Liberty! Liberty! For a half-century we have done nothing but repeat this word, and one would say that those mouths which pronounce it belong to the heads which are ignorant of its meaning, or rather that it has no meaning; for, if one says: ‘We are free!’ ten others cry out at once: ‘We, we are oppressed!’ Such an one who found, a few years ago, too great a freedom, to-day demands very much more; and this is, doubtless, because each one has his own idea of liberty, and it is impossible to create a liberty for each one. – Liberty to empty the treasury of the state. – Liberty to seize public position. – Liberty to gather in sinecures. – Liberty to get one’s self pensioned for imaginary services. – Liberty to calumniate, abuse, revile the most venerated things. -Is this to enjoy liberty? No, it is to abuse it, to profane it.
“It is, then, shown that no one is agreed on what is political liberty; but it is not that about which I wished to write. It is a freedom composed, I will not say of all men, but of all beings who are in existence; it is this that nature demands imperiously; it is this, in truth, that crime compels society to take away from the wrong-doer; but it is this, also, that injustice and force snatch away from the unhappy slave.”
Thus wrote Captain Duhaut-Cilly in his journal for the year 1827, contrasting his ideal of freedom with the actual condition of the aborigines in California, under the domination, as they were at that time, of the Catholic Church, through its agent, the order of the Franciscans.
Just a few words are necessary here as an introduction to the story of Pomponio, to enable the reader to have a clear impression of the condition of affairs, political and ecclesiastical, in the province of Nueva California during the first thirty years of the past century. When the country was explored and settled by the Franciscans, their ostensible and, in the earlier days, real, aim was to civilize the Indians, teaching them to live useful, moral lives, and instructing them in the doctrines of Christianity. But to do this, force was necessary to subdue the turbulence of insubordination. Gradually, at last, the greater number of the natives were forced under the rule of the friars, who brought them to such subjection as was actual slavery in all but in name. It is a matter of regret that this was so, yet, though an evil, it was a necessary one, for to do any measure of good to the Indians, an oversight in every detail was essential; and, after all, the savages were treated with almost uniform mildness, and the instances of cruelty and wickedness practiced toward them, as in this tale of Pomponio, were most happily very rare. It is a blot on the history of the Franciscans in California that there was a single instance of anything but kindness and humanity; but the truth cannot be ignored, however much it grieve us to know it. Let us turn to Pomponio. His is a strange tale.
Distant about a league south from Mission San Francisco stood a little Indian hut, made from the tules and rushes which were found growing with such luxuriance in all parts of Nueva California. It was built in the form of a cone with a blunt apex, was less than ten feet in diameter, and but little more than that in height. An opening near the ground gave communication with the outer air, and a small hole at the top of the hut allowed the smoke from the fire to pass away. This hut stood in the centre of a small open spot among the trees of the dense forest which surrounded it on all sides; small in extent like the many other wooded spots in the peninsula which terminated at the mission and the presidio of San Francisco, but sufficiently large to force a stranger to them to lose his way almost at the first step. But, difficult to find by the stranger, this little open space was correspondingly safe from pursuit by any one bent on hostile deeds; and for this reason it had been selected by Pomponio for a retreat for himself.
Pomponio was a mission Indian, had been connected with the religious establishment since boyhood, and had made, great progress on the way to becoming a civilized human being. He had a mind above the low level of the average Californian Indian intellect, and had been an object of solicitude to the padres, arousing in them an interest in his mental and spiritual welfare seldom evoked by the neophytes in general. For years Pomponio had been contented with the life he led under the tutelage and control of the fathers, receiving unquestioningly their teaching, and regarding their ordering and direction of his and his parents’ life and actions in every particular with indifferent eyes. But when Pomponio left childhood and youth behind him, and acquired the mind of a man, Indian though it was, he began to see the state of things in a different light. “What right have these padres,” he would say to himself, “to come here from far away, take our land from us, make us work for them, and order us about as we should women and children taken from our enemies in war?, And what do they give us in return? They teach us the religion of their God, and make us learn their catechism. Is their religion any, better than ours their God more powerful than the Great Spirit? What better is it to till the ground for growing food than to kill the wild animals with bow and arrow? Why did my father’s father and all the strong men of those days permit these espaoles to come here? I would have, withstood them to the last drop of my life’s blood.”
Thus would Pomponio question. The Indians of Nueva California were mild and gentle, having nothing in common with their, neighbors, the warlike Yumas, and were easily subjected by the early Franciscans. But gentle and pliant as they were, there were always a few, fiercer than the rest, who did not brook calmly the sight of their subjection; and these bolder ones stirred up, from time to time, the other natives to insurrection. Many were the uprisings at the different missions – one of the earliest at San Diego, in 1775, when the savages killed one of the padres; one, the last, and only a few months before the beginning of our tale, late in 1824, when the two missions, Pursima and Santa Inés, were almost destroyed. This last uprising had had more to do with Pomponio’s change of attitude toward the fathers than anything else; and it had fired his zeal to devote his life to the freeing of his kindred and tribe from the slavery in which they were held at Mission San Francisco.
Pomponio, simple savage that he was, knew little of human nature; either Indian or civilized. He judged others by himself, not realizing the great difference between himself and the generality of the tribe to which he belonged. He had had many talks with the various men of the tribe, trying to instill into their minds some of the ferment of his own; but to his amazement and anger they were too far sunk in their servitude to be roused by his projects. A few there were, young and venturesome like himself, who declared themselves ready to follow him as a leader; and among these were some of the fierce savages of the forests, with whom he was always in touch; but how could a mere handful of a score of Indians cope successfully with the men of the mission, aided, as they would be, by the trained soldiers of the presidio? Pomponio had sense enough to see that such procedure would be foolhardy, and he abandoned the plan for the time, hoping his little body of followers would increase, when the disparity in strength and numbers between the two sides might be less.
Pomponio was some twenty-three years old. A short time before he had married an Indian girl, and, with her, lived in a little adobe house, a few paces from the mission church. Pomponio and Rosa had lived the regular life of the neophytes, working at various occupations of the community – Pomponio tilling the ground and caring for the crops, and helping in the making of bricks for the houses; Rosa spinning and weaving and cooking. After they were married they continued with their customary labors, still under the tutelage of the fathers. But about this time, Father Altimira had begun to notice the alteration in Pomponio’s demeanor. Wondering at the change in one of his most promising neophytes, he had sought to find a clue to the mystery. From an unquestioning readiness in everything pertaining to his mission life, Pomponio had begun to neglect his duties, shirking the tasks given him, wandering off among the mountains and stirring up the mission Indians to a state of dissatisfaction and ill-feeling. Father Altimira had seen Pomponio’s growing negligence with concern, but to his questioning Pomponio would give no answer as to the reason for his new attitude toward his masters. The Father, finding that persuasion was of no avail in correcting Pomponio’s disobedience, had him locked up in the mission prison for twenty-four hours, after which he was released with a reprimand and warning.
Pomponio walked out of the prison and to his house without a word. For a few days he was quiet and attentive to his work, not from fear of the consequences of doing otherwise (that is not the Indian nature, even of those poor natives of Nueva California), but because he was awaiting his opportunity for inflicting some injury on his persecutors, as he had come to think of them.
One night Father Altimira, who was a light sleeper, awoke, thinking he had heard a faint noise in the room adjoining his bed-room, which was used as a store-room for the books, the rich vestments embroidered with gold and silver threads, and the money belonging to the mission. At this time there was, in the strong iron-bound chest used for the safekeeping of these valuables, a sum of nearly five thousand dollars in gold, and the Father’s first thought on waking, was of this money. Rising on his elbow, he listened. Hearing nothing, he was about to lie down, when again came the sound which had disturbed him, scarcely louder than the chirp of a far-away cricket, and which, but for the utter silence of the night, would have been swallowed up in the thick depths of the adobe wall between the two rooms. Springing out of bed, he threw on his clothes, and without a thought of danger to himself, hurried out to the, cloisters and the next room. The night was dark, and he could not make out anything until he reached the window of the room from which came the noise. The heavy, wooden shutters were slightly ajar, and through the narrow upright opening between them, filtered the faint light from a small lantern in the room. With noiseless steps, Father Altimira approached the window, and looked through the crack between the two shutters. There, in front of the ironbound box, knelt Pomponio, busily at work on the stout padlock that guarded the treasures within. With all the strength of his powerful arms he filed away at the bar of the padlock. For a moment the Father, forgot his part in the nocturnal business, and stood, breathless, at the window, fascinated by the quick motion of the arm back and forth, and the strident sound of the file as it slowly ate its way through the steel. Suddenly Pomponio paused and looked up, with an expression of fear and hate on his face, dreadful, to see. Snatching up the lantern from the floor, he dropped it behind the great box, and ran to the window. The Father stooped, and crouched close against the wall under the window – for there had not been time to get away – and waited, hardly daring to breathe. Pomponio carefully opened the shutters and peered out, but he could distinguish nothing in the intense blackness. After listening a moment and hearing no sound, he closed the shutters and went back to his work. The priest waited until he again heard the screech of the file before he dared to move. This action of Pomponio recalled him to himself, and the responsibility resting on him regarding the safety of the mission funds.
With hasty strides, the Father started off to seek assistance. He hurried to the other end of the row of buildings, some three hundred feet distant, where lived the Mexican servants of the mission. At the house of the carpenter, which was the first he came to, the priest rapped loudly on the door, and called to the occupant to awaken. Juan, the carpenter, answered almost at once, and came to the door. Before he could ejaculate a word of surprise on seeing the Father, the latter had told him the trouble.
“Arouse, with all haste, the men in the next house, while I go for Rafael. Be ready when I come back,” and the Father hurried off.
Juan lost no time in awakening the two men in the house near-by. A moment after, the Father returned with Rafael, the overseer, and together the five men ran swiftly and silently to the scene of the disturbance. Nearing the window through which Pomponio had forced an entrance, the carpenter stepped up to it softly. The Father’s absence had not been longer than five minutes, and the thief was still hard at work filing the padlock. Muttering to Rafael to follow him, and the other two men to guard the window without, Juan noiselessly pushed open the heavy shutters, and sprang through the window, Rafael close at his heels.
It was not until both men had passed through the window, so quick were their movements, that Pomponio became aware he was discovered. Looking up, he dropped the file, snatched up the lantern and hurled it against the wall, shivering it into pieces. Just as the light went out the men seized him. Pomponio fought like a demon, and was fast getting loose from their clutches, when Juan shouted to the men outside to come to their aid; but too late. As they clambered through the window, and sought to lay hold of him, which was not the work of a moment in the darkness, the neophyte broke from his antagonists and sprang to one side, avoiding the oncoming couple from the window. While the men were shouting and swearing, groping this way and that to find their prey, Pomponio slid softly to the window, jumped through it, and set off, at his utmost speed, for the open plain and not far distant forest. During the fray Father Altimira had remained somewhat apart, outside the room. As Pomponio rushed by him, the Father, calling him by name, commanded him to stop. He paid no attention, but kept on his way, and was immediately lost in the darkness. By this time the four men had piled out of the window, falling over each other in their eagerness to pursue the fast escaping game.
“It is useless to follow him,” cried the Father. “You could not find him in this gloom. Wait till daylight, and we will hunt for him. We must see what damage he has done in the store-room. Stay here. I will get a light.”
The Father went to his chamber, and brought out a lighted lantern, and with this the men returned to the now, quiet room, entering by the door which the priest unlocked with the key he had taken from its hiding place in his own room. With the exception of the shattered lantern, and the file and hammer lying on the floor, everything was in order. The bar of the padlock was almost filed through – three minutes more, and Pomponio would have been away with his booty. As further sleep that night was out of the question, the Father and one of the men remained on guard in the room until dawn, the others reconnoitering every half-hour to see that all was quiet around the mission.
When morning came; the first thing the Father did was to send a messenger to the presidio, four miles distant, with a letter to the commandant, relating the occurrence of the night, and asking for a guard for the mission, and a number of men to take up the hunt for the escaped culprit. The soldiers arrived during the day, and at once made active preparations for finding Pomponio. Beyond knowing the general direction he had taken in fleeing from the mission, which the padre had noted as well as he could in the darkness, the hunters were wholly at sea as to where to look. He might be in any part of the hills and forests which surrounded the mission on all sides. To the north he would probably not go, for that way lay the presidio, and the country was more open and traveled, as well as terminating, at no great distance, at the water’s edge of the bay. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an Indian of Pomponio’s intelligence, but the soldiers began their task, searching near, and far, visiting the various rancheras and the room, to rob which he had made such a bold and country for many days, but without result. We shall leave them for a while, and see what is become of our fugitive.
As Pomponio passed the Father in his flight from the room, to rob which he had made such a bold and nearly successful attempt, he heard the priest calling him to stop; but what cared he for his master? Had not he been fleeing for his liberty and, perhaps, for his life, he would have killed the Father on the spot: not because he hated his kind teacher, but because in him was embodied the life of the mission, or so it seemed to Pomponio; and his death would have been one blow given toward the freedom of his kind. But Pomponio’s first thought now was for his own safety, and he took the shortest course to the forests south of the mission. As much at home among the great trees as at the mission, he made his way into their depths with unerring aim, in spite of the Egyptian darkness, until he reached a slight thinning of the trees, where he halted. The spot, mentioned at the beginning of this tale, was a favorite of Pomponio, and one he visited from time to time, when he wished to be free to hold communication with the wild men in the neighborhood. Here he felt reasonably secure from surprise, and here he meant to spend the days to come.
There was an old Indian hut in the open space which once had sheltered some family, and was now abandoned. Pomponio took possession of this. When daylight came, he went in search of the savages in the forest, and on finding them, he recounted his adventure and the consequences to himself. Among the Indians were the larger number of those who had sworn allegiance to Pomponio, promising to follow him whenever he should decide for a general extermination of the detested Spaniards. They welcomed him warmly, and supplied him with food and everything he needed for his hut. The Indians not included in his band of followers had, heretofore, looked askance on Pomponio, and had sought to withdraw him from the mission into their own wild life. This he had refused to do, contending, with more than usual Indian intelligence, that he would be able to wreak greater harm to the Spanish if connected with the mission. This had been the principal reason for his small following. Now that he had broken definitely with his old life, they espoused his cause almost to a man, and at last he had the joy of seeing himself at the head of a very respectable band of nearly fifty determined men. The majority of them were for advancing to the enemy without a day’s delay, and striking a decisive blow once for all. But Pomponio refused.
“No,”, he said. “Wait until the excitement of last night dies away; then we shall stand a better chance of winning. But now the mission will be on guard, and we should be defeated.”
This cogent reasoning prevailed, but the hotheaded youths grumbled much and long at the delay.
Pomponio, himself, chafed at their enforced inaction, necessary though he knew it to be. Then another thing that troubled him was the thought of his wife. Would they think she knew of his attempt that night, and punish her? He had told her nothing, but whether she could make the Father believe it, was another matter. Much he wished he could have some communication with her, and tell her where he was, and beg her to join him. But it was too dangerous. Without a doubt she was watched closely, if she were not actually imprisoned. So he gave up all thought of it.
The days dragged slowly along for Pomponio and his companions. Several times during the following two weeks he heard reports of the doings of the mission from different ones of the Indians who went thitherto reconnoitre. From these he learned that the soldiers were still kept there, and while they remained on guard, nothing could be done. Once Pomponio stole up to the more distant houses of the mission in the gathering dusk of approaching night. He heard the chant of the fathers and their servants at their evening devotions. All was calm and quiet, and he was just about to risk the attempt to go to his old home, in the hope of seeing Rosa, when a soldier came into view from behind the church. Pomponio crouched down behind a shrub near which he was standing, and waited until the man disappeared again from sight in his round of the buildings. Then noiselessly he crawled away to his companions in the forest.
It was about two weeks after Pomponio’s flight. He had been holding a council of war with his followers, and had told them that, at last, the time was come to strike for liberty. The soldiers at the mission had not been seen for some days, and it was thought they had returned to the presidio. What a shout of exultation went up from the Indians! Now the time was at hand, the time they had looked forward to for so long, when, at one single blow, they hoped to free themselves from their hated oppressors. Vain hope! Had they forgotten already what was the fate of a similar uprising in the southern missions only a few months before? But each one learns from his own experience. The Indian is sanguine, and hopes to succeed where others have failed, or carries out his purposes, desperately and without hope, to end in certain failure. This is not an Indian trait exclusively; it is a question of the weak overpowered by the strong, and has shown itself in all parts of the earth and in every race of mankind. See how well treated were the Indians of Nueva California by their conquerors, mild, humane and devoted to their interests, having given up home and friends to isolate themselves in a wild new country, solely to bestow on these gentiles the blessings of civilization and, above all, the gift of Christ’s religion. We may wonder why they were not willing and glad to follow the fathers’, almost without exception, gentle guidance. But the one thing necessary to make it a complete success was wanting – freedom. That was the keystone on which all depended: lacking that, the whole mission system was, by just so much, a failure.
Pomponio was returning to his hut late that day after telling his followers to hold themselves in readiness for marching on to the mission on the nightfall of the morrow. He had nearly reached his habitation, and was walking slowly and with downcast head, buried deep in thought over the approaching conflict which he had wished for so long. Pomponio saw clearly that the task before him and his band was a difficult one. He was not blind to the fact that, even should they succeed at this mission, there would be left in the land twenty others, each one of which would give aid in quelling a revolt at San Francisco, and punishing the insurgents. But Pomponio was in a desperate mood. He preferred failure and death to his life at the mission, and he knew his present life as a fugitive could not last; he would certainly be captured sooner or later.
He walked slowly on. Had not he been so absorbed in thought of the crisis of his life, on the brink of which he stood, the indications of something unusual and foreboding would have arrested his attention. A rustling among the leaves and brush of the undergrowth told of the presence of some animated thing, human or brute. Once a gleam, as of some highly burnished metal flashing in the sun, was to be detected -that surely was no animal! But Pomponio walked on oblivious to these signs which, at any other time, he would have been the first to notice. He was within a few yards of the hut, and on the edge of the clearing, when he heard a crackling among the branches underfoot, and a rushing toward him. One glance was enough. Three soldiers, armed with muskets, were upon him, one on each side, the third in front. They were close to him before he was aware of their presence, and escape was impossible, for he was seized and his arms bound behind him almost as soon as he knew he was captured.
“Aha! we have you at last,” cried the leader. “You thought we could not find you out here, hiding in the forest. And I must say it has been hard enough and taken long enough. But we have you safe now, you rascal.”
Pomponio said not a word. From the first, so soon as he saw he was helpless, he submitted quietly, and suffered the soldiers to bind his arms with the leather thong they had brought with them. Had his Indian followers been within sound of his voice, he would have shouted to them to come, not to rescue him – that could not have been done, for the soldiers, at the instant of his call and the answering cries of the Indians, would have shot him dead – but to kill the soldiers. The Indians were too far distant for this. How the soldiers had escaped the savages was a mystery. They must have been at his hut soon after his leaving it that morning, and kept watch for the return of its inmate, thinking it might be Pomponio himself, or some one who would lead to the discovery of his whereabouts. Only in this way could they have missed the Indians roaming in the forest that day, as they made their preparations for the eventful morrow.
“Now, my man, off to the presidio,” said the leader, after they had finished binding Pomponio’s arms securely. “We have no time to lose; the sun is low in the west, and will be set long before we get there. So step lively all.”
The soldiers picked up their muskets, and started off quickly in the direction of the mission, Pomponio guarded by a man on each side, grasping his pinioned arms. Alas! Was this the end of his long, long planning; was this the outcome of the insurrection which was to have been the prelude to a glorious victory, that he should have been caught through his own carelessness and carried off ignominiously to prison? Pomponio could have sacrificed his life gladly for the cause he had so much at heart; but to be captured before the blow for liberty had been struck was unbearable. He had been the prime mover in planning the revolt, and well he knew his capture sounded the knell, for no one could take his place successfully as leader.
The soldiers hurried their prisoner forward almost on the run, partly because it was so late, and they had a long walk before them, partly from fear of encountering some of the savages they knew were in the forest. However, they were not molested, and reached the mission, lying on their way, as the last bit of sunset color faded away on the horizon. They delayed only long enough to relate the circumstance of the capture, and to get two of the soldiers, acting as guard at the mission, to accompany them to the presidio. Pomponio did not see the Father, who was engaged with the sick in the hospital, and he was glad. After a stop, of a few minutes, they again took up their march, and reached the presidio a little later. Here the commandant of the garrison, after having heard the tale of the leader, and taken a look at Pomponio, ordered him to be chained to the wall in a room of the prison. This was done. The chains were fastened around his ankles; his arms were unbound, and he was left to solitude and darkness.
Poor savage captive! Alone, abandoned, and chained to the wall of the little cell he was in, so closely that he could barely reach the low, rough bench on which to sit. But Pomponio could have borne his imprisonment patiently, even cheerfully, had the rebellion only taken place, successfully or not. That was the maddening thought. He buried his head in his hands. Well he knew that all hope was over. Even though he might manage to escape, he would find the Indians dispersed and in hiding, too frightened at the effect his capture might have on the Spaniards, and the result to themselves. All was over. He had nothing farther to live for. Even the thought of Rosa failed to rouse him, for he knew he had been too wicked in the eyes of the fathers to be permitted to see her again – whether in prison or liberated, if such a thing could have been dreamed of, she was dead to him.
Yet the love of life is implanted too deeply in the human breast to die before life itself deserts our mortal body. As Pomponio crouched there, bound and forsaken, a passionate feeling of revolt at his doom arose within him. Was he to be killed; must he leave this earth, beautiful to him even when in the lowest depths of misery, and that, too, at the command of his enemies, who had stolen his country and made him and his kindred slaves? They should not take his life, the only thing they had left him. And with the wish came into his mind a plan of escape that made him start.
When the soldiers arrested and imprisoned Pomponio, they neglected to search him, thinking, no doubt, that by no possible means could he escape from them, chained as securely as if to the solid rock itself. Pomponio had, stuck in his belt underneath his shirt, a hunting-knife, his trusty weapon and constant companion. No one who has not lived in the wilderness can have any idea of the value of the hunting-knife. The uses to which it can be put are countless. It is pocket-knife, scissors, hatchet, dagger, and all cutting and stabbing instruments in one; it will, moreover, take the place of revolver and rifle on many occasions, and has one immense advantage over them – its utter silence. It is a powerful, and, at need, murderous weapon.
Pomponio pulled out his knife from its leather sheath and examined it by touch, for it was too dark to see it. He felt carefully of the blade; yes, it was, sharp as a razor, and would do the work wanted of it. He grasped it nervously, but firmly, in his right hand. Then he paused. Was it, after all, worth the pain he must suffer; had life anything in store for him in recompense for what he must endure? He could not expect to be again a power among his brethren. At the best he would be the mere wreck of what he had, till now, been to his followers. They might look to him for counsel and advice: as a leader he could be of no more use. Again, admitting he had the courage to do the deed, could his strength hold out until he reached a place of safety? Suppose he fell helpless on the way; he would be found and brought back. Yet to do nothing was to receive certain death, or what, to Pomponio, with his Indian pride, was worse, a public whipping, such as he had heard was given sometimes for grave offenses; and afterward such humiliation in his life of bondage as was not to be borne. No, anything to free himself out of the hands of his persecutors. He hesitated no longer.
Clutching the knife, he stooped. Taking firm hold of his foot, as it rested on the ground, with his left hand, he poised the edge of the knife on his heel, back of the iron ring; then, with all his strength, he gave one quick, sharp cut downward and severed the prominence of the heel, removing the greater part of the os calcis. Not a sound passed his lips. Letting fall the knife, he pushed the ring down over the wound and the length of his foot. One foot was free, but only one; he was still as much a prisoner as before. Could he bear the torture again?
He gave himself no time to think, but picking up the knife, repeated, with convulsive strength, the operation on his other foot. With a low moan, wrung from him by the double agony, he leaned, faint and deathly sick, against the wall. In this position he remained for many minutes, until, above the pain, arose the thought that he was not yet free.
The small window of the prison was within easy reach from the floor, and it would have been the work of an instant to vault through it, had Pomponio not been disabled by the ugly wounds he had inflicted upon himself. With a sigh he stood up slowly on his maimed feet. Think of the power of will of the poor Indian, his love of life, and, more than his love of life, his hatred of his oppressors, to go through the agony each movement caused him! He crept up to the window, laid hold of the sill, and, with his hands, drew himself up to, and through it, the blood spouting from his wounds at every inch of progress. Lowering himself from the window, he lay down on the ground to gather a little strength for flight. But first he must bind up his feet, in order that his blood might not betray whither he went. Taking off his cotton shirt, he tore it in half, and wrapped each foot in a piece. The touch of the cloth to his wounds was like fire; but by this time his nerves were benumbed to such a degree that he scarcely noticed it.
Going on hands and knees, he started to creep over the distance lying between him and the fringe of trees near the presidio. There was a good half-mile, and Pomponio feared he could not cover it. Four times he fell to the ground unconscious, four times he revived and pushed on with all the strength he could muster. Fortunately he had started early in the night, for he needed every minute of the darkness. Foot after foot, yard after yard, he crept along, the presidio and the other buildings receding in the increasing distance behind him, while the welcome woods and hills, his refuge, loomed up, higher and darker, as he neared them. At last he reached the shelter of the trees, his friends, as the first faint streaks of the dawn began to brighten in the east. Only a little time remained before the hue and cry would begin, and he must find a place of concealment before then, else he were lost. Pomponio knew every part of the forests for miles around; and after getting under cover of them, he turned at a slight angle toward the southwest, and made straight for a cave he had once visited when hunting for a bear. He remembered it was concealed by a thick tangled mass of bushes and young trees, hiding it so effectually that discovery was well nigh impossible. In pursuing the bear, Pomponio had tracked it to the cave which it had entered, and this it was that gave him the secret. Summoning all his remaining strength for a last supreme effort, he dragged himself on slowly and painfully. It was not far, and soon he recognized the clump of bushes that shaded the entrance; and none too soon, for just before reaching it, he heard a musket shot in the direction of the presidio. His flight was discovered. But he was safe, for the present, at least; and crouching down in the depths of the dark cave, kind nature once more came to his relief, and he knew no more.
Great was the excitement at the presidio when Pomponio’s escape was discovered. The soldiers, on going past the place on their morning rounds, saw the bloody tracks of the prisoner’s descent on the wall under the window. An instant investigation was made, and the truth of the awful manner in which Pomponio had accomplished his evasion disclosed. Stupefied, the commandant and his men gazed at, the traces of the deed, the pools of half-dried dark blood and the two pieces of bone, eloquent of the fortitude he must have possessed, the desperation he was in, to perpetrate such an act.
Might not it be thought that so astonishing a hardihood would have awakened a feeling of admiration and pity for the unfortunate being? So heroic a deed would have elicited praise to rend the skies from the peoples of antiquity, and the story of Pomponio would have passed down from generation to generation as that of one of their brave men. But, alas! in the breasts of the men with whom Pomponio had to deal, no such sentiment of ruth was raised. On the contrary, they were roused to an even greater violence of hatred and anger toward the poor savage. Wild with rage that his prisoner, whom he had hunted for so long, should have escaped when securely bound, the commandant sent out his men in squads of four and five to scour the woods and find their prey. “He must and shall be found,” he said.
The search was instituted forthwith. For days, weeks and months, they hunted for Pomponio, but not a trace of him was found. Gradually, as time went on, the search was given up, for the intense excitement roused by his flight died out from want of fresh fuel to feed upon, and, in addition, the soldiers were required for other more immediate needs; so that, before a year was past after his escape, all interest in the subject ceased, and Pomponio was seldom thought of, or his name spoken, except among those of the Indians to whom he and his deed were ever an impulse toward insubordination.
And what was Pomponio doing? At first from necessity, on account of his wounded feet, and afterward so long as the soldiers kept up a vigorous search for him, he made the cave, in which he had taken refuge, his home. All that day, following the night of his escape, he lay in the cave, more dead than alive, caring for nothing, wishing, even, he might die, now he was out of the grasp of his enemies. But the next morning the pangs of hunger awakened him to life and its realities. Nearly two days were passed since he had had a morsel to eat. He was too weak to go in search of food, and his only help must come from making his presence known to some of the Indians who were scattered in the forest. Pomponio crawled to the opening, and out beyond the clump of bushes hiding it, with the greatest caution. Slowly and painfully he reconnoitered in every direction – no trace or sound of the soldiers. Picking out a vantage point, from which he had a survey among the trees of several hundred feet radius, he took up his watch, keeping a careful lookout for the soldiers, as well as for any of his kindred who might chance to wander thither. Here he passed the day, his little strength slowly leaving him as the hours went by, until, near evening, he felt that unless help came before the darkness fell, he could not survive the night. Almost past caring whether the soldiers found him, he lay back against a little heap of leaves he had scooped together, giving himself up to the numb, delicious feeling of the last sleep – no more to be feared and fought against – when his ear caught the sound of steps, muffled by the leaves of the undergrowth carpeting the ground. He started; life for an instant returned to him. Did that portend the approach of the soldiers, or was it some friendly Indian roaming the forest for game, and now on his return home? He gazed into the obscurity of the approaching night, lying back too weak to move, though it were his enemies come to take him again. But his fear was vain. It was an Indian boy, not more than fifteen years old, on the way to his tribe. At sight of him Pomponio was rejoiced, for the nearing Indian belonged to his own tribe, and but for his extreme youth would have been included among Pomponio’s followers in the contemplated revolt.
His eyes lighted up with the fire of life. He raised himself on an elbow, and when the Indian was within a few yards of him, and about to turn aside to reenter the thicker woods beyond, Pomponio called to him. His voice was hardly above a whisper, but it was sufficient. The Indian heard, and, turned quickly. Seeing the form of a man, he started, and was on the point of springing away into the forest, when Pomponio spoke, this time in a louder and stronger tone:
“Help me Taxlipu, I – am nearly dead. I am Pomponio.”
“Pomponio!” almost shrieked the boy. “It cannot be. I saw Pomponio carried away and locked up at the presidio, and an Indian told me he had been chained fast to the wall of his prison cell.”
The boy came nearer as he said this, but he held himself ready to flee at the least movement of the figure lying on the ground. “Surely it is his spirit,” he said to himself, “for it is, indeed, the countenance of Pomponio.”
But the wounded man spoke again: “I am Pomponio. I cut myself loose from the chains that bound me, and escaped from my prison. Give me a little water, else I die,” and again he lost consciousness.
But, he was saved. Taxlipu came close, and gazed earnestly at the dark upturned face. Yes, that was Pomponio. He sprang away and dashed madly into the forest, and on to the settlement of the Indians, for help. Here he found a number of Pomponio’s followers together, talking sadly of the mishap to their chief. Taxlipu burst in on them with the startling news that Pomponio had escaped and was now in the forest nearly dead. The men sprang up, telling the boy to lead them to the place. But before starting, one of the Indians went to a hut close by, and brought out with him part of a rabbit, freshly cooked, and an olla of water. With these, the company set off on the run, led by Taxlipu. It was only a few minutes before they reached the spot where Pomponio lay as one dead. The Indian with the water knelt down by his side, and poured some drops into his mouth. After a short while, during which the dose was repeated as often as it was swallowed, Pomponio opened his eyes, drawing a heavy sigh.
Tenderly and reverently they cared for him. At his request they bore him into the cave where he would be safe from the sight of any chance party from the presidio hunting for him, and here they nursed him back to life and strength. It was many days before he recovered from the effects of the great loss of blood he had suffered; many more before the wounds in his feet healed. From the ill-usage to which he had subjected them, inflammation set in, and at one time great fear was felt that he could not survive; but his strong constitution prevailed. Yet after all he would have died gladly, for he was a helpless cripple from that day, hobbling around only with the aid of rude crutches.
His comrades vied with each other in their attentions to the sick leader, and after he had recovered from the fever and weakness, they furnished him with all the necessaries of life which he was unable to obtain by his own efforts. After a few months in the cave, Pomponio left it to be with the Indians in the forest near the mission; but he was careful to keep away from the neighborhood of the scene of his capture, judging rightly that that place would be under surveillance at any time of uneasiness. However, there was no thought of farther insurrection. Their spirit had been broken with Pomponio’s capture, for a long time, at any rate. But although they had abandoned all idea of a general uprising, they did everything in their power to annoy and harass their enemies: stealing their horses and cattle and sheep; devastating their crops of wheat and grapes, and, once or twice, setting fire to an outlying mission house or granary. Their lofty idea of freedom from servitude had degenerated thus into a system of petty depredation.
Here, among his friends, Pomponio passed the days quietly and sadly, caring for nothing, and going through mechanically the routine of each day. His spirit was crushed – not so much from the effects of his treatment, but because his long thought of, long desired, purpose was come to naught. He paid but little attention to the affairs of those about him. They went and came, carried on their game of life, rousing in him only a gleam of interest. Thus three years passed.
One day, in the early spring, the Indians went away on a foraging expedition, leaving Pomponio alone in his hut. It had been a warm, sunny day, and in the afternoon Pomponio dragged himself to a little moss-covered bank under the trees, on which he stretched himself, and, after a short time, he fell asleep. All was quiet. Not a sound was to be heard save the insects humming drowsily in the heated air, and, now and then, the whirr of an oriole as it flew swiftly past, lighting up with a glint of gold the shadows among the trees. The oriole is sunlight incarnate.
But this quiet scene was to be broken. The sound of branches snapping beneath the tread of some heavy foot was heard. It drew near the secluded spot; then the form of a man, carrying a musket, could be discerned, making his way, to the glade. He reached the edge of the clearing, when he espied the sleeping Indian, lying with his face turned from. him. He halted instantly. Was it an Indian belonging to the mission, and playing truant, or one of the savages of the forests, from whom the mission had suffered so much during the last three years? He must find out. Creeping so slowly and carefully that not a sound was heard again from his feet among the plants, he passed around the edge of the glade to a point nearly opposite, in order to get a more direct view of the sleeping man. What a diabolical expression of alternate hate and triumph passed over his countenance! Here was the scoundrel who had escaped from the presidio. After three years, when hope of ever finding him again had died out, when, except for the depredations continually taking place at the mission and presidio, every one would have declared Pomponio was dead of the wounds he had inflicted on himself, that he, Pablo, the youngest soldier at the presidio, when out hunting, and with no thought of enemies near, should find the miscreant, asleep and in his power! This would advance him in the good graces of the commandant.
There was no time to lose. Pomponio might awake at any moment; his friends in the forest might return on the instant. He raised his musket and took long and steady aim at the Indian. There was a report that raised the echoes. With lightning speed the soldier reloaded, and then cautiously drew nearer; but there was no need of apprehension from Pomponio. He was dead – shot through the heart. The soldier gazed at the inanimate form, at the bullet-hole in his breast, from which the blood was trickling, and at the poor mutilated feet. Did a glimmer of pity stir in his heart? It were hard to say. Yet, as he stood there looking down at his work, perhaps there was a little feeling of sorrow for the fate of his fellow man, coupled with a touch of shame at his own unmanly act in thus murdering his sleeping foe, criminal though he was, and richly deserving death. But he had scant time for reflection. The noise of men approaching was heard in the forest. Pomponio’s friends would be here in an instant. He must go at once. He slipped away among the trees in the direction from which he had come, and vanished. A moment later four Indians appeared at the point where the soldier had stood when he fired. Their first glance at Pomponio revealed to them the meaning of the shot they had heard.
Pomponio was buried that night, secretly and in profound silence. His comrades, determined his enemies should never find his grave and body, bore it into the deepest recesses of the forest, and there interred it, afterward removing all trace of any disturbance of the earth covering it. There they left him, at rest, his little part in life’s drama ended.
Pablo’s story of his killing Pomponio was not believed when he told it at the mission and the presidio. No one, however, could contradict him, and as time went on, and nothing farther was heard of the neophyte, and the marauding at the mission became less, until it ceased altogether, his assertion came, in time, to be regarded as the true account of Pomponio’s death.1
- The writer has taken the liberty of altering the real facts of Pomponio’s end. He was captured by a party of four soldiers, tried by court martial at Monterey, in February, and shot, about September, 1824. The period covered by the story, also, has been changed to three years later than the actual time of occurrence. It is surprising that Bancroft, from whose history the facts in this note are taken, does not mention Captain Duhaut-Cilly who, in his Voyage autour du Monde, Vol. II, Chap. XI, recounts Pomponio’s self-mutilation in order to effect his escape. As Pomponio’s execution occurred only three years before Duhaut-Cilly’s visit, the French captain must have learned his facts with a close approach to accuracy, and it seems safe to take them without reserve. Bancroft affects to regard the main fact in this story with some incredulity, and limits the victim’s manacles to one ankle only. Vide Bancroft: History of California, Vol. II, pp. 537-38. ↩