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Next: Flowers in ColoradoContentsPrevious: North Cheyenne Canyon

Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


WA-HA-TOY-A; OR, BEFORE THE GRADERS.

Looking to the southwest from the high bluffs lying east of the town of Colorado Springs, we see two pale blue pyramids outlined against the sky. They are so distinct and so sharp-pointed that, if it were Egypt instead of Colorado, one would not doubt their being chiselled pyramids of stone; and when told that they are mountains more than a hundred miles away, one has a vague sense of disappointment. They look at once more defined and more evanescent than is the wont of mountains; on a hazy day they are marked only by a slightly deepened color; a little more haze, and they are gone, melting sometimes out of sight even under your eyes, like a mirage on the horizon. From the delicacy and softness of tint of these peaks, combined with their sharp-cut pyramidal outline, they have an inexpressible beauty as seen from the bluffs of which I speak; they enhance and crown the whole view, so much so that when people come home from the drive on the bluffs, the first question heard is always, “Were the Spanish Peaks in sight?”

Who called them, or why he called them, the Spanish Peaks, I cannot learn. Perhaps in old Castile there are peaks of the same soft tint and sharp outline; but the Indians named them better,—Wa-ha-toy-a, which, being turned into English, is the Twin Sisters, or, as some say, the Twin Breasts.

Gradually, as month after month one gazes on these beautiful far-off peaks, they take deep hold on the imagination. They seem to be the citadel-gates of some fairer realm, into which we more and more yearn to look; and when the day comes on which we set out for the journey to their base, it is as if we were bound for some one of the El Dorados of our youth.

Starting from Colorado Springs to seek them, one must go by rail forty-five miles southward to Pueblo, and thence fifty miles, still by rail, farther south to Cucharas. It should be on an early June day. Then the mountain-tops will be white with snow, the cotton-woods along the creeks and the young grass on the foot-hills will be of a tender green, the dome of the sky will be vivid blue, and the radiant air will shimmer, spite of its coolness.

Set down at Cucharas at sunset, one feels tempted to run after the little narrow-gauge train, as it puffs away into the wilderness, and cry, “Hold! hold! It was a mistake. I will not remain.” The whole town itself seems a mistake, an accident: a handful of log-cabins and wooden shanties in two straggling lines, as if a caravan of daguerreotype saloons had been forced to halt for a rest; plains to north, east, south of them,— bare, barren, shelterless plains, with only the cactus and low bunch-grass to show that the sandy soil holds in it an element of life. It must be indeed a resolute soul which could content itself with the outlook at Cucharas.

It was twilight before we succeeded in finding the springless wagon and the unmated horses which were to take us six miles west to the town of Walsenburg,— six miles nearer to the great Twin Sisters. The plains looked vaster with each deepening shadow; the grim, gaunt cactus-stalks looked more and more fierce and unfriendly; of a deep purple, almost black, in the southwest, rose Wa-ha-toy-a, no longer soft of tint and luring, but a dark and frowning barrier.

“How like old skeletons these cactus plants look!” I exclaimed. “They are uncanny, with their fleshless legs and arms and elbows.”

“Heard of the Penitentes, I suppose?” replied our driver, with seeming irrelevance.

“No,” said we, wonderingly. “What are they?”

“Well, these cactuses are what they whip themselves with. I’ve seen ’em with the blood streaming down their backs.”

It was a fearful tale to hear in the twilight, as we jolted along over the road, we and our driver apparently the only living creatures in the region. On our left hand ran the little Cucharas creek, a dusky line of trees marking its course; beyond the creek rose here and there low bluffs and plateaus, with Mexican houses upon them,—houses built of mud, small, square, flat-roofed, not more than six or seven feet high. Surely, the native Mexican must be first cousin to the mud-sparrow! He has improved on his cousin’s style of architecture in only one particular, and to that he has been driven in self-defence. He sometimes joins his houses together in a hollow square, and puts all the windows and doors on the inside. When Indians attack mud-sparrows’ nests, I dare say the mud-sparrows will do the same thing, and leave off having front doors. On our left the dusky, winding lines of trees, and the dark, silent hills crowned with the mud plazas; on our right the great, gray wilderness; in front the queer, nasal old voice, almost chanting rather than telling the tale of the Penitentes,—what an hour it was!

It seems that there still exists among the Roman Catholic Mexicans of Southern Colorado, an order like the old order of the Flagellants. Every spring, in Easter week, several of the young men belonging to this order inflict on themselves dreadful tortures in public. The congregations to which they belong gather about them, follow them from house to house and spot to spot, and kneel down around them, singing and praying and continually exciting their frenzy to a higher pitch. Sometimes they have also drums and fifes, adding a melancholy and discordant music to the harrowing spectacle. The priests ostensibly disapprove of these proceedings, and never appear in public with the Penitentes. But the impression among outsiders is very strong that they do secretly countenance and stimulate them, thinking that the excitement tends to strengthen the hold of the church on the people’s minds. It is incredible that such superstitions can still be alive and in force in our country. Some of the tortures these poor creatures undergo are almost too terrible to tell. One of the most common is to make in the small of the back an arrow-shaped incision; then, fastening into each end of a long scarf the prickly cactus stems, they scourge themselves with them, throwing the scarf ends first over one shoulder, then over the other, each time hitting the bleeding wound. The leaves of the yucca, or “soap-weed,” are pounded into a pulp and made into a sort of sponge, acrid and inflaming. A man carries this along in a pail of water, and every now and then wets the wound with it, to increase the pain and the flowing of the blood. Almost naked, lashing themselves in this way, they run wildly over the plains. Their blood drops on the ground at every step. A fanatical ecstasy possesses them; they seem to feel no fatigue; for three days and two nights they have been known to keep it up, without rest.

Others bind the thick lobes of the prickly pear under their arms and on the soles of their feet, and then run for miles, swinging their arms and stamping their feet violently on the ground. To one who knows what suffering there is from even one of these tiny little spines imbedded in the flesh, it seems past belief that a man could voluntarily endure such pain.

Others lie on the thresholds of the churches, and every person who enters the church is asked to step with his full weight on their bodies.

Others carry about heavy wooden crosses, so heavy that a man can hardly lift them. Some crawl on their hands and knees, dragging the cross. Crowds of women accompany them, singing and shouting. When the penitent throws himself on the ground, they lay the cross on his breast, and fall on their knees around him, and pray; then they rise up, place the cross on his back again, and take up the dreadful journey. Now and then the band will enter a house and eat a little food, which in all good Catholic houses is kept ready for them. After a short rest, the leader gives a signal, and they set out again.

Last spring, in the eighteen hundred and seventy-sixth year of our merciful Lord, four of these young men died from the effects of their tortures. One of them, after running for three days under the cactus scourge, lay all Easter night naked upon the threshold of a church. Easter morning he was found there dead. What a comfort in the thought that the old prayer can never cease to ascend, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The twilight had deepened into night before the tale drew to a close; and it was with a sense of grief and horror, almost as if we had been transported to the very hill of Calvary, that we drove into the little Mexican town of Walsenburg, which lies in the Cucharas meadows, only a few miles from the base of Wa-ha-toy-a.

From the tragedy we had been hearing, to the cheerful low comedy of Sporleder’s Hotel, was a grateful change. A mud-walled, rafter-roofed, rambling, but very comfortable old place was Sporleder’s. From the porch you stepped at once into the “office,” and through the office you came and went to your bedroom, and to the dining-room, by a mysterious, dim-lighted passage-way, or through somebody’s else still dimmer-lighted and more mysterious bedroom. The office was a bedroom, too; it held three beds, a wooden settle,— which was no doubt a bed also, though by day it held saddles and hunting-gear of all sorts,—a desk, and a three-cornered fire-place built out, in the picturesque Mexican fashion, chimney and all into the room. They look as if children might have built them for play, these Mexican fire-places, but they draw well, and are wonderfully picturesque. The mud-walled bedroom was not damp: its one little window looked into a high Jefferson currant bush, and a cross-draught was established by the accident of a tiny opening at the eaves, on the left-hand side of the room, just above the edge of the white-cotton ceiling which was nailed on the rafters. Through this little hole moonlight twinkled all night, and daylight twinkled in the morning long before the sun had pierced through the Jefferson currant bush. The beds were clean and not very hard. The food was wholesome. One might easily fare worse in many a pretentious house. The landlord looked as if he had belonged to the childhood of Hans Christian Andersen. He was an old German tailor; he wore an ancient blue dress-coat, and a long black-velvet waistcoat, and did the honors of his clean little mud house with an old-fashioned and pathetic courtesy of manner. He had evidently seen much sorrow in the strange vicissitudes of life which had brought him to be an inn-keeper in Colorado.

Walsenburg is an old Mexican town. There are perhaps fifty houses in it, and more than half of these are the true Mexican mud huts,—mud floor, mud wall, mud roof; if there had been any way of baking mud till you could see through it, they would have had mud windows as well. As there was not, they compromised on windows, and have but one to a room, and many rooms without a window at all. These houses are not as uncomfortable as one would suppose, and by no means as ugly. The baked mud is of a good color, and the gaudy Roman Catholic prints and effigies and shrines with which the walls are often adorned stand out well on the rich brown. The mud floors are hard, and for the most part clean and smooth. Gay blankets and shawls are thrown down upon them in the better class or houses; chairs are rare. The houses remind on. more of bee-hives than of any thing else, they do so swarm at their one small entrance; women and girls are there by dozens and scores, all wearing bright shawls thrown over their heads in an indescribably graceful way. Even toddlers of six and seven have their brilliant shawls thrown over their heads and trailing in the dust behind; I am not sure that they are not born in them. The little boys are not so much clothed; in fact, many of them are not clothed at all. The most irresistible one I saw wore a short white shirt reaching perhaps one-third of the way to his knees; over this, for purposes of decoration, he had put a heavy woollen jacket much too big for him; thus arrayed he strutted up and down with as pompous an air as if he were a king in state robes; but the jacket was heavy: he could not endure it long; presently he shook one arm free of its sleeve, then the other, and then in a moment more dropped the garment in a crumpled pile on the ground, and with an exultant fling of his thin brown legs raced away, his shirt blowing back like a scanty wisp tied round his waist. His mother sat on the ground leaning against the wall of her house, nursing her baby and laughing till all her teeth showed like a row of white piano keys on her shining brown skin. I stopped and praised her baby; she spoke no English, but she understood the praise of the baby’s eyes. By a gesture she summoned the hero of the shirt, said to him a single word, and in a second more he had sprung into the house, reappeared with a wooden chair, and placed it for me with a shy grace. Then he darted away side-wise, like a dragon-fly.

All the women’s voices were low and sweet; their eyes were as dark and soft as the eyes of deer, and their unfailing courtesy was touching. An old woman, one of the, oldest in the town, took me over her house, from room to room, and stood by with a gratified smile while I looked eagerly at every thing. The landlord’s daughter, who had accompanied, me, had mentioned to her that I was a stranger and had never before seen a Mexican town. When I took leave of her I said through my interpreter, “I am greatly obliged to you for showing me your house.”

With rapid gestures and shrugs of the shoulders she poured forth sentence after sentence, all the while looking into my face with smiles and taking my hand in hers.

“What does she say?” I asked.

“She says,” replied my guide, “that her poor house is not worth looking at, and she is the one who is obliged that so beautiful a lady should enter it.” And this was a poverty-stricken old woman in a single garment of tattered calico, living in a mud hut, without a chair or a bed!

Early the next morning we set out again to drive still farther west. Our errand was to find the engineer corps who were surveying the route across the mountains into the San Juan country. The brave little narrow-gauge railroad, the Denver and Rio Grande, which is pushing down toward the City of Mexico as fast as it can, is about to reach one hand over into the San Juan silver mines to fill its pockets as it goes along, and the engineers were somewhere in this region; just where, it was hard to learn,

“Over by Early’s,” said one.

“At the mouth of Middle Canyon,” said another. Nobody knew positively.

At any rate there were the mountains; we could drive towards them on a venture. Wa-ha-toy-a in the south, the Greenhorn and Veta along the west, and beyond, the snowy, glistening tops of the main range; a grand sweep of mountain wall confronted us as we. drove up the Cucharas Valley. The Cucharas bottoms are chiefly taken up in Mexican farms: some small and carelessly tilled; others large and as well cultivated as the poor Mexican methods admit. The land is rich, and when the railroad opens up a market for its produce, these farms will become very valuable. We passed many Mexicans ploughing in their sleepy, shambling fashion. One good-natured fellow showed us his plough, and only laughed at our raillery about its primitive fashion. It looked like the invention of some shipwrecked man, in a forgotten age. It was simply a long pole with a clumsy triangular wooden keel nailed on one end of it; on this was tied—yes, literally tied—a sort of iron tooth or prong. This scratched the earth lightly, perhaps two or three inches deep, no more. This imbecile instrument was drawn by two oxen, and the man’s only way of guiding them was by a rope tied to the near horn of the near ox.

Our road followed the river line closely. The banks were rich and green; thickets of cotton-woods and willows were just bursting into leaf; now and then we climbed up the bank and came out on fine plateaus, with broken table-lands, or mesas,” stretching away to the right and covered with piñon-trees. On these were herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, each tended by a Mexican herder. You would take this herder, as he lies on the ground, for a bundle of cast-off rags somebody had left behind; but as you drive past the rags flutter a little, a brown face appears slowly lifted, and a lazy gleam of curiosity shoots out from two shining black eyes. The rags are a man or a boy.

“Oh, how do they live?” I exclaimed. “What poverty-stricken creatures!”

“Live!” replied the driver. “Give a Mexican five cents a day and he’ll lie by and do nothing, he’ll feel so rich. He’ll squat on his heels and chew piñon nuts from morning till night. Last year they did have a hard time, though; the grasshoppers cleaned them out. They had nothing left to live on but ‘chili’ [a fiery red pepper]. They had enough of that. Even the grasshoppers won’t eat chili.”

About ten miles from Walsenburg we came to a handful of frame houses scattered along the creek and conspicuous among the light-green cotton-wood trees. Close on the bank shone out a new pine “meeting-house.” “And Baptist, at that,” said the driver, with a judiciously balanced inflection on the “at that,” which might have left us amiable, whatever our predilections as to religions. This was a settlement of Georgians,— “all Baptists,”—and at a great sacrifice they had built this meeting-house. Just beyond the Baptist meeting-house lies the farm of an old Virginian, a man of education and refinement, who, for some inexplicable reason, buried himself in this wilderness twenty-five years ago, when it swarmed with Indians. He so feared that white men and civilization would find him out that, whenever it was necessary for him to go to some trading-post, he went in and out of his hiding-place by different routes, and with his horse’s shoes reversed, that he might not leave a trail which could be followed. There was one interval of eleven years, he told me, in which he did not see the face of a white woman. He still lives alone; a Mexican man, with his wife, are his only servants; but his ranch is a favorite rendezvous for travellers, and in a few weeks the whistle of the steam-engine will resound through his lands. So useless is it for a man to seek, on this continent, to flee civilization.

It grew no easier to find the whereabouts of the engineers. Everybody had seen them; nobody knew where they were. We were twenty miles from Walsenburg; noon was at hand; our guide had no farther device to suggest; Early’s had been his last hope; we were at Early’s now, and neither in the log-cabin nor in the “store” could any news be had of the engineers. Very reluctantly we were turning to retrace our twenty bootless miles, when with a low chuckle our driver exclaimed, “By jingoes, if that ain’t luck! There they be now!”

There they were, to be sure, twelve of them, laughing, shouting, clattering down hill in a gay painted wagon, coming to Early’s for their nooning. Keen-eyed, bronze-faced, alert-looking fellows they were; a painter might have delighted to paint them, as a few moments later, they had flung themselves on the ground in a picturesque circle. As bronzed, as blistered, as hungry, as alert as any of them, was the young Frenchman who three months before had seen nothing in life severer than the Ecole Polytechnique, or less polished than the saloons of Paris and Washington. It is a marvel how such men “take” to wild life in the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps it is only the highly civilized who can appreciate the delights of savagery. Certain it is that there are no men in Colorado who so enjoy living in tents or in shanties, doing their own cooking, raising their own potatoes, and hunting their meat, as do the sons and nephews of dukes and earls.

Our road back to Walsenburg lay on plateaus which overlooked the river interval up which we had come. The land was less fertile than in the meadows, but the opens were grand and breezy, with exhilarating off-looks to the north and e. St. We crossed the wagon-road which leads into the San Juan mining district, and saw, creeping along in a yellow cloud of dust, one of the caravans bound on the pilgrimage to that shrine of silver,— eleven white-topped wagons, with ten mules to each wagon. The mules walked so slowly that the line hardly seemed to advance; its motion looked at a distance like the undulating motion of a huge dark snake with white rings around its body. In a few weeks these white-topped wagons will have disappeared from the landscape, and in their stead will be seen the swift-vanishing smoke of steam-engines, doing in ten hours the work for which the mules took ten days.

A few miles out of Walsenburg, I saw, on a bare hill to the right of our road, a strange object which looked as if a vessel had been thrown up there ages ago, and had lain bleaching till her timbers had slowly fallen apart. I never saw, cast up on any shore, a ghastlier, more weather-beaten wreck than this seemed. I gazed at it with increasing perplexity, which our driver observed, and, following the direction of my eyes, exclaimed, “Oh, there they are! Those are the crosses the Penitentes carry at Easter. They keep ’em stacked up here on this hill, and there wouldn’t a living creature dare so much as to touch one of them nor go past them without crossing themselves.” As we drove nearer, their semblance to a wrecked vessel lessened, but the symbolic significance of the likeness deepened. There were eleven of them, some of them nine or ten feet long: nine were lying on the ground, overlapping each other, with their gray bars stretching upward; the other two were planted firm and erect in the ground. The sight of them gave to the narrative of the Penitentes a reality and an intensity which nothing else could have done. The gaunt and rigid arms seemed lifted in appeal, and their motionless silence seemed as pregnant with woe as a cry.

The sun was just sinking behind the snowy western peaks when we reached Walsenburg. We had arrived at an important moment in the history of the little town. The graders had just come; the railroad was about to begin. In lazy, sauntering groups, the Mexicans were looking on: women with babies in their arms, barelegged, barefooted, their gaudy shawls close draped, —they looked like some odd sort of fowls, with brilliant plumage close-furled; men leaning in feigned nonchalance against fences here and there; ragged, half-naked boys and girls darting about from point to point, and peering with intensest curiosity at every thing; there they all were. I doubt if there were a Mexican left in the town. The meadow was all astir; wagons, horses, men, stacks of implements, tents, shanties going up like magic,—already the place looked like a little city. Just as we drove up, a man advanced from the crowd, dragging a ploughshare. Nobody took any especial note of him. He bent himself sturdily to the handles of the plough, and in a moment more soft ridges of upturned earth, and a line of rich dark brown, marked a narrow furrow. Swiftly he walked westward, the slender, significant dark-brown furrow lengthening rod by rod as he walked. His shadow lengthened until it became a slenderer line than the furrow in the distance, and was lost at last in the great purple shadow of Wa-ha-toy-a. The railroad was begun; the wilderness had surrendered.


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