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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


The law of Nature which is expressed in that overworked phrase, “the survival of the fittest,” has had a complete, and from the point of view of the survivors themselves (who are naturally the best judges) a highly satisfactory, demonstration in the quick declension of the old Mexican population of California before the present lords of the Golden State. The transaction took place with the automatic certainty of all such natural processes, but also with a rapidity which entitles it to the attention due to a phenomenon. It was a summary clearing of the stage for the quick action of the Golden Drama.

Nature needs no apologist for her writs of ejection, and her outgoing tenants have no recourse or appeal. In this case they attempted none, but, generally speaking, sank away as quietly as the streams that dwindle and seep out of sight under the energetic Californian sun. “The hour had struck, and they must go.” And go they did, rich and poor, gentle and simple alike, bowing with what grace they might to

“The good old rule, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power
And they should keep who can.”

But I, for one, have always felt the injustice of the contempt in which the dispossessed Mexicans have been held by their heirs-at-law. No doubt, nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure; but then, the point of view governs all, and one can always conceive an aspect from which the conquered might contemn the conquerors. For myself, I own to a sympathetic regard for “the greasers,” whom, in general, I have found singularly friendly and responsive;—a virtue which, it seems to me, is entitled to a high rating under the circumstances.

Scattered up and down the multitudinous cañons of the foothills where the Sierra Nevada sweeps out in fringes of winter green or summer ochre upon the great central valley of California, an unsuspected number of Mexicans have found congenial homes. As miners, shepherds, bee-men, or nondescripts they live in these sequestered places, performing at least as well as the rest of us the Symphony of the Quiet Life, which consists in such matters as “living content with small means, talking gently, acting frankly, bearing all cheerfully, doing all bravely, awaiting occasions, hurrying never.”

Troops of children, often lovely as young arch-angels, whose dark eyes and shining tresses have often disquieted my tough bachelor heart with longing, play around these humble doors. Mandolins tinkle through long evenings after easy days, and the smoke of everlasting cigarettes mingles with low-toned laughter and murmured conversation in the most musical of languages. Standing outside the hurly-burly, these philosophical non-combatants find leisure for the quiet pleasures and family employments and courtesies which we deny ourselves, or think we are denied. They have not travelled so far from Eden as we have. Can we be sure that we who have come farther have not fared worse?

When the hottest part of the California summer day arrives, the boasted energy of the Anglo-Saxon sinks to zero. The sun-baked rocks and boulders shed out a violent, blistering heat; the white sands reflect the light like a mirror; the breeze grows listless, flutters, and dies away; the traveller grows listless too, and his affairs become less important than the necessity of turning aside for an hour’s siesta in the shade.

That, at least, was my conclusion as midday ap proached, when a few years ago the course of my affairs took me a day’s journey into one of the less frequented cañons of the Sierra foothills,—the San Timoteo. As I wished to return the same night, I had started early from the little town in the valley, and had ridden a good many miles before the heat of the day came on. My horse, moreover, needed water; so when my eyes, following a narrow track that led off to the right of the trail, fell upon a plank thrown over a gully which by the débris it contained gave notice of the proximity of a house or camp, I at once turned him into the little side-trail. Riding down into the gully and up the opposite side, I saw, fifty yards farther on, a dwelling. It was the regulation “lone” miner’s cabin,—an object which under all its variations constitutes a type; just as, under all his diversities, does the “lone” miner himself. It stood, or rather stooped, hunched together with that air of premature age which in three months settles upon structures whose builders have attached more importance to haste and economy than to T-squares and sound workmanship. A wall of rock of considerable height rose near behind the house, forming a buttress or spur of the main cañon wall. A few fair-sized live-oaks and cottonwoods inhabited the little bench of land, an acre or two in extent, which, naturally clear of brush, offered itself as a desirable building site.

On a rough shelf attached to the house was a batea, —the wooden pan or dish used by Mexican placer-miners in the operation of “washing out” by hand. A pick, an axe, and other such articles lay near by; a mattress was spread upon the ground in the shade of a tree; and if I needed other evidence of the owner’s presence, the sound of music proceeding from the half-open door, and smoke issuing from the chimney, undoubtedly afforded it. Both the air played and the instrument furnishing the music were familiar. The air was La Paloma, a composition as distinctive of Mexico as Suwanee River is of this country, or The Blue Bells of Scotland of the land of Burns. The instrument I recognized as one which was known to me in my youthful musical enthusiasms as the mouth-organ, but is now, I believe, more ambitiously known as the harmonicon. I listened until the end of the tune, and was then about to ride up to the door when I heard a boy’s voice speaking rapidly in Spanish, answered by a man in the same language; and a moment later the air was begun again by two performers together. I waited again until the verse was completed, and then dismounting walked up to the house. The musicians, after a short colloquy, were beginning still another performance of the same air, but ceased at my knock, and an old Mexican presented himself. I use the term old in the qualified sense in which, it seems to me, it applies to all Mexicans of over forty-five years’ age; but he was strongly built, and his face was remarkably intelligent and pleasing, though wearing that expression of half melancholy passivity which seems to be a mark of his race.

I explained that I had expected to find water in the cañon but had failed to do so, and requested permission to water my horse at his spring.

“Surely, señor,” and with grave politeness he led the way behind the house, and pointed out a small covered well.

“At your service; it will be three miles before you reach water, señor.”

“You have lived here long?” I asked, for the sake of conversation.

“Yes, señor, it is five years since we came from Guadalajara. Do you know Guadalajara? It is a beautiful city, like the fine American cities, señor.”

Attracted by his friendly communicativeness, I remarked upon the music I had heard and asked whether he had brought his family from Mexico with him.

“Yes, señor; but there is but one boy.”

“Then your wife is dead?” I ventured to ask.

“Yes, señor, in Guadalajara.”

“Gracias,” he continued, in reply to my expression of sympathy; “but it is God’s will, señor; it is not good to complain; and I have the boy, and we are very happy. He is not strong, but he is very good. And clever, señor! You should hear him play.”

“Yes,” I replied, “I heard him play.”

“Ah! but that is nothing; he was but playing then to teach me to play, too. It will be fine music, señor, when I can play like he can.”

We had been walking back toward the trail as we talked, and I now stood ready to mount and continue my journey, having given up the idea of resting there, fearing I should be an intruder.

“The sun is still hot, and there is little shade, señor,” said my friendly Mexican. “Perhaps you would like to rest at the house?”

I willingly assented, and he led the way. first slipping the bridle from my horse and tying him in the shade of a tree.

On entering the house I saw a boy of perhaps fourteen years of age, lying on a roughly made cot. A glance showed that he was deformed, and a pair of home-made crutches in a corner stood mute witnesses to the fact. But his face was remarkably beautiful. the eyes, in particular, very animated and eloquent; and his smile the most radiant and affecting that I ever beheld. It seemed to take you at once into his confidence; to love you as if by nature; almost to kiss you, in its pure, spontaneous affection. It thrilled me, and thrills me now when I think of it. I can call it nothing but heavenly.

“The caballero will rest, Rafael,” said his father.

“Si, señor,” and the boy looked at me with that sweet, bright smile.

I love children. One does not usually think of a boy of fourteen as a child, in that sense; but Rafael in his weakness was a child, and a very appealing, responsive child; and Rafael’s smile was an invitation to love him as a- child. I sat down on a low box beside him and took one of his hands in mine. In the other hand he held his little instrument, playing it softly, under his breath; and whenever his eyes met mine or his father’s it was always with the heavenly smile.

“Play, Rafaelito,” said his father; “the caballero does not know how you can play.”

The boy drew his hand from mine, and after a few preliminary chords launched into the most original and brilliant variations on the same air which I had heard him play before. It was astonishing to see him, and would have been almost weird but for the extraordinary beauty of his expression. He lay, rather than sat, facing the little window, which was somewhat high in the wall on the same side as the door, and looked toward the south. The sun shone clearly in upon the lad, broken by the blurred, flickering shadows cast by the slow-moving leaves of a cottonwood. His eyes were fixed upon the sky, and shone with the steady, calm radiance of the evening star; while in strange contrast his sunken chest rose and fell as he played, with the painful agitation of a woman’s breast when she sobs. The boy was rapt, ecstatic. The little room, with its humble household contrivances, took on the enchantment, and glowed with the spirit of the pulsating music. José, the father, crouched gazing at the floor in a dream, his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging down and twitching, one foot beating time. Such passion, such freedom, were in the boy’s playing,—it was not a child playing a toy; it was a Paganini, but a heavenly Paganini.

Suddenly he ceased. José rose and came forward, a tremulous smile on his grave face. “Can he not play, señor, as I said, my Rafaelito?”

“It is marvellous,” I said. “But it is not good that you play too much, Rafael; you are not strong, and it is bad for you.”

“Oh no, señor,” he said; “I must play. I love to play; it is my life.” And he smiled his heavenly smile, his eyes glowing.

“It is true,” said José. “He plays always, and it is not well that I stop him. You see, señor, there is nothing else he can do, and one must do something: one dies.”

He took the water-pail and moved towards the door. I followed, and when we were outside I enquired how the boy had learned to play so wonderfully.

“Of himself, señor,” José replied. “He was hurt by the train when we came from Mexico; he fell from the step, and hurt his back on the iron. Then he was in the hospital at Los Angeles nearly three months, but they could not cure him. But they gave him the armónico, to amuse him; yes, they were kind, but they could not cure him; it was not God’s will. And when they let him go we came here; and we are happy. The claim, señor? no, it is not much, but it gives always enough. At first, he would come always with me where I work; it is on the hill that the claim is. But it is a year now that he is not so well, and he stays at the house, and plays and plays. That is how he plays so well. It is his life, yes, truly, his life, señor. And then he said I must play, too; and I try to play, but I am not young like him, and I cannot learn fast. But he is patient, and teaches me. And when it is moonlight we sit outside the house, and we play and play. He loves greatly the moonlight. And I tell him of Guadalajara, and the music there, and the fine churches, and he plays always; and we are very happy, señor.”

He stopped speaking, and then, with a smile that was a reflection of the boy’s, said again,— “He is an angel, my Rafaelito; and we are very happy, señor.”

It was necessary for me to resume my journey, and I returned alone to the house, José being occupied for a moment outside, to wish the boy good-bye.

“Gracias, señor,” he said, with his heavenly smile, as I again praised his playing; “and my father plays also; I have taught him, and already he plays well. Do you play, señor?”

I had to acknowledge that I had no accomplishment in that direction.

“It is a pity; it is fine to play; and father says so, too. Do you know, señor, I can always hear it, yes, when I am asleep, sometimes. I can hear it running and running like the water. And then when I wake I play it so, and it is another way, a new way, señor.”

After a pause he went on,—

“And it is such good company for one. That is why I made my father learn; and then, if I am not here,—you see I am not strong, señor,—then he will play, and it will be as if we played together; is it not so?”

“Yes,” I answered; “almost as if you played together. Good-bye, Rafael; but I shall come and see you again, and you will play again to me.”

“Yes, señor; adios, señor.” And he smiled his smile that was like a kiss.


I had finished my business and was riding back down the cañon in the cool peace of the evening. As the cold mountain breeze blew past me, it seemed a different world from that of the morning, with its throbbing heat and garish light. La Paloma still rang in my brain; and as the light faded I ceased to urge my horse, and fell into a reverie in which I seemed to see again the face of Rafael, luminous and smiling, or gazing up at the sky with his rapt look as he played and played. The tall evening-primroses that grew beside the trail were like the boy in their pale, bright serenity; and with a feeling of tenderness I leaned down and touched one here and there, as though it were he himself. The moon rose above the cañon wall, and poured its still radiance over the scene. I remembered that José had said that Rafael often played in the moonlight, and as I came near the place where the little trail led to the house I found myself listening quite eagerly. I had no intention of staying, in any case, but I had a strong desire to see the boy again, and thought I would quietly approach the house if I heard any sound, but without their knowledge, so that I could withdraw unseen. At a turn of the cañon the music suddenly reached me. They were playing together, as I had heard them in the morning: Rafael was teaching his father. I dismounted and tied my horse to a bush, and quietly walked to where I could plainly see without being seen. The moon now shone full upon the little opening, and its idyll of love and simplicity. The mattress had been drawn out from under the tree where I had seen it into the moonlight, and on it lay José and Rafael, side by side, playing.

“Did I play well, Rafaelito mio?”

“It is excellent, yes, excelentísimo,” answered Rafaelito of the Heavenly Smile.

Although it had seemed likely that I should find it necessary soon to repeat my journey into the San Timoteo, two years elapsed before I was again in the cañon. I was far from having forgotten old José and the boy. On my way up I was pressed for time, and did not call at the house, but contented myself with riding near enough to see that it appeared to be still inhabited, and determining to stop there on my return at night. I recalled vividly the vision that my memory had preserved (as it always will), of the father and son playing together in the moonlight; and I hoped that I might repeat an experience that was so sacred in its touching simplicity. Perhaps I was unduly sentimental, but so it seemed to me.

There was a half moon that night, and I rode quickly down the cañon, enjoying the scents that filled the air from sage, laurel, and the hundred and one aromatic herbs and shrubs of the California brush. I passed again the tall evening-primroses, standing in silent beauty like spellbound fairy princesses, and their pale tranquillity again reminded me of Rafael. It was still early when I came to the little trail, and I had no doubt of finding my friends either in the house or, perhaps, playing in the moonlight as I had last seen them. But when I came near the house there was no sound of talking or playing, and I saw no light, though the door stood open. I tied my horse, and approaching, knocked, and called “José! Rafael!” There was no answer, and with a feeling of disappointment I struck a match and stepped within. Evidently the house was inhabited, and by the same owner, for there was but little change in the appearance of the room; but when I looked for the boy’s bed, and his crutches, I could not see them. Something of a presentiment came over me; many things may happen in two years, and the boy had been a cripple. Going outside, I was upon the point of calling the father’s name again, when I thought I heard, faintly and at a distance, the well-remembered sound of the playing. Yes, I heard it unmistakably; it came from beyond the house, intermittently, as the breeze brought it. Following it I soon found that I was on a well-marked path that led up a little side-cañon, of which the gully that one had to cross in reaching the house from the road was a continuation. The path I was on led, no doubt, to José’s placer-claim; but what could be the reason of his being there at night, and where was the boy?

Following the path, which was steep and rocky, I came nearer and nearer to the music: it was again La Paloma. Then the trail emerged on a little opening, which was, in fact, the top of the spur of rock which rose behind the house. At a little distance I saw some one sitting, playing: it was José. He had not seen me, nor heard my approach. When I called his name he ceased playing, and came slowly toward me. The moonlight was on his grave, dark face; he did not at first recognize me.

“José,” I said, “you remember me?” I turned my face to the light.

“Yes, señor,” he said, “now I know you; and you are welcome. I fear it was hard for you to find me.”

“No,” I replied, “I heard you play. You played when I was here before.”

“Yes, I remember, señor,” said José.

“And the boy, Rafaelito, who played so beautifully,” I said: “I have not forgotten, José. Where is he?”

“Dead, señor”; he spoke quietly. “You would like to see the place? It is here, close by, señor.”

He led the way, talking simply as we walked.

“We were very happy; yes, that is it, perhaps we were too happy, señor, do you not think so? One must have trouble, and the boy was not strong.”

He stopped at the spot where I had seen him sitting. There was a little enclosure, the shape of a grave, not to be noticed at a little distance, marked out with roughly broken pieces of quartz. At one end a cross was marked upon the ground in the same way; and in the centre of the enclosure there was a small, shallow, wooden box, about a foot square, such as some articles of food are packed in; but a piece of glass formed the top, which was held in place by four pebbles of white quartz. Something glittered like metal under the glass; it was the beloved armónico, and Rafaelito of the Heavenly Smile lay beneath.

“When I work,—it is over there that I work, señor, quite near,—I can look and see the place. And always I come here in the evenings, and then I play. He made me learn; he was very patient, my Rafaelito. And was it not fortunate that I learned, señor? it is as though we played together.”

“— Yes, it is hard; but it is God’s will, and it is not good to complain. Vaya con Dios, señor.”

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