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Dust of the Desert

Robert Welles Ritchie

  Produced by Donald Cummings and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at


  Dust of the Desert


  A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York

  Published by arrangement with Dodd, Mead & Company

  Printed in U. S. A.


  PRINTED IN THE U. S. A. BY [Transcriber's Note: printer's information was not supplied in the source text.]





  Roads of men thread the world. They thunder with a life flood. Theyare vibrant with a pulse of affairs. By land and water and air theylink to-day to to-morrow. But El Camino de los Muertos (the Road ofthe Dead Men) is a dim highway leading nowhere but back and back toforgotten yesterdays. Its faint sign-posts once were vivid in letteringof tears and blood. Its stages were measured by the sum of all humanhardihood. Faith, valour, reckless adventuring, thirst for gold, loveo' women--these the links in the measuring chain that marked its coursethrough a dead land. And black crosses formed of lava stones laid downin the sand; these abide over all the length of the Road of the DeadMen from Caborca to Yuma to cry to the white-hot sky of slain hopes andfaith betrayed in those buried years gone.

  The priest-adventurers of New Spain first blazed this trail throughan unknown wilderness. Restless pioneers of the Society of Jesus andthe Order of St. Francis, men with the zeal to dare, pushed out fromthe northernmost limits of the Spanish settlements in a new world withtheir soldier guards and their Indian guides. They fought death ina land of thirst northward, ever northward. The cross fell from thehands of spent zealots at some waterhole where water was not, and otherhands followed to snatch up the sacred emblem and push it deeper intoPapagueria. North and west through El Infiernillo to the red waters ofthe Colorado where the Yumas had their reed huts. Thence on to the westthrough a land that stank of death until at last the end of the trailwas smothered in the soft green of Californian valleys--good ground forthe seed of Faith.

  The overland trail of the padres became the single trail from Mexicoto gold when the madness of '49 called to all peoples. Then the Roadof the Dead Men took its toll by the score and doublescore. Then menfought for precious water at Tinajas Altas; many crosses of malapaismark the sands there. Bandits lurked at Tule Wells, ninety miles overblistering desert from the nearest water, to shoot men for the goldthey were bringing back from California. The Pock-Marked Woman, madwith thirst--so runs the legend--walked at nights with the Virgin inthe flats beyond Pitiquito and found water with celestial candlesburning all about the pool.

  So passed the wraiths of the gold madness. A railroad was laid downfrom the Pacific eastward across the desert. What once was calledPapagueria had come to be known as Sonora, in Mexico, and Arizona inthe Republic of the North. The Road of the Dead Men at its Californiaend became a way through green and watered valleys where bungalowsmushroom overnight; along its course in southwestern Arizona andnorthern Sonora it lapsed to a faint trail from waterhole to waterholeof a heat scourged desert. To-day this forgotten remnant of a highroad of adventure and hot romance exists a streak in an incandescentinferno of sand and lava slag, wherein death is the omnipresent fact.Occasionally a prospector putters along its dreary stretches, chippingat ledge and rimrock. A Papago or a Cocopa creeps over caliche-stainedflats with baskets of salt from the Pinacate marshes near the Gulf.

  That is all. The Dead Men hold their road inviolable. It is dust of thedesert.

  That is all, did I say? No, the spirit of romance and the shape ofillusion have not completely passed from El Camino de los Muertos.Remains that tale which carries itself over a span of a century anda half, linking lives of the present to lives of men and women whosevery graves long since have passed from sight of folk. A tale strangelylike the desert trail along whose course its episodes of hot passionand swift action befell; for its beginnings are laid in a mirage of anelder day which we of the present can see but dimly, and its endingis beyond the horizon of to-day. Would you know the full story of theLost Mission de los Cuatros Evangelistas: how the baleful spell of itsgreen pearls of the Virgin worked upon the fortunes of the House ofO'Donoju and how the last of that house wrought expiation for the sinof a forbear through heroism and the fire of a great love--would youknow the full story, I say, you must see with me the substance of abeginning.

  No more can one plump into the middle of this the last of the romancetales of the Road of the Dead Men than could one drop onto the Roaditself midway of its length.

  * * * * *

  A King in Spain once followed a practice of careless munificence.Whenever one of his generals in the great wars appeared worthy ofreward His Majesty used to ink the ball of his thumb and with a grandand free gesture he would make a print somewhere on the map of Mexico,then called New Spain. Then the lucky general, taking this patent ofroyal favor across the seas with him, would hire surveyors to translatethe print of Philip's thumb into terms of square miles of domain. Thesesquare miles were his and his heirs' to govern like little kings, withjustice in their hands, the Church to give them countenance and Indiansby the hundreds to serve them under a modified code of slavery. Noman has lived since as did those magnificent possessors of Philip'sthumbprints.

  The Rancho del Refugio in the little known reaches of Papagueria wasone of these fiefs of the king. Michael O'Donohue, a wild man of thered Irish who had fought English kings and queens under the banner ofSpain, had come by the grant originally and had taken a lady of Granadato the new world to bear him heirs worthy of their inheritance. MichaelO'Donohue became Don Miguel O'Donoju, lord of a desert principality anda power at the Viceroy's court in the City of Mexico. He establishedtwo rigid precedents to be followed by the house of O'Donoju: pride ofrace and jealous conservation of the family principality. It becamea rule of the O'Donoju that none of the clan marry outside the pureCastilian blood--Irish excepted if Irish could be found; and a rulethat, come what might, no O'Donoju pass title to so much as a foot ofthe Rancho del Refugio.

  It was a day in April, the year 1780, that the clan O'Donoju cameto the Mission of the Four Evangelists to lend the dignity of theirpresence to the solemn service of re-dedication. More than that, DonPadraic O'Donoju, venerable head of the house and master of the CasaO'Donoju in the oasis named the Garden of Solitude, was come to witnessa personal triumph. For it had been his money that had gone to theFranciscan College to be used in the rebuilding of the frontier post ofGod after the Apaches had raided and burned it fifty years before. Andon
e of his own sons, Padre Felice, had been the architect and builderof the restored mission and was to continue the priest in charge. PadreFelice was fourth in a line of O'Donojus to take orders, one from eachgeneration since the establishment of the grant.

  The O'Donojus--grandchildren, cousins and kin by marriage--had riddenfive days and upwards from various sections of the Rancho del Refugio,up and out through the Altar desert to this remote sanctuary of God inthe country of the Sand People. They came by the way called the Road ofthe Dead Men. Its asperities were softened by the quick desert springwhich tipped each thorny cactus cone with candelabra tufts of goldenand carmine flowers. The desert's usual heat was tempered by the snowsthat lay in unnamed mountains to the north.

  They came in a lengthy caravan of horses and burros, with half nakedIndians to herd the goats and the yearling steers that were to bebarbecued for the secular feast to follow the religious rites; with ahalf-company of foot soldiers from the Presidio del Refugio to guardthe company against roving Apaches; Indian maids on mule back to servethe needs of their mistresses, regally mounted on ponies of the Cortezstrain; baggage porters, cooks, roustabouts. Fully a hundred of theclan O'Donoju and satellites on pilgrimage over the Road of the DeadMen.

  All of the O'Donoju were there but one, El Rojo--the Red One. The "RedOne" was he because of the throw-back to the red Irish strain of hisfighting ancestor Don Miguel. Red with the pugnacious red of Donegalwas his hair; his cheeks had none of the sallow tan of the Spanishbut were dyed with the stain of Irish bog winds; his eyes were bluelamps of the devil. A fatherless grandson of old Don Padraic, El Rojohad played the wild youth in the City of Mexico with only occasionalvisits of penance to the Casa O'Donoju in the desert country of thenorth until, when the tang of youth still was his, he had tainted hisname with scandal. Followed his formal expulsion from the clan at thehands of the old aristocrat, his grandfather, and the closing of alldoors of his kindred in Papagueria against him. El Rojo had ridden outto the wide world of sand and mountains an outcast but with a laugh onhis lips; this a full year before the gathering of the family at theMission of the Four Evangelists.

  When El Rojo had turned lone wolf, a sadness that was not the sadnessof shame settled upon the heart of one of the O'Donoju. FreciaMayortorena, a cousin, one of the flowers of girlhood that caused oldHermosillo to be named the Little Garden, sat behind her barred windowson many a night with heart wild to hear once more the love song onlyEl Rojo knew how to sing. Frecia Mayortorena, all fire under the coldice of her schooled and decorous features, knew that the reckless devilwith the flame-blue eyes had but to come and strum a love call on hisguitar; she would go with him into banishment and worse. So on thispilgrimage to the shrine of the four holy men the girl, who rode withher father and brothers, allowed her imagination to frame the figureof a phantom horseman on every ragged mountain top. At each camp firealong the Road of the Dead Men, when the vast sea of desert round aboutwas stilled under the stars, Frecia Mayortorena sat with tiny pointedchin cupped in a propping palm and seemed to hear in the clink of amule's hobble chain the opening chord of that song of songs,

  Red as the pomegranate flower, my love, The heart of him who sings.

  The cavalcade came to the mission with the firing of guns and withshouts. The reed-and-mud huts of the Sand People beyond the cloistersdisgorged their shouting savages to welcome the travellers. PadreFelice, a gaunt man with the face of an ascetic above the folds of hisrough brown cowl, hurried out from the doors of the new sanctuary tomeet and give embrace to his father, Don Padraic, and then in turn toall his next of kin; behind him followed his two novitiate priestswho were, with Padre Felice, the only white men in all the stretch ofPapagueria from the Rancho del Refugio westward to the Sea of Cortez.Five days' travel were they from the nearest of their kind, and to westand north stretched unguessed leagues of the desert. Only the Road ofthe Dead Men linked them with the first of the Californian missionsthirty days over the western horizon.

  Missionary to the Sand People was Padre Felice--to that branch of thePapago tribe of tractable Indians who lived about the east shore ofthe Sea of Cortez and on eastward throughout the desert of Altar. Therebuilt mission stood in the middle of a small oasis which was fed by astream down out of the burnt mountains not a mile behind; one of thoserare and furtive desert trickles of water which hides in the sand mostmonths of the year. The diminutive mission building, with its roundeddome of sun-burned brick, lifted in sharp outlines above the vivid andwater-fed greenery of the oasis mesquite and _palo verde_; but thewhole--oasis and house of God--was dwarfed by the bleak immensityof the flanking mountains leaping sheer from the plain to push theirfire-scarred summits against the sky.

  Before the choir of Indian voices intoned the opening prayer of thededication service the packs of the O'Donoju caravan yielded preciousthings. There was a monstrance of heavy gold studded at its tips withprecious gems; this was the personal offering of old Don Padraic tothe shrine of the Four Evangelists. A chalice of gold, a great altarcrucifix of gold inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a pair of candelabrawrought of chased silver and a communion service of the same metalrepresented the pious contributions of the rest of the clan O'Donoju.

  But most precious of all the altar treasures was that double stringof the pearls of the Virgin which by a miracle had been saved fromplunder of the Apaches when the savages from the north had come burningand murdering fifty years before. For a half-century the lucent ropeof moonbeam green had lain in the treasure vaults of the FranciscanCollege in the City of Mexico awaiting this hour of restoration. Greenpearls fetched from the shell beads of the Sea of Cortez by Indianconverts. Pearls hinting of caves of ocean by their shimmering,changeful lustre. Pearls to fire the lust of covetousness even fromtheir hallowed place about the throat of the Virgin.

  Padre Felice held the glinting rope of lights high in dedication, andas reverently he draped them upon the bosom of the sacred effigy theclan O'Donoju and all the dark-skinned children of the mission sang agloria.

  An untoward incident jarred the merriment of the feasting that followedthe re-dedication of the mission. When whole beeves were being liftedfrom the roasting pits and the skins of wine and tequila were passingfrom table to table beneath the flowering mesquite trees a column ofdust strode across the desert from the east and spawned two horsemenupon the oasis. One, a naked Indian of the stature of a giant, reinedin his horse at the far fringe of the mesquite as befitting a servant.The second rode boldly into the circle of the tables. Silver clinkedfrom bridle and stirrup leathers of his magnificent white thoroughbred.The rider's silver-trimmed hat came off with a sweeping bow to includeall there, and the red of his hair was like molten copper in the sun.

  "El Rojo!" was the startled cry on every lip. Men scrambled to theirfeet as if to combat some overt move of an enemy.

  "God be with you all," came the Red One's speech of polite greeting,made all the more ironical by the reckless upturn of his lips in a grinand the steely lights that flashed from his blue eyes.

  "--And God, or his gentle vicar, Padre Felice, give me place at tablewith my noble kin," El Rojo added lightly. "I have travelled far tohave my cup here on this day of celebration."

  The laughing horseman let his eyes dance over the circle of faces untilthey came to rest for just an instant upon one. He saw cheeks flaming,eyes filled with wonder and full lips parted to give a heart its song.Frecia Mayortorena was seeing a vision in the life. Quickly El Rojo'sglance leaped on as if to shield the girl from contamination. Thevenerable Don Padraic, head of the clan O'Donoju, was on his feet nowand trembling.

  "We know you not, sir! We must ask you to begone!"

  El Rojo caused his horse to rear perilously. Before hoofs touched theground hardly two paces from the old man the rider again had made hisfull-armed bow. He spoke with mock respect.

  "Sanctuary, my grandsire! I and my servant claim sanctuary of HolyChurch. We have ridden far, and good Uncle Felice can not deny us thecharity of his order."

  Don Pa
draic was being swiftly mastered by his rage when the friar towhom the unwelcome horseman had appealed pushed his way to the side ofthe older man.

  "He speaks the truth, sire," urged the man in the brown habit. "Here onGod's ground we can not be guilty of uncharity." Then, looking up intothe laughing blue eyes of his nephew, "I ask you to descend, sir, andrefresh yourself and your servant until such time as you take the road."

  So all merriment in the oasis of the Four Evangelists was stilled.There in the single green spot on all the leagues of the Road of theDead Men was wrought a comedy; a prelude it was to swift tragedy. Theclan O'Donoju, its satellites and retainers ate and drank in silence,and apart from this company sat El Rojo and his naked copper giantalone. From time to time El Rojo lifted his cup as if in ceremonioushealth to his kin. Only Frecia Mayortorena read the glint in the blueeyes which told that the toast was to her--and to what would eventuate.

  Near sundown El Rojo and his Indian rode off to the west, but notuntil the outlaw had spent a few minutes alone in the mission. PadreFelice saw him at prayer before the altar of the Virgin and was deeplytouched that the spirit of religion had not altogether departed fromthe family's scapegrace.

  In the dark of midnight Frecia Mayortorena, who had cried herself tosleep, was awakened by the touch of a hand stretched under the sideof the tent where she slept with the women of the party. A silverembroidered hat was slipped under the tent to rest on her arm. Thegirl dressed herself in a folly of love and terror and stole outside.The waiting figure of El Rojo's giant Indian detached itself fromthe shadow of the mesquite, motioning her to a tethered horse. Blindinfatuation for a hero lover brooked no questioning on the girl's part.She mounted and followed her guide through the alleys of heavy shade.

  A single dreadful cry sounded from out the opened door of the mission.A minute later a vague horseman spurred to her side and stopped thebeating of her heart with flaming kisses. The silent desert swallowedthree phantom shapes on horseback.

  Dawn brought revelation and the beginning of that cycle of tragedy anddreadful pursuit of Nemesis which was to overwhelm the clan O'Donoju.Padre Felice murdered at the altar of the Virgin, where he had triedto stay the hand of impiety. The green pearls of the Virgin gone. Adaughter of the house of O'Donoju flown with a thief and a murderer.

  One word more and this mirage of years long dead fades. The curse thatall Papagueria saw descend on the clan O'Donoju spared not even thesanctuary of the Four Evangelists. A year to the night of the Virgin'sdespoliation the Apaches came again to this frontier post of theChurch, and after a spiteful siege they slew the white priests, burnedthe mission and carried the Indian converts over the mountains intoslavery. The Franciscans dared not rebuild on such accursed ground.Winds of the desert, which move sand mountains in their eternal sweep,played upon the ruined mission year on year to blot even a vestigeof it from the eyes of man. God's hand--so the Indians had it--shookthe mountains behind the little oasis so that the source of the tinylife-giving stream was blocked. The green vanished like a mist, andscabrous desert cacti crept in on prickly feet.

  The Mission de los Cuatros Evangelistas became legend.