Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Sheep-Shearing at the Moreno Ranch
By Helen Hunt Jackson (18301885)
[Ramona. A Story. 1884.]
THE ROOM in which Father Salvierderra always slept when at the Señora Morenos house was the southeast corner room. It had a window to the south and one to the east. When the first glow of dawn came in the sky, this eastern window was lit up as by a fire. The Father was always on watch for it, having usually been at prayer for hours. As the first ray reached the window, he would throw the casement wide open, and standing there with bared head, strike up the melody of the sunrise hymn sung in all devout Mexican families. It was a beautiful custom, not yet wholly abandoned. At the first dawn of light, the oldest member of the family arose, and began singing some hymn familiar to the household. It was the duty of each person hearing it to immediately rise, or at least sit up in bed, and join in the singing. In a few moments the whole family would be singing, and the joyous sounds pouring out from the house like the music of the birds in the fields at dawn. The hymns were usually invocations to the Virgin, or to the saint of the day, and the melodies were sweet and simple.
On this morning there was another watcher for the dawn besides Father Salvierderra. It was Alessandro, who had been restlessly wandering about since midnight, and had finally seated himself under the willow trees by the brook, at the spot where he had seen Ramona the evening before. He recollected this custom of the sunrise hymn when he and his band were at the Señoras the last year, and he had chanced then to learn that the Father slept in the southeast room. From the spot where he sat, he could see the south window of this room. He could also see the low eastern horizon, at which a faint luminous line already showed. The sky was like amber; a few stars still shone faintly in the zenith. There was not a sound. It was one of those rare moments in which one can without difficulty realize the noiseless spinning of the earth through space. Alessandro knew nothing of this; he could not have been made to believe that the earth was moving. He thought the sun was coming up apace, and the earth was standing still,a belief just as grand, just as thrilling, so far as all that goes, as the other: men worshipped the sun long before they found out that it stood still. Not the most reverent astronomer, with the mathematics of the heavens at his tongues end, could have had more delight in the wondrous phenomenon of the dawn, than did this simple-minded, unlearned man.
His eyes wandered from the horizon line of slowly increasing light, to the windows of the house, yet dark and still. Which window is hers? Will she open it when the song begins? he thought. Is it on this side of the house? Who can she be? She was not here last year. Saw the saints ever so beautiful a creature!
At last came the full red ray across the meadow. Alessandro sprang to his feet. In the next second Father Salvierderra flung up his south window, and leaning out, his cowl thrown off, his thin gray locks streaming back, began in a feeble but not unmelodious voice to sing
O beautiful Queen,
Princess of Heaven.
Before he had finished the second line, a half-dozen voices had joined inthe Señora, from her room at the west end of the veranda, beyond the flowers; Felipe, from the adjoining room; Ramona, from hers, the next; and Margarita and other of the maids already astir in the wings of the house.
As the volume of melody swelled, the canaries waked, and the finches and the linnets in the veranda roof. The tiles of this roof were laid on bundles of tule reeds, in which the linnets delighted to build their nests. The roof was alive with themscores and scores, nay hundreds, tame as chickens; their tiny shrill twitter was like the tuning of myriads of violins.
Singers at dawn
From the heavens above
People all regions;
Gladly we too sing,
continued the hymn, the birds corroborating the stanza. Then mens voices joined inJuan and Luigo, and a dozen more, walking slowly up from the sheepfolds. The hymn was a favorite one, known to all.
Come, O sinners,
Come, and we will sing
To our refuge,
was the chorus, repeated after each of the five verses of the hymn.
Alessandro also knew the hymn well. His father, Chief Pablo, had been the leader of the choir at the San Luis Rey Mission in the last years of its splendor, and had brought away with him much of the old choir music. Some of the books had been written by his own hand, on parchment. He not only sang well, but was a good player on the violin. There was not at any of the missions so fine a band of performers on stringed instruments as at San Luis Rey. Father Peyri was passionately fond of music, and spared no pains in training all of the neophytes under his charge who showed any special talent in that direction. Chief Pablo, after the breaking up of the mission, had settled at Temecula, with a small band of his Indians, and endeavored, so far as was in his power, to keep up the old religious services. The music in the little chapel of the Temecula Indians was a surprise to all who heard it.
At the first notes of this rich new voice, Ramonas voice ceased in surprise; and, throwing up her window, she leaned out, eagerly looking in all directions to see who it could be. Alessandro saw her, and sang no more.
With the next stanza of the chorus, the same rich baritone notes. They seemed to float in under all the rest, and bear them along, as a great wave bears a boat. Ramona had never heard such a voice. Felipe had a good tenor, and she liked to sing with him, or to hear him; but thisthis was from another world, this sound. Ramona felt every note of it penetrating her consciousness with a subtle thrill almost like pain. When the hymn ended, she listened eagerly, hoping Father Salvierderra would strike up a second hymn, as he often did; but he did not this morning; there was too much to be done; everybody was in a hurry to be at work: windows shut, doors opened; the sounds of voices from all directions, ordering, questioning, answering, began to be heard. The sun rose and let a flood of work-a-day light on the whole place.
Margarita ran and unlocked the chapel door, putting up a heartfelt thanksgiving to Saint Francis and the Señorita, as she saw the snowy altar-cloth in its place, looking from that distance, at least, as good as new.
The Indians and the shepherds, and laborers of all sorts, were coming towards the chapel. The Señora, with her best black silk handkerchief bound tight around her forehead, the ends hanging down each side of her face, making her look like an Assyrian priestess, was descending the veranda steps, Felipe at her side; and Father Salvierderra had already entered the chapel before Ramona appeared, or Alessandro stirred from his vantage-post of observation at the willows.
When Ramona came out from the door she bore in her hands a high silver urn filled with ferns. She had been for many days gathering and hoarding these. They were hard to find, growing only in one place in a rocky cañon, several miles away.
As she stepped from the veranda to the ground, Alessandro walked slowly up the garden-walk, facing her. She met his eyes, and, without knowing why, thought, That must be the Indian who sang. As she turned to the right and entered the chapel, Alessandro followed her hurriedly, and knelt on the stones close to the chapel door. He would be near when she came out. As he looked in at the door, he saw her glide up the aisle, place the ferns on the reading-desk, and then kneel down by Felipe in front of the altar. Felipe turned towards her, smiling slightly, with a look as of secret intelligence.
Ah, Señor Felipe has married. She is his wife, thought Alessandro, and a strange pain seized him. He did not analyze it; hardly knew what it meant. He was only twenty-one. He had not thought much about women. He was a distant, cold boy, his own people of the Temecula village said. It had come, they believed, of learning to read, which was always bad. Chief Pablo had not done his son any good by trying to make him like white men. If the Fathers could have stayed, and the life at the mission have gone on, why, Alessandro could have had work to do for the Fathers, as his father had before him. Pablo had been Father Peyris right-hand man at the mission; had kept all the accounts about the cattle; paid the wages; handled thousands of dollars of gold every month. But that was in the time of the king; it was very different now. The Americans would not let an Indian do anything but plough and sow and herd cattle. A man need not read and write, to do that.
Even Pablo sometimes doubted whether he had done wisely in teaching Alessandro all he knew himself. Pablo was, for one of his race, wise and far-seeing. He perceived the danger threatening his people on all sides. Father Peyri, before he left the country, had said to him: Pablo, your people will be driven like sheep to the slaughter, unless you keep them together. Knit firm bonds between them; band them into pueblos; make them work; and above all, keep peace with the whites. It is your only chance.
It was of these things he had been thinking as he walked alone, in advance of his men, on the previous night, when he first saw Ramona kneeling at the brook. Between that moment and the present, it seemed to Alessandro that some strange miracle must have happened to him. The purposes and the fears had alike gone. A face replaced them; a vague wonder, pain, joy, he knew not what, filled him so to overflowing that he was bewildered. If he had been what the world calls a civilized man, he would have known instantly, and would have been capable of weighing, analyzing, and reflecting on his sensations at leisure. But he was not a civilized man; he had to bring to bear on his present situation only simple, primitive, uneducated instincts and impulses. If Ramona had been a maiden of his own people or race, he would have drawn near to her as quickly as iron to the magnet. But now, if he had gone so far as to even think of her in such a way, she would have been, to his view, as far removed from him as was the morning star beneath whose radiance he had that morning watched, hoping for sight of her at her window. He did not, however, go so far as to thus think of her. Even that would have been impossible. He only knelt on the stones outside the chapel door, mechanically repeating the prayers with the rest, waiting for her to reappear. He had no doubt, now, that she was Señor Felipes wife; all the same he wished to kneel there till she came out, that he might see her face again. His vista of purpose, fear, hope, had narrowed now down to that,just one more sight of her. Ever so civilized, he could hardly have worshipped a woman better. The mass seemed to him endlessly long. Until near the last, he forgot to sing; then, in the closing of the final hymn, he suddenly remembered, and the clear deep-toned voice pealed out, as before, like the undertone of a great sea-wave sweeping along.
Ramona heard the first note, and felt again the same thrill. She was as much a musician born as Alessandro himself. As she rose from her knees, she whispered to Felipe: Felipe, do find out which one of the Indians it is has that superb voice. I never heard anything like it.
Ah, yes, so you were away; I had forgotten, said Felipe. Well, he was here. They made him captain of the shearing-band, though he was only twenty, and he managed the men splendidly. They saved nearly all their money to carry home, and I never knew them do such a thing before. Father Salvierderra was here, which might have had something to do with it; but I think it was quite as much Alessandro. He plays the violin beautifully. I hope he has brought it along. He plays the old San Luis Rey music. His father was band-master there.
While this whispered colloquy was going on, the chapel had emptied, the Indians and Mexicans all hurrying out to set about the days work. Alessandro lingered at the doorway as long as he dared, till he was sharply called by Juan Canito, looking back: What are you gaping at there, you Alessandro! Hurry, now, and get your men to work. After waiting till near midsummer for this shearing, well make as quick work of it as we can. Have you got your best shearers here?
Ay, that I have, answered Alessandro; not a man of them but can shear his hundred in a day. There is not such a band as ours in all San Diego County; and we dont turn out the sheep all bleeding, either; youll see scarce a scratch on their sides.
Humph! retorted Juan Can. Tis a poor shearer, indeed, that draws blood to speak of. Ive sheared many a thousand sheep in my day, and never a red stain on the shears. But the Mexicans have always been famed for good shearers.
Juans invidious emphasis on the word Mexicans did not escape Alessandro. And we Indians also, he answered, good-naturedly, betraying no annoyance; but as for these Americans, I saw one at work the other day, that man Lomax, who has settled near Temecula, and upon my faith, Juan Can, I thought it was a slaughter-pen, and not a shearing. The poor beasts limped off with the blood running.
Juan did not see his way clear at the moment to any fitting rejoinder to this easy assumption, on Alessandros part, of the equal superiority of Indians and Mexicans in the sheep-shearing art; so, much vexed, with another humph! he walked away; walked away so fast, that he lost the sight of a smile on Alessandros face, which would have vexed him still farther.
At the sheep-shearing sheds and pens all was stir and bustle. The shearing-shed was a huge caricature of a summer-housea long, narrow structure, sixty feet long by twenty or thirty wide, all roof and pillars; no walls; the supports, slender rough posts, as far apart as was safe, for the upholding the roof, which was of rough planks loosely laid from beam to beam. On three sides of this were the sheep-pens filled with sheep and lambs.
A few rods away stood the booths in which the shearers food was to be cooked and the shearers fed. These were mere temporary affairs, roofed only by willow boughs with the leaves left on. Near these the Indians had already arranged their camp; a hut or two of green boughs had been built, but for the most part they would sleep rolled up in their blankets, on the ground. There was a brisk wind, and the gay-colored wings of the windmill blew furiously round and round, pumping out into the tank below a stream of water so swift and strong, that as the men crowded around, wetting and sharpening their knives, they got well spattered, and had much merriment, pushing and elbowing each other into the spray.
A high four-posted frame stood close to the shed; in this, swung from the four corners, hung one of the great sacking bags in which the fleeces were to be packed. A big pile of these bags lay on the ground at foot of the posts. Juan Can eyed them with a chuckle. Well fill more than those before night, Señor Felipe, he said. He was in his element, Juan Can, at shearing-times. Then came his reward for the somewhat monotonous and stupid years work. The world held no better feast for his eyes than the sight of a long row of big bales of fleece, tied, stamped with the Moreno brand, ready to be drawn away to the mills. Now, there is something substantial, he thought; no chance of wool going amiss in market!
If a years crop were good, Juans happiness was assured for the next six months. If it proved poor, he turned devout immediately, and spent the next six months calling on the saints for better luck, and redoubling his exertions with the sheep.
On one of the posts of the shed short projecting slats were nailed, like half-rounds of a ladder. Lightly as a rope-walker Felipe ran up these, to the roof, and took his stand there, ready to take the fleeces and pack them in the bag as fast as they should be tossed up from below. Luigo, with a big leathern wallet fastened in front of him, filled with five-cent pieces, took his stand in the centre of the shed. The thirty shearers, running into the nearest pen, dragged each his sheep into the shed, in a twinkling of an eye had the creature between his knees, helpless, immovable, and the sharp sound of the shears set in. The sheep-shearing had begun. No rest now. Not a seconds silence from the bleating, baaing, opening and shutting, clicking, sharpening of shears, flying of fleeces through the air to the roof, pressing and stamping them down in the bales; not a seconds intermission, except the hour of rest at noon, from sunrise till sunset, till the whole eight thousand of the Señora Morenos sheep were shorn. It was a dramatic spectacle. As soon as a sheep was shorn, the shearer ran with the fleece in his hand to Luigo, threw it down on a table, received his five-cent piece, dropped it in his pocket, ran to the pen, dragged out another sheep, and in less than five minutes was back again with a second fleece. The shorn sheep, released, bounded off into another pen, where, light in the head no doubt from being three to five pounds lighter on their legs, they trotted round bewilderedly for a moment, then flung up their heels and capered for joy.
It was warm work. The dust from the fleeces and the trampling feet filled the air. As the sun rose higher in the sky the sweat poured off the mens faces; and Felipe, standing without shelter on the roof, found out very soon that he had by no means yet got back his full strength since the fever. Long before noon, except for sheer pride, and for the recollection of Juan Canitos speech, he would have come down and yielded his place to the old man. But he was resolved not to give up, and he worked on, though his face was purple and his head throbbing. After the bag of fleeces is half full, the packer stands in it, jumping with his full weight on the wool, as he throws in the fleeces, to compress them as much as possible. When Felipe began to do this, he found that he had indeed overrated his strength. As the first cloud of the sickening dust came up, enveloping his head, choking his breath, he turned suddenly dizzy, and calling faintly, Juan, I am ill, sank helpless down in the wool. He had fainted. At Juan Canitos scream of dismay, a great hubbub and outcry arose; all saw instantly what had happened. Felipes head was hanging limp over the edge of the bag, Juan in vain endeavoring to get sufficient foothold by his side to lift him. One after another the men rushed up the ladder, until they were all standing, a helpless, excited crowd, on the roof, one proposing one thing, one another. Only Luigo had had the presence of mind to run to the house for help. The Señora was away from home. She had gone with Father Salvierderra to a friends house, a half-days journey off. But Ramona was there. Snatching all she could think of in way of restoratives, she came flying back with Luigo, followed by every servant in the establishment, all talking, groaning, gesticulating, suggesting, wringing their handsas disheartening a Babel as ever made bad matters worse.
Reaching the shed, Ramona looked up to the roof bewildered. Where is he? she cried. The next instant she saw his head, held in Juan Canitos arms, just above the edge of the wool bag. She groaned, Oh, how will he ever be lifted out!
I will lift him, Señora, cried Alessandro, coming to the front. I am very strong. Do not be afraid; I will bring him safe down. And swinging himself down the ladder, he ran swiftly to the camp, and returned, bringing in his hands blankets. Springing quickly to the roof again, he knotted the blankets firmly together, and tying them at the middle around his waist, threw the ends to his men, telling them to hold him firm. He spoke in the Indian tongue as he was hurriedly doing this, and Ramona did not at first understand his plan. But when she saw the Indians move a little back from the edge of the roof, holding the blankets firm grasped, while Alessandro stepped out on one of the narrow cross-beams from which the bag swung, she saw what he meant to do. She held her breath. Felipe was a slender man; Alessandro was much heavier, and many inches taller. Still, could any man carry such a burden safely on that narrow beam! Ramona looked away, and shut her eyes, through the silence which followed. It was only a few moments; but it seemed an eternity before a glad murmur of voices told her that it was done, and looking up, she saw Felipe lying on the roof, unconscious, his face white, his eyes shut. At this sight, all the servants broke out afresh, weeping and wailing, He is dead! He is dead!
At this the first tears rolled down Ramonas face. She looked piteously at the ladder up and down which she had seen Alessandro run as if it were an easy indoors staircase. If I could only get up there! she said, looking from one to another. I think I can; and she put one foot on the lower round.
Alessandro caught the words. Spite of all the confusion and terror of the scene, his heart heard the word, Señorita. Ramona was not the wife of Felipe, or of any man. Yet Alessandro recollected that he had addressed her as Señora, and she did not seem surprised. Coming to the front of the group, he said, bending forward, Señorita! There must have been something in the tone which made Ramona start. The simple word could not have done it. Señorita, said Alessandro, it will be nothing to bring Señor Felipe down the ladder. He is, in my arms, no more than one of the lambs yonder. I will bring him down as soon as he is recovered. He is better here till then. He will very soon be himself again. It was only the heat. Seeing that the expression of anxious distress did not grow less on Ramonas face, he continued, in a tone still more earnest, Will not the Señorita trust me to bring him safe down?