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Chapter 1 THE WHITE MULES

In mid-March, Father Vaillant was on the road, returning from a missionary journey to Albuquerque. He was to stop at the rancho of a rich Mexican, Manuel Lujon, to marry his men and maid servants who were living in concubinage, and to baptize the children. There he would spend the night. To-morrow or the day after he would go on to Santa Fé, halting by the way at the Indian pueblo of Santo Domingo to hold service. There was a fine old mission church at Santo Domingo, but the Indians were of a haughty and suspicious disposition. He had said Mass there on his way to Albuquerque, nearly a week ago. By dint of canvassing from house to house, and offering medals and religious colour prints to all who came to church, he had got together a considerable congregation. It was a large and prosperous pueblo, set among clean sand-hills, with its rich irrigated farm lands lying just below, in the valley of the Rio Grande. His congregation was quiet, dignified, attentive. They sat on the earth floor, wrapped in their best blankets, repose in every line of their strong, stubborn backs. He harangued them in such Spanish as he could command, and they listened with respect. But bring their children to be baptized, they would not. The Spaniards had treated them very badly long ago, and they had been meditating upon their grievance for many generations. Father Vaillant had not baptized one infant there, but he meant to stop to-morrow and try again. Then back to his Bishop, provided he could get his horse up La Bajada Hill.

He had bought his horse from a Yankee trader and had been woefully deceived. One week's journey of from twenty to thirty miles a day had shown the beast up for a wind-broken wreck. Father Vaillant's mind was full of material cares as he approached Manuel Lujon's place beyond Bernalillo. The rancho was like a little town, with all its stables, corrals, and stake fences. The casa grande was long and low, with glass windows and bright blue doors, a portale running its full length, supported by blue posts. Under this portale the adobe wall was hung with bridles, saddles, great boots and spurs, guns and saddle blankets, strings of red peppers, fox skins, and the skins of two great rattlesnakes.

When Father Vaillant rode in through the gateway, children came running from every direction, some with no clothing but a little shirt, and women with no shawls over their black hair came running after the children. They all disappeared when Manuel Lujon walked out of the great house, hat in hand, smiling and hospitable. He was a man of thirty-five, settled in figure and somewhat full under the chin. He greeted the priest in the name of God and put out a hand to help him alight, but Father Vaillant sprang quickly to the ground.

"God be with you, Manuel, and with your house. But where are those who are to be married?"

"The men are all in the field, Padre. There is no hurry. A little wine, a little bread, coffee, repose—and then the ceremonies."

"A little wine, very willingly, and bread, too. But not until afterward. I meant to catch you all at dinner, but I am two hours late because my horse is bad. Have someone bring in my saddle- bags, and I will put on my vestments. Send out to the fields for your men, Señor Lujon. A man can stop work to be married."

The swarthy host was dazed by this dispatch. "But one moment, Padre. There are all the children to baptize; why not begin with them, if I cannot persuade you to wash the dust from your sainted brow and repose a little."

"Take me to a place where I can wash and change my clothes, and I will be ready before you can get them here. No, I tell you, Lujon, the marriages first, the baptisms afterward; that order is but Christian. I will baptize the children to-morrow morning, and their parents will at least have been married over night."

Father Joseph was conducted to his chamber, and the older boys were sent running off across the fields to fetch the men. Lujon and his two daughters began constructing an altar at one end of the sala. Two old women came to scrub the floor, and another brought chairs and stools.

"My God, but he is ugly, the Padre!" whispered one of these to the others. "He must be very holy. And did you see the great wart he has on his chin? My grandmother could take that away for him if she were alive, poor soul! Somebody ought to tell him about the holy mud at Chimayo. That mud might dry it up. But there is nobody left now who can take warts away."

"No, the times are not so good any more," the other agreed. "And I doubt if all this marrying will make them any better. Of what use is it to marry people after they have lived together and had children? and the man is maybe thinking about another woman, like Pablo. I saw him coming out of the brush with that oldest girl of Trinidad's, only Sunday night."

The reappearance of the priest upon the scene cut short further scandal. He knelt down before the improvised altar and began his private devotions. The women tiptoed away. Señor Lujon himself went out toward the servants' quarters to hurry the candidates for the marriage sacrament. The women were giggling and snatching up their best shawls. Some of the men had even gashed their hands. The household crowded into the sala, and Father Vaillant married couples with great dispatch.

"To-morrow morning, the baptisms," he announced. "And the mothers see to it that the children are clean, and that there are sponsors for all."

After he had resumed his travelling-clothes, Father Joseph asked his host at what hour he dined, remarking that he had been fasting since an early breakfast.

"We eat when it is ready—a little after sunset, usually. I have had a young lamb killed for your Reverence."

Father Joseph kindled with interest. "Ah, and how will it be cooked?"

Señor Lujon shrugged. "Cooked? Why, they put it in a pot with chili, and some onions, I suppose."

"Ah, that is the point. I have had too much stewed mutton. Will you permit me to go into the kitchen and cook my portion in my own way?"

Lujon waved his hand. "My house is yours, Padre. Into the kitchen I never go—too many women. But there it is, and the woman in charge is named Rosa."

When the Father entered the kitchen he found a crowd of women discussing the marriages. They quickly dispersed, leaving old Rosa by her fire-place, where hung a kettle from which issued the savour of cooking mutton fat, all too familiar to Father Joseph. He found a half sheep hanging outside the door, covered with a bloody sack, and asked Rosa to heat the oven for him, announcing that he meant to roast the hind leg.

"But Padre, I baked before the marriages. The oven is almost cold. It will take an hour to heat it, and it is only two hours till supper."

"Very well. I can cook my roast in an hour."

"Cook a roast in an hour!" cried the old woman. "Mother of God, Padre, the blood will not be dried in it!"

"Not if I can help it!" said Father Joseph fiercely. "Now hurry with the fire, my good woman."

When the Padre carved his roast at the supper-table, the serving- girls stood behind his chair and looked with horror at the delicate stream of pink juice that followed the knife. Manuel Lujon took a slice for politeness, but he did not eat it. Father Vaillant had his gigot to himself.

All the men and boys sat down at the long table with the host, the women and children would eat later. Father Joseph and Lujon, at one end, had a bottle of white Bordeaux between them. It had been brought from Mexico City on mule-back, Lujon said. They were discussing the road back to Santa Fé, and when the missionary remarked that he would stop at Santo Domingo, the host asked him why he did not get a horse there. "I am afraid you will hardly get back to Santa Fé on your own. The pueblo is famous for breeding good horses. You might make a trade."

"No," said Father Vaillant. "Those Indians are of a sullen disposition. If I were to have dealings with them, they would suspect my motives. If we are to save their souls we must make it clear that we want no profit for ourselves, as I told Father Gallegos in Albuquerque."

Manuel Lujon laughed and glanced down the table at his men, who were all showing their white teeth. "You said that to the Padre at Albuquerque? You have courage. He is a rich man, Padre Gallegos. All the same, I respect him. I have played poker with him. He is a great gambler and takes his losses like a man. He stops at nothing, plays like an American."

"And I," retorted Father Joseph, "I have not much respect for a priest who either plays cards or manages to get rich."

"Then you do not play?" asked Lujon. "I am disappointed. I had hoped we could have a game after supper. The evenings are dull enough here. You do not even play dominoes?"

"Ah, that is another matter!" Father Joseph declared. "A game of dominoes, there by the fire, with coffee, or some of that excellent grape brandy you allowed me to taste, that I would find refreshing. And tell me, Manuelito, where do you get that brandy? It is like a French liqueur."

"It is well seasoned. It was made at Bernalillo in my grandfather's time. They make it there still, but it is not so good now."

The next morning, after coffee, while the children were being got ready for baptism, the host took Father Vaillant through his corrals and stables to show him his stock. He exhibited with peculiar pride two cream-coloured mules, stalled side by side. With his own hand he led them out of the stable, in order to display to advantage their handsome coats,—not bluish white, as with white horses, but a rich, deep ivory, that in shadow changed to fawn-colour. Their tails were clipped at the end into the shape of bells.

"Their names," said Lujon, "are Contento and Angelica, and they are as good as their names. It seems that God has given them intelligence. When I talk to them, they look up at me like Christians; they are very companionable. They are always ridden together and have a great affection for each other."

Father Joseph took one by the halter and led it about. "Ah, but they are rare creatures! I have never seen a mule or horse coloured like a young fawn before." To his host's astonishment, the wiry little priest sprang upon Contento's back with the agility of a grasshopper. The mule, too, was astonished. He shook himself violently, bolted toward the gate of the barnyard, and at the gate stopped suddenly. Since this did not throw his rider, he seemed satisfied, trotted back, and stood placidly beside Angelica.

"But you are a caballero, Father Vaillant!" Lujon exclaimed. "I doubt if Father Gallegos would have kept his seat—though he is something of a hunter."

"The saddle is to be my home in your country, Lujon. What an easy gait this mule has, and what a narrow back! I notice that especially. For a man with short legs, like me, it is a punishment to ride eight hours a day on a wide horse. And this I must do day after day. From here I go to Santa Fé, and, after a day in conference with the Bishop, I start for Mora."

"For Mora?" exclaimed Lujon. "Yes, that is far, and the roads are very bad. On your mare you will never do it. She will drop dead under you." While he talked, the Father remained upon the mule's back, stroking him with his hand.

"Well, I have no other. God grant that she does not drop somewhere far from food and water. I can carry very little with me except my vestments and the sacred vessels."

The Mexican had been growing more and more thoughtful, as if he were considering something profound and not altogether cheerful. Suddenly his brow cleared, and he turned to the priest with a radiant smile, quite boyish in its simplicity. "Father Vaillant," he burst out in a slightly oratorical manner, "you have made my house right with Heaven, and you charge me very little. I will do something very nice for you; I will give you Contento for a present, and I hope to be particularly remembered in your prayers."

Springing to the ground, Father Vaillant threw his arms about his host. "Manuelito!" he cried, "for this darling mule I think I could almost pray you into Heaven!"

The Mexican laughed, too, and warmly returned the embrace. Arm-in- arm they went in to begin the baptisms.

 

The next morning, when Lujon went to call Father Vaillant for breakfast, he found him in the barnyard, leading the two mules about and smoothing their fawn-coloured flanks, but his face was not the cheerful countenance of yesterday.

"Manuel," he said at once, "I cannot accept your present. I have thought upon it over night, and I see that I cannot. The Bishop works as hard as I do, and his horse is little better than mine. You know he lost everything on his way out here, in a shipwreck at Galveston—among the rest a fine wagon he had had built for travel on these plains. I could not go about on a mule like this when my Bishop rides a common hack. It would be inappropriate. I must ride away on my old mare."

"Yes, Padre?" Manuel looked troubled and somewhat aggrieved. Why should the Padre spoil everything? It had all been very pleasant yesterday, and he had felt like a prince of generosity. "I doubt if she will make La Bajada Hill," he said slowly, shaking his head. "Look my horses over and take the one that suits you. They are all better than yours."

"No, no," said Father Vaillant decidedly. "Having seen these mules, I want nothing else. They are the colour of pearls, really! I will raise the price of marriages until I can buy this pair from you. A missionary must depend upon his mount for companionship in his lonely life. I want a mule that can look at me like a Christian, as you said of these."

Señor Lujon sighed and looked about his barnyard as if he were trying to find some escape from this situation.

Father Joseph turned to him with vehemence. "If I were a rich ranchero, like you, Manuel, I would do a splendid thing; I would furnish the two mounts that are to carry the word of God about this heathen country, and then I would say to myself: There go my Bishop and my Vicario, on my beautiful cream-coloured mules."

"So be it, Padre," said Lujon with a mournful smile. "But I ought to get a good many prayers. On my whole estate there is nothing I prize like those two. True, they might pine if they were parted for long. They have never been separated, and they have a great affection for each other. Mules, as you know, have strong affections. It is hard for me to give them up."

"You will be all the happier for that, Manuelito," Father Joseph cried heartily. "Every time you think of these mules, you will feel pride in your good deed."

Soon after breakfast Father Vaillant departed, riding Contento, with Angelica trotting submissively behind, and from his gate Señor Lujon watched them disconsolately until they disappeared. He felt he had been worried out of his mules, and yet he bore no resentment. He did not doubt Father Joseph's devotedness, nor his singleness of purpose. After all, a Bishop was a Bishop, and a Vicar was a Vicar, and it was not to their discredit that they worked like a pair of common parish priests. He believed he would be proud of the fact that they rode Contento and Angelica. Father Vaillant had forced his hand, but he was rather glad of it.