Sonny & Valerian

PART ONE: FOG AT MIDNIGHT, San Francisco Bay



I know that even prayers to all the saints and angels cannot save my precious Mission Dolores, which has been abandoned by Mexico and even by the holy church itself.  The mission will never again be the hope and salvation of anyone.  I know now that soon there will be nothing left of her but broken walls and weeds growing through the floors of the chapel.  Yet I still cling to her.  Still I remain.

I am Valerian.  I was born of two cultures, American and Mexican.  As you might imagine I am distinctive among Californios by my black curling hair, blue eyes and light skin.  Eight years ago, when I was a girl of sixteen, my father Don Rudolfo brought me to the mission, a year after my mother’s sudden death, finally intolerant of my obstinate, solitary mourning that had become such a burden to him as he tried to overcome his own sorrow.  The mission then was still prosperous, and it was here that my dear Magdalena eventually delivered me out of my great darkness and made me want to live again.  I am no nun and never will be, but I remain a devoted servant to the mission.  At the time I speak of there were only the three of us left to watch over poor, dying Dolores:  Padre Prudencio, Magdalena and me.  And of course, the spirit of St. Francis, whose presence we all had felt at special moments, though he spoke in silent voice only to Magdalena.

Still, we were innocents and could not have suspected the danger. It came to us, however, the same night we first heard about the Bear Flag trouble, when the americanos took our friend Mariano Vallejo from his hacienda in Sonoma and imprisoned him at Sutter’s Fort. Senor Richardson at twilight had ridden to Mission Dolores especially to tell us, then immediately rode back to his big adobe on San Francisco Bay, where he said he was going straight to bed, so distressed he was by the news. It was 1846, the middle of summer.

An hour or so after Senor Richardson had ridden away, Padre Prudencio went to his bed after supper with pains in his stomach.  Magdalena and I joked with him that it was because he’d heard the bad news; though we suspected it was something he’d eaten.   Two hours later the pains were worse, and we thought it was influenza.  Another two hours and the fever had him sweating, and that kept Magdalena sitting beside him with a cool cloth on his forehead.  He was too uncomfortable to lie still and sleep.  It was nearly midnight when the padre began straining to make his breaths. 

That ended all my patience.  I spoke, not waiting any longer for Magdalena, who usually decided in these emergencies.  “We must go to San Rafael for Padre Mendez.  It’s foolish and dangerous to wait here any longer, expecting our padre to get better.  Senor Richardson I know will take us.”  
Magdalenda looked at me and I saw fear in her eyes, maybe the first time I had ever seen her with that much fear.  Like a whisper she said, “And leave the padre here without us?”  Then in only a moment more I saw the strength come back into her; she sat up straight and said, “You are right, we must go.  And there is only you and I to go.  Pilar and her sister can stay and give him water and keep him cool.  Till we return.  Senor Richardson will certainly help us.”

We departed, Magdalena and I both wearing cloaks with hoods, expecting fog and damp before the night was over.  The plank road had not yet been laid and we walked the well-worn trail among the sand dunes and the manzanita.  Already it was midnight.   We hurried and soon we came over the last slope and saw the water of the bay glimmering in the moonlight and saw among many lesser buildings on that beach Senor Richardson’s white-washed Casa Grande, the moonlight illuminating it especially there in all the darkness surrounding it.  
Magdalena and I knocked at the front door of his house.  While we waited we saw way out there westward an immense wall of fog from deep ocean sweeping over the headlands at the mouth of the bay.  The fog was drifting between the great gap in the headlands, drifting over the quiet water of the bay where it had already cloaked in white Senor Richardson’s docks in Sauzalito.  Fog had not advanced yet as far as Angel Island, or to our own cove at Yerba Buena, but soon would.  Only then did we both see, downslope and at the far left end of our cove, still free of fog, a lantern shining from the mainmast of Senor Richardson’s schooner Josephine, tied up at Broadway wharf.  We both said Hail Marys.

Opening Richardson’s door, the Indio servant Paulina knew us and she brought us in quickly.  She told us that Senor Richardson was sleeping but Magdalena declared the urgency and Paulina went up and called into his room and woke the senor.

Moments later he came downstairs, still tying the belt of his robe.  Magdalena in English told him all the danger to Padre Prudencio at the mission.  Senor Richardson was nodding his agreement to help even before Magdalena told half of it.  She had grown up speaking Spanish and her native Indio language, but when Captain Richardson settled here ten years ago, she bothered him for lessons until he became fond of her and he taught her fluent English in only one summer of lessons.  So thereafter, as a token of their special bond, they always spoke English to each other.  As she and I also spoke only English, for our own equally sentimental reasons.

He said, “Diego is on Josephine already.  He and I will be enough to sail her.  If it weren’t for the fog coming in so strong like I see it is, I’d make this run up the bay by myself with you two ladies in distress.”  He turned to me and said, “It must be extremely urgent if you left the mission on a night like this.  I thought you were never taking boat rides again?”

If I hadn’t been so worried I would have laughed.  

Because it had always been the routine for both Magdalena and me to do the mission’s business with Senor Richardson and his schooner Josephine.  I’d been onboard the Josephine many times, but always, except that one time, only when we were docked.  He sometimes brought produce for the mission and helped us in other ways.  Apart from the Casa Grande in Yerba Buena, Senor Richardson also owned another house on the far side of the bay, accessible from Yerba Buena only with a boat, where he had his own harbor and docks that he called Sauzalito, notorious even to my sheltered ears.  It was said smugglers came and went there.  He owned it all, from a land grant that included Sauzalito all the way into the mill valley and all the slopes up the mountain Tamalpais, and even down to the beaches on the ocean side.
 
His sideburns grew to his jawline; he spoke a distinctive pronunciation of English that to my ears seemed elegant.  Long ago he’d come here on a whaler and jumped ship and made a tent on the beach of Yerba Buena cove when not a soul lived here.  He was such a fine sailor that he was soon appointed Harbor Pilot by the Mexicans, and was also expected to teach the Indio boys to sail.  I had many times gone to watch them.  I dared only once to go out with them, and I swore I’d never go out again, so anxious and fretful I’d been the whole time.  Yet here I was, asking to go out again.  So it might have been funny, even to me, but tonight it wasn’t.

I said to the Captain, “My only fear tonight is for the padre.  I’m so thankful you could do this for us.”

“Nonsense, my dear,” he said cheerily, “he’s my padre too, don’t you know?  You see me go with Antonia and the children to Sunday services sometimes.  Not often, but sometimes.”

Mercifully, Magdalena and I rode in the cart pulled by a horse and an Indio rider, down the well-worn trail to the wharf, while Senor Richardson rode his horse alongside us.  We were there in not many minutes, all of us watching all the while the big wall of fog moving further into the bay.  How long till it engulfed the Josephine?  Not long.  

At the wharf, we climbed stairs to a landing and from there we stepped aboard his two-masted schooner.  Many of the sails were up, no wind ruffling them however.  Senor Richardson showed us to his deck cabin where there were cushions on the floor.  Also a big soft chair for Magdalena.  Two candles in holders beside the doorway lit everything in the cabin brightly.  There were little windows, but too dark outside to see anything.  
Senor Richardson put on his sailing cap and said, “Now I am Captain Richardson.  Wait here in the cabin, if you will, ladies, while all the sails are set and we get going.”

Magdalena sat heavily, wearily on the soft chair and laid her head back into more cushions and sighed, “Now we will have a moment of rest, Valerian.  For a little while now at least God will have to make all the effort.”

“I see that if He does make effort, it must be in the wind.  It seems the fog coming in so much has made the wind quiet down.  Will we have enough to get all the way to San Rafael?”

Magdalenda groaned readjusting her posture in the chair.  “I foresee that the greater problem will be finding our way to the dock in this fog, down that long canal to the San Rafael mission.”

I stepped to the window and looked out again.  I said to her, “I see that most of our sailing tonight will be with the fog all around us.”  We could hear them outside on the decks doing their work.  I said, “When we get going, like the captain says, I want to go out on deck and see everything.”  Oddly, those old fears of big water were strangely not present in me this moment.

Magdalena had already closed her eyes.  She said, “I will rest now while I can.  My heart is beating like a tom-tom.  Where will it end?  No, you go out on deck and look.  That is as it should be.  I will stay here and say prayers for our padre and let the rest make me strong again, for when we get to the mission, for the walk up the hill.  I’m sure there will be no one there at the dock to meet us, so late it will be.”

As pretty wisps of fog swirled for the first time round the schooner, Diego cast free of the moorings.  A sudden light breeze quickly filled the main sails, and just that easy was the ship drawn silently away from home port and away and into the becalmed, befogged San Francisco Bay.  

I watched Magdalena’s tired face trying to sleep, saw the worry, saw the eyes moving behind eyelids.  Another contrary.  Me feeling strong, watching over my troubled, weary Magdalena.  
Because after my father brought me to Mission Dolores, I was the helpless one.  I continued refusing all consoling. I wouldn’t speak and wouldn’t leave the room I shared with Magdalena, who had been born at the mission in the year of its founding.  It was her pride to say she had been held in the hands of Padre Junipero Serra when he had blessed her as a newborn.  Her reputation made her a saint among the Indios, who said she could work miracles with humans of every kind, in various conditions of mortal stress.  Mortal stress mine had been.

Yet even in those first weeks at the mission, in the depths of my silent withdrawal to my bed, where I was waiting to die and rejoin my mother, I was aware that Magdalena often sat beside me, a dark-skin Indian, long hair going grey to her shoulders.  She sat beside me in a little chair, day after day, where she could reach out occasionally and set her hand on my shoulder or my back or my arm.  Eventually I allowed myself to feel warmth emanate from her hand into my body.  Until I began to anticipate it, began to want it, began at last to long for it.  One day she lay her hand on my shoulder and I couldn’t have stopped myself from the purring sound that escaped me.  It lasted barely long enough to notice.  But Magdalena noticed; probably she had been waiting for just that release from me.  She purred back.

I purred again.  Release it was.  I began to let go.  At least I let go enough of my misery so that I could open my eyes and see what my new world might be.  It was Magdalena:  still sitting in her chair beside me, patiently waiting for me to wake up, her warm, life-giving hand on my body.

A few days after that incident, on an afternoon late in summer, surprising myself, I got out of my bed, suddenly arisen from my long dying, and I went outside.  I saw Magdalena weeding around our roses.  I went to her and kneeled beside her and began pulling weeds.  From where she kneeled, she turned to me and smiled, as if she’d been waiting for me only minutes, or as if she had been waiting forever.  
Now, so many years later, in another time of crisis, it was all turned around.  My Magdalena rested without peace in the cabin of the Josephine while I watched over her, as we sailed north through the fog, worrying about our padre.
 
I went outside the cabin.  The captain was at the wheel, close by.  He smiled and waved.  Carefully I made my way toward him across the slippery deck.  I stood next to him and admired his command of the wheel, his fixed eye on the sea, ready for anything.  That moment, in ways I didn’t understand, I thought the Captain perhaps a bigger man than the padre.  May God understand me.  I stood next to him and felt surprisingly confident of my weight against the flooring, confident even with the sway of the boat’s rhythms.  

I said, “In the midst of all this worry, this night is so beautiful out here on the water.  I never imagined sailing could be like this.”

“Oh my...” he said, letting all that draw out, as if it foretold a story too complex to be told.  I waited for him to finish.

He said, “We are in the midst of far more danger than you know, my dear Senorita Valerian.  None of this night is at all as it seems.  The truth is, you and I are foolish to be out here tonight.  Many soldiers are out there in the countrysides, both to the right and to the left of us tonight, on both sides of the bay.  They are looking for each other.  The war for California is officially on.”

This was a subject I always tried to avoid.  Sometimes Magdalena tried to talk to me about it —the war for California, the end of the mission, what we would do—but I didn’t like to talk about it.  Yet tonight I felt an unusual confidence in myself as I stood there on the deck beside the Captain.  I dared to ask the obvious question, the one that feared me the most.

“What exactly is going on in the countrysides around us, Captain?  I daresay a person should know.”

“I daresay.  A person should know—so he does not go where he should not go, so he does not go when he should not go.  Since you ask, I’ll tell you.”  This talk obviously amused him.  “In all the countrysides, all around this enormous north bay, the Californios and Americanos each have right now two hundred soldiers, more or less.  Fremont’s boys finished up their Bear Flag mess in Sonoma not many days ago as I told you tonight, and since then they have been looking for the soldiers of General Torre and Captain Manuel, who are at this moment separated, but who are trying to rejoin to oppose Fremont more effectively.  

“What you do not know, is that there was a battle two days ago, not far from our destination of San Rafael mission, at Olompali rancho.  I just heard news of it.  Fortunately, only one killed.  Torre’s soldiers escaped.  Fremont’s men are hunting them.  We may see soldiers at the mission.  Torre is hiding somewhere upcountry of where we are this moment.  Quite perilous for General Torre it appears.  I think he may be hiding in the mountain on the Nicasio grant.  But Fremont does seem to have him trapped, so that’s grim news.  To me it is.”      

I had been right to fear this kind of information.   All of it troubled me deeply, in ways I didn’t comprehend.  I was glad he didn’t seem to want to talk more about it.  

Through whitest mists of fog swirling and submerging us I could see the sails stretch fuller and feel our speed increasing.  The Captain looked up too and said, “We’re lucky tonight, high tide is just in and will help us along the way to San Rafael.   And we’ll hope that little breeze stays with us.  Ojala.”  I walked carefully back to where I could look into the cabin below and I saw Magdalena, still sleeping.  Content, I went back to stand again beside the Captain.    

I’d been thinking over all those troop movements he’d been telling me about.  I said, “It seems like you know as much about this war as the soldiers fighting it.”

He smiled at me.  “Perceptive, dear, perceptive.  I do seem to know, don’t I?  Well then…yes, I do have conversations now and again with some of these participants, yes I do.  Mostly on the Californio side of course.  General Torre is one of those.  I wish he and I were in better communication right now.  But, as I said, he is at the moment in dire straits.  Should Fremont be able to keep him away from Captain Manuel, it will greatly weaken the Californio’s chances.  Should Fremont find Torre and force a surrender and capture all Torre’s men, I’d say the Californio cause will be lost completely.  Yet it could happen tonight, and it could be happening somewhere out there even as we speak.”

It made me feel brave to venture another bold question.  “Are you a spy then, Captain?”

He laughed.  “Oh we mustn’t use words like that, dear Valerian.  No, no.  Spies get shot or thrown into prisons.  That would not do when the cause is likely not to be won anyway, no matter how much soldiering and spying goes on.  Let’s just say I’m helping out friends.  Helping out friends in troubled times.”

We kept moving along, just at the fore-edge of the wall of fog.  I could see we were gliding past the little island Alcatraz, rounding the right side of it, just as the fog bank moved upon it and over it.  Up ahead I could see the larger Angel Island, where the fog was already pushing onto it.  We seemed to be moving fast enough that I thought we might be alongside that island before the fog had completely covered it.  It was all so beautiful.  An odd thought—beautiful—when at the same time soldiers were out there, fighting, possibly dying.  Which did certainly frighten and confuse me.  

All the while Senor Richardson and I talked, the mate Diego had been in the bow, pulling rope, tying something down, sometimes loosening or tightening the long triangular sails he called jibs, so that they could fill out one way, then swing back and fill out the other way.  I supposed he was trying to outmaneuver the head wind.  He did it all smoothly and efficiently.  Diego had been Captain Richardson’s best Indio sailing student, someone I had known at the mission my second year there.  After Diego had mastered sailing, Captain Richardson let him live on his boat.  When Diego saw I’d been watching him, he waved, remembering me, but kept working.  

The next time Diego reset the jib sails he tied them down and then hurried almost the length of the schooner to speak urgently in Spanish to his captain.  “The fog is too thick, I can hardly see the end of the bowsprit.  We have much room around us now, but soon we’ll be in the narrower channels and it would help if we had a lookout, up front.”

I saw the urgency of that.  I also saw that I was the obvious one to do that.  I was the only one available.  I surprised myself by speaking without hesitation to Captain Richardson.  “I can certainly do that, Captain.  Show me where to stand and what I should be watching for.”

He smiled; he knew this was a bold step for me, simple as the task seemed.  “Well said, young woman.  Diego will show you where you might stand.  There is a rail to hold to, and you must hold to it.  Watch both right and left, watch for land in any form, watch for tree branches, attached or broken and floating, watch for boats, of any size, for even whalers wander this far up into the bay sometimes, even on a night like this…ah, especially on a night like this.  Watch for things afloat in water and anything to be seen above water.  All this, however, will be limited I’m sorry to say, since you will be able to see only a little ways into the fog.”   

I took a deep breath, pulled the hood closer to my face and the cloak more tightly to my body.  I followed Diego along the deck past the cabin where I could see Magdalena inside still mercifully sleeping.  We crossed more deck where I saw coils of rope, then around another smaller cabin and the fore-mast beside it.  We stopped in the bow.  Beyond that was only the long bowsprit and the ropes wrapped around it and going overhead to the jib sails.  I saw a net strung below the bowsprit, as if to catch someone who might fall.   I had to look away from that.

Diego looked at me with a smile.  “Ready, Senorita de los Dolores?” he asked me in Spanish, using the old name he’d had for me at the mission back then.  That helped.  

In Spanish I replied.  “Yes, Diego, I’m ready.  You do the sails and I’ll stand here and watch.”  

After he’d changed the tack of the jib sails, he tied the ropes down and called over to me, “We should be coming alongside Angel Island right now.  Hopefully we haven’t gone too far right or left and we’ll keep well away from the island.  So be watching especially to the left.  I can’t believe on a night like this that we will meet other boats.”

I watched and watched.  I found myself leaning further ahead, then further, as if that might help me see better into fog, into darkness.  I felt the chill breeze on my face as we moved relentlessly through the ghostly mists:  felt it on one side, then the other, as we tacked.  

From the wheel Captain Richardson called out.  “We’re doing well, Diego.  I just had a glimpse of land portside, we’re well away from it.  Good sailing.”

The late Moon rose into the night sky, but I had lost sight of it because of the fog.  Now however the Moon was at its highest and I could see a faint glow through the fog straight overhead.  I could also see a little further into the fog than before.  Still, no object passed anywhere within my view.  We sailed almost silently now, excepting only the lush sibilant whisper of water scudding away from the bow below me.

I was beginning to feel so useless in my task of watching that I began to be drowsy.  However, the moment I heard something—a voice!—out there in the fog ahead of us, I jerked myself out of my reverie.  Diego had stopped his motions with the ropes and was looking out there too.
Captain Richardson called ahead to us, “Hear anything?”

We both said, “Yes,” at once.

“Keep a sharp eye out then.  Could be a boat.  Could be we’re near land.  I’ve been listening for the seals I always hear off the Brothers, to let me know I’m due east of the mission inlet.  But I haven’t heard them.  Now I’m worried I’ve gone off course a little and am a kilometer or two north of the inlet.  Keep a sharp watch now.”

Hardly knowing it was myself doing it, I grabbed hold of the ropes that went up to the jib sails and I stepped on a shelf there in the bow and hoisted myself up and onto the very point of the bow.  There were ropes going overhead for me to hold onto with both hands.  I felt securely positioned.  I leaned a tentative foot out onto the fat end of the bowsprit, where it connected to the bow.  I could see the white caps of waves rushing away from the bow just below me.  I felt a flutter of fear; but holding the ropes made me confident.  Certainly this was a better perch for a lookout.
 
I heard another sound out there—a voice.  I called out in Spanish, “Who is there?”

I saw how fast we moved through the water.  I could imagine a person in a boat suddenly appearing.   Could imagine a collision.  I leaned as far forward as I dared and called out again, “Who is there?”  
Moments later I heard fragments of words spoken, hushed.  Then the louder voice, answering in Spanish.  “Friends.”

Captain Richardson called out to them in the same language. “We’re here.  Can you see us?  Go slowly.”  Then to us in English, “Hold—I know that voice.  It is old Don Berryessa.  Haul in sail, Diego.  Throw the old man a rope.  What in blazes is he doing out here so late at night?”

Then I could see it, passing within the fog and into my vision as a shadowy thing, a little boat rowing across our path from the right.  I could also see that we would not collide, since the little boat seemed to have stopped moving ahead and had curved back toward us, to come alongside.  I could see figures in the boat, two young ones at the rear, side by side, and the old man seated facing them at the bow end.  I saw a rope tossed toward them.  It landed in the water beside the boat and the old man reached out and took it and tied it quickly to something in the boat.  It seemed we also had almost stopped moving.

Captain Richardson had by now come to the bow.   He leaned out to see the boat Diego by his rope was pulling alongside us.  When the boat touched us, the older man stood up and looked smiling into the face of the captain, who said to him, “What are you doing so late at night way out here, Don Jose?”

The old man’s smile seemed to turn sly as he said, “I could ask you the same thing, Captain Richardson.”

Who replied:  “We are on a mission of mercy, an innocent story.  The good padre is ill at the mission and we are going for Friar Mendez at the San Rafael Mission.  What is your story, old man?”

Senor Berryessa said, “I believe you know my son was captured by the americanos and is in jail now at General Vallejo’s old hacienda near San Rafael.  I am going to see my son, and hope I can free him or help him.  I accompany these two, Francisco and Ramon, whom I know you also know”—the two younger I could see more clearly now as they looked up and smiled at the captain:  startling me, because they were the first twins I had ever seen; they were boys, soon to be twenty perhaps.  “Francisco and Ramon.  They have a mission of their own.”

The captain waved his greeting to the twins and then continued speaking to Don Jose.  “What kind of mission would that be?  It’s certain that Fremont’s men are all over this side of the bay.  They’re looking for General Torre and his soldiers.  I believe the general is hiding somewhere between here and Petaluma.”

Senor Berryessa said, “For the moment.  But hiding will not be enough.  He must be rescued.  The DeHaro boys whom I pilot over here have their own mission from Captain Manuel.  The boys come with a secret message for General Torre that says all available Mexican forces are attacking Vallejo’s hacienda in Sonoma immediately.”

The Captain said, “Dangerous.  Such messages can get intercepted.”

Senor Berryessa smiled more than before, saying, “We are hoping that will be the case, Captain.  Ojala.  Then all Fremont’s men will go north to Sonoma and give General Torre time to escape and go south to Sauzalito, where he may then cross the bay to Yerba Buena and join forces with Captain Manuel in Santa Clara.”

The Captain stopped smiling and shook his head.  “I think I see what’s coming here.  You were also going to see me in Sauzalito, weren’t you?  To ask me a favor?  Weren’t you?   About a boat?  Weren’t you?”
“That is the truth, Captain.  I would have asked you if I were to find you in time.  Or General Torre would have asked you in Sauzalito when he gets there, if our plan works.”

The Captain stopped looking at him and seemed to go inside himself for the moment; but finally turned back to Senor Berryessa.  “You know I want to do this for you.  You know that.  And you also know how absolutely dangerous this is for me.  So let it be this way:  if General Torre does indeed make it to Sauzalito in the next few days, he must simply let me know by messenger that he is arrived.  Then he must steal the boat from me.  It will be spoken that you simply overpowered me and took the Josephine for your own uses.  After he has crossed the bay, he will tie her up at that new dock I’ve constructed just beyond the Rincon Hill at Yerba Buena.”
 
At that moment from behind us I heard Magdalena’s voice calling out.  “Wait.  Wait.  Is that you, Don Jose?  Is that your voice I am hearing?”  She was hurrying toward us, gripping her cloak tightly to her body, the hood keeping her face in shadow.  She stopped at the rail beside me and flung back her hood and looked out.

Seeing Magdalena, Don Jose’s eyes became merry and his smile was bigger.  “Dona Magdalena!  What are you doing here?  I suppose on the same mission of mercy.”

“An honorable excuse, at least.  But you?—do I hear you are being political again?”  But before he could answer she saw closer the other two and exclaimed, “Boys!  Boys!  Out in a boat at the devil’s hour?  You should be home in bed where your mother and father and sisters and brothers.  Francisco!  Ramon!  Are you here to watch over the old man?  Or is he here to watch over you two?”

Ramon spoke, ignoring Magdalena’s humor.  “The war has come to us, Dona, and we must not be afraid to fight for our country.  In whatever way we can.  We have joined Captain Manuel and we will go all the way to Los Angeles with him to win back our country.”

His brother confirmed it. “Ramon speaks the truth and the same for me, dear Dona.” But then he smiled to say, “When we return I will tell all the family we saw you in such strange circumstances.”

Senor Berryessa spoke again to the Captain.  “So you are going to the San Rafael mission?  How is it then, that you, the finest pilot on the bay, have missed Point San Quentin and have drifted two or three kilometers north of it?”  He laughed.  “I think we have time, Captain, for me and the boys to pilot you back to the canal.  My old eyes can see into the fog, I tell you, even as bad as this.  Though it looks like we have suddenly passed out from under its cloud.”

It was sudden: we had drifted clear of the fog and now could see dark night and the stars and the Moon distinctly.  I could even see a shoreline far off ahead of us toward the left.

Captain Richardson saw it too.  “San Pedro Point—my lord!  I have come two kilometers too far.  And it is a good joke, Don Jose, your offer to pilot me.  But since I am here, you three could come aboard and we can sail right to the Point and set you all down, all rested.  And ready to deliver your message.”

Senor Berryessa frowned.  “No, it must be only the three.  It is dangerous for you to be with us.  Even for a short time like this. You have your own mission, and I have delayed you in it already.  Go—see to the padre.  May it go well with you.”  Barely allowing time for farewells, Don Jose Berryessa reached out a hand and pushed off from our schooner.  He sat down and the twins took up their oars again and began rowing toward the far shoreline that for the moment was free of fog.

We all four lingered there at the rail watching them move away from us.  A heavy emotion was in me and I saw it was so with the others:  all of us there watching them disappear into the night.  Until I heard the Captain sigh and go back along the deck to his place at the wheel.  As he went he said to Diego, “Full sail downwind this will be.  Set sail and we go.”

I stayed at the bow and Magdalena remained beside me.  The schooner turned slowly but decisively about as the sails flapped and Diego maneuvered with the ropes at the main sails.  Then I felt the wind take hold in the big sails and I felt the schooner lurch ahead, causing both of us to grip tight to the bow rail.  It was thrilling!

Quickly we were back in the fog and seemed to be gaining speed, more speed than anytime coming north.  Yet we could not have gone far when I heard voices again, this time from the shore.  Different voices.  I heard English.

So did Captain Richardson.  He yelled forward to us, “Hang on, we’re turning to starboard.  I don’t like what I’m hearing.”

As we neared the shore I could see that we were also near the edge of the fog bank again.  It seemed like the Captain was purposely doing this, aiming for the shoreline where the fog was still dense enough to hide us, but where we could still see the shoreline distinctly in the moonlight well beyond the fog.  Captain Richardson dropped anchor there.  We all stood at the bow rail, leaning ahead for a better look through the fringe of fog at the place on the beach where the voices seemed to be.  A moment later I saw something move among the trees near the shore.  Then another something. And more English words spoken.

To my sudden horror I also saw gliding silently, oars pulled up inside, the same rowboat that had moments before been alongside us, with the same passengers, Don Jose and Francisco and Ramon.  Coming from somewhere I had not noticed, and aiming to land directly on the beach where the americanos were.  Magdalena when she saw the same gasped, and began whispering Hail, Marys to herself.

Only the Captain spoke.  “I don’t like this.”
Nor did I.
 
The twins climbed out and pulled the rowboat up the shore away from the waves and Don Jose walked beside them.  When they stopped and let go the rope, the old man and the two boys were immediately surrounded by eight men, all with pistols or rifles.  There were shouts and cursing.  Then I could hear Senor Berryessa say in Spanish he was going to his son in the Sonoma jail.  He said they knew it was true, for one of the men pointing a gun at him had been in the party of his son’s capture.   The soldiers turned to the twins.  One man, the shortest of all, came forward and spoke a few words in Spanish that I couldn’t understand.  Then he made them go down on their knees while he searched their serapes and pants and even their shoes.
 
Astonishing me, the short americano pulled a white paper from one of the boy’s shoe and held the paper up for the others to see.  Then he read it silently.  He turned to the others.  “Well, well.  Looks like we’re going to get a little action after all.  Hold your guns on these three while I go show this to Major Fremont.”

I heard Captain Richardson whisper, as if to himself, “That’s that damned Kit Carson.”

Sooner than I’d expected, the short one, Carson, reappeared.  With him, in a blue army jacket with gold braid, the man who must have been the notorious John Charles Fremont, wearing a red sash around his waist.  Senor Richardson always when he spoke of him, said it in French, flamboyante.  His hair was long, black and curly.  It seemed like all his soldiers were afraid of him.  Fremont went to the prisoners; he spoke a few words I couldn’t hear.  He walked away and read the message carefully.  He came back and stared down at the two boys.  He spoke a quiet question to Don Berryessa.  Then Fremont turned to his own men and said what we could easily hear:  “Our plans are changed.  There’s to be an attack at Sonoma.  No doubt General Torre is moving that direction even now.  So be it.  This is what I’ve been hoping for—a good fight.  So all of you—mount up!  To Sonoma we ride!”

Some cheered and waved their guns in the air.  Then Kit Carson spoke to Fremont, “What about the prisoners?”

Fremont turned defiantly toward Carson.  He spoke scornfully.  “These men are the enemy!   I have no room for prisoners, Lieutenant!  Take care of them!”  Fremont turned and walked back the way he’d come, this time without Carson’s escort, until Fremont disappeared into the trees.

Nobody around Carson said anything.  Most of them had their eyes and guns on the three prisoners, two still kneeling and the old man standing beside them.  I could hear the old man pleading.  

Carson raised his pistol to fire, but hesitated and then lowered it.  My heart seemed to stop beating.  Carson turned away from the prisoners and the others and while he walked in a little circle.  He might have been talking to himself.  Then suddenly he whirled around and with two quick blasts from his gun killed both Francisco and Ramon where they kneeled.  The old man screamed out and threw himself upon the two boys, even as the old man was shot in the back and killed with the third bullet from Kit Carson’s gun.

The suddenly increasing, exploding horror of these three deaths for one timeless moment stunned Captain Richardson and me into a profoundest silence.  Yet even as the third body fell, a cry of greatest horror and anguish arose out of Magdalena standing next to me:  I could feel the unearthly force of it, a cry of grief great enough to have come from all the Indios and Mexicans ever dispossessed.  Then on the other side of me I heard Senor Richardson make his own mournful groan that betokened great grief laying full weight now upon him too.
Seeing these terrifying deaths, I suddenly felt so light-headed that I thought I would collapse and lose consciousness.  For that instant I could not have uttered a cry or spoken a word, anymore than I could have moved a muscle of my body.  In the midst of that timeless moment, staring in shock and horror at the beach where the three bodies still lay, my own cry of grief was for that instant suspended in silence inside me.  

I saw the soldiers take off the serapes of all three dead men.  They argued.  When they heard the wailing of Magdalena, they stopped and looked into the fog, but could not possibly have seen us.
 
“Soldiers,” Carson said, “mount up and ride—now!  I don’t know if that was a cry from hell or some new bunch of Mexicans, but we ain’t got no time for anything new.  Fremont wants every soldier here out of these valleys and north to Sonoma this damn minute. Let’s go!”
 
As I witnessed this hurried scene in that timeless moment, my grief-stricken soul seemed to be waiting a split second, hoping to see all this horror miraculously reverse and never have been.  Of course that did not happen.  My own cry of agony then at last broke out of me and added to the grief of my two companions.  We were the wailing of a death-ship.

As I cried out, I turned to see Magdalena, still pitched fully into her mournful screams:  yet suddenly her face went from grief and outrage to astonishment:   she grabbed at her heart with both hands and raised up on her toes.  I knew some terrible thing had hold of her, as terrible as the scene she’d just witnessed.  Her face muscles strained with the fatal force inside her; her eyes clinched shut against this terrible power.  Then I knew it had her.  All her face muscles suddenly relaxed and her eyes drooped and closed and she collapsed onto the deck.  I knew she was dead.

But I lied to myself.  I lay my ear on her chest and listened for heartbeat, felt for pulse in her wrist.  I was sure I felt flutters of life.  Captain Richardson quickly went behind her and picked her up and wrapped his long arms around her chest, across her lungs, and he suddenly crushed her in his arms and jolted her that way again and again.  But nothing revived her.

I said, “To San Rafael—now—please, Captain!  We’ll keep her alive till then.  Padre Mendez will know what to do.”  But I knew she was dead.  I was blind with the grief, so much grief.  “Please go now!”

Captain Richardson laid an arm around my shoulder for consolation, though I could see in his own face that his grief was as great as mine—for how he had loved Magdalena! And the two boys and the old man!  Yet he must pilot us on and ignore all these deaths and so much heartbreak.

I wanted Magdalena to remain in the open air, so the three of us made a soft place on the wooden deck to lay her and I sat next to her.  We were going downwind in the fog and it was smooth.  The Captain found Point San Quentin and we navigated through the narrow channel that goes so close to the mission and he found the dock easily.  He tied up.  I did not want to leave Magdalena so the Captain went alone, a ten minute walk up the hill.  Diego waited with me.

While I waited beside Magdalena in the dark, I lay beside her and pressed my body into her.  Wanting her to know I was there.  Wanting myself to know she was there.  I prayed into myself:  I prayed into her body:  that she not leave us.  Yet as cold fog covered us like a shroud, I knew she was dead.

Faster than I expected the Captain was back at the boat with the good Padre Mendez, who had been doctoring at the mission since it was only an asistencia hospital for all the missions.  He was frail, much older than he looked.  When he came to me I did not greet him but only stood up and pointed to Magdalena and said, “Make a miracle, Padre.”

He looked in Magdalena’s eyes, listened to her heart and looked for breathing.  He said to me simply, tenderly, “She is gone, dear Valerian.”

Though I knew Death had her and I had known it all along, only now did the released weight of it sink me to my knees, and I buckled over and fell on top of her, crying into her cloak.  They allowed me this for how long I don’t know.  The crying, the grief, all over again, over and over again.

Senor Richardson all the while was there beside me, an arm around my shoulder.  Finally he said, “We will take Magdalena home with us.  And there also we must deliver Padre Mendez, on the pronto, to save our own Padre Prudencio.”

I knew that too.  

I lay down with my head on Magdalena’s shoulder and let myself flow, both tears and spirit, into her.  Flow through her and into the wood of the deck and the rest of the boat, flow on until the boat was filled and then flow on into the ocean until it too was filled.  And then I felt that would be the end and it would be enough.  
It was not enough.  As we sailed through the night of fog, where the night was both black and white, I lay with death with eyes closed and saw neither night nor the fog.  As we sailed, of a certainty I filled the boat and the ocean with my sorrow, yet I lived and ached still.  And how would this ever change?
 
As we sailed through the night of fog, staring as deeply into my own internal void as I had ever done, even at my mother’s death:  disembodied voices began to speak to me.  They first seemed faraway, hushed voices, speaking over each other in confusion, not familiar, and too fast to understand; voices questioning, pleading, all of them crowding onto me, as if they wanted my attention.  There were too many.
 
Until I heard one unique voice emerging out of the clamor so deep inside me:  vibrating perfectly with my own spirit and speaking with perfect clarity.  I have come to help you.  I am Saint Francis.  And you will help me.  You must go back to the mission.  

Lost to the world as I was, in the void as I was, still I knew it was Saint Francis.  His was a presence I’d felt inside his mission many times, though he had never before now spoken to me in his silent voice, only with Magdalena.  Reluctantly I replied.  I wish not to go back. I wish only to die here with Magdalena. Yet St. Francis’ words were powerfully moving me. I spoke my own silent words to him.  But I will go back, since you ask it of me.  For the padre.
 
Saint Francis said, No, that’s not why you must go back.  Magdalena is gone.  Now it must be you.  But I will be there beside you always.  I also tell you the padre is not dying.  He’s recovered.  He’s watching out the bell tower for you right now.  He’s well.  You may see for yourself if you wish.  Do you wish it?

Hardly knowing what I meant, I said, Yes I do.

Instantly, in my mind’s eye I saw the image Saint Francis had foretold, saw it vividly:  dear Padre Prudencio leaning out the bell tower, dark night all around him.  But now energetic.  Anxious.  Looking out.  Not yet knowing that a terrible agony awaited him.  

I said to Saint Francis, I will go back. For you.  And to help the padre endure this suffering we bring him.  But I will never leave the mission again.  I will never go back outside those walls.

2:  TALK IN THE BACK ROOM

It was in those first months of 1847, while the Fremont business was the big news, that the name of the pueblo on San Francisco Bay was officially changed from Yerba Buena to San Francisco.  A lot of the old timers complained, but not me.  I had a feeling about this place, but not the same feeling that Bill Sherman had.  Comparing it to the sophisticated world of the Californios in Monterey, San Francisco was all rough, raw edges and proud of it.   But even so I had a feeling about it, whenever I looked out at that beautiful bay and saw how it opened out between the headlands and into the immense ocean and toward the mysterious orient.  It seemed that there just had to be an amazing destiny played out here.  In my playful imagination I thought I could see in this exotic end of the world the most elegant of coy, slumbering courtesans, veiled so seductively beneath the cool fogs of summer.  To me, she was just waiting for her awakener.   

Well, for all that–the name Yerba Buena just wouldn’t do.

All that said, I remember the first summer afternoon in 1847 I rode up from Monterey with Mr. Larkin, and after all I’d thought and imagined so long about this place–call it Yerba Buena or San Francisco–it was a major disappointment.  

There were maybe thirty buildings, even though most of them were more shacks than anything I would have called a building.  Of course, everyone had a beach view, which was the only positive I could see.  The streets had no names, and they were really only pathways worn in the dirt between the structures.  No sidewalks and in the rainy months they laid out wood planks, but that didn’t help much—it was all just one swampy mess.  John Henry Brown had a pathetic, misshapen one-story adobe called City Hotel, where he rented out five or six rooms on one side of the square.  Jean Vioget had an even dumpier four-room place a few doors down.  There were four or five other little one and two room adobes on the opposite side of the square, a little dry goods store, a tinker’s shop and a saloon.
 
The Mormon Sam Brannan had just set up his printing press and newspaper, The Star, the first one published in San Francisco, in another abandoned adobe on the north side of the square.  Next to him was Richardson’s big place, which everyone called Casa Grande, even though it too was adobe, and not really grand.  It was not quite as big as Larkin’s house, but it was two stories and bigger than Brown’s City Hotel.  Aside from the Mormons, Richardson was the town’s only entrepreneur and was regarded as the unofficial mayor and official Harbor Pilot for all the vast San Francisco Bay, whose tides and soundings he knew better than any other man.  

The rest of what you would call buildings in San Francisco, on this windy, foggy stretch of sand dunes-by-the-bay, were tarpaper shacks a good breeze would blow over.  And that was about it.  The municipal center of town was the hardpack square block one street up from the beach.  It had a one room adobe in the center of it that was used mostly as a jail; later it became the Customs House.  It became Bill Sherman’s office eventually.  There was an American flag flying from a flagpole in the yard that Commodore Montgomery had planted last fall.  Next to the jail was another one room adobe with a tile roof they used as a barracks for the three or four soldiers who were expected to keep the peace, which was the easiest job in town.  

Yes, it was a disappointing sight for me.  But by then I was three thousand miles from home, and definitely too committed to do anything but stay put and see what happened.  Which at that point seemed like maybe, after all, it wouldn’t be much.  Like all the excitement had already happened.    

The work I did with Governor Mason and Adjutant Sherman was helping to create the legal machinery that would make this primitive place into something civilized, something that could eventually take its place among the other states of the Union.  It was like trying to remake a ridiculously uncouth but beautiful savage, very quickly, into something sophisticated enough that she could be presented at a proper debutante ball to all the other socialites, who were her sister states.      

That sounds exotic and fine, but as I struggled with paperwork in Monterey and then made my occasional trips north to Frisco, I could see how much grime and hayseed had to be removed from this incredibly primitive darling before we could even start to think about putting on rouge.  And I was also seeing that one desk job was just like another, whether it was in sophisticated New York, Washington or in the California outback.

But that one gorgeous summer-like day late in February, 1848, it did become, suddenly, very interesting.  Lansford Hastings, another lawyer, had sent me word the week before that something “spectacular” was happening and he wanted me to meet him and a few others in Brown’s hotel in the back room.  

He wouldn’t say what it was about, but he was crafty and usually one or two steps ahead of everybody and everything, and I will admit I admired him a lot.  He was tough as they come.  He’d ridden through the Rocky Mountains with Jim Bridger and many of the other mountain men, all of whom were legends when I was just a boy back east.  The twist is that Lansford was also very well-educated, had a very seductive way with words, spoken and written, a slicker lawyer than most, and I’m sure he’d left a trail of broken hearts wherever he went.  

Me, I go blindly where the action is, or wherever I think it will be, yes...in search always for tantalizing signs of the elusive, hoped-for truly wild west.  So I wasn’t going to miss that meeting, on the off-chance that some jungle might be sprouting in a hidden corner of that room.

John Henry Brown was there, which I’d expected, and I wasn’t surprised to see his crony, Robert Parker, too, because they were old timers and they were in on everything.  It was these two, primarily, who had pushed so hard to make gambling legal, over the very formidable protests of the newly-arrived and very sizeable Mormon community which had become half the town’s population.

So I was surprised to see Sam Brannan there also, the leader of the Mormons, with a kid I had never seen.  George Hyde was the other unlikely conspirator.  He’d been Alcalde of the pueblo for several months, despite the fact that Brannan and other leading citizens were calling for his resignation on the grounds that he was criminally altering property deeds and consorting with and accepting bribes from known gamblers.  Still, many reputable citizens thought highly of George, and one of them was Governor Mason, who was siding with him in the current investigation of his alleged misconduct.  And finally, of course, Lansford was there.

The six of them were sitting far more sociably than I could have imagined at a round table in a room that Brown sometimes used for poker and black jack.  Lansford and Parker were smoking cigars, John Henry–JH to the old-timers–was drinking straight bourbon, his daily routine.  Hyde was leaning back in his chair confidently, his feet up on the table like he owned the place, the way he thought he owned the town.  Sam Brannan was sitting straight as a stick in his chair, feet firmly on the floor, looking at me as I entered with what I could only think of as an oddly devilish grin.  The boy beside him was staring at the floor and looking very out of place among this jaded crew.

“OK,” said Lansford, standing up to greet me, sticking out his manicured, aristocratic hand, “now all the lords of empire are assembled and we can begin.  I was starting to doubt you’d have the savvy to show up, Sonny.”

“My curiosity overcame me,” I said.  “I’ve been working night and day in that damn office and with the deadlines I’m facing I should still be there.  But I knew–if you’d put off starting on your trip to Oregon for this–it had to be something unusual.  Why did you call it spectacular?”

“Sit down, Sonny,” said Parker.  “The spectacular part will only take a couple seconds, but it might knock you over if you’re standin’.  But there’s a lot we have to talk about once you get the idea.”   

Obviously, they knew how to grab my attention.  I sat down in the one unoccupied seat and looked over at Sam Brannan.  “Nice to see you, Sam.”  He returned my greeting with a broad, gracious smile.  I asked him, “What brings you into this den of thieves?  And who’s your compadre here?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him around town.”

I’d always felt particularly drawn to Sam, his Mormonism aside.  I recognized the angel struggling to tame the demon inside him, the way I felt them wrestling inside me.  “Well, Sonny,  you definitely called it right, it is a den of thieves.  But it’s a special day, like Parker said, and sometimes the circumstances are so strange that you find yourself bedding down with folks you weren’t expecting.  Not that I’m saying I’m bedding down with any of these characters exactly, but, as I’m about to explain, something bizarre has happened.   Lansford might call it spectacular–and that’s right too–but the fact is that before the word spreads too far I think it’s a good idea for a few of us, the ones here present, to have a little talk among ourselves and see if we can’t come up with some basic ground rules before it all becomes so wild and crazy that there’ll be no controlling anything.  Oh yes, by the way, this here young man is Alondous Buckland.  We call him Buck.  He’s one of the brethren, one of my most trusted.  Actually, it’s because of Buck that we’re all here, or at least it’s because of something Buck told me a few weeks ago.  That’s why we’re here.”

It was only then that the boy, Buck, finally looked up and glanced quickly around the table, his eyes passing vaguely across all our faces.  Then a little smile parted his lips, and he turned his eyes toward the only window in the room.  But the smile remained.

Sam Brannan then set on the table before me a red handkerchief that enclosed something that could have been held in a fist.  “No need to prolong the mystery, Sonny–this is it.”  And he drew a small glass jar from the handkerchief and handed it to me.  I could see instantly that inside the jar was a single chunk of gold that might have weighed an ounce.  Gold, a good sized nugget.  but who hadn’t seen a nugget sometime in their lives?  

“So what?” I finally said.  “I hope there’s something more to it than this chunk of gold.”

JH said, “Yes, Sonny-boy, there’s a whole lot more to it than this.  Maybe fifty-sixty tons more of it than this.”

I waited a moment more for some inner revelation to give more weight to his words.  It still didn’t make sense–tons of gold.  I guess I kept looking stupid, because Lansford finally said, “Sonny, John Marshall and some of the Mormon boys have discovered gold up at the saw mill that Marshall’s building for John Sutter.  And not just a little–probably more than anyone’s ever seen– at least around here.  They’ve been mining it in secret for several weeks now, but the word is leaking out, and the truth is, they’re finding bigger and bigger pockets and veins every day, even a half mile away from the original discovery.  It’s only a matter of time–a week or two, maybe less–before everybody in the goddamn world west of the Rockies and north of the equator is going to know about this.  In a few month’s time there’s going to be ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred thousand people swarming all over the hills between the bay here and the peaks of the Snowy Mountains, digging for this stuff.  And believe me, Sonny, they will all find plenty of it.  Sam and his friend Buck have shown me conclusively that it’s there in monumental abundance, probably in every stream that comes out of the Sierra foothills for a hundred miles.  Our little quiet world here is going to be turned upside down faster than you can get back to Monterey and tell General Mason that you’ve got another job.”

Of course I was speechless.  And not because I didn’t have a dozen questions jumping around inside my head that all needed to be answered at the same time.  As I looked around the table I could see that every one of these very serious, no nonsense, seen-it-all, hard-headed men were staring coldly and resolutely at me, as if they were waiting for me to dispute what Lansford and Brannan were saying.   And for a very long time not only was I silent, but they all were too. And why not?  If all this was indeed true, as every additional minute of silence seemed to testify, then what in the name of God or the Devil could anyone say?  

But eventually one thing did keep echoing in my head after all the profundity of their discovery had settled like a huge lead–or should I say gold?–weight in my head.  And I said to Lansford, “What did you mean by that last remark–Telling General Mason I have another job–?”

Lansford blew a smoke ring and held his cigar out like he was delivering a particularly devastating remark to a jury.  “Because, my dear confederate, we need your help.  We are going to reorganize the business and financial foundations of San Francisco, in every department imaginable, so that we, the lucky gang of thieves here assembled, will be able to harvest, in the most efficient manner possible, and each with his own skillful expertise, the millions and billions of dollars worth of gold that all these hundreds of thousands of worker bees from around the world will be gathering for us in the months and years to come. 

Your particular expertise is of course your clever legal brain.  And your loyalty to us.  Parker and JH will control the gambling concerns.  Sam and his brethren, who stand always with the Lord and who would never stain hands or reputations with anything sordid, will control the mercantile world.  They will provide the tools, the clothing, the food and everything else that will be so plentifully needed by all these worker bees.  Our friend George Hyde here will be the local political genius who will see to it that we are all given more or less exclusive, relatively monopolistic rights to operate.  It will be my job to develop and provide real estate properties, and establish communities between here and the Sierra foothills for these miners and immigrants to live.  And you, Sonny, will, and must, be our legal antenna.   You will keep us informed.   You have the ear and confidence of both Consul Larkin and Governor Mason.  You can make sure we’re always on the right legal side of every issue, and also–not least of all–to make sure that we have advance notice of any move that government might be making that would either further or jeopardize our collective efforts.  I know you can see it, Sonny.  We can all, within a very few months, be very rich men.  And I know you can also see, Sonny, that if we don’t do this, someone else will.  And just the fact that we’re here, the seven of us, at just this fortuitous moment, means that we are the destined ones.”

Yes, my mind was racing with all this astonishing information.  There seemed no doubt Lansford was right.  Given the facts as they appeared, that the men in this room were indeed in a position to create this new world in just about whatever shape they wanted.  

My next realization, so very personal, was that I was face to face for the first time with the truly wild west of my dreams.  Here suddenly was the wild west jungle beckoning–a world that would be truly wild and fabulous, that would be extravagant beyond imagination, that would overwhelm the boundaries of anything that could be prepared for, that would be a flood that would overrun the senses as well as the sense of everyone who stood in its way, which would be all of us.  

After another long silence I turned to Sam and said, “I thought you were taking all the brethren to Salt Lake City.”

Sam smiled ever so slightly.  “I don’t think so, Sonny.  I haven’t seen you since I got back last fall, but it didn’t go so well with Brother Brigham.  I rode out there last spring, me and Buck and some others.  Brigham’s committed to the Great Salt Lake.  ‘Desolation Basin’ I called it.  I spent three weeks there trying to convince him that San Francisco at least deserved to be a second community of Saints, that we had established a very strong base here, that we had no enemies, that there is a prosperity possible here that will never be possible in that barren desert he’s so enchanted with.  But he’s immovable, and in his own way maybe he’s right.  The Salt Lake basin is so absolutely hostile to life that likely no settlers will ever come within hundreds of miles of it, which is exactly what he’s hoping.  San Francisco frightens him–he understands that eventually, no matter how many of the brethren settle here, there’ll be even more gentiles.  And he’ll never risk that again, being in the minority.  Not after Nauvoo. And Missouri.”

“So what does that mean for you, Sam?  I’ve heard most of your Mormon brothers have packed up and moved out.”
“You heard right,” Sam said, relaxing and leaning back for the first time in his chair.  At this, young Buck turned his attention from the window to Brannan, who continued speaking, “Most are leaving.  But not all.  I for one am staying.”
“Me too,” said Buck in a soft voice.
Sam continued, “There are maybe twenty or thirty of us that have decided to stay in California.”
“Even though we may burn in hell for it,” Buck added, his true voice emerging, the subtle smile reappearing at his mouth.
“Yes,” Sam said, “Brother Buck speaks the truth.  Brigham has spoken ex-communication against the ones who refuse to go to Salt Lake.  So be it.”
And Buck echoed, “Yes, so be it.”
I said, “It seems like a big jump to me, Sam, from harvesting souls for the brotherhood to harvesting gold from–what did you call it?–the worker bees?”

Sam laughed, a rare moment with him in my experience.  Then he said, “We all like to make a good living, Sonny, even Brother Brigham.  He has his own fabulous harvest in Salt Lake, perhaps more plentiful than the dreams we’re hatching.  He’s only had to decree the ten percent once, and from then on it’s delivered to him, from every loyal brother and sister, without having to move off his big chair, month after month, year after year.”
“Brilliantly spoken, Brother Brannan,” chortled Buck.
“Oh no,” enthused Brannan.    “The brilliance is all Brigham’s, Brother Buckland.”
 “OK,” I said, also settling back in my chair, “so that’s your end of it.  But what about you, George?  The last time I saw you, you and Sam were ready to fight a duel.”
“Oh shit,” grinned the unsinkable Alcalde, “there was never gonna be no duel, Sonny.  Sam was just givin’ me a bit too much of a hard time in his newspaper and I had to let him know it.  But hell!–we straightened that out a while back, and we’re gonna stay in this thing together from here on, like old friends.”
    
“That’s a huge stretch of the truth,” Brannan said to Hyde coldly.  “Everything I wrote about you is true and I can prove it, and you know it.  You’re just lucky as blazes that for the time being you got Mason and a few others fooled.  But right now I don’t give a darn about all that.  I had my say in the paper and I stand by every word I said.  Your time will come–there are enough people on your trail now that I don’t have to bother with you anymore.  The only reason you and I are in this room together today is because we’ve got to establish our monopoly right now, without wasting another minute.  And you’ve probably got enough life left in you as Alcalde to help me and the rest in the town council get all these temporary laws passed that’ll keep everyone else out of our business until it’s too late.  We’re fortunate we also have Bob Parker here on the council, and Brother Glover as well, who’ll do whatever I tell him”

“Spoken like a man after my own heart, Sam,” spoke Alcalde Hyde, who was enjoying this tremendously, aspersions and all.  “Hearing you talk like that I can’t imagine how you could ever have thought we weren’t always in cahoots.  Hell, if you’da been more honest with me before, like you are now, I mighta considered becomin’ one of the brethren myself.”
    
“Don’t believe any of it, George,” replied Brannan, staring coldly, but still supremely unruffled.  “You’re a crook and most everyone knows it.  But we’re talking another business right now and, like I said, your time will come and I’ve done all I need do to help it along.  As long as Sonny agrees to help us draw up all the legal documents and everyone knows his part and gets his share, then it’s done and I don’t have to think about you at all.”

I should have been happy as hell to be included in this, and there was no doubt that cynical half of me was ready to sign with gusto.  But something else inside me was squirming and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  I have my ideals, but I’m certainly no church-boy–hell, I’m a lawyer, I’ve devised contracts that would make the devil himself blush.  The more I sat there listening to them, and at the same time listening to my insides trying to tell me something, all I could figure out was that, bored as I was at that desk job in Monterey, there was something about it that I truly, deeply enjoyed.  That job also had to do with the wild west, with taming it, trying to mold something new, creating a state that could be close to the ideal, perfect state, like none other that had existed. Which might, if we did it right, serve as a model for all the other states that would become a part of this United States.  I was proud of that ideal, and my part in it.  And I thoroughly enjoyed working with Mason and Sherman.  And I deeply respected them.

Or, these pirates were saying, and my devil was agreeing, come join the crew, matey, you come along with us on the ride of your life, and make a few million bucks while you’re at it.  I heard all that, very persuasive, even seductive.  But I hesitated.   And couldn’t quite, that moment, figure why.
As if he were reading my mind, Robert Parker, entrepreneur extraordinaire, said, “You don’t have to quit your job in Monterey, Sonny.  Lansford was just stretchin’ it a little .   In fact, all of us here think you should stay just where you are.  That part of it couldn’t be better.  What we need from you, is for you to draw up some legal papers that make what we’re doin’, the ones of us here, legal and binding, and which’ll also make each of our little businesses monopolies, in so far as that’s possible.  We all realize that eventually, these contracts, so t’speak, will be challenged and prob’ly thrown out.  But that’ll take time, and during that time we’ll’ve been able to take a hold here that’ll make us all very rich, and very hard to get rid of.”

“I couldn’t have said it more eloquently,” Lansford said, settling his warm hand on my shoulder.  “I’m probably the only one here who understands why you aren’t going to just jump right in the boat with us immediately.  I know you’re going to torment yourself a day or two with this, and let that little angel who’s always sitting on your shoulder try to keep you from having a good time.  But listen to me, Sonny, you and I have been damn good friends for a long time, and you know I wouldn’t give you bad counsel.  Tell this to your angel–this is the opportunity of a lifetime, you’re going to have more fun than you’ve ever had in your life, and I don’t want you getting soft on me now.  We need you, amigo.”

“I really don’t see why,” I said finally, believing myself.  “You’re a lawyer, Lansford.  In fact you’ve been at it longer than I have.  You could do all of this yourself.”
“Not really, Sonny,” he said, squeezing my shoulder with his lingering hand.  “I’m going to be an intimate part of this partnership, and we need someone who’s at least to appearances outside the partnership to represent us.  And don’t forget, the most important part of it, you’re the Man, because Mason and Larkin tell you everything.”
“And in absolute confidence,” I added, realizing finally that this was also what troubled me about their proposition.  “I admire both those men.  And I believe, very much, in the good work they’re doing.”

Lansford leaned closer, looking deeply and devilishly into my eyes.  “We’re not asking you not to keep on doing the good work you’re doing with them–fucking god forbid!  Keep up the good work, yes, by all means.  Your duty first and foremost.  All we’re asking is that you tell us, every once and a little while, what’s up–you know, whatever little thing that would be valuable for us to know.”

Given the grandiose drama they’d portrayed for me and the great part assigned me, I knew my excuse sounded feeble.  “You fellas ever heard of conflict of interest?”

“Hell!” Robert Parker shouted, smacking his hand down on the table and nearly spilling John Henry’s bourbon.  “Life is a goddamned conflict of interest, Sonny!  That’s the sorriest damn thing I ever heard outta your mouth!”  He jerked his great bulk out of his seat, betraying exasperation, and walked toward the window and stood looking outside a moment.  
When he turned back to face me he was again wearing his usual ingratiating smile, suddenly again supremely cordial, confident, calm.  “How do you like the new hotel me and JH are putting up here on the plaza, Sonny?”
“Impressive,” I said.  “How long’s it going to take to finish–two, three months?”
He beamed.  “Two, three weeks, my friend, not a day longer.  I ain’t got time to fart around when all that money’s gonna be rollin’ into town.  I got sixty men workin’ overtime, damn near. Yea, it’s gonna be a warm happy place this winter for all them carefree rich miners to come to, have a good time, kiss the girls, and spend that gold.  I’m callin’ it Parker House, of course.  Then he turned on me a powerful face, and spoke, as if to a backward nephew.  “Six percent of the take could be yours, you god-damned ice-brain!  Think of it, five percent of everything all of us make.  Or is it better for some eastern swindlers to come in here and take it?  Or some foreigners?  Or we give the job to Jose Shithead who works in your laundry room?”

They were all fired up, and there was a lot to what they were saying.  But I had to add this: “Gentlemen, to tell you the truth, I’ve heard all this before in Chamber of Commerce meetings back home.”

“No!” Brown insisted with all his energy, “you got one thing wrong–and that’s scale, Sonny.  We’re not talking about school tax or membership fees.  We’re talking about Empire, Sonny, the founding of an empire.  A city of gold the likes of which nobody ever dreamed of!  What you’re missin’ in all this is that we got a vision!  Capital V!”

It was becoming difficult to argue against this determined bunch.  I looked around the table and each one of these scoundrels was nodding solemnly–yes, Sonny, we need you, five percent and forget the goddamn conflict of interest.  You keep yourself clean as a whistle, God and country, you do everything your dear mother ever taught you, Mason and Larkin too.  But you know, Sonny, you know...just a little word here and there, just every once in a while.

It was time to leave.  I had another appointment over at the mission to see the good padre.   So I said, “OK, gents, I got the idea.  And Lansford’s right, I’m going for a ride, and I’ll think about it.   I can’t even say I’ll ever come to a conclusion, but I do promise you, I’ll think about it.”  Then I left.  And it was only after I had gone a little way along the trail toward the mission that something occurred to me.  Yes, the something was that in my version of the wild west, there were no teams or crews.  It was every man alone and for himself against the jungle.  Just ask any of those mountain men.  


3:   BUCK AND THE BRETHREN

 

I don’t know if ever in my life I sat down with a bunch of connivers like that.  After Sam and I left and we’d mounted up and were ridin’ out over the sand dunes, headin’ for Sutter’s Fort, I said to him, “With all due respect, Sam, it’s hard for me to imagine you bein’ partners with that bunch.”  

“Don’t worry too much about it, Buck,” he said, not looking at me.  “It’s all a thing of the moment.   I have a pretty strong feeling that half the fellas you just met there will find a way to ruin it all for themselves before very long.  It’s just that, right now, those men are the ones in position to make things happen.  At least make the things happen we want to happen.  You got to understand one thing, Buck–now that Brother Brigham has disowned us.  There’s just going to be a few of us working together–you know we’re not going to get much sympathy or support from the gentile community here.  So we’re going to have to make some pretty strong moves right away, and make this gold thing work for us in the biggest way possible.  Ninety percent of the brethren are leaving us, and that means ninety percent of their tithing is leaving as well.  We’re not exactly in a position to be quibbling about who’s going to help us keep our treasury full.”

Well, I admire Sam about as much as I ever admired anybody.  I’m not as religious a person as most of the other brethren, and I don’t expect Sam or any other of the Elders, even Brigham Young himself, to be perfect models of Christianity.  After all, movin’ twenty or thirty thousand folks thousands of miles across a wilderness continent and settin’ up a community out in a desert in nowhere is a hard business.  And it is to my mind a business before it’s religion, and that business takes a lotta hard work and it takes money and it takes some hard-headed minds that’re gonna think business from mornin’ to night.  Then, when there’s the moment for it, sing a little hymn of praise to the Lord for makin’ the business go well.  

So I was willing to accept what Sam said about those varmints back at the hotel and let it go at that.  That one, Sonny, seemed to have some scruples all right, and I have to say I did like him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t join up with the rest.  But we’ll see.  That other lawyer was pretty persuasive, but if he was the same Lansford Hastings I’d heard about, then I’ve got about as much respect for him as a snake. 

I asked Sam, “Isn’t that Hastings fella, that other lawyer there, the one who wrote that cursed book about the shortcut through Utah and Nevada that all them Donner folks tried last year and got themselves killed and cannibalized up in the Snowy Mountains?”

Sam didn’t even bat an eye, nor look around at me, he just said, “Yep, that’s the same one.”

I’m not one to speak out to an Elder, and surely not one I respect as much as I do Elder Sam, but I couldn’t help myself this time.  I said, “But when we talked with them Donner folks, the ones that finally got rescued and brought down to Sutter’s Fort–didn’t we listen to those gents from San Francisco who rescued the Donners tell us all about Hastings?   Wasn’t that darn guidebook of his was all a big yarn, ‘bout trails that Hastings had never even tried, nor never even seen the country he was writin’ about?  Why, he sent them poor folks right over mountains nobody could cross, and through the worst and biggest alkaline deserts in the world.  And don’t I recall you sayin’ then that somebody oughta go out and string that fella up?”  I waited a little bit for him to reply, and in the little silence while I was waitin’ I began to think that maybe I’d said too much.  

But finally he said, “You remember all that right, Buck.  And no doubt the fella oughta been strung up.  But nobody did string him up, and even though everybody knows he has no conscience, that he’s a real estate salesman and a lawyer all rolled into one, he’s still got himself into a solid position with all the other of those fellas in that den of thieves we call it.  There just isn’t going to be a lot of time to be righteous and all about things before this volcano we’re talkin’ about–and sittin’ on–erupts.  Hastings knows too many people, and he knows too much.  And besides, I look at it this way, Lansford Hastings is gonna make one wrong move too many, and then the devil will take his own, and neither you nor I will have to worry about that sorry case again.”

I was keepin’ quiet, and Sam knew I was probably not buyin’ all that, and I doubt even he was either.  And a moment later he added, “I don’t think either of us is the perfect religious type, Buck, so’s that we can deserve to be throwing stones at Lansford Hastings, or we’d be on our way to Salt Lake this very minute to join up with the other Saints.  You and I and the others have decided to throw in our lot, for the time being, with the materialists of this world.  And if ever in history a fella was going to make a decision like that, I think this very moment is about as ideal as it could be.”

And I have to admit, the whole idea of all this gold and what even I could see it was gonna to do to this sleepy little world here in California was pretty darn exciting to me too.  I guess if I hadn’t had some hankerin’ for excitement I wouldn’t have been here in the first place, because life back east was pretty good for me in ‘45 when I met Sam Brannan and the other Mormons.

I was twenty-two years old and my pa’d just died.  I’d left the family farm in Virginia to go up to New York and see what there might be for a young man to do.  I was thinkin’ newspaper work might be exciting, so I went from shop to shop and eventually met Sam, who was puttin’ out a little weekly paper that was spreadin’ the word about the Mormons, who just about everybody I knew thought of as fanatics.  But Sam had a lot of enthusiasm and he talked a lot about the New Zion, and while some of it sounded a little nutty to me, some of it also made sense.  I could also see that shiploads of immigrants were comin’ to the east coast from Europe every week, that jobs were hard to find and that wages were not gonna go up because there’d prob’ly always be more workers coming.  

Sam told me all about the big community of Mormons that were tryin’ to make a new world for themselves out in Illinois, and it was easy to feel a sympathy for them and the hard luck they were havin’.  But that still didn’t stir me up enough to want to go out there and join ‘em.  Anyway, I hung around his little newspaper office, and he taught me to set type, and I did other little jobs for him.  But I was still keepin’ my eye open for somethin’ else.  

Then one day in Sam’s office I met a Mormon couple, Silas Aldrich and his wife Prudence, nice enough people, though I didn’t take much notice of them.  Then two days later they came in again, this time with their daughter Nancy, who was seventeen.  She was the kindest, softest, loveliest creature I’d ever met, and I guess I have to say I was in love with her before she and her parents left the office twenty minutes later.

From that day on my fate was settled.  A month later Sam told me that Brigham Young had sent word from Illinois that he and his thousands of followers were being driven out of their latest settlement in Nauvoo and were heading west, to God only knew where.  Brigham wanted Sam to put together a group of several hundred of the brethren, hire a ship, and sail with them around Cape Horn all the way up to California, to scout it out and see if maybe California would be a safe place for Brigham’s huge tribe of wandering Mormons to settle.  I knew I was gonna go with them, because of course I also knew that the Aldriches and their angelic daughter were sailin’ as well.  My widowed mother Hannah, who still lived in Virginia, livin’ as I thought not even half a life, was eager to go with me.

Two hundred and forty-three of us set sail on a snowy January afternoon in 1846 in a ship called the Brooklyn.  We were six months at sea and I recall that adventure as both the happiest and the most miserable experience of my life.  I was happy of course ‘cause I could be near Nancy every day, and it turned out, on the days at sea when the weather was fair, which was pretty regular once we neared the equator, it was as beautiful and romantic as a young man in love coulda wished for.  Nancy knew from the beginning how much I fancied her, and it was only a few weeks before she confessed she cared for me too.

Our first bad fortune came, however, just a little way out from New York.  Nancy’s father, Silas, had been seasick from the first day.  He was sixty-two years old, not a strong constitution, and in truth he shoulda prob’ly not’ve taken on such a difficult voyage.  But all his family was goin’ and what else could he’ve done?  But a week into our voyage a winter storm tore into us that was rougher than anything any of us could’ve imagined.  The captain said it was the worst one he’d ever sailed into.  There was ice on the masts, the deck and the rigging, and the winds blew I swear a hundred miles an hour.  We were buckin’ into waves every moment that any one of ‘em shoulda sunk our pathetic little ship.  Every one of us stayed below in our bunks for all that week, prayin’, cryin’, and screamin’ curses to heaven.  It seemed to me that in that religious troop, half of ‘em became twice as religious as before, and the other half of ‘em, in their hearts, went right to the devil.  Somehow we all survived.

Even after we sailed free of that terrible storm, Nancy’s father stayed in his bunk all the time, and we could see he was growin’ weaker and weaker.  Though no one spoke it, it seemed obvious, at least to me, that he wasn’t gonna last the trip, specially with the nightmare passage of the Cape still ahead of us.  And I suppose it was merciful he died in his bunk one night, just a few days before we set in at Rio de Janeiro.  We buried him at sea on a fine sunny mornin’.  I sat up all night with Nancy and her mother, tryin’ to comfort them, and before the sun had risen I’d asked Nancy to marry me when we got to San Francisco.  She threw her arms around me and cried out Yes, and her mother was grateful as could be and gave us her blessing.

The little miracle of that trip was that when we came to make that dreaded passage round the Horn, the seas and the winds were just as perfect as coulda been, and we made it round in a couple of easy days, all of us of course holdin’ our breaths, expectin’ any minute the hell we’d all heard about to break loose on us.  But it never did, and then it was like a trip to Heaven–beautiful weather, calm seas and clear sailin’ all the way up the coast the next two months.  

We made port in Hawaii for a week, where we heard rumors that the Mexicans were swarmin’ all over California, killin’ all the Americans, and that got everybody nervous.  We took on board as many weapons as we could, and formed the men into little soldier groups, and drilled every mornin’ on shipboard, ready for war the minute we put to shore.

And then finally, six months from New York, we sailed into that huge California bay on the last day of July, 1846.  Fog was layin’ on the water thicker than pea soup, and we didn’t even see the shore until we almost ran aground.  And I don’t know how anybody there coulda seen us comin’ for all that fog, but when we put down our anchor and set out the first dinghy to start carryin’ passengers to shore, there was a hundred or more people standing there on the shore, fog everywhere around all of us, starin’ at us like we was aliens who’d just dropped outta the sky.

Which I guess we were.  There were maybe two hundred fifty people livin’ there on that little cove of the bay when we landed, mostly in tents and shacks, an odd assortment of Mexicans, Indians, deserted sailors, a handful of Europeans, Hawaiians and thirty or forty Americans who’d come there from over the mountains for as many different reasons.  A few of them were go-getters, but mostly drifters who’d come down from Oregon or over the Snowy Mountains, who’d maybe roughed it through a winter or two with the mountain men trappin’ and who’d settled here in Yerba Buena cause life was easy and nobody bothered ‘em.  

And of course we brought our guns ashore first thing, ready for battle, but it was all peaceful as could be.  There wasn’t a Mexican soldier within a hundred miles that anybody there’d heard of, an’ that was just as well, cause I don’t think we’d a’scared anybody.

But compared to these locals we were a very organized beehive of activity that right away set everyone talkin’ and gawkin’.  We Mormons had come with farm machinery, mechanics’ and machinists’ tools, carpentry tools, libraries.  Sam had even brought his printin’ press and type; and besides all that we had energy and determination, and we were gonna make a little civilization here that we could be proud of whether anybody liked it or not.

And right from the start Sam loved it here.  He’s a real genius at organization and business, and in no time we had put up a few houses, got a grain mill runnin’, a machine shop, a little saw mill and things were really movin’.  Within a few months, when the rains set in, it seemed like we’d taken over the town.  I don’t think any of the earlier citizens minded a bit cause it was prob’ly the first excitement any of ‘em had seen in the whole history of that sorry little pueblo.

In February Sam sent a bunch of us to the Stanislaus River to stake out a very sizeable piece of ground, put up a few houses and start a big plantin’ of grain and beans and vegetables.  We were still expectin’ that we’d be hearin’ any day that the big migration that Brigham was leadin’ west would be headin’ over the Snowy Mountains and into our backyard, and we were tryin‘ to get things ready for ‘em.

In March Sam rode out with a couple of others across the Snowy Mountains to locate the migration.  He had to go all the way to Salt Lake, where, to his bitter resentin’, he heard from God Brigham himself that there’d be no further migratin’, that Salt Lake was the destined home of the Saints.  He ordered Sam to return to California, gather up all the brethren there, not forgettin’ specially all the material assets that were the indisputable property of the church, and bring them and it all back to Salt Lake.  You heard what Sam decided to do about that proclamation.

For my part, when the rains set in late in ‘47 not long after Sam got back, I and a bunch of others went over to Sutter’s Fort and were workin’ for Sutter when he decided to build the saw mill with John Marshall’s help over on the American River.  I wasn’t there the day Marshall found those first little nuggets in the tailrace, but two others of the brethren were.  Even though Marshall and Sutter swore those two to secrecy, they told me and Sam’s Sacramento partner Clarence Smith a couple days later, and Clarence sent me to tell Sam as fast as my pony could get me to San Francisco.

So that’s where the situation stood when Sam and I rode away from that meetin’ with those shifty conspirators.  Sam was goin’ back to see Sutter, and I was goin’ back to spend some time with my darlin’ little wife Nancy, whom I hadn’t seen in a buncha weeks.  

A couple months later, when she and I tried to reckon it, we figured it musta been the very night I got back from the Stanislaus River, in the community we were a’buildin’ called New Hope, that our precious little daughter, Nancy Laura, was conceived.

 

4:  VALERIAN’S NEW FRIEND  

                 

Thereafter it was only the padre and I who inhabited and cared for the mission.  Clara, a grandmother who often helped at the mission, was invited to take Magdalena’s bed and do the ordinary work Magdalena had done.  My portion was to sweep all the mission’s floors, prepare meals and keep the kitchen clean.  I tended the flowers and vegetables that grew here, just as I fed the birds and the squirrels that visited us.  When there was more food, I fed the few Indios who still sometimes came here in need.  I wished they could remind me of the wandering brotherhood of St. Francis who were devoted to holy poverty and who were sustained by the kindness of strangers.  But that of course was not the case with our Indios, who were wretched because that was what they were again, because that was all they had now, and who came here because we had taught them to come here, which, even that, had become a sad thing.  

Almost two years had passed since that terrible night in Captain Richardson’s schooner.  When the padre saw us carrying the body of Magdalena out of the cart and into the mission, he fainted as I feared he would.  He stayed in bed three days and came out only to speak the prayers at her graveside service beneath the acacia in the cemetery.  Thereafter he wept unashamed tears at random moments in the day or night for days more.  Some said a true Christian would celebrate her reunion with God, but Prudencio was always more human than church man, and I never held that against him.  After Magdalena’s death, Padre Prudencio was never the same, a spark of life seemed forever gone from him.  

Neither was I the same, nor expected I would ever be.  The first months after, I slept away many, many of those unhappy, lonely hours.  The padre and I tried to support and encourage each other, but neither one of us was strong enough for that.  We knew it would never be the same.  I realized my morbid thinking but I felt helpless against it.  

The voice of Saint Francis was my only consolation and I cherished that.  Other voices came and went, but almost none of them did I want.  But I talked to Saint Francis as often as he would visit me, even though he had no patience for my sleeping and my morbidity.

But one day in February, however, when I was sitting at my window and watching my beautiful acacia tree coming into bloom, and Magdalena’s precious grave beneath its yellow branches.   For a rare moment I was not thinking about my great loss and the deathly horrors I had witnessed, so inside I was quiet, and I noticed how peaceful that was.  In that same instant, out of that silence, my mother Valerian spoke to me.  Spoke quietly, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.  She said, “It’s time to stop crying, Valerian.  I won’t leave you this time.  I loved Magdalena too.”  And Mother didn’t leave me.  We talked every day, not always when I wanted, but often enough; and I began to try living again.  I did little jobs for the padre and for the old Mexican and his wife who sometimes came to the mission to help the padre.  I took walks in the cemetery, round and round.  Padre Prudencio never asked me to go outside the mission grounds.

I also began to dream of becoming a nun, and that gave me something to live for, a new happiness.  I read St. Teresa and St. Francis, and I wanted to be like them, to see visions and talk with angels.  Magdalena had showed me meditation and now I did it often, very often.  I also learned to fast.  I loved the meditation, especially the wonderful silence and peace I found in the heart of all that beautiful darkness inside me.     

But something wasn’t right, despite the wonderful serenity I’d found meditating.  Because in the deepest depths of that serenity I began hearing the clamor of those unhappy voices I’d heard the night Magdalena died, just before Saint Francis first spoke to me.  These unhappy voices were not of saints and angels, they were strange voices, angry, disturbed, ranting voices, foolish, impish voices.  When I described them to the padre he was shocked and even frightened.  He eventually asked me to stop my meditating and fasting.  Finally he convinced me that these were all signs that I was not fit to be a nun.  And especially, I must not meditate anymore.  Even Clara, the grandmother who had moved into the room with me, to help us at the mission and who had encouraged me to be a nun, was worried about me, and counciled me to stop meditating.

Of course I did as I was told.  The padre was right about one thing.  After I quit meditating, the confusing, unhappy voices soon stopped talking to me.  Though of course Mother would always be there to talk.  As she did, less and less would Saint Francis visit me.  I began playing the flute and painting my little pictures.  Those occupied my time, but I could still feel a great emptiness inside me:  I knew it was for Magdalena, but I also knew it was because that beautiful darkness in the heart of my meditation, which I’d so often found there, in spite of the troubling voices, was as irreplaceable as Magdalena.

I still lived in the same room I’d shared with Magdalena, before that horrible night that still replays in my mind without warning, and everytime horrifies me and shatters me completely, so that I must immediately lie down and curl up and wait till the scenes fade far away.  So this room since that night never has had the serenity our room used to possess.  Clara now sleeps in her bed and I rearranged my own table and bed to help break the spell of how hard it was not to remember Magdalena everywhere I looked.  

That room still, as it always had, has a clean wooden floor and a fine window beside my bed that looks out onto the beautiful garden of the cemetery.  I keep it furnished simply–my little bed, a dresser that the old padre made me several years ago, a small table beside my bed on which I keep my Bible and my precious English translation of The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, and the other books that were part of Mother’s chest of books—Don Quixote, and one play of Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, which I have read so many times.  

On the shelf above is my flute, which I have taught myself to play, but which I only play when I’m alone.  And here I also have the drawing paper Seor Richardson provides me and the little set of paints Padre Prudencio gave me.  Señor Richardson, alas, has chosen to keep a distance from the new American government, and he now lives only in Sauzalito, though he does a little business still with his boat.  I rarely see him these days.  I believed it’s because I remind him too strongly of Magdalena, of that terrible night.  

I have a small box under my bed for what remains of my mother’s books that I saved from my father’s bonfire the night my mother died.  I also have a little stand where I keep my pitcher and basin for washing.  I have a few pictures on the wall—one of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of a bouquet of roses I painted years ago, which remind me of my mother because roses are her favorite flower.  Also a picture I drew and colored, of Magdalena walking toward me.  There is a wooden unpainted crucifix over my bed.  And these things are all I need now.  It’s been nearly two years since we lost Magdalena.    

I was resting with my eyes closed one sunny spring afternoon when I heard the padre in the garden talking with someone whose voice I didn’t recognize.  Strangers were rare and those speaking English were few.  The voice was more than pleasant; it had none of the seriousness that I was used to in the voices of visiting churchmen.  This voice was strong and happy.  He was enjoying little jokes with the padre, which no one ever did that I had heard.  Over-hearing this conversation delighted me.  I sat up and then moved to the window so I could hear better, still of course being sure I wouldn’t be seen.

But suddenly the light-heartedness in the voice of the stranger that I was enjoying so much turned to anger when I heard him say, “Curse the man!–I don’t care if he has bought the buildings next to the mission, Vasquez has no right to keep his saloon open Sunday and let his drunks bother the people who come to church here!”  I had never heard anyone curse in the presence of the padre.  It made me shiver and a bit frightened.  There was violence in his voice, and I could imagine him ready to strike Vasquez, if he had been present.

The padre was very quick to calm him.  He said, “Sonny, please, you are probably right to be angered, but calm yourself, please, you are doing harm to your soul with this.  The Lord will have his vengeance in his own time.”  There was a brief silence.  I imagined the padre patting the stranger on his shoulder to soothe him.  Then he added, “And besides, Sonny, it is not so bad as you think.  I appreciate your support in this, but the problem is greater than Vasquez, or any one man.  It became inevitable when my government took away all our mission lands.”

The stranger said, “And you don’t care about the horse racing and the gambling here either?”  His voice had less anger now, but I could still hear the tension, hear it wanting to do something about it.   “Someone in town told me they race even on Sunday.”

Vasquez and the gambling and drinking next door to the mission was a thing that angered me too, but still I was disturbed by the violence in the voice of this man.  At the same time I was also pleased to hear him complain to the padre about something that I had wanted many times to say, but had never dared.   The padre said, “Of course I don’t like any of it, but we are not living in the old days, those days are gone forever.  And besides, there are atrocities much worse here than what Vasquez brings to us.”   

There was a silence then that affected me deeply.  It also seemed to affect the man the padre called Sonny, because he waited a long moment before speaking again, this time with great calm, without a trace of the former anger.  “What do you call much worse?”

“It is worse that all the Indios, the neophytes, that for so many years we gave hope to them, who were learning the ways of civilization and who were learning to trust in God, these Indios now we must turn away from the missions and they have reverted to their primitive habits for survival.  Which they need now but, unfortunately, many have forgotten.  The ones born here never knew the old way.  Now they have neither one thing nor the other.  Shouldn’t I be disillusioned, Sonny?   Sometimes I think it is a terrible thing we have done to them.  We promised them God to help them, but now there is no God for them.  Sometimes I think it would have been better for them if the missions had never disturbed their lives at all.”

There was another small silence.  Then the stranger spoke in a voice that was gentle and I could tell he was trying to give peace to the padre.  “That part of it at least is not hopeless, and you know it.  I’ve been looking into this land grant situation with General Mason.  As you know, by Mexican law, when the missions were taken from the padres, a great part of that was supposed to be given to the Indians.  We know that did not happen.  We know that most of the Great Families of Californios were given much of that land, and that your government confiscated most of the rest of it for its own uses.  I have been talking to General Mason recently about this injustice, and he agrees with you and me completely.  The Indians deserve the land the Mexican government originally set aside for them.  The General is letting me go back into the records since 1833 to see if I can identify specific instances of malappropriation and outright fraud.  The General thinks it quite possible that once our civil government is in place here, the United States may be able to void some of those dubious transactions and actually give the Indians back some of their land.”

The padre said, “That is exactly the case, the truth is in the record books.  When the missions were closed, most of the Indians went back into the hills and the mountains, and there they are to this day.  They exist by stealing horses, and so have made enemies of all the Californios who own horses.”

“Steal horses?” Sonny questioned.  “But who would they sell them to?”

The padre laughed again.  “Oh yes, they may sell a few of them, to poorer mexicanos or to the americanos.  But mostly they eat them.  Their world has become even more primitive than it was when the Spanish first came here and found them.”  The padre sighed, then said, “You are the only hope I have right now, Sonny.  You cannot save the mission.  That is, you cannot make it again what it was.  But I have seen your personal commitment to helping the Indios, and I trust that you say your general and your government is also committed.  It is much more than I would have dared hope for two years ago when the war between our two countries began.  Then I knew the americanos  would drive out the mexicanos.  But I was mistaken, thank God, when I thought the Americans would destroy all the good work that had been done here.  You are proof of that.

“Ah, but let’s not keep talking so seriously, Sonny.  I have serious thoughts all day long.  You are one of the few visitors I have who make me smile.  What is going on with you?  You were making jokes when you first walked in here.”

“The jokes don’t always tell the truth.  Beneath it all, I’m feeling a little serious today.  It’s nothing too serious, I don’t mean that.  But I’ve just had to come face to face, again, with an obvious fact of my life–I have a little craving for something different, and I’m not sure what to do about it.  In fact, I’m not even quite sure what the craving is.”

The padre spoke now in the genial voice he had used when I first heard him speaking with the stranger.  “Well, this is better, Sonny–a puzzle you call it, don’t you?  I like that.  Yes, let’s talk about this puzzle.  What could you possibly be craving that is not part of your life?  Your life, to a plain man like me, seems so full of everything–travel, good works, knowing all the most powerful and interesting people, being in a position to make things happen.  Admired by many.  What more could you possibly crave?”

The stranger laughed.  “I told you, I don’t exactly know.  When I hear you describe my life, I think to myself–yes, alright, that’s basically true—so what else could I want?  And like right now, when I just sit here and be quiet, I hear a little voice inside me that says–I’m bored.”

“Bored!” the padre exclaimed, chuckling.  “Why Sonny, I think you have discovered a new sin!  With all the gifts of your wonderful life you are bored!  What would you say having to live my monotonous life?”

“No, Padre, it’s not the details that make it boring or not.  It’s whether or not a man is at peace within himself.  I have...a vague restlessness...that never leaves me.  It keeps me from having the inner peace I know you have.  If there’s a sin here, it’s that I crave what I don’t have, or can’t have.  And if I’m honest with myself, I’d probably have to say it’s always been like that.”

The padre laughed, and I loved hearing that laugh immensely, because it was a thing he almost never did anymore, at least in my hearing.  Then he said, “Sonny, I know you do not think of yourself as a religious man, and I know you are not Catholic, but I am laughing because it sounds like I am listening to a very heartfelt confession.”

Then Sonny laughed a little too.  “I guess it does.  I’m not really feeling like I have anything to confess.  Except, if I’m really honest about it, I am confessing to boredom.  And wishing I had a little more excitement in my life.”

“What do you think is the answer to your dilemma?” the padre asked.

“I don’t know exactly.  There’s a lot of excitement in the air these days, I don’t know if you’ve heard or not–I just heard about it for the first time today.  Gold’s been discovered in the foothills east of here, and some of the bigshots in town are thinking there’s going to be thousands of prospectors coming from everywhere to dig it.  There’s going to be a lot of money made and that this little pueblo here is going to change into something that nobody will even recognize a year from now.”

“Well, what does that mean for you, Sonny?  Are you going to go become a prospector?”

Again Sonny laughed.  “No, of course not, no.  But in the course of things, if all this is true, there will be a lot of opportunities, and some of them could be exciting.  But no, even so, I don’t know if any of that would be for me.  I just don’t know.  Something in my blood is excited by the idea of this place taking off like wildfire.  What is it?  I think I’ve always been looking for something that was just a little out of my reach, something I was willing to do almost anything to get to, and something...I’m not even sure what it is.  What do you make of that?”

“Sonny, to me you have always seemed to be doing exactly what you wanted.  And yet, I must admit to myself now, I have suspected this other little craving, you call it, that you are confessing now, so I am not really too surprised.  In fact, I have often thought you might be coming here one day to tell me you had decided to ride off into the mountains with your friend Lansford on one of his adventures.”

“That has crossed my mind, Padre, but not for long.  Lansford’s adventures are not exactly what I want.  Lansford is not exactly what he seems.  Behind all that imitation mountain man facade of his is a very dollar and cents businessman. He spends all his days trying to figure out how to bring all those future land buyers over the mountains to California, and lead them here.  And while he’s doing that, he’d like to be sitting in a soft velvet chair in a railroad car, well stocked with the finest food and the best wine.  Lansford is not half the adventurer he seems.  And anyway, I don’t think that mountain man adventuring appeals to me.  It’s something else I want.”

“Tell me this then,” said the padre, and his voice sounded more intimate suddenly, “what exactly was it that made you come out west?”

“Oh that’s easy.  Again, boredom, the same old story.  I came west, like most others, to start over.   I had dreams that out here anything would be possible.  But now, a year or so later, at least in Monterey, it feels just like the same old thing, and I’m feeling a little disappointed.”  

He paused and I remember thinking that here, for one of the first times in my life, I was hearing someone tell about real life in the normal world, life as I had never known it and would probably never know it.  The excitement he was talking about–whatever that could be, and to me it was unimaginable–sounded like the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard anyone speak.  

Then he said, “But you know, Padre, that story I heard today about the gold, and all the changes that it’s going to create, so suddenly, while it didn’t affect me so much when I first heard it, is beginning to stir up something a little crazy in me.  Something that wants that explosion to happen, and wants me to be right in the middle of it.”  

These last words made me so dizzy I had to sit down on my bed.  Even so, I had to hear what more he would say.  And even though I had always believed the padre considered himself a very shy man, and very ignorant of the world, he laughed with real pleasure at what Sonny had said.  This just made me realize how absolutely and truly disconnected from the world outside the mission I was.  Even how little I really understood the padre himself, who was the one person in the world I knew better than anyone.

“Sonny, I personally don’t see why you should not have all the enjoyment with your life you want.  If you want to be in this explosion as you call it–even though I cannot really comprehend what this means–I think you should do it.  I cannot imagine you doing something that would go contrary to the sense of honor I have always seen in you.”

Sonny laughed again.  “Now that is more than I deserve, Padre.  I have more of the heathen in me than you know.”

And this time the padre laughed! “Oh yes, Sonny, a heathen–that is a good joke.  You are a very good man, and no heathen, even if you are not a Catholic.”
“No, you don’t know everything about me.  I don’t really believe in confession, so I’m not going to tell you all the things that make me a true heathen.  I can tell you I’ve made some questionable, even shady deals in my life.  And I have a nasty temper if I get pushed to the wall.”  He paused, then he laughed.  “So I guess this is a confession, isn’t it–because I’d sure as blazes not say any of this to anyone else.”

I was profoundly shocked at both of them.  I felt like I was overhearing the padre making jokes with a man bragging about his extravagant sins.   I was experiencing an almost overwhelming confusion about this stranger Sonny, who had excited my admiration so much just a little while ago, and who now was saying things that I thought that anyone would be condemned for admitting.  I seemed to be hearing a pride in his confessions, and no remorse whatsoever.

It was at this very exceptional and disturbing moment of my life that I did a most amazing thing.  I stood up, took a deep breath, then walked to my door, opened it and stepped out into the garden, where I knew these two men, who were causing within me such disturbances, were seated talking only ten feet from my door.  Once outside, I looked only at the padre and said, “Excuse me for interrupting, Padre, I just wanted to take a little walk in the garden.  I don’t want to bother you and your guest.”

The padre instantly rose and smiled and said to me, “You could never be an interruption, Valerian.  And it would be a pleasure to introduce you to a dear friend of mine, and as well a dear friend of the mission, and of all our work here–Mister Sonny Wells.”

I hesitated one more instant, drawing up all the courage I could find in me before I turned to look at this Sonny Wells.  He was tall, handsome with dark curling hair, probably about my age, dressed in what I could only imagine to be the kind of suit all gentlemen from the east wore.  He was smiling at me.  I was instantly embarrassed, standing there confronting this very questionable person, in probably the most amazing and improbable act of my life to that moment.

“Oh yes,” I said, not knowing how I found the words, “I’ve heard of you.  You live in Monterey.  You ride up here sometimes to help with the Indians.”  

Sonny smiled at me even more handsomely, and said, “That is one of the things I do, yes.”
The padre said, still cheerful in this way that was new to me, “Sonny is modest.  I would call him a saint for all the good work he tries to do for us.”
“Oh no,” and Sonny laughed saying this, “I am more the opposite and you know it, Padre.  I am a part of the devil’s own brotherhood–I’m a lawyer.  And even without being a lawyer I’m a terrible sinner, though I refuse to let you hear any of these details, Valerian.”

Of course he didn’t have to, since I’d been listening already.  He fascinated me now even more than before.  Realizing that made me shudder, because I was thinking that this growing fascination could become a danger to my soul.  Beneath the plain gray suit he wore a pale blue silk vest with an ornate deep-blue embroidery.  I was thinking that this fancy clothing, beneath the exterior of the conservative suit, might be a perfect symbol of the not quite hidden, and very colorful danger I had been imagining in him.

The padre continued to be amused by Sonny’s talk.  “We are all sinners, my friend, that is one of the absolutes the mother church recognizes.  You, me, everyone, have our sins, obvious or hidden.”
At this I must have blushed.  It felt like I did, because, again, the padre was putting himself on equal footing with this man who, whatever good works he might have done, was also admitting to things I knew the padre could never do or never be.

At that moment Pediquin, our occasional Indio gardener, appeared from the rear door of the chapel, bowed and said, “Padre, una persona viene.”

The padre nodded to Pediquin, then turned to Sonny and me and said, “I have a visitor, someone I was expecting.  Please excuse me a moment, I won’t be long.”  Then he turned away, following the young Indio, and disappeared through the chapel door.

Suddenly alone with this man, I was fearful.  I stepped back and was thinking I must make any excuse to go back to the safety of my room.  But before I could move further he spoke very softly to me and said, “Valerian...that’s such a beautiful name.  Is it your mother’s?”

It was the most perfect question possible.  “Why yes.  It is.”  And at that moment I dared to look up, into his eyes:  saw them blue and soft as his voice, and saw no danger in him.  I agreed to myself to stay.  I said, “Why did you think so?”
“Oh...I don’t know.  Just a lucky guess.”

This made me feel a subtle, unexpected kinship.  I said to him, before I realized how bold I was being, “I take it that your spirit truly saw that.  That it was not a lucky guess.”
He actually beamed his enjoyment at me as he said, “Well–so sure of yourself.  Tell me why you think so.”
Sure of myself I was not, but before I could protest that comment, I heard myself saying, “I think you are a deep feeling man, perhaps deeper than you realize.  Our spirits can know things our minds cannot.  The spirit is a thing everyone possesses. So I was thinking you were listening, inside, and you heard the truth–that I was named after my mother.”

He did not immediately respond and I was wishing I had not said so much.  Finally, fortunately, he said, “How long have you been here, at the mission, Valerian?”  
“Nearly ten years.”
“You must like it here,” he said casually.
“No,” I said, again, more forthright than I should have, “not exactly.  I used to like it here, but things have changed too much.  There is very little life here anymore.  There is very little to do, for me or anyone, even the padre.  But there is no where else I would rather be.  It’s still my home.  And it needs me.”

“Well.  And you have no desire to leave, to go somewhere else?”
“Leave?  What a strange idea.”  And it was indeed strange, for I had not thought of leaving since that terrible night.  “I don’t leave, because...well, because...there is no place I want to go.”  Which was one truth, but not the bigger one.  I saw in his eyes a real compassion, which moved me to trust him; even though only minutes ago I had perceived within him other things very fearful to me. Then he kindly asked, “Do you have parents?  Living?”
“Yes.  And no.  My mother has been dead ten years.  My father is probably still alive, but he lives in Monterey, though we have not communicated for many years.  Many years.  So, for practical purposes, no, I do not have parents.”

There remained a compassion in his face.  But I also saw something suddenly spark in his eyes that slightly frightened me, and he said, “Your father still lives in Monterey?  Then I probably know him.  Or have heard of him.  What is his name?   You mean to say, this father abandoned you?”

We were suddenly far more personal than I could permit.  I said, “I cannot and will not tell you his name.  And I must ask you, if you have truly the honor the padre says you have, that you will forget that question and not think about it again.  Ever.  I am very earnest about this.  Promise me.”
He stared at me intently for a moment, and then, suddenly, the spark in his eye that had frightened me disappeared, and he was kind again.  He said, “I promise you.  I will not bring the subject up again, to you or to anyone else.  Please forgive me for offending you.”

That pleased me very much, and I was able to relax again completely.  “You didn’t offend me, Sonny.  It was an honest question.  It is just something that’s too personal, that’s all.  I’m a very private person.”
He laughed, and I was certainly grateful for the lighter tone.  Then he said, “I appreciate that.  Being a private person.  I am that myself, in certain circumstances.  We all have secrets.”
I hesitated.  We were sharing an intimacy that I had not experienced with anyone in the last two years except the padre, and I wanted not to lose that.  Yet I feared saying too much.  There was no doubt this man had a very great capacity to understand, to sympathize and not be shocked.  Which made me venture a little more.  

“Well, how kind of you, Mr. Wells,” I said, both pleased with him and happy that my confidence in him had been apparently justified.  “But of course you only know me superficially.  You might not like me if you knew me well.”  That last sentence, as I spoke it, embarrassed me, since I had not meant to say anything so bold.
He smiled, “How interesting you are.  Tell me more.”
I could discern in myself a little eagerness to be drawn out.  I heard myself say, “I have had to make all kinds of accommodations with reality to keep my peace at the mission.  A doctor might not believe I had succeeded.”

He was definitely puzzled and the look on his face showed it was bothering him, as well as stimulating his curiosity.  Most importantly to me, my words did not seem to have frightened him.  Finally he said, “Could you explain a little more?”

“I have no social life whatsoever.  I say it not to complain, because I enjoy my life as it is, reclusive as it is.  My mother survived a shipwreck in 1818 off the coast of Santa Barbara.  She had sailed with her parents for Astoria, Oregon, to join the new colony there.  Only she and two sailors survived.   The only cargo to survive was my grandfather’s big chest of books, packed water-tight.  That was all her legacy.  And she gave that to me, reading and books, a most valuable gift.”   

Then I heard myself saying too much“No, I think…let’s just leave it there for right now.  If I say too much I may never see you again.  And even though I am a very shy person, I trust you enough to say that I do hope you come to visit again.”

He smiled that handsome smile again, as if to say, Yes, of course I’ll come visit again.  But he actually said nothing.  Then it was, in the funny little silence that followed, that I heard so distinctly inside of me a very special voice, one that I revere and one that has always spoken only the truth to me.  The voice of our dear Saint Francis himself, who said to me:  Ask him about his brother.
I said, “Tell me about your brother.”

He was truly astonished at that.  He said, “What do you mean?—tell you about my brother.  And what makes you think I have a brother?”
“I just know, that’s all.  And I have a feeling you might want to say something about him.  Are you still friends?”
He was slow answering.  “Well alright, what difference does it make, I guess, if you ask me about my brother?  I mean, you have been open and honest with me.  So...alright.  Yes, I have a brother.  And yes, we are friends.  Why would we not be friends?”
At which Saint Francis spoke inside me again:  This is the point.  Why.  
So I said, “Well, there might be a reason why not.  There might be something that happened that might have made you not be friends.”  And then I saw him become suddenly very somber and he looked away from me, and of course I knew Saint Francis was right.
I said, as gently as I could, “I am a very sympathetic person.  You could tell me anything.”
Eventually he turned back to look at me.  He stared deeply into my face, until finally his own face muscles relaxed and allowed him to regain a pleasant expression.  He said, “I don’t know what to make of you.  And it has suddenly become very disturbing.  We have been having this sweet, innocent little conversation…and all of a sudden you are reaching down inside me and poking around and uncovering some very unpleasant memories that I haven’t thought about in many years.”
I was ashamed of myself for causing him this suffering.  “I’m sorry I said anything.  Please forgive me, it was rude.”

Then he laughed.  “No, you didn’t do anything wrong.  It was wrong of me to withdraw like that when you have been so forthright with me.  And I don’t mind—now.  I’ll tell you about my brother.  But to tell you the truth, it isn’t so much that it’s a sore spot with me, as it is that I’m shocked at the way you found the sore spot.  I don’t know what to make of it.”

“It isn’t anything I did.  It’s the spirit, like I said.  It knows things.”

“Maybe so.  I guess I’ll just have to believe that.  Anyway...about my brother.  We are friends...now.  But there was a time, yes, a long time ago, when we weren’t, and it lasted for ten or twelve years.  He hated me.  Something happened.  Suddenly.  One day.  We were arguing.  Over a...over some stupid thing he had built.  It was a snow sled.  I was mad because he had torn apart something I had built to make it...something, I don’t remember what, that was very important to me.  I was...very mad, and I was pulling his sled apart, and we started fighting, and I...hit him with a metal runner of the sled.  Hard, several times.”

He paused, looking away from me and out across the gravestones, back into time, until he finally continued.  “Too hard.  I broke his leg.  It never healed right.  He still walks with a slight limp.  He hated me for years after.  It was only after we grew up and he finally, sincerely, forgave me for it.”

When he at last turned his eyes back to my face I was more ashamed than ever that I’d asked him about his brother, no matter what Saint Francis thought.  I said, “I’m deeply sorry for what happened, Sonny.  I’m sure you’ve suffered over the years even more than your brother.”

He smiled.  “My suffering passed, and I am living a very good life.  So is my brother.  But you lost your mother so young, and not even your father’s there—you’ve suffered far more than I.  And I can see by the way you handle it that you’re much braver than I am.”

I said, “I doubt anyone sees how we handle our troubles.  But let me ask just one more question....”  
However, he interrupted me, saying, “No, that’s enough questions from you.  I’ll ask.  What does an exotic bird like you do here all day?  Besides ambushing unsuspecting visitors with your disturbing questions.”
I said, “I’d be extremely unhappy if I’ve upset you, or been rude to you in any way.”

“No,” he said, with that perfect softness that I had heard in his voice several times now.  “None of that.  I’m enjoying your company.  Very much.”  And I saw his sincerity, and I couldn’t help letting out a big sigh that made him laugh a little again.

I said, “Good.  It’s been a long, long time since I had someone new to talk to.  Really talk to.”   That statement was so unexpected and so deeply profound to me that I took a big breath to settle myself before going on.  “Good.  We’re friends again—so let me answer your question, What do I do all day?  Very little actually.  I help the padre however I can, I help with whatever there is to do.  I clean and cook, I feed the Indians whenever they come by, when we have enough food.  I do whatever needs to be done.  And I have my little hobbies.”
“Hobbies?”
“I make pictures and paint them.  I play my flute.  I read.”  
He seemed surprised.  “Well that’s a pretty high level of civilization out here in Indian country.  I’m impressed.”
That embarrassed me.  “It’s not impressive, it’s just...like I said...my little hobbies.  It’s nothing special.  I have to fill my days with something.  After Magdalena.”
“Oh yes,” spoke Sonny, surprising me.  “The padre’s told me about Magdalena.  She died right before I got here.  She lived with you here at the mission—am I right?”

“Magdalena was a holy woman, an extraordinary woman.  She had just learned English when I came here and we spoke it together.  On warm afternoons she and I liked to go to the lagoon near the mission.  We’d bring tortillas and tomatoes and peppers and melons and limes and make lunch there under the manzanita, by the laguna.  Then I’d read to her from one of the books from my mother’s box of books.  As of course it would be, Magdalena soon was reading to me from these wonderful stories, and in two seasons of spring and summer we read to each other all of them from my mother’s box, some of them twice.

“There were a few Indios still living there at the mission back then, and Magdalena and I helped the padres take care of them.  By then of course all the work that had been going on for so many years finally had stopped:  the shops where maestros worked the fine leather; the two rooms filled with looms and skilled weavers; the metal work shops with three blacksmiths:  all of these workers Indio.  No more.  Magdalena was the last Indian from the old days.  Now it is only the strays who come here once in a while, like the two who came here today.  But they live way back in the hills.”     

He kept regarding me intently, as if he were trying to focus deeper inside me, which continued to embarrass me.  I said, “What else do you want to know?”
That made him laugh and he stopped looking so intently.  Then he said, “But...why didn’t you become a nun?”
“Oh no,” I said nervously, feeling he was making almost a sacrilegious remark.  “No, please, I’m not quite right to be a nun.  I worked at it, for a long time.  I wanted that, very much.  I studied.  Prayed.  Learned to meditate.  I loved the meditation.  But that was my downfall probably—too much meditation.  At least that’s what Clara believes.”

I didn’t know if I should say more, I didn’t want to ruin anything.  But he waited, and then finally said, “Well?  What?  I don’t understand.”
I laughed nervously and decided to say a little more.  “I don’t quite understand either.  Things...went wrong.  I thought I was doing so well.  I even came to love the fasting.  It was beautiful.  Some days in my meditation I felt like I was floating all the way to heaven.  I could hear God talking to the angels.  Then I began to hear bad things.”
At that moment the chapel door opened and the padre emerged and walked toward us. My heart gave a very big sigh of relief, because I could see now in this pause that I had been on the verge of saying exactly all the wrong things.

The padre said to Sonny, “Something has come to my attention, and I want to ask your opinion.  If you have time to have lunch with me and my guest, we’ll explain everything.”

Sonny glanced earnestly at me, then back at the padre and said, “Of course I have time.”  Then he turned to me, so kindly, and said, “I’ve liked talking to you.  Very much.  I would like to come visit you again.  The next time I’m here.  Probably in a few weeks.”
I was overjoyed.  I said, “Yes, I hope so.  I’d like that very much.  I’m sure the padre won’t mind.”

The padre was watching Sonny through all this, and when I glanced at him I could see he was pleased at what Sonny was saying.  He said, “Of course I won’t mind.  To you our doors are always open.”

The padre stepped back and held the door open for Sonny to enter, and said to me, “The cook is ready.  You and Pediquin may eat whenever you are ready.”  And to Sonny he said, “If you will, go ahead of me, through the opposite door there, and take a chair at the table.  I’ll join you in a moment.  I must have one word more with Valerian.”

However, Sonny hesitated before he passed through the doorway.  He drew from his inside coat pocket a small brown book and held it out to me.  “I’d like to give this to you.  It’s something I bought just before I left the east.  I’ve read it through several times.  It’s a book of poems by a strange young man named Edgar Allan Poe.  There are several things in here that have a special dark beauty in them.  I brought it to the mission to share with you, Padre.  But after talking with this young woman, I’m sure she is the one it’s meant for.  I know you won’t mind if I give this to her.  I’m sure she’ll want to read them to you, and that way you can both share the poems.”

It was joy added to joy.  I took the precious book and held it to my breast, staring, speechless, at Sonny. The padre nodded warmly when he saw how happy this was making me.
Sonny was obviously pleased at my reaction too and said, “I’m not sure how these will appeal to you, but—”
“Oh I know I’ll love them!” I answered, all my emotion bursting from me.  “Maybe when you come again, we can read some of them to each other.”
“Yes,” he said, “we will.  I’d like that too.  Very much.”  Then Sonny stepped through the doorway into the chapel, saying a last “Goodbye” to me.  The padre closed the door behind his visitor, remaining a moment longer outside with me.

The padre looked intently at me and said, “You were good?”
I smiled.  “Very good.”
“You didn’t tell him any...of your secrets?”
“No.  Not really.”  Inside me, a voice, that of my dear, never very far away mother, said: Only because the good Padre came outside in the nick of time.  One more minute and you would have said everything.

The padre seemed to sense the fleeting glimmer of guilt that must have then ruffled my expression, because he said, “But you told him something?”

I laughed, because I was telling the truth—I had kept quiet.  Enough anyway.  I answered, “I told him nothing shocking, nothing that would have upset you.  I told him about my life, I mean, about my mother’s death, and my father, and not much about that.”

“Alright.  I believe you.  And you understand my concern.  It’s not for me.  He and I are and will remain friends.  But I would like him to come back to visit you.  I think he will be a good friend for you.  I just don’t want you to scare him away.”

“I don’t want that either,” I said, in utmost sincerity.  Then I added, “I sense he has a deep understanding.”
The padre patted me gently on the shoulder.  “That may be true.  Nonetheless, you must promise me—you will tell none of those secrets.”
“I promise.”
“Good,” he said, opening again the chapel door.  “I am very happy for you that you have made a new friend.”

When he said that I know I blushed for all my happiness.  I was looking down at my new book, and I said to him, “So am I.”

The padre turned and disappeared into the chapel.  I could only stand there in silence, leaning back against the chapel wall, holding tightly to my book, and thinking that this was one of the happiest days I had known in a long time.

I was alone there in silence for several wonderful minutes.  In the corner of the graveyard, on this mid-February day, my favorite tree, the acacia, was blooming its most luxuriant lemon-yellow flowers.  I was staring at it and savoring this special moment, when, suddenly, a chill ran through me, and I knew what to expect.  It was that crisp masculine voice that I both enjoyed and dreaded, the only one of my Invisible Visitors who had no name.

It said, You know I am jealous of this stranger, Valerian.  Do you deny that I am justified?
Because I was alone there I dared to speak aloud, which, especially with him, made me feel more secure.  I said, “I am not in love with him, if that’s what you’re thinking.  He was very kind, that’s why I’m happy.  I need a friend.”

You have me.  When you have time for me.  When you are not insulting to me.  And today, I was insulted by your behavior with this man.
“I’m sorry.  You know I would never offend you.  I value your feeling for me.”
It is more than feeling, and you know it.  I feel insulted that you call it feeling.
“Alright, I’m sorry.  I know you care about me.  And I am grateful for that.  But I’m very lonely, you know that too.”

And so you are going to replace me with someone else?  With this...gentleman?   And you acted like this gift, this book of poems, was something more precious than anything.  Your behavior disturbed me.  Do you value my poems, which I write with my heart’s blood for you, as much as these poems that he has only paid for, and given to you as an afterthought?

“Far more, of course.  I cherish the poems you bring to me.  I have memorized every one.  I only wish there were more of them.  And more of you.  I wish you would visit me more often, much more often.  You don’t even tell me your name.”

When I trust you enough I will tell you my name.  But you can’t behave the way you did today, and then expect that I am going to grant you these special favors.  No matter what your excuse, I only came to tell you that I’m offended.  And now I’m leaving.

It’s always been like this with him, since he first visited me six months ago.  He was very, very sweet to me in the beginning.  He recited a new beautiful poem to me every day.  In spite of myself I fell in love with his voice, and the wonderful being I knew he must be.  But then, less than two months ago, he began to be jealous, first of the padre, then of Pediquin, and no matter what I say to him he is not convinced.  Now, to protect myself, I am trying not to think about him at all when he’s not present, even though I still hope that it could be like it was.

Still, my serene and joyful moment had been soured, and I thought of my beloved Saint Francis, and I called his name softly, silently.
As always, he was there.  

Yes, child, I overheard everything.  But I have warned you repeatedly, this poet will turn against you.  He is a tyrant posing as a lover, and much as I would like someone suitable for you, this demon is not the one.
You have never called him a demon before.

He has become absolutely reprehensible to me.  And you know I want you to find someone.  A Catholic nun’s life is not for you, much as I wish it were.  My honest feeling I have expressed to you many times—you need to leave this mission, sacred to me as it is, and find your true place in the world.
You keep saying that, even though you know I am too terrified to leave.  And you keep using those words, your true place in the world, and you never say anything more about them than that.  I don’t have any idea at all what you mean.

Of course not.  That’s because your haven’t found your true place.  When you do, you’ll know it.  But I’ll tell you this much, it’s not inside the walls of this mission.

Please, I wish you wouldn’t say that, you know how afraid I am.  And I’m not getting better about that, even though you said I would, I’m getting worse.  I’m having dreams some nights that I can’t even leave my own little room.

Alright, we won’t talk about that anymore.  I see you liked very much that young man you met today.
Yes.  He has heart.  He listens.  I liked him.
Yes.  And most importantly, he is an actual person.
So you liked him too?
I liked him well enough, he will do for a transition.  But, beneath all the manners and style, he is too prosaic for you.
I thought the opposite.

You don’t know him well enough.  He is a government footsoldier.  And he has a fatal flaw, which he may, with great suffering, rectify, or he may not.  In any case, he has no interest in women, despite appearances.  It’s not you personally, Valerian my dear.  He has no interest in any women, it’s part of the fatal flaw.
He was more than pleasant to talk to.
And I hope always will be.  For your sake.  As I hope he visits often.  He can be a useful instrument.  He gave you a present.
Yes.  Poems.  By Edgar Allan Poe.  I’ve never heard of the poet, but the book is beautiful.  And the gift is more than beautiful.

Welcome the diversion, visitor and poems.  But don’t distract yourself long from our common purpose—your extraction from this prison.
Please, Saint Francis, you know how that talk scares me.
    
At that moment the chapel door opened, startling me, and the padre looked out and said, “Valerian...please.  The cook is waiting.”
“Oh yes,” I said, flustered.  “I’m sorry, Padre.  I was...daydreaming I guess.  I’ll go immediately.”

As the padre withdrew behind the closing door, I slipped the small book of poems inside the waist pocket of my dress.  I then followed the path alongside the chapel to the back wall, opened and entered the kitchen door.  Clara was ladling pozole from a cast iron pot on the stove into a large crockery bowl.  Stopping beside her I said, “Mi trabajo.  La sopa es para Pediquin.”

Only nodding, Clara handed me the ladle.  She lifted the filled bowl in both hands and walked carefully to the door.  She pushed it open with a shove from her hip; that also held it there.  She stepped free of the door into the patio where I could see two loin-clothed Indios whom I did not recognize standing patiently with their wooden bowl and spoons beside Pediquin.  As the door swung closed I could hear them chattering suddenly to each other in the cryptic language that even after ten years I still could not decipher.

My peace renewing itself, I eased the ladle back and forth several times across the bottom of the pot to loosen the small pieces of beans and vegetables that adhered there, enjoying the pungent smells of oregano and chili.

Then I heard Mother.  
I have begun worrying about you again, my child.
Why?  And why today?—when I feel so much better.
More and more I am feeling your restlessness.
Restlessness?  But surely you must see that today, especially, I’m...almost happy.
That’s just it.  I don’t trust that man who was here this morning.
But why?  Saint Francis approves.  Even the padre likes him.
The padre is a man.  And a true servant of God.  He is out of harm’s way.  And Saint Francis only approves provisionally.  I think he is reluctant to speak the whole truth of his mind to you, which I am sure is the same as mine.
He is only a friend, Mother, nothing else.
So you say.  And that is not what I worry about.  I also think he is a lost soul, contrary to appearances.  Saint Francis told you as that as well.  I worry that the new man will influence you and eventually misguide you.
I think I must disagree with you about this, Mother.  I saw his goodness, and I was not mistaken.
I won’t argue with you.  I’m confident time and your Heavenly Father will show you the truth.
Saint Francis has already told me he approves of my visitor.
I won’t argue about that with you either.  But I stand by what I’ve said.
I wish we didn’t have to disagree on such a pleasant day as this.  I don’t have many.

The outside door opened and Clara entered with the empty bowl and her serving spoon.  She set it beside the pozole pot and watched me as I ladled it full again.
“Gracias,” Clara said.
“Mas para ellos?” I asked her, indicating with a nod the Indios outside.
“No.  Tienen basta.  Es para el Padre y los senores.”  Clara carried the bowl through another door into the refectory.
Do you have any other advice for me today, Mother?  
Not if it’s not wanted.
I always value what you tell me.
Sometimes you do.  Just remember, I see dangers you do not see.  Am I wrong to warn you?
No, Mother.