Chapter X. Of Picurís in the Country of the Penitentes, and how Francisco Durán's Mother Could not Forget


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WHEN you are through with Taos, you will do well to return to the railroad by way of Picurís pueblo—that is, provided you are sound of heart and lungs; for Picurís lies eight thousand feet above the sea, encompassed by mountains which must be crossed at an altitude of ten thousand. This is a superb trip in itself, though a rough one, and you need for it a stout team and an experienced driver.

‘‘The team's all right,’’ said the livery man, as he came to see us off and patted the two fat horses, big enough for Brobdingnag, ‘‘and Ballard's all right; he'll deliver the goods.’’

Ballard, the driver, a serious-faced, square-jawed youth, made no response to this encomium, except to say, ‘‘So long,’’ as he gathered up the


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lines and drove us off into the glorious New Mexican sunshine of the clear October morning.

For several miles the road traversed a valley country, crossed now and again by little brooks of sparkling water, fresh sprung from the high mountains at our backs. On every hand were apple orchards where the reddening fruit glowed cheerfully beside some low, rambling ranch-house, looking to Eastern eyes less like a home than a fortress, with barred gates and a high adobe wall joining the house to the corrals and outbuildings, the whole forming a square about an enclosed courtyard. And then, without warning, ranches and green pastures were as a tale that is told and we were winding upward through wild ravines, beneath huge, scattering, forest trees, and climbing, climbing, climbing the "U. S. hill," the steepest and about the poorest apology for a highway in New Mexico. Never any too good, it was now at its worst from the unrepaired effects of the summer rains, and in many places the original road was washed entirely away, leaving only a wrack of rocks and gullies behind it. At such spots Ballard would alight, prospect for a promising way around, and then our team would blaze a new road through


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brush and boulders until the old one was picked up again. And all the time we were climbing mile upon mile as up the side of a steep-pitched roof.

We now saw the reason for the Brobdingnagian horses. They flinched at nothing; took arroyos and boulders with composure, and when the steep mountain steepened more sharply, leaned but harder into their collars. Nevertheless, at approaching two miles above sea-level, even Brobdingnagian breath comes short, and as the summit ridge grew nearer, Ballard would call a halt every few hundred feet, jam down the brake, and let the horses blow. Though the acclivity sometimes seemed nearly forty-five degrees, so that the team clung like a fly to a wall and Sylvia and I fully expected to see the unblocked wheels, when the brake was released, fly backward and carry us all over the cliff, the strength and temper of the horses were always equal to the resumption of pulling without the loss of an inch.

‘‘Cussedest proposition in the South-West’’, remarked Ballard with simple fervour, when, the top at last reached, he lit a cigarette and looked backward down the mountain.

Once over the divide, however, the beauty of


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the scene was inexpressible, as we bowled along across open, natural parks, their grassy expanses brightened with wild bloom, and set in the midst of magnificent, coniferous forests, whose interspaces were golden with the heavenly sunlight. Now and then the road descended into some little, sequestered valley where running waters made the raising of wheat and chili possible, and here was always the conventional Mexican village of adobe, clustered about a Catholic church with its cross-surmounted steeple and bell. On the outskirts of these hamlets, often in the wildest, loneliest spots, would be a rude wooden cross planted near the roadside in a heap of stones, and again on the summit of some hill whose sides were a mass of flinty stones and thorny cactus clumps, there would stand a taller cross.

‘‘They are set up by the Penitentes, ’’Ballard said, in reply to our question. ‘‘The Penitentes are a sort of Catholics who believe if they turn out in Lent stripped to the waist and walk barefooted over sharp stones, with loads of cactus packed on their bare backs, and whip themselves at the same time with whips knotted with bits of sharp iron till the blood runs off their bodies like rain, it 'll


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make up for the sins they have committed during the year. Gosh! it ought to; for I'm here to tell you cactus hurts, to say nothing of the whips and the stones. None of that society for me, unless I could be an honorary member.’’

‘‘Are these Indians who do this?’’

‘‘Not on your life’’, Ballard replied, ‘‘they've too much sense. No, it's these greaser Mexicans. Now, those hills you see with a big cross on top, they call them places Calvary, out of the Bible, and, on Good Friday, they always hold some special doings in such places, and time has been—and not long ago, either—when one of the bunch more fanatic than the rest would have himself crucified there. But the Church won't stand for that, and they have had to cut it out, though I wouldn't swear it isn't yet done on the quiet. These little crosses near the road are where funerals have stopped on the way to the graveyard. Descansos they call them—that means rest—and whenever a pious Penitente comes along, he is supposed to say a prayer and chuck a stone or two on the pile at the foot of the cross to help his cousin out of purgatory; for pretty much all Mexicans are cousins.’’


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‘‘And how does all this affect their morals?’’ we asked, our thoughts still on the penitential stripes. ‘‘Do they try to be good for the ensuing year so as to weaken the next dose of self-torture?’’

‘‘No, it works just the other way. They'd rather play the devil for eleven months in the year any time, if they're sure they can wipe off the score with packing cactus for a week or two. Why, I've known a man to cut himself all up within an inch of his life, so he had to go to a hospital to get made over; and when he got out, he was as bad as ever again. Worse, in fact. It's human nature, if you believe in the cure. Oh, they're a hard outfit, all right!’’

And so into Peñasco with its one rambling street, and, at the end of it, Señor Smith's verandahed adobe home, with flowers blooming about its posts, and a big room placed at our disposal, with two soft beds and windows open to all outdoors, and a pretty Mexican maiden who, as she withdrew after filling the pitchers, said in the pleasant Spanish way, ‘‘You are in your own home; please let us know if there is anything you want.’’

Two miles from this Penitente village of Peñasco


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and you are on the rim of a fertile valley through which the little Rio Pueblo winds its beneficent way between fields of corn and apple orchards and thickets of wild plum to join the Rio Grande, and by its banks Indian women kneel to wash their clothing and their wheat. On a slight eminence in the midst of the valley is the pueblo of Picurís, a mile and a half above the sea, yet high mountains look down upon it, their rounded summits, that early October morning when we first saw them, crowned with fields of snow above aspen belts of gold.

Time was, if tradition is to be trusted, when Picurís boasted its four thousand fighting men; but pestilence swept off much of the population at a breath, and the spirit of emigration took away others; so that the Picurís of to-day harbours a bare two hundred souls to keep alive the ways of the red fathers of the pueblo. Mexican squatters dwell on the lands by the river and a Penitente morada, or meeting place, is established in the very shadow of the ancient Spanish church where San Lorenzo keeps watch and ward over his diminished flock.

‘‘Yes, they're pretty fair Catholics’’, said the


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bachelor school-teacher, who left his breakfast dishes to welcome us—a rare proceeding for a Government servant in the Indian country; ‘‘that is, they go to the priest to marry them and send for him to bury them, if he comes within twenty-four hours, else the dead man is blanketed and buried anyhow. Certain corn-lands by the river are set aside to pay for the priest's fees, which he gets in a lump for the year's services. But, all the same, the old Indian faith is the one they live by and is zealously kept alive. There is a lot goes on in the old underground estufas up there, and at ancient shrines in the hills that no white man knows of. It was only the other day one of the Indian men came to me and asked permission for his boy to be absent from school for four days. ‘‘What for?’’ I asked. ‘‘That is not for you to know’’, he answered. It sounds like a saucy speech to a representative of the United States Government, but he did not mean it so, and I knew very well it was some religious rite that was to be performed, school or no school; so I said, ‘‘All right’’. The boy was back at his desk in four days, and I said, ‘‘Como 'sta, Pablito?’’ and he said, ‘‘Bueno,’’ and so the matter ended; but that scholar knew something


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I did n't and never will—nor any other white man.’’

To the student of antiquarian tastes, Picurís has a special interest, by reason of certain old ruins there which stand, cheek by jowl, with the more modern dwellings that form the main part of the pueblo. One of these ruins is the so-called Scalp House, in which hang scalps taken from conquered enemies of a former generation, perhaps by some of those four thousand fighting men aforementioned. Less gruesome is the Casa Vieja or the "old house," an example of the mud architecture of the pre-Spanish pueblo. One of the first things the Pueblos learned from Spain was the making of brick. Before that, where stone was not used, they built up walls by making a mud base, and when this was dry, piling more on top, and so on. This method the Casa Vieja plainly shows.

Picurís seemed deserted of natives until we innocently drew out the camera. Then, apparently from the earth before us, sprang an old man—the war-captain, it turned out—in tight trousers with wide flaps down the side, who put his veto upon our photographic intent. The schoolmaster argued


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with him in Spanish and we in English; but he was adamant against the taking of pictures in the pueblo, unless we paid five dollars. As we could see nothing in the place worth that sum of money, we shut up the camera. This was an evident disappointment to him, as he had undoubtedly calculated upon us as a source of revenue. The Mayor of Chicago, it seems, had once been to Picurís and paid that sum for the privilege, and why should not we? So the school-teacher explained. Whether from the hope that we might yet relent or from a suspicion that, if left to ourselves, we would do as we pleased, the man stuck to us closer than a brother while we walked about. Upon other subjects than the camera, however, he was more complaisant and even became communicative upon matters pertaining to the present life of the pueblo. He was no friend of the American educaiton, which, in his view, was pernicious to Pueblo morals.

‘‘The young people,’’ he remarked, ‘‘are not what they were. We cannot trust them any more, as we used to, nor teach them the secret things of our people; so they're ignorant of a great many things that it would be good for them to know.


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And then the whiskey—every young man in Picurís nowadays gets drunk whenever he has a chance. That is very bad, O mucho malo!’’

Pleasant faces looked out at us from doorways where crooning voices told of babies being put to sleep, and the hospitable salutation "entra" encouraged us to enter more than one habitation and sit with the family awhile. There was the usual interest in where we had come from and where we were going, and was it hot in California, and did many people live there. A peculiar kind of pottery is made here of glistening, micaceous clay, which is serviceable for cooking vessels; and what with buying some of this and distributing candy liberally among the children, our popularity in the pueblo waxed so much that I am not sure but a bid of a dollar to our truculent capitan de guerra might at last have secured us permission to photograph the Casa Vieja. But our dignity forbade our reopening negotiations and he of the flapping trousers made no overture; so Picurís remained for us unphotographed save from the outlying hill.

As we walked towards our carriage to return to Peñasco, we heard a cry behind us, and turning,


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saw an old Pueblo woman and a young man running towards us. The woman was gesticulating violently, and when she was close to us, addressed us rapidly in Spanish.

‘‘My son!’’ we interpreted her wailing. ‘‘Do you know Francisquito in California? I am so very sad here,’’—placing her hands upon her breast. Then, throwing up her hands, she moaned, ‘‘Oh, my son, my son! For many years, now, nothing from my son!’’

There was more we could not understand, and we turned for an explanation to the young man, who then spoke to us in English.

‘‘This woman, she is my mother, and she has a boy, my brother, and his name is Francisco Durán. A long time ago he left Picurís and went to California where you come from, where the ocean is. That was many years ago and he has never come back and he has never written to say if he is well. When you go back to California, my mother says, you see if you cannot find him where he is, and, when you see him, you tell him to send word to his mother in Picurís how he is. She is very sad in her heart about him, and she wants to know. You will do this?’’


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So, in red breasts as in white, dwells the universal mother-heart, which never forgets, but yearns unceasingly for the child whom the world has rapt from her sight.

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter IX. Of the Fiesta of San Gerónimo at Taos, and the Delight Makers Next: Chapter XI. Of Ancient Zuñi, and how the Conquistadores Came to Discover It




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