Among The Acorn Eaters Of San Diego County
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
We had been to the Mission and had photographed the ancient date palms at Old Town; we had bought curios at Ramona's renovated marriage place, and had motored to Lakeside for a chicken dinner. We had promenaded in and out of the Coronado's magnificence as nonchalantly as though we were registered there, and had looked on at archery meets and polo. Point Loma and the purple domes of the theosophical Tingley, we had done with the proletariat in a "rubber-neck" automobile, and we had tripped it to Tia Juana for a taste of Old Mexico. Yet there remained the feeling of an unfulfilled want. There was a disappointing sense of artificiality about it all; we were only tourists in a tourist town, and we somehow felt that, as soon as we and others of our sort departed, all San Diego would return to the dust and adobe whence it had arisen.
"What you need," said the Old Californian, "is to take a pasear into the back-country and have a look at California as it was before tourists became a staple crop. There's some of it left-the real thing-thirty and forty thousand acre cattle ranches with vaqueros and all that--Indians, too. I know a rancher fifty miles northeast of here, who takes boarders. It's three quarters of a mile up in the air in the mountains, just this side of the desert, and, if you fix it so as to be there November second, you'll see the Indian candle lighting ceremonies on All Souls' Night at Mesa Grande."
That struck our fancy, for we have a weakness for Indians when they are out of school; and so, one brilliant autumn morning, we shipped aboard a rickety little train that wheezed and snorted by devious ways a matter of twenty-five miles up into the foothills, through a chaparral-clad, bowlderstrewn country, barren looking in the main but with occasional pleasant valleys in the dimples of the hills where lemon raising and other agricultural pursuits are possible, and by and by we came to the village of Foster. Here the railroad ended and an automobile stage carried us fifteen miles farther to Ramona, there to be handed over to a two-horse stage of the conventional back-country type with "U. S. Mail" lettered on the side.
Now followed another fifteen miles through an ever-rising mountain region of cattle-ranges and bee-ranches, with here and there orchards of apples, pears and cherries, and views of distant peaks to which Spanish names lent the charm of mystery and romance—Corral, Volcan, the Cuyamacas, Palomar and San Jacinto's pallid bulk, anchored in mist. At ranch gates, Dick the driver dropped the morning paper in the mail box and grinned a "Que hay, hombre" to the occasional Mexican who loped by us on horseback. Once an athletic lady in khaki and sombrero, driving a buckboard, halted us to ask with winningness of manner not to be denied by any gentleman, if Dick would mind waiting while she wrote a postal to her husband, as she might not have another chance soon to catch the mail! Of course, we waited, Dick meanwhile rolling a cigarette, and, as he smoked, watched the clouds streaking the sky over Volcan.
"I believe we'll have rain before spring," he observed with a wink, as he thrust the finished postcard into his mail sack, and saying, "So long, missus," to the lady, resumed the journey.
At a certain cross-road, three young horsemen bright-faced and brown, 'with a led saddle-pony, awaited our coming. They had expected a friend from Los Angeles on the stage ; but got only a postal card, which they read, and then cantered on ahead of us until they struck a trail that led off through the chamise to some mountain ranch. They were a picturesque trio in their straight brimmed Stetson hats and leather chaps, the ends of their blue neck handkerchiefs fluttering behind them in the breeze-types of a young America that often comes for a year or two into these wholesome, open spaces to get into their systems the spirit of the great Western out-of-doors and a taste of clean, democratic living, as one gets it nowhere except upon a ranch.
It does them young town fellows good to rough it awhile," said Dick, "if there's anything to 'em at all. I worked in the Arizona cow country before I come up here, and there was a good many of them used to blow in there from back East to learn somethin' honest after they was through college. They learned all right, or if they didn't, they was throwed off the range. You wouldn't believe what poor cusses some of these fellows is that's had fortunes spent on education. Why, last summer there was a widow lady and her son come up to one of these here boarding-houses to spend a month near Palomar, where I was working with the stock. She was a haughty sort, just because she'd all sorts of money in bank; but, gosh! do you know how she come by it? I know. Why, her husband was a sheepman and once when he was in Los Angeles about twenty years ago, and drunk, as he always was when he was not out in the country about his business, he bought a bunch of good-for-nothing' land in what is now the heart of Los Angeles. And when he sobered up and seen what he'd done, he was game and stayed with the goods ; but he turned right around and rented it out on a twenty years' lease to some fellows who wanted to make bricks—so he couldn't gamble it away, you see, when he got drunk again sometime. And that's how he kep' the land in the family, and, all the time, Los kep' growing around it. So, when he passed in his checks and his estate was settled up three or four years ago, there was a considerable bunch of money and somethin' doin' for the widow and boy, you bet you. Well, as I was goin' to say about the boy.
He was twenty year old and he was just plum no good. He'd set around on the piazza and smoke cigareets and read novels when the Sunday papers wore out, and was always on the bum, and all the time he was more ignorant than an Injun. Of course, he'd been to college; but that don't cut no ice in real life, you know. Why, will you believe me," and Dick took the quid of tobacco from his mouth and threw it bitterly into the dust of the road, "that damn fool didn't savvy nothing—couldn't even cook a meal or saddle a horse, and the way he talked to women was a disgrace. He couldn't open his mouth to a girl without being fresh to her, and he was plum impudent to his mother—hardly ever give her a decent answer. He used to come down loafing around the barn some-times when I was working over the stock, and one day I give the boy a piece of my mind about the way he talked to the women folks.
" `Why,' says I, 'if you was over in Arizona and talked to the women the way you do here, the boys, would poke you in the face about four times a day. You'd just have to learn to behave.' Well, do you know, it surprised him? He'd just had no bringing up and nobody had ever spoke right out to him be-fore. He studied over it quite a bit and it done him good. He stayed on here a couple of months after his mother went home, and him and me went hunting together, and, by gosh, at the end of the time, he could skin a rabbit and flip a flapjack pretty good, and once he shot a ky-ote. Yes, sir," continued Dick, with the unction of the unco guid, "I figure that mebbe in the Day of Judgment, the Lord will give me credit for startin' that boy on the straight and narrow path of duty."
And so, with pleasant discourse, we came in the afterglow to Mesa Grande, hemmed in with mountains whose peaks, facing two ways, looked out upon two great elemental mysteries, a sea of waters to the west, and to the east an ocean of desert sands. Past some vineyards and through a cherry orchard we drove, and drew up before the hospitable veranda of a white adobe ranch-house, beside which roses and two colossal live-oaks grew.
Our host, who held out a welcoming hand to us, though we were strangers to him, was the reverse in looks of the typical husky ranchman of drama and romance; for he was of delicate frame, though wiry, with a poet's sensitive face and eyes. A quarter of a century ago he had come in impaired health to California from a New York studio and selected this spot, as he told us, not as a practical man would choose, but as an idealist, for its beauty and its inspiration. Had he hit upon any one of a dozen other places along the coast, the rise in land values by this time would have made him a hard-worked coupon clipper. Today he has to show for his investment-with the cooperation of his wife who has shared the adventure with him from the first—no great bank account, perhaps, but rugged health, three strapping sons well educated and at home anywhere under the sky, and a soul still sensitive to the appeal of life's poetry and beauty. Yet his life has not been a mere dreamer's, but, in the best sense, practical, as his well-kept ranch buildings and productive orchards betoken; while the captaincy which he holds in the Indian tribe whose reservation adjoins his ranch, testifies to his sympathetic, intelligent friendship with the vanishing race whom most white men notice only to plunder or to pauperize.
After supper—a delicious memory yet with its tender cottage-cheese and pitchers of sweet cider, its heaped-up dishes of fresh figs and luscious bunches of Black Hamburg grapes straight from the vineyard on the hill—everybody gathered about the open fire-place with its glowing backlog in the living room. There was in the company the make-up of another series of "Tales of a Wayside Inn"—so varied and racy of the soil was it. There were our host's cultured family; his kindly ranch-partner who had once been a desert prospector; a stoutish apple-packer from San Diego, two weeks unshaven; three young chaps of the Government Survey, who, on the morrow were to begin some work at the Indian Reservation ; a wealthy mine-owner's valetudinarian wife from Mexico; and a cheerful lady from Long Island who had come on a visit a couple of years before and had never gone back. "I know a good thing when I see it," she had written East, "I've had snow enough-give me roses for the rest of time!" Above the piano and over the book-shelves, hung a few fine pictures of Indian life and many specimens of local Indian basketry, and across the whitewashed face of the adobe fire-place was draped the brown tangle of a reda, or net of native fiber, in which Indian women used to carry their burdens. So the talk fell naturally on Indians.
"There are several reservations of Mission Indians within a radius of twenty-five miles from here," said our host, "—no, thanks, I don't smoke —but the California red men are not picturesque subjects nowadays and probably never were, compared with their history-making brethren of the plains and eastern forests; and to look at them, fat and lethargic in their white-man's clothing and clipped hair, you wouldn't think there was much Indian left in them. A century and a half of paternalism, under the Padres first and then Uncle Sam, has certainly made them commonplace enough; so that the tourist, here to-day and gone to-morrow, can't even get a snap-shot of anything about them worth a film. But just the same, under the blue-jeans jumper and the calico dress, the old Indian nature exists, and if you had wintered and summered them for twenty-odd years, as I have, you would find a lot, even in a Mission Indian, to respect and to love. For the Indian nature is there, with all its childlike appeal and fundamental virtue, if you once get its confidence. But, of course, the old ways are rapidly disappearing. Pottery making is a lost art, and the basket weavers are almost entirely old women, who will be gone in a few years, carrying out of the world the secrets of a wonderful and beautiful handicraft. There are still occasional mescal roasts on the desert; and the acorn harvesting still goes on, though in a prosy way, with barley sacks and horses instead of the picturesque burden baskets and the reda of the old days ; and their few remaining native ceremonies are three-fourths Catholic."
"But they still play peon," put in one of the Government boys, whose views of Indians were purely materialistic.
"Oh, yes, they'll gamble the shirts off their backs ; but it's among themselves and the luck may turn, and they'll get them back again. Now, I tell you what we'll do," turning to Sylvia and me, "you are interested in the primitive things. It is four days till the candle-lighting; and, if you say the word, we'll hitch the colts to the buckboard to-morrow, pack along grub and blankets, and put off mananita —in the little morning, as the Spanish people say—for some raneherias I know of, twenty or thirty miles over by the desert. We'll have to camp out; for there isn't a white soul living over there, but that's part of the sport and the weather's fine. It's in such out-of-the-way spots that you see the last stand of the California Indian. What do you says"
We said yes, with emphasis, and early the next morning we were off for San Ygnacio. There had been a hard northeast wind for two days previously but it had stilled, leaving the atmosphere dry and clear as crystal and cold as Christmas. The colts tossed their heads in sheer joy of life, and with our light rig, up-hill and down-hill were all one to them. Past Mesa Grande store, where before the still unopened door a couple of chilly Indians sunned them-selves; past Ysidro Nejo's little house—he is a character in "Ramona"; past Government School and Indian blacksmith shop, and finally the rancheria itself, where smoke from morning fires was rising straight into the still air—we showed a clean quartette of heels. Then the road, rounding the toe of a hill, slipped into the mountains where small sign of man was and the wilderness closed in about us.
Our host pointed with his whip to a distant ridge covered with the yellowing foliage of deciduous oaks.
"There," said he, "are the ancestral granaries of the Mesa Grande Indians, oak forests where for unnumbered generations they and their fathers' fathers have gathered the acorns that are a staple of their diet. There are a dozen sorts of oaks in the country and the Indians have discovered that of them all, the acorns that are least bitter and so most easily made palatable are those of a particular species of black oak. And though the Indians have only unwritten laws, the rights of the different tribes throughout Southern California in their respective black oak lands are sharply defined and thoroughly understood, so that no Mesa Grande Indian, for instance, would think of gathering acorns in a forest which the San Ygnacio people had pre-empted.
"This whole region," he continued, as our road wound among majestic trees, "has the touch of the Indian everywhere upon it; but you have to stay with the country year in and year out really to learn much. That's why the chance traveler, particularly if he has no active sympathy with the red brother—and he rarely has—is so ignorant of the Indian life and its impress on the land. Why, every prominent object in the landscape around us, every hill and rincon and cañon, every oak-wood and spring and arroyo, almost every tree that differs markedly from another, has its Indian name descriptive of its physical character or commemorating some event of Indian history that has happened there. Indians know these names and can direct one another by them quite as accurately as one man can direct another about city streets.
"And here is the Indian's impress in another way;" he pulled up the horses and, leaping out, picked up a flat, oblong stone from the roadside. Though weather-beaten, it showed artificial fashioning. "This is not just a stone; it is an implement of human use. Indian hands shaped this and employed it hands that are now doubtless returned to primordial dust. You can see it is ancient. It is a rubbing stone, useful in a dozen ways to the man of the Stone Age, which the Indian, in his native estate, even to-day, really is—such as for smoothing roughness from wood or dried skins, for rubbing meal to fineness, for cracking acorn hulls and so on."
We were now trotting down a grade that wound in and out of the folds of the mountain side, and opened up vistas of a wide, peaceful valley, where cattle, tiny specks in the distance, were grazing. It was a portion of the famous Warner Ranch, which came rather prominently into the public eye nine or ten years ago, when its white claimants caused the eviction of the resident Indians from this their ancient domain. The Government forcibly removed them across the mountains to alien Pala, where the ancients of the tribe are still unreconciled and mourn for Cupa, the old home of their people, and for the healing waters of its hot springs.
"There's many a hidden nook around this country," our host went on, with a longing look up a cañon, `where a fellow with sharp eyes is liable to stumble on relics of the old days. I have often found earthenware jars of Indian make set away in caves or in the niches of rocky cliffs, where mesquite beans or acorns were once `cached' for safety in troublous times when the raiding of home stores by enemies was feared. They were usually empty, because the squirrels had cleaned up the contents, but others I have found containing hechicero things, that is, articles of one kind or another that the hechiceros, or medicine men, made use of in their ceremonies. Such relics, as well as the jars themselves, which are of ancient make, are, of course, very interesting to scientific collectors, but they are rare nowadays, and about the known ones that are still left in place the present-day Indians are very reluctant to tell anything. They are afraid that if they help the white people to remove them, the spirits of the dead-and-gone hechiceros may get angry and make trouble for the informant. Old Joe, a Mesa Grande man who will do anything for me, came to me quietly one day and said that a Santa Ysabel man had bragged to him about knowing where a fine hechicero jar was, and Joe had been 'muy coyote' with him, and, by skilful questioning, had found out where it was. So Joe and I set out for the place; but when we got there the jar was gone. The other Indian on second thought had evidently grown suspicious that foxy Joe meant mischief about the jar and so had removed it. `Joe, him muy coyote, but Santa Ysabel man him more coyote,' is the way Joe sized up the incident."
After a frosty night beneath the stars, our blankets spread on springy beds of pine needles, with hot rocks rolled in barley sacks at our feet, we came in the sparkling morning to San Ygnacio, a rancheria of Luiseño Indians in an upland valley of the desert's rocky rim. Here Maria Juana Segunda, plump of body and good-humored of spirit, dwells with her mama, maker of baskets and of acorn-meal, and in a meadow close by their house we were permitted to make our camp. Beyond stretched a wet ciénaga fenced in, where Indian cattle fed and where a little stream, assembling its waters beneath an outcropping of tumbled rocks, issued doughtily forth and flowed valiantly away through a thicket of rustling carrizo reeds, to quench the desert's thirst—as quixotic an adventure as ever a bit of mountain-stream set out upon.
Now, the fashion of San Ygnacio is not unpicturesque, hidden from the world beyond the mountains, as in a bowl. Here and there perched upon the valley's tilted side are set the Indians' cabins, each one-storied of a room or two, the material in the better sort being adobe with American-made doors and windows, and roof of shingles, or of cedar shakes split in the near-by mountains. Others have shaggy walls of brush and stout sunflower-stalks, their roofs a thatch of bile rush and carrizo reed; and against almost every house is built the ramada or roofed shelter of brush, a sort of open-air living-room where, on warm days, the household work is carried on and meals are eaten. Like huge bee-hives, dome-shaped baskets for the storage of acorns sit upon platforms lifted safely a man's height or more above the ground, for the discomfiture of pilfering rodents ; and dominant over all is the little Catholic: chapel with its squat steeple beneath the cross. Close by, enclosed in a tight paling fence, is the campo santo, where, side by side and even on top of one another, departed San Ygnacians are packed to the very fence corners, each grave marked with a wooden cross. As ground is cheap in San Ygnacio, we are for extending the fence so as to do away with such unseemly crowding of the helpless dead, but Juan Capistrano Siva, who is showing us about, enlightens pur American darkness about that.
"Big campo santo, mala suerte," says he, "very bad luck; much people have to die to fill it up. Little campo santo, all filled up, no die."
Not far away, among some huge bowlders, a woman is pounding acorns with a stone, a shallow cavity in the rock serving as a mortar. Acorn-meal is both bitter and astringent as it comes from the mortar; but the Indian, who has as little taste as you or I for the bitter in life, has found a way to eliminate these qualities, Old Angelita's cabin is just around the rocks and she is at the process now —old Angelita, whose name means "little angel," lingering echo of her far-away babyhood. Now she is bent and rheumatic, and her withered brow is swathed in a blue bandanna handkerchief. By a rill of water under some bushes she has a large, shallow Indian basket, cradled in a pile of sticks. Across the basket is stretched a cloth of loose weave, and upon it is spread some fresh acorn meal. Dipping water from the stream, she pours it over the meal and as the liquid seeps through the straining cloth, more is added. So at intervals will the wetting and seeping go on for, perhaps, a day, until the bitter nature be all strained away. The result of this treatment is a dough, to be either boiled as a mush, or baked into bread.
Don't commiserate old Angelita, and say, "Poor thing!" for having to live on acorn-meal; for it is famously nutritious, rich in fat and carbo-hydrates, and makes fat Indians. To civilized palates it is at first rather insipid; but many white folk acquire a fondness for it and find acorn-mush as tasty as a manufactured breakfast food. It helps towards respect for the acorn to remember that botanically the chestnut is its first cousin.
At Martina's house, over the way from Angelita's, we find a basket for sale, and from bartering we drift easily into chatting, the more easily be-cause fat Bartolomé, her husband, is at home and has a tongue that runs. Their place is a good ex-ample of what the Mission Indian can make with his own hands from the native products of the country roundabout. The house, with its brush walls packed tight to keep out the wind, its thatched tule roof, and its stool seat, carved from a single block of wood, by the doorway, is as picturesque as an Irish peasant's cottage. It and the barn, with its storage basket on the roof, the thatched hog-pen and the temescal, or sweathouse for baths, are all the work of Bartolomé's own hand. Bartolomé is a handy man; possibly his father may have been a neophyte at San Luis Rey in the Mission days, and passed on to his son somewhat of his Padre-taught skill. Bartolomé's feet are shod in leather sandals of his own cutting-out, and he speaks only Spanish and Luiseño. He was born in the desert most of these mountain Indian families spend their winters in the lowlands—and was a boy when Los Angeles was still a little pueblo; so he has seen much history made. He had worked as vaquero for Spanish rancheros when any ranch was a day's journey across, and when any traveler was welcome without a peso in his pocket, and a cup of wine was always to be had for the asking; not that Bartolomé was anything of a tippler—madre de Dios, no—but at a fiesta, or of a Sunday now and then, a sip of wine feels good in the throat, and makes no man crazy like this cursed whiskey. And, of course, he had seen the coming of the Americans, first one or two, then swarms of them like flies; and then the rail-road and the hard times, and now every man has his hand in your pocket and all the world is for the dollar. These Americans, they are smart traders, no? You have to sell; oh, yes, they buy, but very low price; you have to buy, oh, yes, they sell to you, but muy caro, very dear. And, as for land, there is no more any land in all California an Indian can call his own. Why, when the Americans want San Ygnacio, will they not come and take it? Did not Bartolomé know? Had he not seen them drive the Indians out of Temecula when he was a young man, and from the hot springs of Cupa when he was old?
We present Bartolomé with a sack of tobacco and Martina with a pocketful of grapes, and, parting good friends, we sally forth to further adventure. Our eyes turn wistfully to the chaparral-covered slopes of the mountains to the east and scan them to the bowlder-strewn crest that looks, we know, down upon the desert; and Juan Capistrano Siva, who loves the desert and came from it but yesterday, says if we would like to see it from that dizzy ridge, he knows a good trail. So we mount horses, and following Juan's lead we are soon hidden head and heels in the brush, now plunging down into dry arroyos, now gingerly picking our way along narrow shelves of rock above some cañon's yawning jaws, now scrambling up sandy steeps down which our ponies' sliding heels push loose stones, cracking and bounding into depths behind. Our legs are pricked with cactus spines and yucca daggers, and our faces whipped by the thorny branches of grease-wood and buck-brush that stretch across the trail that would be no trail to any but an Indian's keen sight; and so we come by and by to the last pitch of all, where a chaos of gray rock, belched up in some fiery geologic day, is not negotiable by horses. Here dismounting and tying the animals, we clamber, hand and foot, tooth and nail, up the rest of the way until we stand upon the ridge that divides desert and coast country. Before us the mountains fall sharply away, and there below us spread out as a map, in the stillness of the waning afternoon, lies that co-equal with mountain and sea and sky in elemental majesty, the desert—"the country of lost borders," "the land of little rain," "God's garden" —what you will.
Purple shadows flung down by our mountain's height were laying cool hands upon the shimmering sands, and through a palpitating mist that hung upon it, gleamed the waters of the Salton Sea. Far beyond dimly rose the bastioned walls that are the southern boundary of the Mojave Desert; to the east and southeast, above the haze, swam peaks we could not name, glowing in the late light like islands of a dream—peaks of Arizona, doubtless, and some of Old Mexico. Juan's eyes glistened as he Iooked, and his Indian reserve gave way to real enthusiasm as he told of his sixty-mile ride the day before on horseback from Indio, alone across the sands to Rattlesnake Cañon, where it cuts into the shoulder of San Jacinto ; then by this trail and that —Juan pointed them out as he talked, and was very patient with our white stupidity when we could not see twenty miles away what was as plain to him as the nose on your face—then down into Coyote Pass and around by Lost Valley into San Ygnacio; and how he had seen a deer at Piñon Flat and mountain-lion tracks near Horsethief Creek; and he described minutely where all the water holes were. From the white man's point of view, really nothing noteworthy had occurred on Juan's long ride; but to the Indian all nature is of intensest interest. He marks the flight of a bird and is not satisfied till he has identified the kind; he hears a twig crack—his old nature is alert to solve the problem of what broke it; a fresh track across the trail he travels is as vital to him as to us a telegram—is it a coyote, or a deer or a rabbit? Other business of life stops till he has found out. So the sixty miles between Indio and San Ygnacio had given Juan matter enough to discourse about for a month or two.
"And do you know any place, Juan," asked our host as we descended the mountain towards San Ygnacio, "hereabout or in the desert, where old ollas are hidden away?"
And Juan returned the usual answer of the young school-taught Indian to questions about the old days and their ways :
"No, señor, the old people they knew about old thing like that; the young people they do not know about it."
The night was chilly even by our camp-fire, when supper was over, and we repaired to Maria Juana's cabin for a bit of chat before retiring. A fire was burning in her ample fire-place, and Maria Juana's mama was a-squat on the hearth, working up her basket material by the flickering flame. Maria Juana herself, as became one who had dwelt among white folk, sat properly in a chair by a table on which was a kerosene lamp. She gossiped pleasantly in English, in a soft, motherly voice, translating, from time to time, into Luiseno such tidbits of what we told as she thought her mama would enjoy. Mesa Grande is Diegueño country and like a foreign land to Luiseño San Ygnacio, and Maria Juana and her mama would laugh heartily when our host would give them the Diegueño word for one of theirs—it was so strange that words of such di-verse sound should mean the same; and, when he sang them a Diegueño song, dramatically illustrated with the motions of the dance and as though he held a rattle, the two women's eyes sparkled and their faces were aglow in their interest.
"That is funny words," said Maria Juana, "but it is nice, too, I think," and her mama's eyes had a reminiscent look as of a bygone day when she, too, sang the songs of her people. We coaxed her to sing one to us now, but she would not—she had forgotten, she said; but perhaps she was only shy.
So the talk turned on other things-on poor Teôfilo who was died long time ago and Natividad, who was marry—did we not know? And of how Bautista killed the mountain sheep one time, and of who was got sick and who was got well. So many sick peoples now in Coahuilla country; they got the consumption, the doctor calls it. Maria Juana could not understand what makes them so sick. "That consumption now," she says in quaint wonderment, "I don't know what makes it it did not use to be." And did we know that old José was died in Los Angeles, and before he died, he told the peoples he could not be happy for afterwards, unless he was bury in the campo santo of the old rancheria at San Felipe where he was born; and so his people brought his body and now it was bury just as he wanted, there in the old campo santo by the desert in the sun; so he would be happy, old Jose.
Day comes to San Ygnacio's tiny valley in an exquisiteness that city dwellers know not of—first, a flush of red in the east, then all about is a feeling of virgin light as mysterious and pure as though a Holy Grail drew near, and, in the twinkling of an eye, the wan peaks of the chalky mountain barrier to the west leap into vivid life, reflecting upon San Ygnacio the warmth of glory of the risen sun come through the shining gateways of the desert. And soon we are rolling up our blankets and tossing flapjacks over the campfire and eating them, and bidding good-bye to Maria Juana and her mama; and then the colts, bursting their very jackets with the thoughts of home, are hitting the high places with us along the Indian road through the chaparral, and San Ygnacio is a tale that is told.
The sun was just nearing the western rim of mountains when we came in sight of Mesa Grande, in its bowl-like valley, and people were wending their way singly and in families to the little campo santo, fenced about with white palings beside the church at the edge of the rancheria. All day, workers with hoes and brooms, had been busily clearing it of weeds and litter, in preparation for this La Noche de las Velas—the Night of the Candles. We tied our team to a fence, and joined the gathering throng, which included, besides the Indians, many white visitors from the surrounding country, to whom any Indian "doings" are a recreation, like the circus, not to be missed. Just as the sun disappeared below the mountains, and shadow filled the valley, men, women and children passed through the gate into the cemetery and began setting candles upright in the earth about the graves, and lighting them; each being cared for by the surviving relatives of the departed. Everywhere in the rapidly falling dusk, stooping figures passed slowly about amid the graves and wooden crosses, making sure of the resting places they were in search of, and then bending to shield the candles' incipient flicker from the wind, waited till the flame was set.
Here a mother teaches her little child to stand the lights about its father's grave; and next to them is the bent figure of an aged woman with many mounds to dress—like the widow of Scripture, casting in of her penury perhaps all the living that she had, for candles run into money when you have to buy them by the dozen; and over here is old Joe, bareheaded and clad in a second-hand overcoat, fixing, with unsteady hand, four tallow tapers upon his dead wife's resting-place. The faces of all are grave; but we notice no assumption of sadness.
The Indian may hide his feelings; but he is not hypocrite enough to put on the semblance of grief to suit an occasion. Yet this is serious business and it is conducted seriously. About the center of the campo santo where a great cross stands, a considerable knot of people are gathered placing lights so thickly that the spot glows like a campfire. They are for those remembered dead who have been buried away from the old home.
It is quite dark when all the graves are alight, and now grouped before the candles of the absent dead, kneeling figures chant a litany of the Church, strikingly solemn in the open air in the midst of the enveloping blackness of night; and this finished, the air is suddenly filled with that most heartbreaking of human sounds, the quavering, sobbing death-wail of the elder Indian women, mourning for the lives that have entered within the veil. It lasts but a short time, and then slowly and quietly the crowd files out of the cemetery, leaving its dead in a world of lighted candles, to be as lamps to the feet of them who tread the dark trails of purgatory —for this is the significance of the ceremony.
As we drove out of the valley, we drew rein on the ridge and looked back. In the houses of the rancheria fresh fires were gleaming, and suppers were being eaten; the living were again taking up the joys of living, and, by and by, would be playing peon till morning. On the dark hillside, the while, the little campo santo bore its glowing testimony of light like a seed of faith in a benighted world; and just outside its circle of brightness in a black hollow, in ground unconsecrate, shone two tiny sparks the flames of candles set, we were told, upon the unsanctified grave of one who had murdered a United States constable and himself been murdered in return. The Church could not receive such, dying unshriven and in crime, so he was laid without the pale; but, as each recurring year brings around La Noche de las Velas, two candles are lit for him, also. He needs the light, if any does, and his people do not forget.