2. Stone Lips
Summary: Latour and Jacinto awaken early the next morning to continue their journey to Vaillant’s location. A fierce snowstorm impedes their progress. Jacinto directs Latour to a cavern he knows of; its opening resembles “two great stone lips, slightly parted and thrust outward.” Latour is unsettled by the cavern. Jacinto tells him it is used by his people for their religious ceremonies. He makes a mortar of mud, stone and wood to seal out the storm, and builds a fire for warmth. He and Latour listen to the sound of a deep underground river. The next morning, the two men leave the cavern and continue to Father Vaillant. Kit Carson helps the Bishop take Vaillant back to Santa Fe.
Analysis: Although throughout the novel, Latour emerges as a commendable characters because of both his respect and sensitivity for the beliefs and practices of the local indigenous population, as well as for his open-mindedness toward and tolerance of different beliefs, this chapter demonstrates that not even the kindly, well-meaning Bishop is exempt from feeling an alien among the Indians. Although, as we have seen, he does his best to identify with them—part of the motif in the book that marks him a good priest because he identifies with Christ, who also identified with the lowly—he is at the same time not one of them. His reaction to the cavern in which he and Jacinto seek shelter from the storm is a powerful reminder of this fact. Latour is clearly unsettled by the cave—“Great as was his need of shelter, the Bishop… was struck by a reluctance, an extreme distaste for the place” (p. 127)—and that is because it is not and cannot become his place. As Jacinto tells him, “This place is used by my people… and is known only to us” (p. 128). Cather crafts this scene as if to remind readers that, no matter how flexible both Latour and his faith can be in accommodating and adapting to New Mexico, a fundamental difference remains. Whether it can be successfully bridged is, by the chapter’s end, left ambiguous. In his conversations with the trader Zeb Orchard, in which he processes his experience in the cave, Latour is told that while “he might make good Catholics among the Indians… he would never separate them from their own beliefs” (p. 135). As Orchard bluntly says, “No white man knows anything about Indian religion, Padre” (p. 134). A difference persists that commands respect.