Frontier Stories

At the Mission of San Carmel


Bret Harte

THE 10th of August, 1852, brought little change to the dull monotony of wind, fog, and treeless coast line. Only the sea was occasionally flecked with racing sails that outstripped the old, slow-creeping trader, or was at times streaked and blurred with the trailing smoke of a steamer. There were a few strange footprints on those virgin sands, and a fresh track, that led from the beach over the rounded hills, dropped into the bosky recesses of a hidden valley beyond the coast range.

It was here that the refectory windows of the Mission of San Carmel had for years looked upon the reverse of that monotonous picture presented to the sea. It was here that the trade winds, shorn of their fury and strength in the heated, oven-like air that rose from the valley, lost their weary way in the tangled recesses of the wooded slopes, and breathed their last at the foot of the stone cross before the Mission. It was on the crest of those slopes that the fog halted and walled in the sun-illumined plain below; it was in this plain that limitless fields of grain clothed the flat adobe soil; here the Mission garden smiled over its hedges of fruitful vines, and through the leaves of fig and gnarled pear trees; and it was here that Father Pedro had lived for fifty years, found the prospect good, and had smiled also.

Father Pedro’s smile was rare. He was not a Las Casas, nor a Junipero Serra, but he had the deep seriousness of all disciples laden with the responsible wording of a gospel not their own. And his smile had an ecclesiastical as well as a human significance, the pleasantest object in his prospect being the fair and curly head of his boy acolyte and chorister, Francisco, which appeared among the vines, and his sweetest pastoral music, the high soprano humming of a chant with which the boy accompanied his gardening.

Suddenly the acolyte’s chant changed to a cry of terror. Running rapidly to Father Pedro’s side, he grasped his sotana, and even tried to hide his curls among its folds.

“’St! ’st!” said the Padre, disengaging himself with some impatience. “What new alarm is this? Is it Luzbel hiding among our Catalan vines, or one of those heathen Americanos from Monterey? Speak!”

“Neither, holy father,” said the boy, the color struggling back into his pale cheeks, and an apologetic, bashful smile lighting his clear eyes. “Neither; but oh! such a gross, lethargic toad! And it almost leaped upon me.”

“A toad leaped upon thee!” repeated the good father with evident vexation. “What next? I tell thee, child, those foolish fears are most unmeet for thee, and must be overcome, if necessary, with prayer and penance. Frightened by a toad! Blood of the Martyrs! ’T is like any foolish girl!”

Father Pedro stopped and coughed.

“I am saying that no Christian child should shrink from any of God’s harmless creatures. And only last week thou wast disdainful of poor Murieta’s pig, forgetting that San Antonio himself did elect one his faithful companion, even in glory.”

“Yes, but it was so fat, and so uncleanly, holy father,” replied the young acolyte, “and it smelt so.”

“Smelt so?” echoed the father doubtfully. “Have a care, child, that this is not luxuriousness of the senses. I have noticed of late you gather over-much of roses and syringa, excellent in their way and in moderation, but still not to be compared with the flower of Holy Church, the lily.”

“But lilies don’t look well on the refectory table, and against the adobe wall,” returned the acolyte, with a pout of a spoilt child; “and surely the flowers cannot help being sweet, any more than myrrh or incense. And I am not frightened of the heathen Americanos either, now. There was a small one in the garden yesterday, a boy like me, and he spoke kindly and with a pleasant face.”

“What said he to thee, child?” asked Father Pedro, anxiously.

“Nay, the matter of his speech I could not understand,” laughed the boy, “but the manner was as gentle as thine, holy father.”

“’St, child,” said the Padre, impatiently. “Thy likings are as unreasonable as thy fears. Besides, have I not told thee it ill becomes a child of Christ to chatter with those sons of Belial? But canst thou not repeat the words—the words he said?” he continued suspiciously.

“’T is a harsh tongue the Americanos speak in their throat,” replied the boy. “But he said ‘Devilishnisse’ and ‘pretty-as-a-girl,’ and looked at me.”

The good father made the boy repeat the words gravely, and as gravely repeated them after him with infinite simplicity. “They are but heretical words,” he replied, in answer to the boy’s inquiring look; “it is well you understand not English. Enough. Run away, child, and be ready for the Angelus. I will commune with myself awhile under the pear trees.”

Glad to escape so easily, the young acolyte disappeared down the alley of fig trees, not without a furtive look at the patches of chickweed around their roots, the possible ambuscade of creeping or saltant vermin. The good priest heaved a sigh and glanced round the darkening prospect. The sun had already disappeared over the mountain wall that lay between him and the sea, rimmed with a faint white line of outlying fog. A cool zephyr fanned his cheek; it was the dying breath of the vientos generales beyond the wall. As Father Pedro’s eyes were raised to this barrier, which seemed to shut out the boisterous world beyond, he fancied he noticed for the first time a slight breach in the parapet, over which an advanced banner of the fog was fluttering. Was it an omen? His speculations were cut short by a voice at his very side.

He turned quickly and beheld one of those “heathens” against whom he had just warned his young acolyte; one of that straggling band of adventurers whom the recent gold discoveries had scattered along the coast. Luckily the fertile alluvium of these valleys, lying parallel with the sea, offered no “indications” to attract the gold-seekers. Nevertheless, to Father Pedro even the infrequent contact with the Americanos was objectionable: they were at once inquisitive and careless; they asked questions with the sharp perspicacity of controversy; they received his grave replies with the frank indifference of utter worldliness. Powerful enough to have been tyrannical oppressors, they were singularly tolerant and gentle, contenting themselves with a playful, good-natured irreverence, which tormented the good father more than opposition. They were felt to be dangerous and subversive.

The Americano, however, who stood before him did not offensively suggest these national qualities. A man of middle height, strongly built, bronzed and slightly gray from the vicissitudes of years and exposure, he had an air of practical seriousness that commended itself to Father Pedro. To his religious mind it suggested self-consciousness; expressed in the dialect of the stranger, it only meant “business.”

“I’m rather glad I found you out here alone,” began the latter; “it saves time. I haven’t got to take my turn with the rest, in there,”—he indicated the church with his thumb,—“and you haven’t got to make an appointment. You have got a clear forty minutes before the Angelus rings,” he added, consulting a large silver chronometer, “and I reckon I kin git through my part of the job inside of twenty, leaving you ten minutes for remarks. I want to confess.”

Father Pedro drew back with a gesture of dignity. The stranger, however, laid his hand upon the Padre’s sleeve with the air of a man anticipating objection, but never refusal, and went on.

“Of course, I know. You want me to come at some other time, and in there. You want it in the reg’lar style. That’s your way and your time. My answer is: it ain’t my way and my time. The main idea of confession, I take it, is gettin’ at the facts. I’m ready to give ’em if you’ll take ’em out here, now. If you’re willing to drop the Church and confessional, and all that sort o’ thing, I, on my side, am willing to give up the absolution, and all that sort o’ thing. You might,” he added, with an unconscious touch of pathos in the suggestion, “heave in a word or two of advice after I get through; for instance, what you’d do in the circumstances, you see! That’s all. But that’s as you please. It ain’t part of the business.”

Irreverent as this speech appeared, there was really no trace of such intention in his manner, and his evident profound conviction that his suggestion was practical, and not at all inconsistent with ecclesiastical dignity, would alone have been enough to touch the Padre, had not the stranger’s dominant personality already overridden him. He hesitated. The stranger seized the opportunity to take his arm, and lead him with the half familiarity of powerful protection to a bench beneath the refectory window. Taking out his watch again, he put it in the passive hands of the astonished priest, saying, “Time me,” cleared his throat, and began:—

“Fourteen years ago there was a ship cruisin’ in the Pacific, jest off this range, that was ez nigh on to a Hell afloat as anything rigged kin be. If a chap managed to dodge the cap’en’s belaying-pin for a time he was bound to be fetched up in the ribs at last by the mate’s boots. There was a chap knocked down the fore hatch with a broken leg in the Gulf, and another jumped overboard off Cape Corrientes, crazy as a loon, along a clip of the head from the cap’en’s trumpet. Them’s facts. The ship was a brigantine, trading along the Mexican coast. The cap’en had his wife aboard, a little timid Mexican woman he’d picked up at Mazatlan. I reckon she didn’t get on with him any better than the men, for she ups and dies one day, leavin’ her baby, a year-old gal. One o’ the crew was fond o’ that baby. He used to get the black nurse to put it in the dingy, and he’d tow it astern, rocking it with the painter like a cradle. He did it—hatin’ the cap’en all the same. One day the black nurse got out of the dingy for a moment, when the baby was asleep, leavin’ him alone with it. An idea took hold on him, jest from cussedness, you’d say, but it was partly from revenge on the cap’en and partly to get away from the ship. The ship was well in shore, and the current settin’ towards it. He slipped the painter—that man—and set himself adrift with the baby. It was a crazy act, you’d reckon, for there was n’t any oars in the boat; but he had a crazy man’s luck, and he contrived, by sculling the boat with one of the seats he tore out, to keep her out of the breakers, till he could find a bight in the shore to run her in. The alarm was given from the ship, but the fog shut down upon him; he could hear the other boats in pursuit. They seemed to close in on him, and by the sound he judged the cap’en was just abreast of him in the gig, bearing down upon him in the fog. He slipped out of the dingy into the water without a splash, and struck out for the breakers. He got ashore after havin’ been knocked down and dragged in four times by the undertow. He had only one idea then, thankfulness that he had not taken the baby with him in the surf. You kin put that down for him; it’s a fact. He got off into the hills, and made his way up to Monterey.”

“And the child?” asked the Padre, with a sudden and strange asperity that boded no good to the penitent; “the child thus ruthlessly abandoned—what became of it?”

“That’s just it, the child,” said the stranger, gravely. “Well, if that man was on his death-bed instead of being here talking to you, he’d swear that he thought the cap’en was sure to come up to it the next minit. That’s a fact. But it wasn’t until one day that he—that’s me—ran across one of that crew in Frisco. ‘Hallo, Cranch,’ sez he to me, ‘so you got away, didn’t you? And how’s the cap’en’s baby? Grown a young gal by this time, ain’t she?’ ‘What are you talking about,’ sez I; ‘how should I know?’ He draws away from me, and sez,’D—it,’ sez he, ‘you don’t mean that you’ . . . I grabs him by the throat and makes him tell me all. And then it appears that the boat and the baby were never found again, and every man of that crew, cap’en and all, believed I had stolen it.”

He paused. Father Pedro was staring at the prospect with an uncompromising rigidity of head and shoulder.

“It’s a bad lookout for me, ain’t it?” the stranger continued, in serious reflection.

“How do I know,” said the priest harshly, without turning his head, “that you did not make away with this child?”

“Beg pardon.”

“That you did not complete your revenge by—by—killing it, as your comrade suspected you? Ah! Holy Trinity,” continued Father Pedro, throwing out his hands with an impatient gesture, as if to take the place of unutterable thought.

“How do you know?” echoed the stranger coldly.


The stranger linked his fingers together and threw them over his knee, drew it up to his chest caressingly, and said quietly, “Because you do know.”

The Padre rose to his feet.

“What mean you?” he said, sternly fixing his eyes upon the speaker. Their eyes met. The stranger’s were gray and persistent, with hanging corner lids that might have concealed even more purpose than they showed. The Padre’s were hollow, open, and the whites slightly brown, as if with tobacco stains. Yet they were the first to turn away.

“I mean,” returned the stranger, with the same practical gravity, “that you know it wouldn’t pay me to come here, if I’d killed the baby, unless I wanted you to fix things right with me up there,” pointing skyward, “and get absolution; and I’ve told you that wasn’t in my line.”

“Why do you seek me, then?” demanded the Padre, suspiciously.

“Because I reckon I thought a man might be allowed to confess something short of a murder. If you’re going to draw the line below that”—

“This is but sacrilegious levity,” interrupted Father Pedro, turning as if to go. But the stranger did not make any movement to detain him.

“Have you implored forgiveness of the father—the man you wronged—before you came here?” asked the priest, lingering.

“Not much. It wouldn’t pay if he was living, and he died four years ago.”

“You are sure of that?”

“I am.”

“There are other relations, perhaps?”


Father Pedro was silent. When he spoke again, it was with a changed voice. “What is your purpose, then?” he asked, with the first indication of priestly sympathy in his manner. “You cannot ask forgiveness of the earthly father you have injured, you refuse the intercession of Holy Church with the Heavenly Father you have disobeyed. Speak, wretched man! What is it you want?”

“I want to find the child.”

“But if it were possible, if she were still living, are you fit to seek her, to even make yourself known to her, to appear before her?”

“Well, if I made it profitable to her, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” echoed the priest, scornfully. “So be it. But why come here?”

“To ask your advice. To know how to begin my search. You know this country. You were here when that boat drifted ashore beyond that mountain.”

“Ah, indeed. I have much to do with it. It is an affair of the alcalde—the authorities—of your—your police.”

“Is it?”

The Padre again met the stranger’s eyes. He stopped, with the snuffbox he had somewhat ostentatiously drawn from his pocket still open in his hand.

“Why is it not, Señor?” he demanded.

“If she lives, she is a young lady by this time, and might not want the details of her life known to any one.”

“And how will you recognize your baby in this young lady?” asked Father Pedro, with a rapid gesture, indicating the comparative heights of a baby and an adult.

“I reckon I’ll know her, and her clothes too; and whoever found her wouldn’t be fool enough to destroy them.”

“After fourteen years! Good! You have faith, Señor”—

“Cranch,” supplied the stranger, consulting his watch. “But time’s up. Business is business. Good-by; don’t let me keep you.”

He extended his hand.

The Padre met it with a dry, unsympathetic palm, as sere and yellow as the hills. When their hands separated, the father still hesitated, looking at Cranch. If he expected further speech or entreaty from him he was mistaken, for the American, without turning his head, walked in the same serious, practical fashion down the avenue of fig trees, and disappeared beyond the hedge of vines. The outlines of the mountain beyond were already lost in the fog. Father Pedro turned into the refectory.


A strong flavor of leather, onions, and stable preceded the entrance of a short, stout vaquero from the little patio.

“Saddle Pinto and thine own mule to accompany Francisco, who will take letters from me to the Father Superior at San José to-morrow at daybreak.”

“At daybreak, reverend father?”

“At daybreak. Hark ye, go by the mountain trails and avoid the highway. Stop at no posada nor fonda, but if the child is weary, rest then awhile at Don Juan Briones’ or at the rancho of the Blessed Fisherman. Have no converse with stragglers, least of all those gentile Americanos. So” . . . 

The first strokes of the Angelus came from the nearer tower. With a gesture Father Pedro waved Antonio aside, and opened the door of the sacristy.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloria.”

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