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- ON THE FRONTIER - 3/26 -
to turn away.
"I mean," returned the stranger, with the same practical gravity, "that you know it wouldn't pay me to come here, if I'd killed the baby, unless I wanted you to fix things right with me up there," pointing skywards, "and get absolution; and I've told you THAT wasn't in my line."
"Why do you seek me, then?" demanded the Padre, suspiciously.
"Because I reckon I thought a man might be allowed to confess something short of a murder. If you're going to draw the line below that--"
"This is but sacrilegious levity," interrupted Father Pedro, turning as if to go. But the stranger did not make any movement to detain him.
"Have you implored forgiveness of the father--the man you wronged-- before you came here?" asked the priest, lingering.
"Not much. It wouldn't pay if he was living, and he died four years ago."
"You are sure of that?"
"There are other relations, perhaps?"
Father Pedro was silent. When he spoke again, it was with a changed voice. "What is your purpose, then?" he asked, with the first indication of priestly sympathy in his manner. "You cannot ask forgiveness of the earthly father you have injured, you refuse the intercession of holy Church with the Heavenly Father you have disobeyed. Speak, wretched man! What is it you want?"
"I want to find the child."
"But if it were possible, if she were still living, are you fit to seek her, to even make yourself known to her, to appear before her?"
"Well, if I made it profitable to her, perhaps."
"Perhaps," echoed the priest, scornfully. "So be it. But why come here?"
"To ask your advice. To know how to begin my search. You know this country. You were here when that boat drifted ashore beyond that mountain."
"Ah, indeed. I have much to do with it. It is an affair of the alcalde--the authorities--of your--your police."
The Padre again met the stranger's eyes. He stopped, with the snuff box he had somewhat ostentatiously drawn from his pocket still open in his hand.
"Why is it not, Senor?" he demanded.
"If she lives, she is a young lady by this time, and might not want the details of her life known to any one."
"And how will you recognize your baby in this young lady?" asked Father Pedro, with a rapid gesture, indicating the comparative heights of a baby and an adult.
"I reckon I'll know her, and her clothes too; and whoever found her wouldn't be fool enough to destroy them."
"After fourteen years! Good! you have faith, Senor--"
"Cranch," supplied the stranger, consulting his watch. "But time's up. Business is business. Good-by; don't let me keep you."
He extended his hand.
The Padre met it with a dry, unsympathetic palm, as sere and yellow as the hills. When their hands separated, the father still hesitated, looking at Cranch. If he expected further speech or entreaty from him he was mistaken, for the American, without turning his head, walked in the same serious, practical fashion down the avenue of fig trees, and disappeared beyond the hedge of vines. The outlines of the mountain beyond were already lost in the fog. Father Pedro turned into the refectory.
A strong flavor of leather, onions, and stable preceded the entrance of a short, stout vaquero from the little patio.
"Saddle Pinto and thine own mule to accompany Francisco, who will take letters from me to the Father Superior at San Jose to-morrow at daybreak."
"At daybreak, reverend father?"
"At daybreak. Hark ye, go by the mountain trails and avoid the highway. Stop at no posada nor fonda, but if the child is weary, rest then awhile at Don Juan Briones' or at the rancho of the Blessed Fisherman. Have no converse with stragglers, least of all those gentile Americanos. So . . ."
The first strokes of the Angelus came from the nearer tower. With a gesture Father Pedro waved Antonio aside, and opened the door of the sacristy.
"Ad Majorem Dei Gloria."
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 Jose. As Francisco, emerging from the canada, 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 play-fellow, 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.
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