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Juana by Charles Franklin Carter

An Extract From Old Mission Stories of California

The overland mail-tram from San Francisco, on the way to New Orleans, came to a stop for a minute or two at the little old town of San Gabriel, ten miles east of Los Angeles. It was a hot July afternoon, in the year 1890; the car windows were open, and the passengers were gazing out listlessly at the few signs of animation about the station and town. San Gabriel is a sleepy old place, with little to interest the ordinary person. A traveler, passing through it, sees nothing to attract his notice as the train pauses at the station, and he finds his gaze wandering off to the north, where it meets the lofty San Gabriel Mountains, a long line of blue-grey, shimmering in the heat of the plains. There is much beautiful scenery around San Gabriel, and wonderful caÂ-ons among these mountains. But there is one object of interest in the town we must not forget to mention—the old mission church, which the traveler on the train may see standing near the track, a half-mile before coming to the station. It is a fine old structure, planted firmly and solidly on the ground, and looking as though it might stand another century, without showing more marks of age than it does now after having closed its first one hundred years. This is an object in which every passer-by, even the most indifferent, finds an interest.

The engine panted, the passengers gazed absently at the men exchanging the bags of mail. All at once a sound of singing was heard in the distance. It was a woman's voice, old and quavering, and the song was a weird, almost unearthly, chant or dirge in a minor key. Slowly the singer approached the station, and reaching it, mounted the steps of the platform and seated herself on a bench, keeping on, without pause, her monotonous singing. The woman was a Mexican, very poorly dressed, and looked to be all of ninety years of age. This aroused in some slight degree the interest of the passengers.

“Who is that old woman?” asked one, of a brakeman who stood by his window.

“Oh,” laughed the man, “that is old Jane. She is here nearly every day, when the train comes in.”

“What is the matter with her? Is she crazy?” asked the traveler.

“Yes,” answered the brakeman.

There was no time for more. The conductor called “all aboard,” and the train moved slowly away, leaving the old woman still intoning her chant.

The year 1824 opened with a feeling of distrust and uneasiness affecting all the missions of Nueva California, from San Juan Capistrano northward to Monterey. The fathers had held communication with each other many times regarding the Indians in their charge, and it was confessed by all that trouble from them was to be feared. At the same time nothing of any tangible import had occurred to lead the mission fathers to this conclusion. A few insubordinate individuals among the neophytes had been a little more insubordinate than usual; several had run away from Santa InÂŽs and PurÂ'sima to their old haunts and companions in the mountains; some indications of a revival of the superstitious religious customs of the Indians had been discovered; once, at San Luis Obispo, among the neophytes living at some distance from the mission, a dozen men had been found, one night, by a Mexican servant of the fathers, preparing some poison with which to tip the points of their arrows. This last was ominous, and carried more weight than all the other signs of trouble brewing, and roused the fathers to some activity; for the neophytes, at that late day, in mission history, were not allowed to envenom their arrows without the express sanction of the fathers. But nothing could be learned from the disobedient Indians when they were questioned. They maintained that they were preparing for the hunting and killing of some large and fierce bears which had been seen in the neighborhood, and which had destroyed some of their cattle. They were permitted to keep the arrows, with a reprimand, and a strict watch on their movements was held for many days. Nothing definite could be discovered, however, and the fathers were forced to wait, with anxiety and added watchfulness, for whatever was to come.

There had been many false alarms, ever since the first settlement of the country, and many slight uprisings of the Indians, who saw, with disfavor, their land taken from them, and themselves obliged to serve almost as slaves, at the missions. They were nearly always well-treated, and, in fact, were usually tractable, and even more than satisfied with their lot; but now and then they would be roused by some of the fiercer spirits among them to struggle against this slavery. At such times, the injury they could, and did, inflict on the missions was great, but they had always been subdued and forced back to their state of servitude. Yet the fathers had ever with them this condition of anxiety, rendered all the greater as the military force in the country was very small, and usually unavailable at the moment when needed, owing to the distance between their barracks and the larger number of the missions.

Not quite three miles from Mission San Gabriel, toward the mountains in the north, stood a little adobe house, the home of a young Mexican, one of the men belonging to the mission, with his wife and one year old child. Diego Borja, this was the man's name, had been connected with the mission ever since he was a boy, serving in various occupations, first, as altar boy, then as occasion required, as messenger and servant to the Father, carpenter, for he was a skilled artisan, and overseer of the planting and gathering of the crops. He had even been trusted by the Father with commercial negotiations with merchants at San Pedro and Los Angeles, selling to them hides, which were a valuable source of wealth to the mission, and wine, famous for its fine quality. He was, in fact, a general utility man, on whom, on account of his reliability and versatile qualities, the Father depended greatly. Father Zalvidea, the senior priest at San Gabriel, had reason to congratulate himself on having Diego at his command, for not often is such an one found among the poorer and laboring class of Mexicans, combining the power and ability to serve in manifold ways, with a love of work for its own sake as well as for the reward it brings—very different from the general slowness and laziness of this class.

Two years before this little tale opens, Diego had become attached to a young girl living at the mission. Juana was an orphan, and had come to Nueva California from the same institution in Mexico which, many years before, had sent “La Beata,” well known and loved by every one in the country. Juana had none of the characteristics of the celebrated Apolinaria, excepting only her piety, for she was a simple young woman, doing what was given her to do with a devout, unquestioning thankfulness, happy that she was able to work for those who had befriended her. She had been at San Gabriel for some years, and was the teacher of the Indian girls' school. It was the most natural thing to occur in the little world at San Gabriel, that Diego and Juana should be drawn to each other, for neither had any relatives at the mission, and it happened that there were no other Mexicans of their own age here at this time. It was with much hesitation that Diego had told the Father of his love, for the priest, although one of the kindest of men, disliked change of any sort, were it the most trivial, a condition due as much to temperament as to age, although the Father was now past the meridian of life. Diego's great desire was to have a home for himself and his wife away from the mission, for he was tired of the communal life which he had lived for twenty years. Nothing but the love and respect he had for Father Zalvidea, and the knowledge that he was, in a measure, necessary to him, had kept him from making the change long before. But at last he was resolved to hazard the matter, and with his mind made up, he broached the subject one evening, after having received the priest's orders for the following day.

The Father's surprise was great, for, somewhat strangely, the thought that the relations between himself and Diego might be altered or broken had never occurred to him; yet not so strangely, after all, for after having had his services for nearly twenty years, what more natural than his coming to regard the existing arrangement to be impossible of change? Yet why should Diego's marriage make any difference in the present condition of things? Married or single, would not Diego and Juana continue to live at the mission? And so, somewhat to Diego's surprise, the Father offered no remonstrance to his wish.

But when Diego asked him if he might have a piece of the mission land where he could build a house, and make his home, the Father exclaimed:

“My son, are you dissatisfied with your life here? Must you leave me, and give up all your old occupations at the mission? Cannot you and Juan! a be contented here? What shall I do without you, for you are my right hand man, and there is no one here I could trust to take your place?”

“Father,” replied Diego, “I should be sorry to feel obliged to give up doing all in my power for you and the mission; nor would I. I do not wish to go far. The land I want is less than three miles away, and I could be here at your command almost as much of the time as now. But if it be wrong to desire a place of my own, which I can plant and cultivate, and make of it a home, I will not ask it.”

“No, Diego,” answered the Father, “it is not wrong to wish for such a thing, nor can I say you nay. I am no longer young, although, I thank God, still strong to labor for many years yet, I hope, for our Mother Church. But I shall let you do as you like. You have been a good servant to me, Diego, and I will not withhold from you your reward.”

Diego had selected a piece of ground of about ten acres, situated north of the mission, and near the foot-hills leading up to a caÂ-on of the San Gabriel Mountains. A line of shrubs and small trees cut diagonally across the land, marking the course of a rivulet, which, not a half-mile farther, lost itself in the light, dry sand of the plain. This tiny stream would suffice for irrigation, and it was the particular feature that had decided Diego to choose this place. He at once set about clearing the land and building the house. With the Father's permission for everything needed, he soon had a number of neophytes busily at work making adobes, and building the walls under his supervision. Houses were quickly built in Nueva California in those days. They were but plain, simple structures at best, and, at the missions, an unlimited number of workmen took only a few days to finish one.

Diego and Juana had a grand wedding. Both favorites of the Father, and Diego, in particular, whom he regarded rather as friend than servant, the priest made it a holiday, and the mission church was crowded to the doors, in the morning, at the marriage ceremony. In the afternoon the Indians and the Mexicans celebrated the day with a bull-fight, horse racing, and various games and diversions, Mexican and aboriginal. The day was one long remembered by all the inhabitants of the mission.

The newly wedded couple took up their abode in the tiny adobe house Diego had built, and began a life of great happiness, little disturbed by affairs outside their own domain. Life in California, in those days, was a dolce far niente kind of existence that was most captivating, although ruffled at times by troubles with the many Indians on all sides. The days sped by, each one making but the slightest notch in the span of life. Juana continued her teaching, riding to the mission every day, where she spent the morning. During the rest of the day, after returning home, she busied herself about the house in all domestic duties, or in embroidering, at which she was an adept, her work being much in request, not only at San Gabriel, but at the other missions; or in tending her garden, where were growing many vegetables and fruits for their use. The birth of their child brought an added joy to their already overflowing life of happiness. But this kind of life could not last forever, even in that idyllic land of Nueva California.

Diego was given the services of two neophytes in cultivating his land, leaving him at liberty to continue those of his mission duties which could not be delegated to another. And toward the end of the second year of Diego's married life, his presence at the mission became more urgent, and he was sent off to the neighboring missions with greater frequency, and made longer stays than ever before. Juana began to be anxious, and to wonder what was the cause of these strange proceedings, taking her husband away from her, sometimes for nearly two weeks at a stretch. Questioning Diego was useless, for he was a discreet servant, and told her, simply, that the Father's business called him away. This was far from satisfying her, of course, but she could learn nothing more from him.

Juana, however, was not dependent entirely upon Diego for information as to what was going on in her little world, that is, at the mission. She was an acute little person in spite of her simplicity, and it would not have taken one as acute as she, to see that something was disturbing the neophytes, and tending to make them unruly. One day, at the hour for shutting up the Indian children for the night, a youth was discovered missing. Search was made, and kept up far into the night and the next day, but without result. Ordinarily this would have excited no great attention, but indications of the troublous times of 1824 had already made their appearance, and every little incident out of the common routine was looked upon with apprehension. The young Indian returned at the close of the next day, and tried to appear as if nothing had occurred. He was taken immediately to the Father, who questioned him long and patiently, but with no avail. He would say nothing farther than that he had run off to the caÂ-on in the mountains for a day's idleness; and this he maintained, while the priest, wearied and harassed, threatened him with flogging.

Juana had heard of this, for news in a little community like the mission flies fast. Several times, when on the way to her work at the mission, either as teacher to the Indian girls, or as spinner and weaver of the fine cloth from which were made the vestments and altar decorations, or, if it chanced to be the Sabbath, to attend mass at the church, she had noticed little groups of the neophytes talking eagerly, but in low voices; but so soon as she approached, they separated and went their several ways, giving her a glance of malevolence, or so it seemed to her, as she passed by. These things were enough to show her that something was stirring the neophytes; and whatever that something was, it meant, in the end, danger to the, fathers and to all the Mexicans connected with the mission.

But the most important, and far the most terrifying, indication of something amiss, was the sight Juana had one day while in the caÂ-on near her home. She had taken Pepito with her, and wandered up the caÂ-on to the place where the stream came down the mountainside in a series of little falls, rushing and tumbling among the boulders that filled its path. This was a favorite spot with Juana, and here she came frequently for an afternoon holiday, sitting in the shade of the cottonwood trees lining the brook on either side, working on some piece of embroidery for the church, or, perhaps, some more humble domestic bit of sewing, or, in idle revery, watching the water hurrying by, but never long at a time forgetting her baby, which was always, of course, her companion. On this afternoon Juana had been at her shady nook by the stream, intent on finishing some sewing she had brought with her, before it should come time to go home. Not a sound was heard above the noise of the stream, the crowing of the child lying on the ground, as it plucked the yellow poppies, being lost in the wild rush of the water. Chancing to look up while she was threading her needle, Juana saw an Indian striding rapidly toward the stream, which, reaching its bank, he crossed, springing from stone to stone; climbing the opposite bank, he made his way up the mountainside, and was soon lost to sight behind the brow of a near-by foothill. Screened as she was by the deep shade of the trees, the Indian had not seen Juana, and well for her he did not, for her first glance told her he was one of the untamed savages that, at that late day in the efforts made by the missions for their reclamation, were still numerous in various parts of the country. Juana was well enough acquainted with Indian customs to recognize at once that the savage was on some hostile errand. He carried a bow in his hand, together with an arrow ready to use without an instant's loss of time. This might have meant he was on a hunting expedition, had not Juana known there was no game of any kind, excepting jack-rabbits and rattlesnakes, within a radius of several miles from the mission; for the neophytes had, long before, killed everything near. This fact as well as his quick gait, showed her he was not on any peaceful business.

With a prayer of thankfulness in her heart (for there was little doubt the Indian would have killed her, had he seen her) Juana seized her work, and, with the baby in her arms, made all possible haste to her home. Her heart was in her mouth more than once, when she fancied she saw a savage lurking among the trees, or behind some big boulder; but she reached the house without further incident.

Diego, who had been away on one of his long absences, arrived home that same night. When Juana related to him, almost at the first moment of greeting, the incident of the afternoon, Diego listened in surprise and alarm; and when she had finished said:

“Juana, you must not go there again; it is most dangerous. But I do not think you will after what happened to-day. I must go back to the mission, and tell the Father what you saw.”

“Tell me, Diego,” implored Juana. “I know there is some trouble with the Indians. Is it very serious? Are we all in danger? Remember what they did to Father Jaime at San Diego. But they could not do any harm to the fathers now. We are too strong for them.”

“No, Juana,” answered Diego, “the fathers are in no personal danger, I think. And the trouble is not here, so much as farther north, at Santa B‡rbara, and the missions near there. But the fathers at all the missions are on the watch, for no one knows just where or when the trouble will break forth. The neophytes are dissatisfied, and will not obey their masters. But you must say nothing of this to any one. The Father wishes to keep it as quiet as possible, so as to alarm no one at the mission, and to have none of the Indians think they are suspected. I must go.”

And Diego set out for the mission, from whence he did not return until several hours later. The next day saw him off again on one of his long absences, bearing letters from the Father to the priests at Capistrano, San Fernando and the more distant Santa B‡rbara.

During his absence, Juana hardly dared stir from the house, except to take the beaten road to the mission; and even this required a mustering up of her courage every time she made the short journey, although she knew a foe would be very unlikely to venture into so exposed a position. On the day of Diego's departure, Father Zalvidea had made her relate to him every detail of her episode in the caÂ-on. He feared the worst, but made light of it to her. At the same time he told her she might stay at the mission if she feared to be alone, until such time as the danger should be past. But Juana could not make up her mind to leave her home, her flowers, which she tended so carefully, and her garden, which, without her daily oversight, would be ruined. Thanking the Father, she said she would stay on at home, unless something more should occur.

Day after day went by without further incident of any kind. Indeed, the presence of the Indian in the caÂ-on appeared to be the last of the series of occurrences to cause alarm; and the anxiety of the Father and the Mexicans was quieted. Still, as Diego did not return, they knew that affairs at the other missions were not in an altogether favorable condition.

But at last, after an absence of nearly three weeks, Diego returned, and brought tidings boding no good. There was no trouble apparent impending at San Juan Capistrano, and but little at San Fernando; but at Santa B‡rbara, and especially at Santa InŽs, to which missions Diego had been sent by the priests at Santa B‡rbara, much trouble was feared, and at any moment. The neophytes were watched closely, but there were many gentiles in the mountains around, who had stirred up the mission Indians to a state of great excitement. However, there was nothing to do, except to keep a strict guard.

Juana was overjoyed to see Diego. She had kept on with her daily work at the mission and at home, and, as nothing further had occurred of an alarming nature, she had, by degrees, lost much of her terror. Her anxiety for Diego, too, had helped to draw away her thought from herself and her situation. That was a happy evening for Juana, and her happiness was increased when Diego told her he would not be obliged to leave again for some weeks, unless the outbreak that was feared should materialize to call him away.

Well for us we know not what the morrow may bring forth! Nothing disturbed Juana's happiness that night, and she fell asleep with a sigh of content, and a heart lightened of all fear and anxiety. The next morning Diego went to work in the garden not far from the house, leaving Juana busy with her domestic duties. The day after Diego's return from one of his long absences was always a holiday for Juana, one of the mission women taking her place as teacher. Happy and gay she cleared away the breakfast, swept the room, and washed and dressed the baby, now and then bursting into song, from sheer excess of joy. It was toward the middle of the morning, when she heard a sudden cry from Diego. Springing up, she hastened out of the house, and ran to the spot where she had seen her husband at work a few moments before. It was not until she had reached the place that she discovered Diego, prone on the ground where he had fallen, near the vines he had been pruning. Juana knelt and threw her arms around his neck, when she saw the arrow from which he had fallen, buried deep in his breast.

“Juana, querida,” he whispered hoarsely, “get Pepito and fly to the mission. Tell the Father. Leave me; I am past help. The arrow was poisoned. Go at once.”

“Diego, Diego, I cannot go; let me die here with you. Let the Indian kill me, too. Where is he?” and she looked wildly around.

“He is hiding among the trees by the stream. Juana, go, I command you. Santa Maria! Save her from the cruel savage, who may be, even now, watching us.”

Enfolding her in a close embrace, he kissed her many times, then, with his remaining strength, pushed her from him and motioned her to go.

Juana did not move. She clung to Diego, weeping bitterly, as she whispered endearing names. The time of delay, however, was not long, for the Indian's aim had been true; and without the aid of the poison with which the arrow was tipped, Diego was doomed. Suddenly Juana felt a tremor pass through him; his head fell back on the ground, and with a deep sigh, he closed his eyes and was dead.

Juana gazed long on the inanimate form of her husband, then, with a last parting kiss, turned toward the house. She thought now of Pepito. for the first time since she had left him, and she quickened her steps, going faster as she neared the house, and her fear of the hidden savage came over her. The time she had been absent was short, though it seemed hours to her, and she found the baby playing in the sunlight that streamed in the window. Snatching him up convulsively, she dashed out of the house, and ran at her utmost speed along the road that led to the mission, nearly three miles away. Her horse was tethered in the field, not one hundred yards from her, but she was too frightened to think of that. Her one thought was to get away from the Indian, and to reach the mission, forgetting in her unceasing fear that she was completely at the mercy of her foe, and that, were he bent on still further mischief, by hurrying unduly, she was only hastening the bitter moment.

And so it proved. The road to the mission lay at an acute angle with the course of the stream, and the place where Juana supposed the Indian to be hid was, for some distance, almost in front of her. She hurried on, looking neither to right nor left, but with gaze bent tensely on the mission church, the cross on the roof alone being visible above the tree tops. She had gone only a few yards when she heard a sudden, sharp whistling in the air near her. Startled, she glanced quickly to one side, and clutched the baby more closely to her—too late; she saw not the arrow, such was its velocity, but felt the baby give one spasmodic bound. She flew along the road, the child screaming as she ran. As she neared the mission, and the houses clustered around it, the inmates started from their various occupations and gazed in astonishment at Juana as she sped by, wild-eyed, her hair streaming in the wind.

Father Zalvidea had passed the morning in reading the letters Diego had brought to him the night before, and meditating gloomily on the prospect confronting the missions. He did not fear any particular trouble at San Gabriel, but the news he had had from some of the northern establishments was not reassuring; and the missions were so closely united in one common bond, that what was an injury to one was an injury to all. After reading and re-reading the letters, he put them away, and betook himself to his garden for a little pasear before his midday meal. He had paced the length of the garden only two or three times, when he was aroused from his revery by the abrupt appearance of a woman whom, from the agony distorting her face, and her long fluttering hair, he did not at once recognize. As soon as she saw him Juana cried out, “Father, Father!” and staggering forward a step, fell, unconscious, at his feet. Calling loudly for help, the priest bent over, and caught the baby from her arms. At sight of the arrow he exclaimed: “Now may God help us!” for he understood, on the instant, its import.

By this time he was surrounded by a number of women and servants, and, not heeding their ejaculations, he bade them carry Juana into the house. The baby was past help—the arrow had pierced its neck, and the child was even then in the stupor that would give way only to death, the poison working rapidly in the small body. But the Father could not linger. Leaving Juana and the child in care of the household, he quickly alarmed the Mexican contingent of the mission, and put them on guard. A small number of armed men were sent to reconnoitre the mountains near Diego's home. The hunt was kept up for two days; but nothing was found except the tracks of the Indian in the soft mud of the river, and a circle of ashes, the remains of a small fire. From all indications there had been only one Indian in the neighborhood, and he, apparently, had disappeared to return no more, for nothing was seen of him, though a watch was maintained there for several weeks.

Such a state of extreme uncertainty as the mission was in could not have lasted long, and the Father knew that unless something were done to end it, the neophytes would most certainly rise in rebellion, and slay their masters. Fortunately all danger was removed, a few days after Diego's tragic end, by the arrival of a messenger with letters from Santa B‡rbara. The news they contained was most grave. The vague, intangible anxiety, so long experienced, had culminated at last in the uprising of the Indians at Mission PurÂ'sima. On the Sabbath morning previous, they had made a sudden assault on the mission, and had burned many of the buildings, almost ruined the church, and, after much fighting, had driven the Mexicans with the fathers to Mission Santa InÂŽs, twenty-five miles distant. Word had been sent at once to Monterey, and a detachment of soldiers from the presidio there had hastened to the spot. This required two days, during which the insurgents held the mission; but on the arrival of the troops, they were soon ousted and forced to retire.

The same thing was attempted at Santa InÂŽs, but not much difficulty was found in quelling the disturbance. Some signs of insubordination were shown at the neighboring missions, San Luis Obispo in the north, and Santa B‡rbara, San Buenaventura and San Fernando south of the scene of the trouble; but there was no disturbance after the Indians had learned that the attempt at PurÂ'sima was unsuccessful; and they hastened to pledge obedience to the fathers. There were four hundred Indians in active insurrection, and although many were wounded, only sixteen were killed.

As for San Gabriel, the shooting of Diego and his child was the only incident that occurred at this mission which showed the condition of things prevailing everywhere; and Father Zalvidea was thankful to have it no worse—yet long he mourned for his faithful servant. When Diego and Pepito were buried, the Father made a solemn and impressive address to the neophytes, painting in vivid colors the pains of hell, which those engaged in the insurrection were in danger of experiencing after death, contrasting it with the joys of those blessed ones who did God's will on earth, and received their own great reward hereafter.

Juana was delirious and raving for many days. The shock itself was sufficient to cause her illness, but it was surmised that the arrow, which had slain Pepito, had entered an inch or so into her arm. In the excitement of her sudden appearance and fainting, when the Father took the child from her, this was not noticed; but a few hours later her arm became much swollen and very painful; and as a slight wound was discovered, the Father concluded some of the poison had entered her system. This was the only plausible theory to account for her swollen arm, and also, perhaps, for her subsequent condition; for Juana, alas! never recovered her mental faculties after the fever left her. Regaining her physical health, the memory of her former life was an almost complete blank. All she seemed to have retained were the refrains of two or three songs she had been accustomed to sing to Diego, in the first months of their married life.

Juana lived for many years, and until she became an old, old woman. She was always treated with the greatest consideration by every one at the mission, for her story was known, at first, as an event in their mission life, then, as the years went by, as history and tradition. Meek and gentle she was. It was only when thwarted in her desires that she became aroused to a pitch of angry insanity which made her dangerous. This chanced very seldom, for she was allowed to do as she pleased in all things. And so she lived, unnoting the many and great changes that took place from year to year in Nueva California—San Gabriel losing its greatness and power, ceasing, even, together with all the others, its life as a mission, and the province itself torn from the grasp of Mexico, to become a member of the greatest republic in the world—her unheeding mind knew nothing of all this. Her favorite pastime, after the railroad was built through the little town of San Gabriel, was to wander down to the station, when time for the trains, which she quickly learned, and to greet them with the snatches of song that remained with her—sole vestige of her former life.

But death came at last to this poor wayfarer on life's journey, and she was buried in the cemetery near the church, by the side of her husband and her child, the place which had been, by common consent, reserved for her in the sadly overcrowded little campo santo. Here lies all of her that was mortal. We know she is well once more, with her mind and memory, touched by divine healing, restored to her, and, we may be sure, happy in the companionship of her loved ones.