Tobias and the Angels
By J.M. Miles
On the Way to Rages. When the young man left home, accompanied by the angel, the dog followed Tobiah out and went along with them.
The Book of Tobit, Chapter 6: 1
The Great Drought of 1863 and 1864 in California caused the mass starvation of livestock. It ended the era of the cattle raising ranchos. Many of the rancheros lost everything or sold much of their acreage to immigrant farmers. By 1871 Rancho de Esperanza had been reduced to the western half of the valley east of the Arroyo Burro canyon. The beautiful little canyon with its access to a sandy beach along the Pacific Ocean had been kept by Tobit, the son of the Mexican soldier who’d been granted the land. Kept because, the narrow canyon, though scenic with its saltwater estero and ocean view, had no practical value to the Yankee farmers. Tobit had also kept the adobe ranch house where he’d grown up. It lay about two miles inland from the arroyo, snug in the valley and surrounded by coastal oak trees. Here, in the early spring, Tobit Zepeda, his wife, and his son, Tobias, lived pleasantly while despairing the pending loss of the reminder of their heavily mortgaged rancho.
“Mateo!” Tobit yelled this and then sat silently, listening carefully for a response. He heard only the rustling of the leaves in the oak tree branches just over his head.
“Señor?” This came from a boy’s head peering around the corner of the back of the adobe.
“Come attend to me, please,”
Tobit didn’t see the head disappear but knew that Mateo had gone to tell his mother, the household’s cook and maid. Moments later he heard the running footsteps approach. And then he felt a water tumbler pressed into his hands.
“Momma said I should bring you this,” said Mateo.
“Your mother is a gracious lady.” Tobit drank from the tumbler. “Now, bring to me a shovel, and we’ll begin digging the grave.”
Mateo’s footsteps diminished in sound in the direction of the barn. But when he returned Tobit sensed following the boy was his wife.
“Would you be planning to dig a grave for that Indian?”
“Yes. It’s not his fault God decided to end his wanderings here on our land.”
“And would you be planning to bury him with the Christians?”
“We have only the one burial plot, so he must be buried there.”
Led by Mateo toward the rancho’s burial ground, the middle-aged man heard his wife’s voice from behind him.
“And what would Father Martini be saying to that?”
“He would say: On this warm spring day, get him into the ground quick.”
After a few moments they heard her loudly say, “If digging is all you’re good for now, why don’t you be working on the irrigation trenches? The Good Lord above knows that would be useful – to the next owner, at least.”
Near to the burial ground and out of hearing from his wife, Tobit quietly said, “She is right. I’m not much use to anyone anymore. I should dig two graves. Yes, I should. God, I beseech thee, let me go to my everlasting abode.”
When they’d reached the burial ground and Mateo situated Tobit and his shovel, the boy said, “Here is an empty place. The Indian will rest easy here.”
Tobit dug the shovel into the dirt but then paused to ask, “Did my son leave for town? What horse did he take?”
“Tigre!” said the boy.
“I can tell you are smiling as you say that horse’s name. And I can tell how proud you are of that horse because it’s…”
“The fastest horse in all of Santa Barbara. And Cherub followed him.”
“Of course, he did. That dog would follow my son to the very gates of Hell.”
Mateo thought about this for a moment and then asked, “Señor Zepeda, why would Tobias be going to that evil place? He is a very good person.”
“He is. It’s just a… a… a metáfora… a metaphor.”
“Yes, a metaphor. Something people say when… when… Well, later on, when you read the Bible to me maybe we’ll find some metaphors there.”
“It sounds like a metaphor is something that is not true.”
“Yes, that would be a one way of explaining the meaning.”
“But everything in the Bible is true, is it not?”
“Yes, everything in the Bible is true, but some truths are different from the others. Here, now, save your Bible questions for Father Martini. I must dig now and you must guide me so I dig just enough.”
That same morning Tobias, Cherub, and Tigre, the reputed fastest horse in the county, waited in the shade of a sycamore tree. There the road from the beach and rancho merged onto the old Camino Real before it descended gently down to Santa Barbara becoming its main street, Tobias had halted Tigre and dismounted. He’d seen two riders approaching from the north and thought he’d wait for them. As he’d hoped, the riders turned out to be neighbors and childhood friends.
“Hey, Josh, I see you’re headed into town.”
“And I see you’ve got nothing better to do than idle in the shade.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You never know when an opportunity to race this colt might present itself.”
“Tigre is closer to being a horse than a colt, but I’m your man for I am more than ready and willing. First one to Miller’s yard wins. How about two-bits on the outcome?”
“Two-bits it is. Nancy, would you be so kind as to start us with a hanky.”
The teenage girl, Josh’s sister, urged her horse in front of the young men’s horses. Facing them with her handkerchief raised high in one hand, she quickly brought it down. The horses bolted into a gallop. Cherub raced after them. Nancy urged her mare into a comfortable but quick lope.
Josh’s horse managed to keep pace with Tigre for almost a half mile, but after that and with a half mile more to go, it began to fade. Tobias reached Miller’s yard several lengths ahead of his friend.
“Dang, I should’ve specified a shorter course,” said Josh when he’d reached the waiting Tobias.
“Tigre is always good at short sprints, but he’s unbeatable at a mile or more. Don’t mean to brag, but I think he’s the best horse in all these parts.”
“Well, I’ll spread the word and maybe you can drum up some more winnings from the unwary. But if you want to earn more than two bits at a time, Pa said he’d surely like to buy Tigre.”
“He’s not for sale quite yet. But tell your pa I’ll keep him in mind.”
Josh nodded. They watched Nancy ride up. She called out to Tobias, “Is your family going to the Ortiz’s fandango next week? I’ll… I mean, my family will be attending.”
Josh grinned at Tobias who said, “I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing you there. Where are you two headed?”
“Josh is escorting me to the new school. I’m to enroll there for the furtherance of my education.”
“Haven’t you had enough schooling? You were the best at learning from books back in the old school house.”
“There’s no such thing as a person having too much education.”
With Cherub leading the way they rode side by side into town. The early spring day, already warming, promised nothing but clear blue skies. An ocean born breeze had cleared away the morning mist, providing a view of the Pacific Ocean and on its horizon, Santa Cruz Island. The mountainous silhouette of the island Tobias and his friends could plainly see as they ambled down State Street.
At Santa Barbara’s new coeducational preparatory school Tobias said goodbye to his friends and rode on. As he passed the school Cherub acknowledged with a single happy bark the admiring glances of girls coming out of the school. Tobias heard their giggles and his cheeks reddened a little. He urged his horse to hurry on and he told himself, “Yes sir, there’s a whole new world springing up. This little town is on the move. There’s going to be a heap of changes coming – shame I won’t be here for them.”
“Hey, Tobias!” yelled a young man coming out of a dry goods store. “You going down to see the work on the wharf?”
“In a bit. I got some errands to do. I would like to take a gander.”
“Ain’t it something? Next year they’ll be docking the San Pedro and San Fran steamers there.”
“That’ll come in handy if I get a job on one of them.”
“You still thinking about running away to sea?”
“Not exactly running away. More like making a living and seeing the world, the Pacific Ocean part of it, at least.”
“That’ll be something alright. Hey, if you don’t go to sea, maybe you can get a job laying track for the railroads. Probably won’t be too long before they build train tracks from Los Angeles to here.”
“Won’t that be bully. Say hi to your ma and pa for me.”
“Will do. Same to yours.”
His errands consisted of buying up some small sacks of coffee beans and beet sugar, and a stop at the post office to pick up what mail there might be. With that accomplished, he continued down State Street, going all the way through town and to the beach. His mother had provided him with bread, cheese, and fruit, so he halted near to where the wharf was being built to eat his lunch and read one of the letters he’d picked up. He read the letter twice and then carefully put it away.
The construction workers hadn’t yet progressed much out into the water, but still, observing the insertion of a piling into shallow water held his interest for a spell. Then he decided, being such a fine day, he’d return home by way of the shoreline. The tide, never that varied in southern California, looked to be unusually low so there existed just a chance of hugging the almost dry rocks under the cliffs of Santa Barbara Point to reach the beach that stretched all the way to Arroyo Burro creek and beyond.
Tigre, confident in its rider, navigated the wet rocks and tide pools, slowly but surely. Cherub had no problems leaping across the damp rocky outcropping and was the first to spring onto the sandy beach. The huge mastiff loved the shoreline and especially running in the shallow water pushed onto the wet sand by wave surges making it a better surface for sprints. The cold water cooling his paws added to his delight. With Cherub ahead by fifty yards, Tobias urged his horse into a gallop and soon came abreast of Cherub. But they had miles to go yet, and so the horse and dog soon slipped back into peaceful walks. Though the dog did tend to meander a bit, the beach holding such an abundance of interesting scents and occasionally a curious moving object such as a crab.
As they finally neared Arroyo Burro Creek, Cherub again broke into a run. Eager to get home for dinner, Tobias told himself. But then he noticed the nearly naked man sitting on a log. Cherub had run up to the stranger and rather than barking at him, lowered its head and allowed itself to be petted. Tobias halted his horse just far enough away not to loom over the young man who looked up, his facial expression denoting a pleasant friendliness in spite of his rather direct, almost piercing, gaze.
“Hello,” said Tobias. “I see that Cherub has taken a shine to you.”
“The name fit him better when he was just a whelp.”
“Perhaps it describes his gentle nature rather than his great size.”
“I’ve never seen you around these parts. You wouldn’t happen to be a piker, would you?”
The young man smiled and shook his head no. “Never even been to Missouri. No, I’m just a traveling friar, sent by the church on an errand.” He noticed Tobias’ slightly puzzled expression. “Oh. I’ve just been for a swim, so, you see, I’m a little out of uniform.”
“You know how to swim in the ocean? That’s audacious. I’d like to learn that skill someday.”
“I could teach you. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Well, probably not as natural as walking.”
“Did you walk down from the mission?”
“I’m not attached to the Santa Barbara Mission, but higher up in the state. We… that is, my donkey and I,” he pointed to the placid animal several yards away and tethered in the shade of an oak tree, “were on our way to the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, but it’s such a fine day, I just had to stop to bath in the ocean.”
The mention of that mission town to the south made Tobias’ expression briefly freeze in contemplation of something dark. Then he noticed the kindly regard of the friar and his face regained its normal relaxed openness.
“It’s a glorious day, that’s for sure.” Tobias climbed down from Tigre and, with his hand stretched out ready for a handshake, came over to the stranger. “My name is Tobias.”
The stranger firmly shook his hand. “I’m Friar Raphael, but call me Rafe.”
“Rafe? Is that short for Raphael? I’d always thought the short handle for Raphael was Ralph.”
“For some, maybe. But I prefer Rafe.”
They began walking toward the donkey.
“So, I should call you Friar Rafe? That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Now Friar Ralph definitely has a certain ring to it.”
They now stood by the friar’s donkey in the shade of a coastal oak. Friar Raphael pulled down the black robe he’d hung on a branch. After pulling it over his head and letting it drape over his body, he said, “Fine, call me Friar Ralph if you must, but, above all things, please don’t call me…”
“…late for supper. Heard that one. Hey, Friar Rafe, seeing as you’re on the road, would you like to drop by our ranch for some supper?”
“I’d love to. But I’ve a suggestion. If you want a handy way of addressing me, you might consider calling me Brother.”
“Brother Rafe or just Brother.”
They ambled up the road that led eventually to the mission but first took them through the canyon which after a half mile widened into a small valley. Halfway up that valley the road split with the left fork curving around a grove of oaks. A short way up that road Cherub barked a happy announcement of their arrival.
While Tobias and the friar took care of their animals Cherub sought out Tobit whom he found off to the side of the ranch house sitting on a rough wood bench under an old oak. Next to him sat a young boy holding a leather-bound book. Cherub went up to middle-aged but grey-haired man and put his muzzle on his leg. Tobit reached out and began scratching the dog behind its ears.
“Hello, boy. So, you’ve finally led my son home. What’s he been up to? Parading before the town girls I bet.”
“Señor Zepeda, you don’t expect Cherub to tell you anything, do you?”
“Oh, he understands a lot and says a little. And some of what he says, I understand. But even if Cherub could speak our tongue, he would not betray his master’s doings. Would you, boy? Now, open that book carefully and turn to the table of contents. In the Old Testament, find the Book of Tobit.”
“You have your own book in the Bible?” The boy put his finger under the page number for the book and then began turning the pages, slowly and deliberately, taking care to lift only about ten pages at a time and by their corners. “Or are you named after someone in the Bible like my father was?”
Tobit nodded his head. His head held in a listening posture, he stared straight ahead and not at what the boy did.
“Good, I hear you being careful with the pages. Find it? That’s okay I can wait. Take your time.”
“I found it. Now I’ll begin.” The boy, though he had no need to, cleared his throat, paused for a moment and then read aloud, “The Book of Tobit.”
The boy read the words and every so often Tobit nodded his head until the boy reached a certain passage.
“There. You’re about to come to it. Now take a deep breath and get ready to read this in your strongest voice, as if you were talking to God.”
“But Señor Zepeda, when I pray to God I always whisper.”
“This you must read aloud. It is a good man’s cry to God for needed release from all his earthly woes. Such a plea must not be whispered but spoken clearly and bravely to the Lord. Now, begin.”
The boy took a deep breath and in louder voice than he had been reading continued with the passage, “Tobit’s Prayer for Death.”
The sound of the boy’s voice carried around to the front of the house where Friar Raphael and Tobias were about to enter. The friar put his hand on Tobias’ arm to halt him. They listened and Tobias was about to tell him something, but Friar Raphael moved silently in the direction of the boy’s voice. After coming around the corner of the house, the friar and Tobias halted close enough to hear every word, but not so close that a blind man could sense their presence.
You are righteous, Lord, and all your deeds are just; All your ways are mercy and fidelity; you are judge of the world. And now, Lord, be mindful of me and look with favor upon me. Do not punish me for my sins, or for my inadvertent offenses, or for those of my ancestors. They sinned against you, and disobeyed your commandments. So you handed us over to plunder, captivity, and death, to become an object lesson, a byword, and a reproach in all the nations among whom you scattered us. Yes, your many judgments are right in dealing with me as my sins, and those of my ancestors, deserve. For we have neither kept your commandments, nor walked in fidelity before you. So now, deal with me as you please; command my life breath to be taken from me, that I may depart from the face of the earth and become dust. It is better for me to die than to live, because I have listened to undeserved reproaches, and great is the grief within me. Lord, command that I be released from such anguish; let me go to my everlasting abode; Do not turn your face away from me, Lord. For it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery in life, and to listen to such reproaches!
Friar Raphael, looking somewhat concerned by what he’d heard, turned to Tobias and before he could ask his question, they heard a woman’s voice.
“Mateo! Come help your mother in the kitchen. Tobit! Stop wasting that boy’s time by pretending to be blind. You come wash up for dinner. I know you can find your own way to the dinner table.”
Tobit raised his eyes heavenward and said just loud enough for the boy to hear, “See, Lord, what I have to endure.”
Tobias smiled at Friar Raphael. “Mother’s not as fierce as she sounds. Come on inside and I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
They walked through the adobe’s front entrance, to the dining room with its heavy dark wood dining table and sideboard. No one had lit the chandelier’s candles yet. A second source of light shone from within the open door to the kitchen.
“Mother,” said Tobias, “I have brought home a guest. This is Friar Raphael.”
“Goodness gracious me. Have you already come about the heathen Indian Tobit buried in sacred land?”
The friar turned to Tobias for explanation.
“Yesterday evening a wandering Indian, a Chumash most likely, died by the side of the road to town. Father wants to bury him here.”
“He did it this morning. I told him not to bury him with the Christians but he did it anyway. Friar, does that profane our sacred burial ground?”
“I don’t know. First, you should ask around, attempt to discover if anyone knew him and if so whether or not he was a Christian or maybe baptized in a Catholic church. Many of the Chumash were.”
“That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it, Mother? Anyway, let me introduce Isvelia, and her son, Mateo.”
Friar Raphael said, “Isvelia, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” and then said to Mateo, “You read beautifully. Perhaps someday you’ll become a scholar.”
“Come,” said Tobias, “I’ll introduce you to Father and then I think dinner is almost ready to be served.”
While being introduced to Tobit, Friar Raphael looked closely at the middle-aged man’s eyes. Tobias noticed the stare but saved his question for later. Mrs. Zepeda entered the room carrying a pot of chicken stew. Isvelia closely followed her carrying a pot of beans in one hand and a pot of rice in the other. The family and Friar Raphael sat down at the table, but before Isvelia could spoon chicken stew in a bowl for him, he held a hand over the bowl and said, “I’m sure it’s delicious, but I never eat meat.”
“You never eat meat?” asked Tobias. “Is that healthy?”
“For me, it is. And to be precise: I never eat food made from the flesh of any of God’s creatures.”
After dinner, just after the plates were cleared, Isvelia asked if she might have a moment of the friar’s time. She and a ranch hand wanted to know if the friar could hear their confessions. Friar Raphael told them he was qualified to hear confessions and grant absolution, and so he would hear theirs. After the friar excused himself, Tobit said, “They want to confess to the friar because he’s not from around here. They must have some powerfully wicked sins that they don’t want Father Martini to hear.”
“If that’s the way of it, you should be joining them, old man,” said Mrs. Zepeda.
“Perhaps I will.”
“Before you do, Father,” said Tobias, “I picked up two letters from the post office. One is a letter addressed to you. It’s from your friend in Los Angeles.”
“Read it to me. I’ve been often wondering how he is faring.”
Tobias opened the envelope, unfolded the letter and read aloud the salutation and the polite hope that the letter found Tobit and his family in good health, then he paused.
“Yes, go on, son.”
“Sir, he says his business is flourishing and what is even better, he’s inherited a tidy sum of money. He is now ready to pay you back with interest every cent of the money you’d loaned him.”
“All thanks to the Good Lord above! This is wonderful news.”
“He wants to pay you personally, but he can’t get away from minding his store. Would you be terribly inconvenienced traveling to Los Angeles yourself or sending a person to act as your agent?”
“Son, you must go.”
“Mr. Tobit!” said Mrs. Zepeda loudly and firmly. “Would you be sending our only son on such a dangerous journey? If he isn’t killed and robbed on the way there, surely such an evil fate would befall him there in that sinful city, or on the way back.”
“Now, now, now, my beloved. It’s been years since highwaymen plagued the road to Los Angeles.”
“Just this week Mrs. Brooke told me a tinker told her he’d seen Jack Powers and his gang of highwaymen.”
“Mother,” said Tobias, “those are tall tales. Jack Powers has been dead for many years.”
“To ensure a safe passage, someone could accompany Tobias,” said Tobit who then looked to his son. Tobias nodded his head.
“Friar Raphael is traveling to Los Angeles. Let’s see if he’ll mind taking along a companion.”
After a few minutes Tobias returned with the friar. He listened to Tobit explain how his son needed to travel to Los Angeles, how this offer of repayment was truly a godsend, and how the money was necessary to buy back the rancho’s mortgage.
“Of course, Tobias may accompany me. My ultimate destination is the Mission San Gabriel Archángel but Los Angeles is but a short detour.”
“Excuse me, Friar,” said Mrs. Zepeda, “but you are not armed with pistols. What if you are beset by heathens who have no fear of God?”
“Mrs. Zepeda, in my travels throughout California I’ve never been harmed by evil doers. In fact, I’ve never even been threatened by such.”
“The Good Lord above must watch over you very carefully,” said Mrs. Zepeda.
“He does.” Friar Raphael turned to Tobias. “And just to be on the safe side, I know of a way south that avoids the stagecoach route to Los Angeles. It’s a trail that hugs the shoreline. We’ll travel close to the shore of the Pacific Ocean and then inland.”
“Good, it is settled,” said Tobit. “This blessing by God is a certainty. Come, we’ll sit outside and have a glass of brandy to celebrate. Come along, son.”
“Yes, Father. But first I want to read Mother this letter. It’s from the mother of Sarah.”
Mrs. Zepeda made the sign of the cross while Tobit’s happiness momentarily clouded with sadness.
“Come, Friar,” said Tobit. “Tobias will join us in a minute. In the meantime, I will relate to you a dark mystery concerning a poor girl cursed for no earthly reason.”
The day before the day Tobit prayed for death and then received joyful news, Sarah overheard her mother’s housekeeper tell one of the farmhands she believed Sarah to be cursed by God and that no good Christian is ever cursed without a reason known to the Almighty. In her heart the seventeen-year-old girl believed it. Since the death of Henry, a dark mood had festered within her soul, a growing belief she would bring death to any man who expressed, in words or by silent thought, a desire to be with her. A normal life and happiness would never be allowed her – not in this life. It would be better that God take her now.
Alone in her room, by the light of an oil lamp, she opened the Bible and found the passage she now knew was meant for her: Sarah’s prayer to God from the Book of Tobit.
Blessed are you, merciful God! Blessed be your holy and honorable name forever! May all your works forever bless you. Now to you, Lord, I have turned my face and have lifted up my eyes. Bid me to depart from the earth, never again to listen to such reproaches. You know, Master, that I am clean of any defilement with a man. I have never sullied my own name or my father’s name in the land of my captivity. I am my father’s only daughter, and he has no other child to be his heir, Nor does he have a kinsman or close relative whose wife I should wait to become. Seven husbands of mine have already died. Why then should I live any longer? But if it does not please you, Lord, to take my life, look favorably upon me and have pity on me, that I may never again listen to such reproaches!