Jesus explained that parrot feathers were much prized by his Indians as ornaments for their ceremonial robes, and he had long ago found he could please his parishioners by raising the birds.

The priest’s house was white within and without, like all the Isleta houses, and was almost as bare as an Indian dwelling. The old man was poor, and too soft-hearted to press the pueblo people for pesos. An Indian girl cooked his beans and cornmeal mush for him, he required little else. The girl was not very skilful, he said, but she was clean about her cooking. When the Bishop remarked that everything in this pueblo, even the streets, seemed clean, the Padre told him that near Isleta there was a hill of some white mineral, which the Indians ground up and used as whitewash. They had done this from time immemorial, and the village had always been noted for its whiteness. A little talk with Father Jesus revealed that he was simple almost to childishness, and very superstitious. But there was a quality of golden goodness about him. His right eye was overgrown by a cataract, and he kept his head tilted as if he were trying to see around it. All his movements were to the left, as if he were reaching or walking about some obstacle in his path.

After coming to the house by way of a garden full of parrots, Father Latour was amused to find that the sole ornament in the Padre’s poor, bare little sala was a wooden parrot, perched in a hoop and hung from one of the roof-logs. While Father Jesus was instructing his Indian girl in the kitchen, the Bishop took this carving down from its perch to examine it. It was cut from a single stick of wood, exactly the size of a living bird, body and tail rigid and straight, the head a little turned. The wings and tail and neck feathers were just indicated by the tool, and thinly painted. He was surprised to feel how light it was; the surface had the whiteness and velvety smoothness of very old wood. Though scarcely carved at all, merely smoothed into shape, it was strangely lifelike; a wooden pattern of parrots, as it were.

The Padre smiled when he found the Bishop with the bird in his hand.

“I see you have found my treasure! That, your Grace, is probably the oldest thing in the pueblo — older than the pueblo itself.”

The parrot, Father Jesus said, had always been the bird of wonder and desire to the pueblo Indians. In ancient times its feathers were more valued than wampum and turquoises. Even before the Spaniards came, the pueblos of northern New Mexico used to send explorers along the dangerous and difficult trade routes down into tropical Mexico to bring back upon their bodies a cargo of parrot feathers. To purchase these the trader carried pouches full of turquoises from the Cerrillos hills near Santa Fé. When, very rarely, a trader succeeded in bringing back a live bird to his people, it was paid divine honours, and its death threw the whole village into the deepest gloom. Even the bones were piously preserved. There was in Isleta a parrot skull of great antiquity. His wooden bird he had bought from an old man who was much indebted to him, and who was about to die without descendants. Father Jesus had had his eye upon the bird for years. The Indian told him that his ancestors, generations ago, had brought it with them from the mother pueblo. The priest fondly believed that it was a portrait, done from life, of one of those rare birds that in ancient times were carried up alive, all the long trail from the tropics.

Father Jesus gave a good report of the Indians at Laguna and Ácoma. He used to go to those pueblos to hold services when he was younger, and had always found them friendly.

“At Ácoma,” he said, “you can see something very holy. They have there a portrait of St. Joseph, sent to them by one of the Kings of Spain, long ago, and it has worked many miracles. If the season is dry, the Ácoma people take the picture down to their farms at Acomita, and it never fails to produce rain. They have rain when none falls in all the country, and they have crops when the Laguna Indians have none.”



Taking leave of Isleta and its priest early in the morning, Father Latour and his guide rode all day through the dry desert plain west of Albuquerque. It was like a country of dry ashes; no juniper, no rabbit brush, nothing but thickets of withered, dead-looking cactus, and patches of wild pumpkin — the only vegetation that had any vitality. It is a vine, remarkable for its tendency, not to spread and ramble, but to mass and mount. Its long, sharp, arrow-shaped leaves, frosted over with prickly silver, are thrust upward and crowded together; the whole rigid, up-thrust matted clump looks less like a plant than like a great colony of grey-green lizards, moving and suddenly arrested by fear.

As the morning wore on they had to make their way through a sand-storm which quite obscured the sun. Jacinto knew the country well, having crossed it often to go to the religious dances at Laguna, but he rode with his head low and a purple handkerchief tied over his mouth. Coming from a pueblo among woods and water, he had a poor opinion of this plain. At noon he alighted and collected enough greasewood to boil the Bishop’s coffee. They knelt on either side of the fire, the sand curling about them so that the bread became gritty as they ate it.

The sun set red in an atmosphere murky with sand. The travellers made a dry camp and rolled themselves in their blankets. All night a cold wind blew over them. Father Latour was so stiff that he arose long before daybreak. The dawn came at last, fair and clear, and they made an early start.

About the middle of that afternoon Jacinto pointed out Laguna in the distance, lying, apparently, in the midst of bright yellow waves of high sand dunes — yellow as ochre. As they approached, Father Latour found these were petrified sand dunes; long waves of soft, gritty yellow rock, shining and bare except for a few lines of dark jumper that grew out of the weather cracks, — little trees, and very, very old. At the foot of this sweep of rock waves was the blue lake, a stone basin full of water, from which the pueblo took its name.

The kindly Padre at Isleta had sent his cook’s brother off on foot to warn the Laguna people that the new High Priest was coming, and that he was a good man and did not want money. They were prepared, accordingly; the church was clean and the doors were open; a small white church, painted above and about the altar with gods of wind and rain and thunder, sun and moon, linked together in a geometrical design of crimson and blue and dark green, so that the end of the church seemed to be hung with tapestry. It recalled to Father Latour the interior of a Persian chieftain’s tent he had seen in a textile exhibit at Lyons. Whether this decoration had been done by Spanish missionaries or by Indian converts, he was unable to find out.

The Governor told him that his people would come to Mass in the morning, and that there were a number of children to be baptized. He offered the Bishop the sacristy for the night, but there was a damp, earthy smell about that chamber, and Father Latour had already made up his mind that he would like to sleep on the rock dunes, under the junipers.

Jacinto got firewood and good water from the Lagunas, and they made their camp in a pleasant spot on the rocks north of the village. As the sun dropped low, the light brought the white church and the yellow adobe houses up into relief from the flat ledges. Behind their camp, not far away, lay a group of great mesas. The Bishop asked Jacinto if he knew the name of the one nearest them.

“No, I not know any name,” he shook his head. “I know Indian name,” he added, as if, for once, he were thinking aloud.

“And what is the Indian name?”

“The Laguna Indians call Snow–Bird mountain.” He spoke somewhat unwillingly.

“That is very nice,” said the Bishop musingly. “Yes, that is a pretty name.”

“Oh, Indians have nice names too!” Jacinto replied quickly, with a curl of the lip. Then, as if he felt he had taken out on the Bishop a reproach not deserved, he said in a moment: “The Laguna people think it very funny for a big priest to be a young man. The Governor say, how can I call him Padre when he is younger than my sons?”

There was a note of pride in Jacinto’s voice very flattering to the Bishop. He had noticed how kind the Indian voice could be when it was kind at all; a slight inflection made one feel that one had received a great compliment.

“I am not very young in heart, Jacinto. How old are you, my boy?”


“Have you a son?”

“One. Baby. Not very long born.”

Jacinto usually dropped the article in speaking Spanish, just as he did in speaking English, though the Bishop had noticed that when he did give a noun its article, he used the right one. The customary omission, therefore, seemed to be a matter of taste, not ignorance. In the Indian conception of language, such attachments were superfluous and unpleasing, perhaps.

They relapsed into the silence which was their usual form of intercourse. The Bishop sat drinking his coffee slowly out of the tin cup, keeping the pot near the embers. The sun had set now, the yellow rocks were turning grey, down in the pueblo the light of the cook fires made red patches of the glassless windows, and the smell of piñon smoke came softly through the still air. The whole western sky was the colour of golden ashes, with here and there a flush of red on the lip of a little cloud. High above the horizon the evening-star flickered like a lamp just lit, and close beside it was another star of constant light, much smaller.

Jacinto threw away the end of his cornhusk cigarette and again spoke without being addressed.

“The ev-ening-star,” he said in English, slowly and somewhat sententiously, then relapsed into Spanish. “You see the little star beside, Padre? Indians call him the guide.”

The two companions sat, each thinking his own thoughts as night closed in about them; a blue night set with stars, the bulk of the solitary mesas cutting into the firmament. The Bishop seldom questioned Jacinto about his thoughts or beliefs. He didn’t think it polite, and he believed it to be useless. There was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him. A chill came with the darkness. Father Latour put on his old fur-lined cloak, and Jacinto, loosening the blanket tied about his loins, drew it up over his head and shoulders.

“Many stars,” he said presently. “What you think about the stars, Padre?”

“The wise men tell us they are worlds, like ours, Jacinto.”

The end of the Indian’s cigarette grew bright and then dull again before he spoke. “I think not,” he said in the tone of one who has considered a proposition fairly and rejected it. “I think they are leaders — great spirits.”

“Perhaps they are,” said the Bishop with a sigh. “Whatever they are, they are great. Let us say Our Father, and go to sleep, my boy.”

Kneeling on either side of the embers they repeated the prayer together and then rolled up in their blankets. The Bishop went to sleep thinking with satisfaction that he was beginning to have some sort of human companionship with his Indian boy. One called the young Indians “boys,” perhaps because there was something youthful and elastic in their bodies. Certainly about their behaviour there was nothing boyish in the American sense, nor even in the European sense. Jacinto was never, by any chance, naïf; he was never taken by surprise. One felt that his training, whatever it had been, had prepared him to meet any situation which might confront him. He was as much at home in the Bishop’s study as in his own pueblo — and he was never too much at home anywhere. Father Latour felt he had gone a good way toward gaining his guide’s friendship, though he did not know how.

The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop’s way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Gallegos, the right tone with Padre Jesus, and that he had good manners with the Indians. In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces; Father Vaillant’s, for example, was kindly but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.


The Rock

After early Mass the next morning Father Latour and his guide rode off across the low plain that lies between Laguna and Ácoma. In all his travels the Bishop had seen no country like this. From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left, — piles of architecture that were like mountains. The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit brush, — that olive-coloured plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds.

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.

Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Ácoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave.

Coming along the Santa Fé trail, in the vast plains of Kansas, Father Latour had found the sky more a desert than the land; a hard, empty blue, very monotonous to the eyes of a Frenchman. But west of the Pecos all that changed; here there was always activity overhead, clouds forming and moving all day long. Whether they were dark and full of violence, or soft and white with luxurious idleness, they powerfully affected the world beneath them. The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually reformed and recoloured by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light.

Jacinto interrupted these reflections by an exclamation.

“Ácoma!” He stopped his mule.

The Bishop, following with his eye the straight, pointing Indian hand, saw, far away, two great mesas. They were almost square in shape, and at this distance seemed close together, though they were really some miles apart.

“The far one” — his guide still pointed.

The Bishop’s eyes were not so sharp as Jacinto’s, but now, looking down upon the top of the farther mesa from the high land on which they halted, he saw a flat white outline on the grey surface — a white square made up of squares. That, his guide said, was the pueblo of Ácoma.

Riding on, they presently drew rein under the Enchanted Mesa, and Jacinto told him that on this, too, there had once been a village, but the stairway which had been the only access to it was broken off by a great storm many centuries ago, and its people had perished up there from hunger.

But how, the Bishop asked him, did men first think of living on the top of naked rocks like these, hundreds of feet in the air, without soil or water?

Jacinto shrugged. “A man can do whole lot when they hunt him day and night like an animal. Navajos on the north, Apaches on the south; the Ácoma run up a rock to be safe.”

All this plain, the Bishop gathered, had once been the scene of a periodic man-hunt; these Indians, born in fear and dying by violence for generations, had at last taken this leap away from the earth, and on that rock had found the hope of all suffering and tormented creatures — safety. They came down to the plain to hunt and to grow their crops, but there was always a place to go back to. If a band of Navajos were on the Ácoma’s trail, there was still one hope; if he could reach his rock — Sanctuary! On the winding stone stairway up the cliff, a handful of men could keep off a multitude. The rock of Ácoma had never been taken by a foe but once, — by Spaniards in armour. It was very different from a mountain fastness; more lonely, more stark and grim, more appealing to the imagination. The rock, when one came to think of it, was the utmost expression of human need; even mere feeling yearned for it; it was the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship. Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the keys of His Church. And the Hebrews of the Old Testament, always being carried captive into foreign lands, — their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them.

Already the Bishop had observed in Indian life a strange literalness, often shocking and disconcerting. The Ácomas, who must share the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of change, — they had their idea in substance. They actually lived upon their Rock; were born upon it and died upon it. There was an element of exaggeration in anything so simple!

As they drew near the Ácoma mesa, dark clouds began boiling up from behind it, like ink spots spreading in a brilliant sky.

“Rain come,” remarked Jacinto. “That is good. They will be well disposed.” He left the mules in a stake corral at the foot of the mesa, took up the blankets, and hurried Father Latour into the narrow crack in the rock where the craggy edges formed a kind of natural stairway up the cliff. Wherever the footing was treacherous, it was helped out by little hand-holds, ground into the stone like smooth mittens. The mesa was absolutely naked of vegetation, but at its foot a rank plant grew conspicuously out of the sand; a plant with big white blossoms like Easter lilies. By its dark blue-green leaves, large and coarse-toothed, Father Latour recognized a species of the noxious datura. The size and luxuriance of these nightshades astonished him. They looked like great artificial plants, made of shining silk.

While they were ascending the rock, deafening thunder broke over their heads, and the rain began to fall as if it were spilled from a cloud-burst. Drawing into a deep twist of the stairway, under an overhanging ledge, they watched the water shaken in heavy curtains in the air before them. In a moment the seam in which they stood was like the channel of a brook. Looking out over the great plain spotted with mesas and glittering with rain sheets, the Bishop saw the distant mountains bright with sunlight. Again he thought that the first Creation morning might have looked like this, when the dry land was first drawn up out of the deep, and all was confusion.

The storm was over in half an hour. By the time the Bishop and his guide reached the last turn in the trail, and rose through the crack, stepping out on the flat top of the rock, the noontide sun was blazing down upon Ácoma with almost insupportable brightness. The bare stone floor of the town and its deep-worn paths were washed white and clean, and those depressions in the surface which the Ácomas call their cisterns, were full of fresh rain water. Already the women were bringing out their clothes, to begin washing. The drinking water was carried up the stairway in earthen jars on the heads of the women, from a secret spring below; but for all other purposes the people depended on the rainfall held in these cisterns.

The top of the mesa was about ten acres in extent, the Bishop judged, and there was not a tree or a blade of green upon it; not a handful of soil, except the churchyard, held in by an adobe wall, where the earth for burial had been carried up in baskets from the plain below. The white dwellings, two and three storeyed, were not scattered, but huddled together in a close cluster, with no protecting slope of ground or shoulder of rock, lying flat against the flat, bright against the bright, — both the rock and the plastered houses threw off the sun glare blindingly.

At the very edge of the mesa, overhanging the abyss so that its retaining wall was like a part of the cliff itself, was the old warlike church of Ácoma, with its two stone towers. Gaunt, grim, grey, its nave rising some seventy feet to a sagging, half-ruined roof, it was more like a fortress than a place of worship. That spacious interior depressed the Bishop as no other mission church had done. He held a service there before midday, and he had never found it so hard to go through the ceremony of the Mass. Before him, on the grey floor, in the grey light, a group of bright shawls and blankets, some fifty or sixty silent faces; above and behind them the grey walls. He felt as if he were celebrating Mass at the bottom of the sea, for antediluvian creatures; for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far. Those shell-like backs behind him might be saved by baptism and divine grace, as undeveloped infants are, but hardly through any experience of their own, he thought. When he blessed them and sent them away, it was with a sense of inadequacy and spiritual defeat.

After he had laid aside his vestments, Father Latour went over the church with Jacinto. As he examined it his wonder grew. What need had there ever been for this great church at Ácoma? It was built early in sixteen hundred, by Fray Juan Ramirez, a great missionary, who laboured on the Rock of Ácoma for twenty years or more. It was Father Ramirez, too, who made the mule trail down the other side, — the only path by which a burro can ascend the mesa, and which is still called “El Camino del Padre.”

The more Father Latour examined this church, the more he was inclined to think that Fray Ramirez, or some Spanish priest who followed him, was not altogether innocent of worldly ambition, and that they built for their own satisfaction, perhaps, rather than according to the needs of the Indians. The magnificent site, the natural grandeur of this stronghold, might well have turned their heads a little. Powerful men they must have been, those Spanish Fathers, to draft Indian labour for this great work without military support. Every stone in that structure, every handful of earth in those many thousand pounds of adobe, was carried up the trail on the backs of men and boys and women. And the great carved beams of the roof — Father Latour looked at them with amazement. In all the plain through which he had come he had seen no trees but a few stunted piñons. He asked Jacinto where these huge timbers could have been found.

“San Mateo mountain, I guess.”

“But the San Mateo mountains must be forty or fifty miles away. How could they bring such timbers?”

Jacinto shrugged. “Ácomas carry.” Certainly there was no other explanation.

Besides the church proper there was the cloister, large, thick-walled, which must have required an enormous labour of portage from the plain. The deep cloister corridors were cool when the rock outside was blistering; the low arches opened on an enclosed garden which, judging from its depth of earth, must once have been very verdant. Pacing those shady passages, with four feet of solid, windowless adobe shutting out everything but the green garden and the turquoise sky above, the early missionaries might well have forgotten the poor Ácomas, that tribe of ancient rock-turtles, and believed themselves in some cloister hung on a spur of the Pyrenees.

In the grey dust of the enclosed garden two thin, half-dead peach trees still struggled with the drouth, the kind of unlikely tree that grows up from an old root and never bears. By the wall yellow suckers put out from an old vine stump, very thick and hard, which must once have borne its ripe clusters.

Built upon the north-east corner of the cloister the Bishop found a loggia — roofed, but with open sides, looking down on the white pueblo and the tawny rock, and over the wide plain below. There he decided he would spend the night. From this loggia he watched the sun go down; watched the desert become dark, the shadows creep upward. Abroad in the plain the scattered mesa tops, red with the afterglow, one by one lost their light, like candles going out. He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man and his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.

On his homeward way the Bishop spent another night with Father Jesus, the good priest at Isleta, who talked with him much of the Moqui country and of those very old rock-set pueblos still farther to the west. One story related to a long-forgotten friar at Ácoma, and was somewhat as follows:


The Legend of Fray Baltazar

Some time in the very early years of seventeen hundred, nearly fifty years after the great Indian uprising in which all the missionaries and all the Spaniards in northern New Mexico were either driven out or murdered, after the country had been reconquered and new missionaries had come to take the place of the martyrs, a certain Friar Baltazar Montoya was priest at Ácoma. He was of a tyrannical and overbearing disposition and bore a hard hand on the natives. All the missions now in ruins were active then, each had its resident priest, who lived for the people or upon the people, according to his nature. Friar Baltazar was one of the most ambitious and exacting. It was his belief that the pueblo of Ácoma existed chiefly to support its fine church, and that this should be the pride of the Indians as it was his. He took the best of their corn and beans and squashes for his table, and selected the choicest portions when they slaughtered a sheep, chose their best hides to carpet his dwelling. Moreover, he exacted a heavy tribute in labour. He was never done with having earth carried up from the plain in baskets. He enlarged the churchyard and made the deep garden in the cloister, enriching it with dung from the corrals. Here he was able to grow a wonderful garden, since it was watered every evening by women, — and this despite the fact that it was not proper that a woman should ever enter the cloister at all. Each woman owed the Padre so many ollas of water a week from the cisterns, and they murmured not only because of the labour, but because of the drain on their water-supply.

Baltazar was not a lazy man, and in his first years there, before he became stout, he made long journeys in behalf of his mission and his garden. He went as far as Oraibi, many days’ journey, to select their best peach seeds. (The peach orchards of Oraibi were very old, having been cultivated since the days of the earliest Spanish expeditions, when Coronado’s captains gave the Moquis peach seeds brought from Spain.) His grape cuttings were brought from Sonora in baskets on muleback, and he would go all the way to the Villa (Santa Fé) for choice garden seeds, at the season when pack trains came up the Rio Grande valley. The early churchmen did a great business in carrying seeds about, though the Indians and Mexicans were satisfied with beans and squashes and chili, asking nothing more.

Friar Baltazar was from a religious house in Spain which was noted for good living, and he himself had worked in the refectory. He was an excellent cook and something of a carpenter, and he took a great deal of trouble to make himself comfortable upon that rock at the end of the world. He drafted two Indian boys into his service, one to care for his ass and work in the garden, the other to cook and wait upon him at table. In time, as he grew more unwieldy in figure, he adopted a third boy and employed him as a runner to the distant missions. This boy would go on foot all the way to the Villa for red cloth or an iron spade or a new knife, stopping at Bernalillo to bring home a wineskin full of grape brandy. He would go five days’ journey to the Sandia mountains to catch fish and dry or salt them for the Padre’s fast-days, or run to Zuñi, where the Fathers raised rabbits, and bring back a pair for the spit. His errands were seldom of an ecclesiastical nature.

It was clear that the Friar at Ácoma lived more after the flesh than after the spirit. The difficulty of obtaining an interesting and varied diet on a naked rock seemed only to whet his appetite and tempt his resourcefulness. But his sensuality went no further than his garden and table. Carnal commerce with the Indian women would have been very easy indeed, and the Friar was at the hardy age of ripe manhood when such temptations are peculiarly sharp. But the missionaries had early discovered that the slightest departure from chastity greatly weakened their influence and authority with their Indian converts. The Indians themselves sometimes practised continence as a penance, or as a strong medicine with the spirits, and they were very willing that their Padre should practise it for them. The consequences of carnal indulgence were perhaps more serious here than in Spain, and Friar Baltazar seems never to have given his flock an opportunity to exult over his frailty.

He held his seat at Ácoma for nearly fifteen prosperous years, constantly improving his church and his living-quarters, growing new vegetables and medicinal herbs, making soap from the yucca root. Even after he became stout, his arms were strong and muscular, his fingers clever. He cultivated his peach trees, and watched over his garden like a little kingdom, never allowing the native women to grow slack in the water-supply. His first serving-boys were released to marry, and others succeeded them, who were even more minutely trained.

Baltazar’s tyranny grew little by little, and the Ácoma people were sometimes at the point of revolt. But they could not estimate just how powerful the Padre’s magic might be and were afraid to put it to the test. There was no doubt that the holy picture of St. Joseph had come to them from the King of Spain by the request of this Padre, and that picture had been more effective in averting drouth than all the native rain-makers had been. Properly entreated and honoured, the painting had never failed to produce rain. Ácoma had not lost its crops since Friar Baltazar first brought the picture to them, though at Laguna and Zuñi there had been drouths that compelled the people to live upon their famine store, — an alarming extremity.

The Laguna Indians were constantly sending legations to Ácoma to negotiate terms at which they could rent the holy picture, but Friar Baltazar had warned them never to let it go. If such powerful protection were withdrawn, or if the Padre should turn the magic against them, the consequences might be disastrous to the pueblo. Better give him his choice of grain and lambs and pottery, and allow him his three serving-boys. So the missionary and his converts rubbed along in seeming friendliness.

One summer the Friar, who did not make long journeys now that he had grown large in girth, decided that he would like company, — someone to admire his fine garden, his ingenious kitchen, his airy loggia with its rugs and water jars, where he meditated and took his after-dinner siesta. So he planned to give a dinner party in the week after St. John’s Day.

He sent his runner to Zuñi, Laguna, Isleta, and bade the Padres to a feast. They came upon the day, four of them, for there were two priests at Zuñi. The stable-boy was stationed at the foot of the rock to take their beasts and conduct the visitors up the stairway. At the head of the trail Baltazar received them. They were shown over the place, and spent the morning gossiping in the cloister walks, cool and silent, though the naked rock outside was almost too hot for the hand to touch. The vine leaves rustled agreeably in the breeze, and the earth about the carrot and onion tops, as it dried from last night’s watering, gave off a pleasant smell. The guests thought their host lived very well, and they wished they had his secret. If he was a trifle boastful of his air-bound seat, no one could blame him.

With the dinner, Baltazar had taken extravagant pains. The monastery in which he had learned to cook was off the main highway to Seville; the Spanish nobles and the King himself sometimes stopped there for entertainment. In that great kitchen, with its multiplicity of spits, small enough to roast a lark and large enough to roast a boar, the Friar had learned a thing or two about sauces, and in his lonely years at Ácoma he had bettered his instruction by a natural aptitude for the art. The poverty of materials had proved an incentive rather than a discouragement.

Certainly the visiting missionaries had never sat down to food like that which rejoiced them today in the cool refectory, the blinds open just enough to admit a streak of throbbing desert far below them. Their host was telling them pompously that he would have a fountain in the cloister close when they came again. He had to check his hungry guests in their zeal for the relishes and the soup, warning them to save their mettle for what was to come. The roast was to be a wild turkey, superbly done — but that, alas, was never tasted. The course which preceded it was the host’s especial care, and here he had trusted nothing to his cook; hare jardinière (his carrots and onions were tender and well flavoured), with a sauce which he had been perfecting for many years. This entrée was brought from the kitchen in a large earthen dish — but not large enough, for with its luxury of sauce and floating carrots it filled the platter to the brim. The stable-boy was serving today, as the cook could not leave his spits, and he had been neat, brisk, and efficient. The Friar was pleased with him, and was wondering whether he could not find some little medal of bronze or silver-gilt to reward him for his pains.

When the hare in its sauce came on, the priest from Isleta chanced to be telling a funny story at which the company were laughing uproariously. The serving-boy, who knew a little Spanish, was apparently trying to get the point of the recital which made the Padres so merry. At any rate, he became distracted, and as he passed behind the senior priest of Zuñi, he tipped his full platter and spilled a stream of rich brown gravy over the good man’s head and shoulders. Baltazar was quick-tempered, and he had been drinking freely of the fiery grape brandy. He caught up the empty pewter mug at his right and threw it at the clumsy lad with a malediction. It struck the boy on the side of the head. He dropped the platter, staggered a few steps, and fell down. He did not get up, nor did he move. The Padre from Zuñi was skilled in medicine. Wiping the sauce from his eyes, he bent over the boy and examined him.

“Muerto,” he whispered. With that he plucked his junior priest by the sleeve, and the two bolted across the garden without another word and made for the head of the stairway. In a moment the Padres of Laguna and Isleta unceremoniously followed their example. With remarkable speed the four guests got them down from the rock, saddled their mules, and urged them across the plain.

Baltazar was left alone with the consequences of his haste. Unfortunately the cook, astonished at the prolonged silence, had looked in at the door just as the last pair of brown gowns were vanishing across the cloister. He saw his comrade lying upon the floor, and silently disappeared from the premises by an exit known only to himself.

When Friar Baltazar went into the kitchen he found it solitary, the turkey still dripping on the spit. Certainly he had no appetite for the roast. He felt, indeed, very remorseful and uncomfortable, also indignant with his departed guests. For a moment he entertained the idea of following them; but a temporary flight would only weaken his position, and a permanent evacuation was not to be thought of. His garden was at its prime, his peaches were just coming ripe, and his vines hung heavy with green clusters. Mechanically he took the turkey from the spit, not because he felt any inclination for food, but from an instinct of compassion, quite as if the bird could suffer from being burned to a crisp. This done, he repaired to his loggia and sat down to read his breviary, which he had neglected for several days, having been so occupied in the refectory. He had begrudged no pains to that sauce which had been his undoing.

The airy loggia, where he customarily took his afternoon repose, was like a birdcage hung in the breeze. Through its open archways he looked down on the huddled pueblo, and out over the great mesa-strewn plain far below. He was unable to fix his mind upon his office. The pueblo down there was much too quiet. At this hour there should be a few women washing pots or rags, a few children playing by the cisterns and chasing the turkeys. But today the rock top baked in the fire of the sun in utter silence, not one human being was visible — yes, one, though he had not been there a moment ago. At the head of the stone stairway, there was a patch of lustrous black, just above the rocks; an Indian’s hair. They had set a guard at the trail head.

Now the Padre began to feel alarmed, to wish he had gone down that stairway with the others, while there was yet time. He wished he were anywhere in the world but on this rock. There was old Father Ramirez’s donkey path; but if the Indians were watching one road, they would watch the other. The spot of black hair never stirred; and there were but those two ways down to the plain, only those. . . . Whichever way one turned, three hundred and fifty feet of naked cliff, without one tree or shrub a man could cling to.

As the sun sank lower and lower, there began a deep, singing murmur of male voices from the pueblo below him, not a chant, but the rhythmical intonation of Indian oratory when a serious matter is under discussion. Frightful stories of the torture of the missionaries in the great rebellion of 1680 flashed into Friar Baltazar’s mind; how one Franciscan had his eyes torn out, another had been burned, and the old Padre at Jamez had been stripped naked and driven on all fours about the plaza all night, with drunken Indians straddling his back, until he rolled over dead from exhaustion.

Moonrise from the loggia was an impressive sight, even to this Brother who was not over-impressionable. But tonight he wished he could keep the moon from coming up through the floor of the desert, — the moon was the clock which began things in the pueblo. He watched with horror for that golden rim against the deep blue velvet of the night.

The moon came, and at its coming the Ácoma people issued from their doors. A company of men walked silently across the rock to the cloister. They came up the ladder and appeared in the loggia. The Friar asked them gruffly what they wanted, but they made no reply. Not once speaking to him or to each other, they bound his feet together and tied his arms to his sides.

The Ácoma people told afterwards that he did not supplicate or struggle; had he done so, they might have dealt more cruelly with him. But he knew his Indians, and that when once they had collectively made up their pueblo mind . . . Moreover, he was a proud old Spaniard, and had a certain fortitude lodged in his well-nourished body. He was accustomed to command, not to entreat, and he retained the respect of his Indian vassals to the end.

They carried him down the ladder and through the cloister and across the rock to the most precipitous cliff — the one over which the Ácoma women flung broken pots and such refuse as the turkeys would not eat. There the people were assembled. They cut his bonds, and taking him by the hands and feet, swung him out over the rock-edge and back a few times. He was heavy, and perhaps they thought this dangerous sport. No sound but hissing breath came through his teeth. The four executioners took him up again from the brink where they had laid him, and, after a few feints, dropped him in mid-air.

So did they rid their rock of their tyrant, whom on the whole they had liked very well. But everything has its day. The execution was not followed by any sacrilege to the church or defiling of holy vessels, but merely by a division of the Padre’s stores and household goods. The women, indeed, took pleasure in watching the garden pine and waste away from thirst, and ventured into the cloisters to laugh and chatter at the whitening foliage of the peach trees, and the green grapes shrivelling on the vines.

When the next priest came, years afterward, he found no ill will awaiting him. He was a native Mexican, of unpretentious tastes, who was well satisfied with beans and jerked meat, and let the pueblo turkey flock scratch in the hot dust that had once been Baltazar’s garden. The old peach stumps kept sending up pale sprouts for many years.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52