Chapter Three of Tobias and the Angels

Chapter Three, Santa Barbara

“Brother, you’ll be far better off riding a horse on this journey,” said Tobias at the breakfast table. “I’ll be riding Tigre, and I’m sure Father can spare a mare for you to borrow and ride. You can leave your donkey here and pick it up on the way back.”

“I thank you for your generous offer which I will accept. However, it is necessary for me to take along the donkey.” Friar Raphael stood from the table. “Since I will be riding instead of walking, I should exchange this robe for a pair of pants and a shirt.

After the friar returned from changing his clothes, Mateo followed him and Tobias to the stables. While Tobias saddled the rancho’s gentlest mare, the boy and the friar led the donkey out of the stall and to the paddock where the friar tethered it to a rail of the fence. Mateo climbed the fence to sit on the top rail near to the donkey.

“Why must you take this donkey all the way to Los Angeles?” asked Mateo. “I have heard people say it is a big town. Surely they have many good donkeys there.”

“Claudius is a special donkey because he is an unusually smart donkey,” replied the friar. “And I am sure he will be greatly valued at the Mission San Gabriel Archángel, being so special.”

“Forgive me, Friar, but he doesn’t look special to me.”

Leading the saddled mare out of the barn Tobias paused several yards away.

“But he is.” Friar Raphael stepped to the side of the donkey and put his head close to the animal’s ear as he held onto the ear with one hand. He said in a loud whisper, “Now, Claudius, shake the sleepiness out of your head, and say something very smart for my little friend.”

Mateo saw the donkey’s lips move open and close as the animal appeared to mouth, “It’s too early for pearls of wisdom. I’d rather eat some more hay.”

“Oh, Claudius, sometimes you disappoint me greatly. Fine, you go back to your meal.” Friar Raphael turned to Mateo. “I’m very sorry that on this occasion you were not able to hear how smart Claudius is.”

“Perhaps if I talk to him alone while you prepare for your journey, he might yet prove his specialness to me.”

The friar winked at him and Mateo started to smile but then an expression of hurt came over his face.

“Is there something wrong?” asked the friar.

Mateo held up his index finger. “A splinter.”

“Hold on. I have just the thing for it.”

“Some holy water?”

“I have that too, but first I will use a special tool.” The friar opened a pack on the donkey’s back and searched around. “Ah, here it is.” He unrolled a black cloth package to reveal several metallic tools one of which he removed from its pocket. Taking a gentle hold on the boy’s hand he used forceps to extract the wood splinter from the skin. He held up the splinter for the boy to see.

“And now the holy water?”

“I’ll bless all of us before Tobias and I depart. For now, what you must do is wash your hand using soap.”

Tobias had stayed to watch the comedy and then the mini-drama. While he returned to the barn to bring out Tigre, Friar Raphael had put away his medical instruments. Leading Tobit by the hand from the house, Mateo returned. Mrs. Zepeda and Mateo’s mother followed them carrying sackcloth wrapped bundles of food. Tobias kissed and hugged his mother and then hugged his father.

Tobit did not let go of Tobias. He put his hands on the young man’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “‘Son, When I die, give me a decent burial.’”

“Father, of course I will. But I won’t be away that long, a couple of weeks at the most. We’ll have many years in the future to speak of such things.”

“I know, I know, but these things must be said. ‘Honor your mother, and do not abandon her as long as she lives. Do whatever pleases her, and do not grieve her spirit in any way.’”

While Tobit was saying this, Mrs. Zepeda’s stare grew more intense. She crossed her arms and said, “Why are you telling him that? He does a better job of honoring me than you do.”

“Dearest one, this is good and essential advice for the boy, for it is from the Bible.”

“Oh, by all the blessed saints in Heaven, if only you’d been taking such good advice, we wouldn’t be having to send our only son on such a dangerous errand. After all, the Good Book also says, ‘Neither a lender or borrower be…’, doesn’t it, Friar?”

“Well, that particular saying is from a good play, but not the Bible.”

“Mother, I’ll be fine.” Tobias held tightly the reins of Tigre who had become a little fractious. “I can’t even imagine the least amount of danger bedeviling us. Can you, Brother Rafe?”

“We shall trust in the Lord. And we will be guarded by an angel.” Friar Raphael looked at Cherub who gave a dog’s happy bark.

Friar Raphael said a prayer to bless their journey and sprinkled the horses and Cherub with holy water. Everyone made the sign of the cross. Tobias gracefully and easily swung himself in the saddle, and Friar Raphael surprised everyone by doing the same. Cherub barked once again and then followed the two men as they headed to the section of the Camino Real that would take them through Santa Barbara and to the southland.

When they were out of sight and hearing of the others, Tobias asked, “Brother Rafe, how long did it take you to train that donkey to move his lips when you pulled on his ear?”

“Not so very long. As I said: he is a highly intelligent animal. Perhaps you could do the same trick with Cherub.”

“Well, he’s the smartest mastiff in this whole county. But I don’t think pretending to talk is half in him.”

They followed a road leading inland and toward the mountain ridge that towered over the valley containing Santa Barbara. To the east, at the foot of the hills before the mountains, they could see the towers of the old mission. Coming from there El Camino Real descended to the little town where it became State Street. At that early hour, only a handful of horses were tethered outside of stores and few people walked the wooden sidewalks. Well before reaching the beach they turned the horses again to the east to avoid an estero. Cherub disappeared for a while to chase the ducks. After skirting the estero’s tule lined marsh the road went around an oceanside hill before heading south. Again, the vast Pacific spread out before them seeming like the grandest thing in the world.

“The expanse of that ocean is always a wonderful sight,” said the friar.

“Yep, it sure is,” replied Tobias.

“If you don’t feel it intrusive, permit me a question about your father. How blind is your father?”

“Not all that blind. He’s got bad eyes alright, but I’m pretty sure he can see big objects like a man or a horse. A few years back his vision – never that great for as long as I can remember – became so bad he couldn’t read the Bible anymore. When that happened, he took it into his mind that he’d gone blind.”

“Ah, I see.”

Tobias grinned at the friar.

“I apologize for the poor choice of words. I didn’t mean to pun or make light of your father’s predicament. It’s just that I suspected that he could see to some degree and was curious as to the reason for his… belief.” Friar Raphael paused before saying, “As long as I’m being nosy, tell me about your heritage.”

“You mean who were my father’s and my mother’s people? Well, my grandfather was a Mexican soldier given the land after California no longer belonged to Spain. I think the land was taken away from the missions and the Chumash Indians. My mother doesn’t hail from these parts. She’s from Boston. Came out here on a clipper ship with a relative of hers’, Sarah’s mother. Sarah’s father was looking to start a farm in California. The week after Mother got off the ship, she met my father. She says she fell in love with Santa Barbara first and afterwards, with Father.”

“Sounds like it was her destiny. Love is often destiny. Or vice-versa.”

“Vice-versa you say? Is that Latin for, ‘I’m not sure which’?”

“That’s an accurate translation of its current usage. You’re not familiar with Latin phrases?”

“I hear them at mass. And I got a pretty good handle on what the priests are talking about.”

“Good. That’s all you really need to know of the language. Unless you take up the practice of law.”

“Too late for that. With this money my father’s friend is returning to us, I’ve got my heart and mind set again on raising the fastest horses in California.”

When they’d ridden ten miles south of Santa Barbara, they began riding on a long sandy beach. The land behind the beach was mostly flat, interrupted every so often by stream beds and esteros. By and by they could see a few buildings including a schoolhouse. After rejoining the road and passing by the schoolhouse, they came to a point of land and high coastal bluff from which they could view the coastline to the south-east.

“The ocean waves look a mite bigger down there,” said Tobias, “and kind of pretty they way they break so organized like.”

“That is caused by the swell wrapping around this point of land. As we move further south of those off-shore islands, the ocean waves will often look like that. They’ll also be more vigorous.”

“I’ve heard that the stagecoaches taking the coastal route to San Buenaventura sometimes go along the beach and sometimes have to actually go splashing along in the ocean with waves hitting the side and the passengers getting all wet.”

“We might have to do some wading in the water ourselves.”

The road traveled by wagons and stagecoaches forked with one road heading east into the hills and to a pass that eventually led down to Mission San Buenaventura, home of the next mission south of Santa Barbara. The other fork ran in the lee of mountains that here and there tumbled into the sea. That road sometimes crossed trackless sandy beaches swept clean of wagon tracks by the high tide. The stagecoaches always waited for low tide before proceeding down that stretch of road.

But not burdened with four wheels and a heavy wagon, Tobias and Friar Raphael took advantage of single-track trails that would lead them up steep hillsides thus avoiding rocky points where high-tide waves crashed against steep cliffs. Toward the end of the day the shore hugging hills became a shelf of flat land and then they reached a spot from which they could look down to see the San Buenaventura River and beyond, and to the east a little, the mission with a small town surrounding it. They descended from that low height and to the last bit of water they’d have to wade through. The rainy season had passed and all southern Californian rivers were beginning to become only trickles and rivulets of fresh water, so while fording the river only Cherub had to swim a little.

“Should we camp by the river and go into town tomorrow?” asked Tobias.

“The Reverend Father of the mission will accommodate us,” replied the friar. “I have heard he was born here in California and I should very much like to hear his historical recounting of the old days.”

As Friar Raphael had declared, the mission priest provided food and shelter for the two travelers and their animals. While the Reverend Father related to the friar his biography and the history of the mission, Tobias and Cherub explored the town including the street of Chinese inhabitants. They returned just before sunset and found the friar in the mission garden, sitting on a wall of a raised pond.

“Brother Rafe, I’m not interrupting your prayers, am I?”

“I wasn’t praying; merely contemplating the beauty and the serenity of the hour. As for you, did the town hold much of interest?”

“There’s not a whole lot to the place. Still and all, I can brag to the fellows I’ve been here. But when they hear I’ve been all the way to Los Angeles – that’ll impress them mightily.”

“Yes, I look forward to arriving in Los Angeles. And afterwards, I’ll continue on to San Gabriel. Would you care to join me for that short journey?”

“Yeah, I sure would,” replied Tobias. “I would like to do that very much so. Remember the letter I received yesterday? It was from the mother of a very good friend of mine.”

“Sarah. Your father told me about the tragic events surrounding that unfortunate young woman.”

“People in her town are saying she’s been cursed by God.”

“God the Father does not curse the ones he loves. They are tested by life on this earth, and it is a certainty that the fate of the earth-born is to endure sufferings. But it is vital to your eternal soul to continue loving God and loving one’s neighbors.”

“That I do… well, maybe in differing amounts. But I try to see the good in people.”

Friar Raphael nodded his head. For a few seconds they sat in silence and then the friar surprised the young man by asking, “Do you love Sarah?”

“Hold your horses. Love her? I’ve… I mean, she’s always been…” Tobias paused for a moment before answering, “It’s not like a suitor’s kind of courting love. You see, we’ve known each other since we were little children. Her mother is a distant relative of my mother. Sarah and her mother stayed with us for a few years while her father got their orchard started and built a house. We went to school together some, but what we loved the most was playing on the beach and riding horses. We grew pretty close. That’s why we still write to one another.”

“That sounds like love to me.”

“Maybe some kind of love. Want to hear something funny? Just before she moved away, I vowed to marry her when I’d gotten old enough.”

“You should keep your promise.”

“It was just a child’s promise, you know. Are you being serious? Marry her? Just because I said I would when I was ten? That sounds plenty loco to me.”

“Are you afraid she’s cursed?”

“What? No, of course not. It’s just… For one thing, in all the time we’ve corresponded she’s never talked like we were going to marry, never wrote anything romantic to me. If you read her letters and didn’t know her name, you might’ve thought it was a sister or even a brother writing to me. Of course, that doesn’t apply to her letter just before the wedding. That would’ve been a dead give-away.”

“Of course. When was the last time you’ve seen her?”

“It must be just about seven years since they moved to their farm. Why?”

“That proves your love for her is based on knowing her heart and soul through her words and private thoughts. In a way, that’s a much stronger love than say, being infatuated by a pretty face.”

“I suppose you’re right about that. Still and all, a pretty face would sweeten any deal.”