Book 4 Chapter 1
Book IV: Snake Root
1, The Night at Pecos
Summary: Father Gallegos having been removed from his position in Albuquerque, Father Vaillant assumes the pastoral and administrative duties of that parish. News reaches Bishop Latour that Vaillant has fallen ill; gravely concerned about his lifelong friend, Latour sets out to go to him (Vaillant is in a village in the Pecos mountains; he had been on a return trip to Santa Fe). Latour first goes to the pueblo of Pecos to meet with his guide, Jacinto. A gathering storm at Pecos delays his and Jacinto’s departure. Latour spends the night in the pueblo, which is slowly decaying and dying, ravaged by the illnesses brought by the first white settlers.
Analysis: This chapter shows readers a different and much less desirable kind of continuity with the past than we have seen to this point in the novel. The legacy of European settlement in New Mexico for Pecos has not been kind: “the contagious diseases brought by white men were the real cause of the shrinkage of the tribe” (p. 123). Cather herself points out, in the novel’s only marginal footnote and its sole explicit acknowledgment of the story’s fictional nature, “In actual fact, the dying pueblo of Pecos was abandoned some years before the American occupation of New Mexico” (p. 123). Its presence in the novel, therefore, as an inexorably decaying village and population is an anachronism; but it serves the important thematic function of illustrating the consequences—unintended, to be sure, but consequences all the same—of European incursion into the natives’ territory. The invocation of the memory of explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who famously—and vainly—sought for “the seven golden cities of Quivera” (p. 123) reinforces the idea that Jacinto and his people are living a stark and painful reality, in contrast to the fanciful and greedy vision of golden cities sought by the Spanish explorer. The Europeans did not find wealth; the Indians have received only death. Cather uses natural imagery to dramatize this dark legacy, this shadow still hanging over Pueblo no less than the “great stationary black [storm]cloud, opaque and motionless” (p. 119) that hinders Latour’s departure: the wind, Latour reflects, “might well be blowing out of a remote, black past” (p. 124). The people of Ácoma, too, maintain a continuity with a deep and remote past that empowers them in the face of white encroachment and domination, but the people of Pecos, in contrast, maintain a continuity with a past in which the worst consequences of that foreign activity continues to exercise dominion.
Latour recognizes this truth, and his concern for the people—e.g., “It was a pity… that he could do nothing for Jacinto’s baby” (p. 122)—yet again draws a sharp delineation between him and the Europeans who have gone to New Mexico before him. His empathy with the suffering—with Father Vaillant, with Jacinto and his family, with the people of Pecos—again reinforces his status as a “good priest,” one who reflects Jesus. Even some of his actions in Pecos recall those of Jesus: like the risen Christ walking with his disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), Bishop Latour is urged to stay at a village as night falls (“Jacinto and the older Indians… strongly advised him to spend the night there and start in the early morning,” p. 119); and, like Christ at the table in Emmaus, Latour “said a blessing and broke the bread with his hands” (p. 121). In Luke’s gospel, it was at that moment that the disciples’ “eyes were opened, and they recognized [Jesus]… in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:31, 35)—a moment fraught with Eucharistic overtones. Cather thus presents Latour’s “real presence” with the Indians—a presence of compassionate solidarity—as sacramental.