Frontier Stories

At the Mission of San Carmel


Bret Harte

THE HACIENDA of Don Juan Briones, nestling in a wooded cleft of the foot-hills, was hidden, as Father Pedro had wisely reflected, from the straying feet of travelers along the dusty highway to San José. As Francisco, emerging from the cañada, put spurs to his mule at the sight of the whitewashed walls, Antonio grunted:

“Oh aye, little priest! thou wast tired enough a moment ago, and though we are not three leagues from the Blessed Fisherman, thou couldst scarce sit thy saddle longer. Mother of God! and all to see that little mongrel, Juanita.”

“But, good Antonio, Juanita was my playfellow, and I may not soon again chance this way. And Juanita is not a mongrel, no more than I am.”

“She is a mestiza, and thou art a child of the Church, though this following of gypsy wenches does not show it.”

“But Father Pedro does not object,” urged the boy.

“The reverend father has forgotten he was ever young,” replied Antonio, sententiously, “or he wouldn’t set fire and tow together.”

“What sayest thou, good Antonio?” asked Francisco quickly, opening his blue eyes in frank curiosity; “who is fire, and who is tow?”

The worthy muleteer, utterly abashed and confounded by this display of the acolyte’s direct simplicity, contented himself by shrugging his shoulders, and a vague “Quien sabe?

“Come,” said the boy, gayly, “confess it is only the aguardiente of the Blessed Fisherman thou missest. Never fear, Juanita will find thee some. And see! here she comes.”

There was a flash of white flounces along the dark brown corridor, the twinkle of satin slippers, the flying out of long black braids, and with a cry of joy a young girl threw herself upon Francisco as he entered the patio, and nearly dragged him from his mule.

“Have a care, little sister,” laughed the acolyte, looking at Antonio, “or there will be a conflagration. Am I the fire?” he continued, submitting to the two sounding kisses the young girl placed upon either cheek, but still keeping his mischievous glance upon the muleteer.

Quien sabe?” repeated Antonio, gruffly, as the young girl blushed under his significant eyes. “It is no affair of mine,” he added to himself, as he led Pinto away. “Perhaps Father Pedro is right, and this young twig of the Church is as dry and sapless as himself. Let the mestiza burn if she likes.”

“Quick, Pancho,” said the young girl, eagerly leading him along the corridor. “This way. I must talk with thee before thou seest Don Juan; that is why I ran to intercept thee, and not as that fool Antonio would signify, to shame thee. Wast thou ashamed, my Pancho?”

The boy threw his arm familiarly round the supple, stayless little waist, accented only by the belt of the light flounced saya, and said, “But why this haste and feverishness, ’Nita? And now I look at thee, thou hast been crying.”

They had emerged from a door in the corridor into the bright sunlight of a walled garden. The girl dropped her eyes, cast a quick glance around her, and said:

“Not here; to the arroyo;” and half leading, half dragging him, made her way through a copse of manzanita and alder until they heard the faint tinkling of water. “Dost thou remember,” said the girl, “it was here,” pointing to an embayed pool in the dark current, “that I baptized thee, when Father Pedro first brought thee here, when we both played at being monks? They were dear old days, for Father Pedro would trust no one with thee but me, and always kept us near him.”

“Aye, and he said I would be profaned by the touch of any other, and so himself always washed and dressed me, and made my bed near his.”

“And took thee away again, and I saw thee not till thou camest with Antonio, over a year ago, to the cattle branding. And now, my Pancho, I may never see thee again.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed aloud.

The little acolyte tried to comfort her, but with such abstraction of manner and inadequacy of warmth that she hastily removed his caressing hand.

“But why? What has happened?” he asked eagerly.

The girl’s manner had changed. Her eyes flashed, and she put her brown fist on her waist and began to rock from side to side.

“But I’ll not go,” she said, viciously.

“Go where?” asked the boy.

“Oh, where?” she echoed, impatiently. “Hear me, Francisco. Thou knowest I am, like thee, an orphan; but I have not, like thee, a parent in the Holy Church. For, alas,” she added, bitterly, “I am not a boy, and have not a lovely voice borrowed from the angels. I was, like thee, a foundling, kept, by the charity of the reverend fathers, until Don Juan, a childless widower, adopted me. I was happy, not knowing and caring who were the parents who had abandoned me, happy only in the love of him who became my adopted father. And now”—She paused.

“And now?” echoed Francisco, eagerly.

“And now they say it is discovered who are my parents.”

“And they live?”

“Mother of God! no,” said the girl, with scarcely filial piety. “There is some one, a thing, a mere Don Fulano, who knows it all, it seems, who is to be my guardian.”

“But how? Tell me all, dear Juanita,” said the boy with a feverish interest, that contrasted so strongly with his previous abstraction that Juanita bit her lips with vexation.

“Ah! How? Santa Barbara! An extravaganza for children. A necklace of lies. I am lost from a ship of which my father—Heaven rest him!—is General, and I am picked up among the weeds on the sea-shore, like Moses in the bulrushes. A pretty story, indeed.”

“O how beautiful!” exclaimed Francisco enthusiastically. “Ah, Juanita, would it had been me!”

Thee!” said the girl bitterly,—“thee! No!—it was a girl wanted. Enough, it was me.”

“And when does the guardian come?” persisted the boy, with sparkling eyes.

“He is here even now, with that pompous fool the American alcalde from Monterey, a wretch who knows nothing of the country or the people, but who helped the other American to claim me. I tell thee, Francisco, like as not it is all a folly, some senseless blunder of those Americanos that imposes upon Don Juan’s simplicity and love for them.”

“How looks he, this Americano who seeks thee?” asked Francisco.

“What care I how he looks,” said Juanita, “or what he is? He may have the four S’s, for all I care. Yet,” she added with a slight touch of coquetry, “he is not bad to look upon, now I recall him.”

“Had he a long mustache and a sad, sweet smile, and a voice so gentle and yet so strong that you felt he ordered you to do things without saying it? And did his eye read your thoughts?—that very thought that you must obey him?”

“Saints preserve thee, Pancho! Of whom dost thou speak?”

“Listen, Juanita. It was a year ago, the eve of Natividad; he was in the church when I sang. Look where I would, I always met his eye. When the canticle was sung and I was slipping into the sacristy, he was beside me. He spoke kindly, but I understood him not. He put into my hand gold for an aguinaldo. I pretended I understood not that also, and put it into the box for the poor. He smiled and went away. Often have I seen him since; and last night, when I left the Mission, he was there again with Father Pedro.”

“And Father Pedro, what said he of him?” asked Juanita.

“Nothing.” The boy hesitated. “Perhaps—because I said nothing of the stranger.”

Juanita laughed. “So thou canst keep a secret from the good father when thou carest. But why dost thou think this stranger is my new guardian?”

“Dost thou not see, little sister? He was even then seeking thee,” said the boy with joyous excitement. “Doubtless he knew we were friends and playmates—maybe the good father has told him thy secret. For it is no idle tale of the alcalde, believe me. I see it all! It is true!”

“Then thou wilt let him take me away,” exclaimed the girl bitterly, withdrawing the little hand he had clasped in his excitement.

“Alas, Juanita, what avails it now? I am sent to San José, charged with a letter to the Father Superior, who will give me further orders. What they are, or how long I must stay, I know not. But I know this: the good Father Pedro’s eyes were troubled when he gave me his blessing, and he held me long in his embrace. Pray Heaven I have committed no fault. Still it may be that the reputation of my gift hath reached the Father Superior, and he would advance me;” and Francisco’s eyes lit up with youthful pride at the thought.

Not so Juanita. Her black eyes snapped suddenly with suspicion, she drew in her breath, and closed her little mouth firmly. Then she began a crescendo.

Mother of God! was that all? Was he a child, to be sent away for such time or for such purpose as best pleased the fathers? Was he to know no more than that? With such gifts as God had given him, was he not at least to have some word in disposing of them? Ah! she would not stand it.

The boy gazed admiringly at the piquant energy of the little figure before him, and envied her courage. “It is the mestizo blood,” he murmured to himself. Then aloud, “Thou shouldst have been a man, ’Nita.”

“And thou a woman.”

“Or a priest. Eh, what is that?”

They had both risen, Juanita defiantly, her black braids flying as she wheeled and suddenly faced the thicket, Francisco clinging to her with trembling hands and whitened lips. A stone, loosened from the hillside, had rolled to their feet; there was a crackling in the alders on the slope above them.

“Is it a bear, or a brigand?” whispered Francisco, hurriedly, sounding the uttermost depths of his terror in the two words.

“It is an eavesdropper,” said Juanita, impetuously; “and who and why, I intend to know,” and she started towards the thicket.

“Do not leave me, good Juanita;” said the young acolyte, grasping the girl’s skirt.

“Nay; run to the hacienda quickly, and leave me to search the thicket. Run!”

The boy did not wait for a second injunction, but scuttled away, his long coat catching in the brambles, while Juanita darted like a kitten into the bushes. Her search was fruitless, however, and she was returning impatiently, when her quick eye fell upon a letter lying amid the dried grass where she and Francisco had been seated the moment before. It had evidently fallen from his breast when he had risen suddenly, and been overlooked in his alarm. It was Father Pedro’s letter to the Father Superior of San José.

In an instant she had pounced upon it as viciously as if it had been the interloper she was seeking. She knew that she held in her fingers the secret of Francisco’s sudden banishment. She felt instinctively that this yellowish envelope, with its red string and its blotch of red seal, was his sentence and her own. The little mestizo, had not been brought up to respect the integrity of either locks or seals, both being unknown in the patriarchal life of the hacienda. Yet with a certain feminine instinct she looked furtively around her, and even managed to dislodge the clumsy wax without marring the pretty effigy of the crossed keys impressed upon it. Then she opened the letter and read.

Suddenly she stopped and put back her hair from her brown temples. Then a succession of burning blushes followed each other in waves from her neck up, and died in drops of moisture in her eyes. This continued until she was fairly crying, dropping the letter from her hands and rocking to and fro. In the midst of this she quickly stopped again; the clouds broke, a sunshine of laughter started from her eyes, she laughed shyly, she laughed loudly, she laughed hysterically. Then she stopped again as suddenly, knitted her brows, swooped down once more upon the letter, and turned to fly. But at the same moment the letter was quietly but firmly taken from her hand, and Mr. Jack Cranch stood beside her.

Juanita was crimson, but unconquered. She mechanically held out her hand for the letter; the American took her little fingers, kissed them, and said:

“How are you again?”

“The letter,” replied Juanita, with a strong disposition to stamp her foot.

“But,” said Cranch, with business directness, “you’ve read enough to know it isn’t for you.”

“Nor for you either,” responded Juanita.

“True. It is for the Reverend Father Superior of San José Mission. I’ll give it to him.”

Juanita was becoming alarmed, first at this prospect, second at the power the stranger seemed to be gaining over her. She recalled Francisco’s description of him with something like superstitious awe.

“But it concerns Francisco. It contains a secret he should know.”

“Then you can tell him it. Perhaps it would come easier from you.”

Juanita blushed again. “Why?” she asked, half dreading his reply.

“Because,” said the American, quietly, “you are old playmates; you are attached to each other.”

Juanita bit her lips. “Why don’t you read it yourself?” she asked bluntly.

“Because I don’t read other people’s letters, and if it concerns me you’ll tell me.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Then the Father Superior will.”

“I believe you know Francisco’s secret already,” said the girl, boldly.


“Then, Mother of God! Señor Crancho, what do you want?”

“I do not want to separate two such good friends as you and Francisco.”

“Perhaps you’d like to claim us both,” said the girl, with a sneer that was not devoid of coquetry.

“I should be delighted.”

“Then here is your occasion, Senor, for here comes my adopted father, Don Juan, and your friend, Senor Br—r—own, the American alcalde.”

Two men appeared in the garden path below them. The stiff, glazed, broad-brimmed black hat, surmounting a dark face of Quixotic gravity and romantic rectitude, indicated Don Juan Briones. His companion, lazy, specious, and red-faced, was Señor Brown, the American alcalde.

“Well, I reckon we kin about call the thing fixed,” said Señor Brown, with a large wave of the hand, suggesting a sweeping away of all trivial details. “Ez I was saying to the Don yer, when two high-toned gents like you and him come together in a delicate matter of this kind, it ain’t no hoss trade nor sharp practice. The Don is that lofty in principle that he’s willin’ to sacrifice his affections for the good of the gal; and you, on your hand, kalkilate to see all he’s done for her, and go your whole pile better. You’ll make the legal formalities good. I reckon that old Injin woman who can swear to the finding of the baby on the shore will set things all right yet. For the matter o’ that, if you want anything in the way of a certificate, I’m on hand always.”

“Juanita and myself are at your disposition, caballeros,” said Don Juan, with a grave exaltation. “Never let it be said that the Mexican nation was outdone by the great Americanos in deeds of courtesy and affection. Let it rather stand that Juanita was a sacred trust put into my hands years ago by the goddess of American liberty, and nurtured in the Mexican eagle’s nest. Is it not so, my soul?” he added, more humanly, to the girl, when he had quite recovered from the intoxication of his own speech. “We love thee, little one, but we keep our honor.”

“There’s nothing mean about the old man,” said Brown, admiringly, with a slight dropping of his left eyelid; “his head is level, and he goes with his party.”

“Thou takest my daughter, Señor Cranch,” continued the old man, carried away by his emotion; “but the American nation gives me a son.”

“You know not what you say, father,” said the young girl, angrily, exasperated by a slight twinkle in the American’s eye.

“Not so,” said Cranch. “Perhaps one of the American nation may take him at his word.”

“Then, caballeros, you will, for the moment at least, possess yourselves of the house and its poor hospitality,” said Don Juan, with time-honored courtesy, producing the rustic key of the gate of the patio. “It is at your disposition, caballeros,” he repeated, leading the way as his guests passed into the corridor.

Two hours passed. The hills were darkening on their eastern slopes; the shadows of the few poplars that sparsedly dotted the dusty highway were falling in long black lines that looked like ditches on the dead level of the tawny fields; the shadows of slowly moving cattle were mingling with their own silhouettes, and becoming more and more grotesque. A keen wind rising in the hills was already creeping from the cañada as from the mouth of a funnel, and sweeping the plains. Antonio had forgathered with the servants, had pinched the ears of the maids, had partaken of aguardiente, had saddled the mules,—Antonio was becoming impatient.

And then a singular commotion disturbed the peaceful monotony of the patriarchal household of Don Juan Briones. The stagnant courtyard was suddenly alive with peons and servants, running hither and thither. The alleys and gardens were filled with retainers. A confusion of questions, orders, and outcrys rent the air, the plains shook with the galloping of a dozen horsemen. For the acolyte Francisco, of the Mission San Carmel, had disappeared and vanished, and from that day the hacienda of Don Juan Briones knew him no more.

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