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An Open-air Prison








From: The Crusade Of The Excelsior

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."





Next: Todos Santos Solves The Mystery

Previous: In Sanctuary



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