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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 9. An Open-Air Prison
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 9. An Open-Air Prison Post by :thquah Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :3163

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 9. An Open-Air Prison

PART I. IN BONDS
CHAPTER IX. AN OPEN-AIR PRISON

An hour after mass Father Esteban had quietly installed Hurlstone in a small cell-like apartment off the refectory. The household of the priest consisted of an old Indian woman of fabulous age and miraculous propriety, two Indian boys who served at mass, a gardener, and a muleteer. The first three, who were immediately in attendance upon the priest, were cognizant of a stranger's presence, but, under instructions from the reverend Padre, were loyally and superstitiously silent; the vocations of the gardener and muleteer made any intrusion from them impossible. A breakfast of fruit, tortillas, chocolate, and red wine, of which Hurlstone partook sparingly and only to please his entertainer, nevertheless seemed to restore his strength, as it did the Padre's equanimity. For the old man had been somewhat agitated during mass, and, except that his early morning congregation was mainly composed of Indians, muleteers, and small venders, his abstraction would have been noticed. With ready tact he had not attempted, by further questioning, to break the taciturnity into which Hurlstone had relapsed after his emotional confession and the priest's abrupt half-absolution. Was it possible he regretted his confidence, or was it possible that his first free and untrammeled expression of his wrongs had left him with a haunting doubt of their real magnitude?

"Lie down here, my son," said the old ecclesiastic, pointing to a small pallet in the corner, "and try to restore in the morning what you have taken from the night. Manuela will bring your clothes when they are dried and mended; meantime, shift for yourself in Pepito's serape and calzas. I will betake me to the Comandante and the Alcalde, to learn the dispositions of your party, when the ship will sail, and if your absence is suspected. Peace be with you, son! Manuela, attend to the caballero, and see you chatter not."

Without doubting the substantial truth of his guest's story, the good Padre Esteban was not unwilling to have it corroborated by such details as he thought he could collect among the Excelsior's passengers. His own experience in the confessional had taught him the unreliability of human evidence, and the vagaries of both conscientious and unconscious suppression. That a young, good-looking, and accomplished caballero should have been the victim of not one, but even many, erotic episodes, did not strike the holy father as being peculiar; but that he should have been brought by a solitary unfortunate attachment to despair and renunciation of the world appeared to him marvelous. He was not unfamiliar with the remorse of certain gallants for peccadillos with other men's wives; but this Americano's self-abasement for the sins of his own wife--as he foolishly claimed her to be--whom he hated and despised, struck Father Esteban as a miracle open to suspicion. Was there anything else in these somewhat commonplace details of vulgar and low intrigue than what he had told the priest? Were all these Americano husbands as sensitive and as gloomily self-sacrificing and expiating? It did not appear so from the manners and customs of the others,--from those easy matrons whose complacent husbands had abandoned them to the long companionship of youthful cavaliers on adventurous voyages; from those audacious virgins, who had the freedom of married women. Surely, this was not a pious and sensitive race, passionately devoted to their domestic affections! The young stranger must be either deceiving him--or an exception to his countrymen!

And if he was that exception--what then? An idea which had sprung up in Father Esteban's fancy that morning now took possession of it with the tenacity of a growth on fertile virgin soil. The good Father had been devoted to the conversion of the heathen with the fervor of a one-ideaed man. But his successes had been among the Indians--a guileless, harmless race, who too often confounded the practical benefits of civilization with the abstract benefits of the Church, and their instruction had been simple and coercive. There had been no necessity for argument or controversy; the worthy priest's skill in polemical warfare and disputation had never been brought into play; the Comandante and Alcalde were as punctiliously orthodox as himself, and the small traders and artisans were hopelessly docile and submissive. The march of science, which had been stopped by the local fogs of Todos Santos some fifty years, had not disturbed the simple Aesculapius of the province with heterodox theories: he still purged and bled like Sangrado, and met the priest at the deathbed of his victims with a pious satisfaction that had no trace of skeptical contention. In fact, the gentle Mission of Todos Santos had hitherto presented no field for the good Father's exalted ambition, nor the display of his powers as a zealot. And here was a splendid opportunity.

The conversion of this dark, impulsive, hysterical stranger would be a gain to the fold, and a triumph worthy of his steel. More than that, if he had judged correctly of this young man's mind and temperament, they seemed to contain those elements of courage and sacrificial devotion that indicated the missionary priesthood. With such a subaltern, what might not he, Father Esteban, accomplish! Looking further into the future, what a glorious successor might be left to his unfinished work on Todos Santos!

Buried in these reflections, Padre Esteban sauntered leisurely up the garden, that gradually ascended the slight elevation on which the greater part of the pueblo was built. Through a low gateway in the wall he passed on to the crest of the one straggling street of Todos Santos. On either side of him were ranged the low one-storied, deep-windowed adobe fondas and artisans' dwellings, with low-pitched roofs of dull red pipe-like tiles. Absorbed in his fanciful dreams, he did not at first notice that those dwellings appeared deserted, and that even the Posada opposite him, whose courtyard was usually filled with lounging muleteers, was empty and abandoned. Looking down the street towards the plaza, he became presently aware of some undefined stirring in the peaceful hamlet. There was an unusual throng in the square, and afar on that placid surface of the bay from which the fog had lifted, the two or three fishing-boats of Todos Santos were vaguely pulling. But the strange ship was gone.

A feeling of intense relief and satisfaction followed. Father Esteban pulled out his snuff-box and took a long and complacent pinch. But his relief was quickly changed to consternation as an armed cavalcade rapidly wheeled out of the plaza and cantered towards him, with the unmistakable spectacle of the male passengers of the Excelsior riding two and two, and guarded by double files of dragoons on each side.

At a sign from the priest the subaltern reined in his mustang, halted the convoy, and saluted respectfully, to the astonishment of the prisoners. The clerical authority of Todos Santos evidently dominated the military. Renewed hope sprang up in the hearts of the Excelsior party.

"What have we here?" asked Padre Esteban.

"A revolution, your Reverence, among the Americanos, with robbery of the Presidio saluting-gun; a grave affair. Your Reverence has been sent for by the Comandante. I am taking these men to San Antonio to await the decision of the Council."

"And the ship?"

"Gone, your Reverence. One of the parties has captured it."

"And these?"

"Are the Legitimists, your Reverence: at least they have confessed to have warred with Mexico, and invaded California--the brigands."

The priest remained lost for a moment in blank and bitter amazement. Banks took advantage of the pause to edge his way to the front.

"Ask him, some of you," he said, turning to Brace and Crosby, "when this d----d farce will be over, and where we can find the head man--the boss idiot of this foolery."

"Let him put it milder," whispered Winslow. "You got us into trouble enough with your tongue already."

Crosby hesitated a moment.

"Quand finira ce drole representation?--et--et--qui est ce qui est l'entrepreneur?" he said dubiously.

The priest stared. These Americans were surely cooler and less excitable than his strange guest. A thought struck him.

"How many are still in the ship?" he asked gently.

"Nobody but Perkins and that piratical crew of niggers."

"And that infernal Hurlstone," added Winslow.

The priest pricked up his ears.

"Hurlstone?" he repeated.

"Yes--a passenger like ourselves, as we supposed. But we are satisfied now he was in the conspiracy from the beginning," translated Crosby painfully.

"Look at his strange disappearance--a regular put-up job," broke in Brace, in English, without reference to the Padre's not comprehending him; "so that he and Perkins could shut themselves up together without suspicion."

"Never mind Hurlstone now; he's GONE, and we're HERE," said Banks angrily. "Ask the parson, as a gentleman and a Christian, what sort of a hole we've got into, anyhow. How far is the next settlement?"

Crosby put the question. The subaltern lit a cigarette.

"There is no next settlement. The pueblo ends at San Antonio."

"And what's beyond that?"

"The ocean."

"And what's south?"

"The desert--one cannot pass it."

"And north?"

"The desert."

"And east?"

"The desert too."

"Then how do you get away from here?"

"We do not get away."

"And how do you communicate with Mexico--with your Government?"

"When a ship comes."

"And when does a ship come?"

"Quien sabe?"

The officer threw away his cigarette.

"I say, you'll tell the Commander that all this is illegal; and that I'm going to complain to our Government," continued Banks hurriedly.

"I go to speak to the Comandante," responded the priest gravely.

"And tell him that if he touches a hair of the ladies' heads we'll have his own scalp," interrupted Brace impetuously.

Even Crosby's diplomatic modification of this speech did not appear entirely successful.

"The Mexican soldier wars not with women," said the priest coldly. "Adieu, messieurs!"

The cavalcade moved on. The Excelsior passengers at once resumed their chorus of complaint, tirade, and aggressive suggestion, heedless of the soldiers who rode stolidly on each side.

"To think we haven't got a single revolver among us," said Brace despairingly.

"We might each grab a carbine from these nigger fellows," said Crosby, eying them contemplatively.

"And if they didn't burst, and we weren't shot by the next patrol, and if we'd calculated to be mean enough to run away from the women--where would we escape to?" asked Banks curtly. "Hold on at least until we get an ultimatum from that commodious ass at the Presidio! Then we'll anticipate the fool-killer, if you like. My opinion is, they aren't in any great hurry to try ANYTHING on us just yet."

"And I say, lie low and keep dark until they show their hand," added Winslow, who had no relish for an indiscriminate scrimmage, and had his own ideas of placating their captors.

Nevertheless, by degrees they fell into a silence, partly the effect of the strangely enervating air. The fog had completely risen from the landscape, and hung high in mid-air, through which an intense sun, shorn of its fierceness, diffused a lambent warmth, and a yellowish, unctuous light, as if it had passed through amber. The bay gleamed clearly and distinctly; not a shadow flecked its surface to the gray impenetrable rampart of fog that stretched like a granite wall before its entrance. On one side of the narrow road billows of monstrous grain undulated to the crest of the low hills, that looked like larger undulations of the soil, furrowed by bosky canadas or shining arroyos. Banks was startled into a burst of professional admiration.

"There's enough grain there to feed a thousand Todos Santos; and raised, too, with tools like that," he continued, pointing to a primitive plow that lay on the wayside, formed by a single forked root. A passing ox-cart, whose creaking wheels were made of a solid circle of wood, apparently sawn from an ordinary log, again plunged him into cogitation. Here and there little areas of the rudest cultivation broke into a luxuriousness of orange, lime, and fig trees. The joyous earth at the slightest provocation seemed to smile and dimple with fruit and flowers. Everywhere the rare beatitudes of Todos Santos revealed and repeated its simple story. The fructifying influence of earth and sky; the intervention of a vaporous veil between a fiery sun and fiery soil; the combination of heat and moisture, purified of feverish exhalations, and made sweet and wholesome by the saline breath of the mighty sea, had been the beneficent legacy of their isolation, the munificent compensation of their oblivion.

A gradual and gentle ascent at the end of two hours brought the cavalcade to a halt upon a rugged upland with semi-tropical shrubbery, and here and there larger trees from the tierra templada in the evergreens or madrono. A few low huts and corrals, and a rambling hacienda, were scattered along the crest, and in the midst arose a little votive chapel, flanked by pear-trees. Near the roadside were the crumbling edges of some long-forgotten excavation. Crosby gazed at it curiously. Touching the arm of the officer, he pointed to it.

"Una mina de plata," said the officer sententiously.

"A mine of some kind--silver, I bet!" said Crosby, turning to the others. "Is it good--bueno--you know?" he continued to the officer, with vague gesticulations.

"En tiempos pasados," returned the officer gravely.

"I wonder what that means?" said Winslow.

But before Crosby could question further, the subaltern signaled to them to dismount. They did so, and their horses were led away to a little declivity, whence came the sound of running water. Left to themselves, the Americans looked around them. The cavalcade seemed to have halted near the edge of a precipitous ridge, the evident termination of the road. But the view that here met their eyes was unexpected and startling.

The plateau on which they stood seemed to drop suddenly away, leaving them on the rocky shore of a monotonous and far-stretching sea of waste and glittering sand. Not a vestige nor trace of vegetation could be seen, except an occasional ridge of straggling pallid bushes, raised in hideous simulation of the broken crest of a ghostly wave. On either side, as far as the eye could reach, the hollow empty vision extended--the interminable desert stretched and panted before them.

"It's the jumping-off place, I reckon," said Crosby, "and they've brought us here to show us how small is our chance of getting away. But," he added, turning towards the plateau again, "what are they doing now? 'Pon my soul! I believe they're going off--and leaving us."

The others turned as he spoke. It was true. The dragoons were coolly galloping off the way they came, taking with them the horses the Americans had just ridden.

"I call that cool," said Crosby. "It looks deuced like as if we were to be left here to graze, like cattle."

"Perhaps that's their idea of a prison in this country," said Banks. "There's certainly no chance of our breaking jail in that direction," he added, pointing to the desert; "and we can't follow them without horses."

"And I dare say they've guarded the pass in the road lower down," said Winslow.

"We ought to be able to hold our own here until night," said Brace, "and then make a dash into Todos Santos, get hold of some arms, and join the ladies."

"The women are all right," said Crosby impatiently, "and are better treated than if we were with them. Suppose, instead of maundering over them, we reconnoitre and see what WE can do here. I'm getting devilishly hungry; they can't mean to starve us, and if they do, I don't intend to be starved as long as there is anything to be had by buying or stealing. Come along. There's sure to be fruit near that old chapel, and I saw some chickens in the bush near those huts. First, let's see if there's any one about. I don't see a soul."

The little plateau, indeed, seemed deserted. In vain they shouted; their voices were lost in the echoless air. They examined one by one the few thatched huts: they were open, contained one or two rude articles of furniture--a bed, a bench, and table--were scrupulously clean--and empty. They next inspected the chapel; it was tawdry and barbaric in ornament, but the candlesticks and crucifix and the basin for holy water were of heavily beaten silver. The same thought crossed their minds--the abandoned mine at the roadside!

Bananas, oranges, and prickly-pears growing within the cactus-hedge of the chapel partly mollified their thirst and hunger, and they turned their steps towards the long, rambling, barrack-looking building, with its low windows and red-tiled roof, which they had first noticed. Here, too, the tenement was deserted and abandoned; but there was evidence of some previous and more ambitious preparation: in a long dormitory off the corridor a number of scrupulously clean beds were ranged against the whitewashed walls, with spotless benches and tables. To the complete astonishment and bewilderment of the party another room, fitted up as a kitchen, with the simpler appliances of housekeeping, revealed a larder filled with provisions and meal. A shout from Winslow, who had penetrated the inner courtyard, however, drew them to a more remarkable spectacle. Their luggage and effects from the cabins of the Excelsior were there, carefully piled in the antique ox-cart that had evidently that morning brought them from Todos Santos!

"There's no mistake," said Brace, with a relieved look, after a hurried survey of the trunks. "They have only brought our baggage. The ladies have evidently had the opportunity of selecting their own things."

"Crosby told you they'd be all right," said Banks; "and as for ourselves, I don't see why we can't be pretty comfortable here, and all the better for our being alone. I shall take an opportunity of looking around a bit. It strikes me that there are some resources in this country that might pay to develop."

"And I shall have a look at that played-out mine," said Crosby; "if it's been worked as they work the land, they've left about as much in it as they've taken out."

"That's all well enough," said Brace, drawing a dull vermilion-colored stone from his pocket; "but here's something I picked up just now that ain't 'played out,' nor even the value of it suspected by those fellows. That's cinnabar--quicksilver ore--and a big per cent. of it too; and if there's as much of it here as the indications show, you could buy up all your SILVER mines in the country with it."

"If I were you, I'd put up a notice on a post somewhere, as they do in California, and claim discovery," said Banks seriously. "There's no knowing how this thing may end. We may not get away from here for some time yet, and if the Government will sell the place cheap, it wouldn't be a bad spec' to buy it. Form a kind of 'Excelsior Company' among ourselves, you know, and go shares."

The four men looked earnestly at each other. Already the lost Excelsior and her mutinous crew were forgotten; even the incidents of the morning--their arrest, the uncertainty of their fate, and the fact that they were in the hands of a hostile community--appeared but as trivial preliminaries to the new life that opened before them! They suddenly became graver than they had ever been--even in the moment of peril.

"I don't see why we shouldn't," said Brace quickly. "We started out to do that sort of thing in California, and I reckon if we'd found such a spot as this on the Sacramento or American River we'd have been content. We can take turns at housekeeping, prospect a little, and enter into negotiations with the Government. I'm for offering them a fair sum for this ridge and all it contains at once."

"The only thing against that," said Crosby slowly, "is the probability that it is already devoted to some other use by the Government. Ever since we've been here I've been thinking--I don't know why--that we've been put in a sort of quarantine. The desertion of the place, the half hospital arrangements of this building, and the means they have taken to isolate us from themselves, must mean something. I've read somewhere that in these out-of-the-way spots in the tropics they have a place where they put the fellows with malarious or contagious diseases. I don't want to frighten you boys: but I've an idea that we're in a sort of lazaretto, and the people outside won't trouble us often."

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