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- Old Mission Stories of California - 1/22 -

Old Mission Stories of California

Stories of the Old Missions of California

By Charles Franklin Carter

Author of "The Missions of Nueva California" and "Some By-ways of California"

San Francisco MCMXVII

Paul Elder & Company - Publishers

Copyright 1917, by Paul Elder and Company San Francisco


Foreword The Indian Sibyl's Prophecy The Flight of Padre Peyri Father Zalvidea's Money La Beata Juana Father Uria's Saints Pomponio


Of the last six stories comprising the seven in this little collection of Stories of the Old Missions, all but one have, as a basis, some modicum, larger or smaller, of historical fact, the tale of Juana alone being wholly fanciful, although with an historical background. The first story of the series may be considered as introductory to the mission tales proper.

In these quiet, unpretending stories the writer has attempted to give a faithful picture of life among the Indians and Spaniards in Nueva California during the early days of the past century.

October, 1917.

The Indian Sibyl's Prophecy

In the southern part of the Mojave Desert a low hill stands somewhat apart from the foot-hills beyond, and back of it. Although not more than two hundred feet above the surrounding plateau, on account of its peculiar location, a commanding view may be had from its top. In front, toward the south, and extending all the way from east to west, the plain stretches off for many miles, until it approaches the distant horizon, where it is merged into lofty mountains, forming a tumultuous, serrated sky-line. Midway between the hill and the distant mountains, lie the beds, sharply defined, of three dry lakes. In the garish light of day they show for what they are, the light yellow hard-baked soil of the desert, without even the ordinary sage brush; but in early morning and, less frequently, toward evening, these lakes take on a semblance of their former state, sometimes (so strong is the mirage) almost deceiving those best acquainted with the region. Years ago - how many it would be difficult to say - these dry lakes were veritable bodies of water; indeed, at an earlier period than that, they were, without doubt, and including a large extent of the surrounding desert, one vast lake. But that was centuries ago, maybe, and with time the lake dried up, leaving, at last, only these three light spots in the view, which, in their turn, are growing smaller with the passing years, until they, too, will vanish, obliterated by the encroaching vegetation.

Back of the eminence from which this extended view is had, the mountains come close, not as high as those toward the south, but still respectable heights, snow-covered in winter. They array themselves in fantastic shapes, with colors changing from hour to hour. One thinks of the desert as a barren sandy waste, minus water, trees and other vegetation, clouds, and all the color and beauty of nature of more favored districts. Not so. Water is scarce, it is true, and springs few and far between, and the vegetation is in proportion; for what little there is is mostly dependent on the annual rainfall, never excessive, at the best, yet always sufficient for the brush covering the ground, and the yuccas towering up many feet here and there. But color, beautiful, brilliant, magnificent color, is here any and every day of the year, and from earliest dawn until the last traces of the evening sun have faded away, only to give place to moonlight unsurpassed anywhere in the world. Truly, the desert is far from being the dry, desolate, uninteresting region it is commonly pictured.

More than a century and a quarter ago, there stood on the side of this hill, and not far from its top, an Indian hut, or wickiup. It was built after the manner of the Indian tribes of Southern California - a circular space of about fifteen feet in diameter enclosed by brush-work, and roofed by a low dome of the same material. At the side was an opening, too small to permit one to enter without stooping low. This doorway, if it may be so called, being window and chimney as well, fronted toward the south, facing the dry lakes and the mountains beyond. Close by, at the left, was a heap of bones, which, on a nearer view, disclosed themselves to be those of rabbits, coyotes and quail, while three or four larger bones in the pile might inform the zoologist that the fierce mountain-lion was not unknown to this region. To the right of the doorway, some ten feet from it, were two large flat stones, set facing each other, a few inches apart; between them lay a handful of ashes, betokening the kitchen of the family living here. Close by the stones lay a number of smooth, rounded stones of use and value to the people of the hut. Back of the wickiup, a few paces up the hill, a tiny spring issued from the ground, affording a never-failing, though scanty, supply of water.

The location of this solitary hut, remote from all other signs of humanity, so far as the eye could judge, was a singular one; for the Indian loves his kind, and it is rare that one wanders deliberately away to make his home in loneliness, far from the rest of the tribe to which he belongs. In the case of this hut, however, its solitariness was more apparent than real; for although out of sight of any habitation whatever, the tribe to which its inmates belonged was distant not more than two miles, but on the other face of the hill, and hidden far in the recesses of a small ca┬ľon. Here, on the site of a beautiful source of precious water, was a cluster of Indian houses of brush, built like the one on the hillside. Each had its fireplace on one side, as well as the accompanying heap of bones of animals killed in the chase. Near the centre of the group of huts stood the temescal - an institution with nearly every Southern California tribe of Indians - where those who were ill subjected themselves to the heroic treatment of parboiling over a fire, until in a profuse perspiration, to be followed, on crawling out, by a plunge into the icy water of the stream. It was truly a case of kill or cure.

Let us return to the hillside hut, and make the acquaintance of its inmates. Passing through the humble opening, the interior is disclosed to the curious eye at one glance. The ground embraced within the circle of the wickiup had been dug away so as to make an even, hard floor two or three feet below the surface of the earth outside. To the right, standing on the floor, were two large, round baskets, each one with a capacity of half a dozen gallons. They were made in conformity to the general type of basket of the Southern California aborigine, but with the distinctive marks peculiar to the tribe to which belonged the dwellers within, and woven so tightly as to hold water without permitting a drop to pass through. In the bottom of one of these baskets was scattered a little ground meal of the acorn, a staple article of food with all the Indians of California. The other basket, similar to the first in shape and size, but of rougher weave, and lined on the inside with bitumen, was nearly full of water; for though the finely woven baskets of the Southern California Indians were really water-tight, they were not generally used for liquids. Any one, acquainted with the customs of these Indians, would understand the meaning of the little heap of stones by the fireside without: they were used in warming the water in the basket, which was done by heating them in the embers of the fire, then, when hot, throwing them into the water, in this way bringing it almost to a boil. Afterward, the stones having been taken out, some meal was thrown in and, in this manner, cooked. Beyond the baskets, and nearly opposite the entrance, against the wall, was a heap of fine brush, covered with the tawny skin of an immense mountain-lion - a giant specimen of his species, and a formidable animal, truly, for an Indian to encounter with only bow and arrow.

On this bed of brush was the gaunt, emaciated form of a woman lying stretched out at full length. At first glance, one might have mistaken her for a mummy, so still and lifeless she lay; her face, too, carried out the resemblance startlingly, for it was furrowed and seamed with countless wrinkles, the skin appearing like parchment in its dry, leathery texture. Only the eyes gave assurance that this was no mummy, but a living, sentient body - eyes large, full-orbed and black as midnight, arched by heavy brows that frowned with great purpose, as if the soul behind and beyond were seeking, powerless, to relieve itself of some weighty message. These were not the eyes of age, yet they belonged to a countenance that gave token of having lived through a great many years; for the woman lying there so deathly still had experienced all the varied joys and sufferings of near four score years, each one leaving its indelible mark on the tell-tale face. She was clothed in a loose dress made from rabbit skins, sewn together coarsely, sleeveless, and so short as to leave her feet and ankles bare.

To the left of the entrance crouched a young Indian woman. She was an unusually good-looking specimen of the desert tribes: a tall well-shaped form; a head and face of much beauty and character, with a pair of eyes that, at first glance, betrayed a close relation to the woman lying on the bed. They were of the same size, color and brilliance; but the tense, powerful expression that was seen in those of the aged woman,

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