Complete Poetical Works

Friar Pedro’s Ride

Bret Harte

IT WAS the morning season of the year;
    It was the morning era of the land;
The watercourses rang full loud and clear;
    Portala’s cross stood where Portala’s hand
Had planted it when Faith was taught by Fear,
    When monks and missions held the sole command
Of all that shore beside the peaceful sea,
Where spring-tides beat their long-drawn reveille.

Out of the mission of San Luis Rey,
    All in that brisk, tumultuous spring weather,
Rode Friar Pedro, in a pious way,
    With six dragoons in cuirasses of leather,
Each armed alike for either prayer or fray;
    Handcuffs and missals they had slung together,
And as an aid the gospel truth to scatter
Each swung a lasso—alias a “riata.”

In sooth, that year the harvest had been slack,
    The crop of converts scarce worth computation;
Some souls were lost, whose owners had turned back
    To save their bodies frequent flagellation;
And some preferred the songs of birds, alack!
    To Latin matins and their souls’ salvation,
And thought their own wild whoopings were less dreary
Than Father Pedro’s droning miserere.

To bring them back to matins and to prime,
    To pious works and secular submission,
To prove to them that liberty was crime,—
    This was, in fact, the Padre’s present mission;
To get new souls perchance at the same time,
    And bring them to a “sense of their condition,”—
That easy phrase, which, in the past and present,
Means making that condition most unpleasant.

He saw the glebe land guiltless of a furrow;
    He saw the wild oats wrestle on the hill;
He saw the gopher working in his burrow;
    He saw the squirrel scampering at his will:—
He saw all this, and felt no doubt a thorough
    And deep conviction of God’s goodness; still
He failed to see that in His glory He
Yet left the humblest of His creatures free.

He saw the flapping crow, whose frequent note
    Voiced the monotony of land and sky,
Mocking with graceless wing and rusty coat
    His priestly presence as he trotted by.
He would have cursed the bird by bell and rote,
    But other game just then was in his eye,—
A savage camp, whose occupants preferred
Their heathen darkness to the living Word.

He rang his bell, and at the martial sound
    Twelve silver spurs their jingling rowels clashed;
Six horses sprang across the level ground
    As six dragoons in open order dashed;
Above their heads the lassos circled round,
    In every eye a pious fervor flashed;
They charged the camp, and in one moment more
They lassoed six and reconverted four.

The Friar saw the conflict from a knoll,
    And sang Laus Deo and cheered on his men:
“Well thrown, Bautista,—that’s another soul;
    After him, Gomez,—try it once again;
This way, Felipe,—there the heathen stole;
    Bones of St. Francis!—surely that makes ten;
Te Deum laudamus—but they’re very wild;
Non nobis Domine—all right, my child!”

When at that moment—as the story goes—
    A certain squaw, who had her foes eluded,
Ran past the Friar, just before his nose.
    He stared a moment, and in silence brooded;
Then in his breast a pious frenzy rose
    And every other prudent thought excluded;
He caught a lasso, and dashed in a canter
After that Occidental Atalanta.

High o’er his head he swirled the dreadful noose;
    But, as the practice was quite unfamiliar,
His first cast tore Felipe’s captive loose,
    And almost choked Tiburcio Camilla,
And might have interfered with that brave youth’s
    Ability to gorge the tough tortilla;
But all things come by practice, and at last
His flying slip-knot caught the maiden fast.

Then rose above the plain a mingled yell
    Of rage and triumph,—a demoniac whoop:
The Padre heard it like a passing knell,
    And would have loosened his unchristian loop;
But the tough raw-hide held the captive well,
    And held, alas! too well the captor-dupe;
For with one bound the savage fled amain,
Dragging horse, Friar, down the lonely plain.

Down the arroyo, out across the mead,
    By heath and hollow, sped the flying maid,
Dragging behind her still the panting steed
    And helpless Friar, who in vain essayed
To cut the lasso or to check his speed.
    He felt himself beyond all human aid,
And trusted to the saints,—and, for that matter,
To some weak spot in Felipe’s riata.

Alas! the lasso had been duly blessed,
    And, like baptism, held the flying wretch,—
A doctrine that the priest had oft expressed,
    Which, like the lasso, might be made to stretch,
But would not break; so neither could divest
    Themselves of it, but, like some awful fetch,
The holy Friar had to recognize
The image of his fate in heathen guise.

He saw the glebe land guiltless of a furrow;
    He saw the wild oats wrestle on the hill;
He saw the gopher standing in his burrow;
    He saw the squirrel scampering at his will:—
He saw all this, and felt no doubt how thorough
    The contrast was to his condition; still
The squaw kept onward to the sea, till night
And the cold sea-fog hid them both from sight.

The morning came above the serried coast,
    Lighting the snow-peaks with its beacon-fires,
Driving before it all the fleet-winged host
    Of chattering birds above the Mission spires,
Filling the land with light and joy, but most
    The savage woods with all their leafy lyres;
In pearly tints and opal flame and fire
The morning came, but not the holy Friar.

Weeks passed away.    In vain the Fathers sought
    Some trace or token that might tell his story;
Some thought him dead, or, like Elijah, caught
    Up to the heavens in a blaze of glory.
In this surmise some miracles were wrought
    On his account, and souls in purgatory
Were thought to profit from his intercession;
In brief, his absence made a “deep impression.”

A twelvemonth passed; the welcome Spring once more
    Made green the hills beside the white-faced Mission,
Spread her bright dais by the western shore,
    And sat enthroned, a most resplendent vision.
The heathen converts thronged the chapel door
    At morning mass, when, says the old tradition,
A frightful whoop throughout the church resounded,
And to their feet the congregation bounded.

A tramp of hoofs upon the beaten course,
    Then came a sight that made the bravest quail:
A phantom Friar on a spectre horse,
    Dragged by a creature decked with horns and tail.
By the lone Mission, with the whirlwind’s force,
    They madly swept, and left a sulphurous trail:
And that was all,—enough to tell the story,
And leave unblessed those souls in purgatory.

And ever after, on that fatal day
    That Friar Pedro rode abroad lassoing,
A ghostly couple came and went away
    With savage whoop and heathenish hallooing,
Which brought discredit on San Luis Rey,
    And proved the Mission’s ruin and undoing;
For ere ten years had passed, the squaw and Friar
Performed to empty walls and fallen spire.

The Mission is no more; upon its wall.
    The golden lizards slip, or breathless pause,
Still as the sunshine brokenly that falls
    Through crannied roof and spider-webs of gauze;
No more the bell its solemn warning calls,—
    A holier silence thrills and overawes;
And the sharp lights and shadows of to-day
Outline the Mission of San Luis Rey.

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