Ladies of Mischief #2

Mission Song

Chenoa’s Story

by Karen Dean Benson

Mission Song

The deathbed promise made six years earlier to care for Padre Tomas’ child of his heart, compelled Don Sebastian to place her in a convent in Boston. He hoped the nuns would curb the forceful will that continually clashed with his own. Now, like a thunderbolt, her unannounced arrival reveals how utterly the nuns failed in their assigned task.

The political climate is critical. He fears that she chose a treacherous time to return. His secrets as a former vigilante are as numerous as the scars on his back. Keeping the deathbed promise to guardian Chenoa is uppermost in his mind, even as an old enemy threatens his land and life. Will his desperate gamble destroy or ensure the future? The choices he has to make could be fatal.

Barely ten years between Chenoa and Don Sebastian, these two headstrong people must confront the sparks of hostility and magnetism—or they will not survive.


Release Date: February 6, 2016
Genre: Historical Romance


Chapter One

Recalling the Deathbed Promise


Spring 1882

Carmel Valley, California


On the verandah of my casa, Cantico del Rio, I rock in a chair almost as old as I am. A rug warms my legs. The vista stretches west across the low hills to the Pacific with its sandy beaches tucked between cliffs of black lava. Our adobe affords a panoramic view of Carmel Valley. Beyond the lowland toward the ocean come evening, are the God-given sunsets in every shade of orange, pink, and purple, streaking the sky like floating gossamer. 

As a child, I used to pore over a book my padre brought with him from the Franciscan Friary in Barcelona, Spain. It occupied a special shelf in his library at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. Page after page of the book held water-colored sunsets viewed over the Mediterranean Sea. Those paintings spring to mind when I enjoy evening treasures. Brush strokes of color across the sky call me to whisper prayers of gratitude.

Hawks on the hunt and the babble of CarmelRio rolling toward the ocean add luster to my musings this late, pristine afternoon. Spring is in full bloom with its gift of another blue-eyed sky, a hint of white scatters above the horizon. I push against the floorboards, setting my chair in motion, and make the Sign of the Cross on my old bones, grateful to be alive in 1882.

The clatter coming from the ramada is a comforting reminder of Rosalita’s gift for teaching her granddaughters the art of cooking. They have promised my favorite, puchero, for the evening meal—a boiled pot of beef and veal mixed with corn, potatoes, beans, onions, and squash. When I requested apples and pears added to the mix, the memory of my padre toiling at his desk with the mission accounts sprang to mind. If I happened upon him at that time, he would smile, inhale a deep savoring breath, and pat his nether paunch in anticipation. 

As executor, my padre followed a strict routine. Holy Mass completed, he hungrily devoured his ration of atole, and then went to his ledgers within the confines of his narrow office, which doubled as a library. He was meticulous with his record-keeping, counting every sheep and cow, as well as marking the labors of the week, should the Archbishop of Mexico ask to see San Carlos’ journals.

I remember the cadence of tool to earth, broken sometimes when shovel struck rock, as Mexican and costeño laborers turned the garden’s earth in rhythm with prayers of thanks to God.

On days like this, I wonder what my life would have been like without the deathbed promise he elicited so many years ago. It was another Spring, 1830 to be exact. I was twelve and a skinny little horridniña with a razor tongue. A chuckle burbles from my lips at remembrance of my padre’s favorite neophyte, Islay, who used to refer to me as a cabra montés.Demanding and willful I admit, but calling me a “wild goat” made the others laugh and served to reinforce a stubborn set to my chin.

More than fifty years have passed, and salty dust on my lips still brings a surge of compassion for Mission San Carlos. Today it is a crumbling ruin, although tantalizing warmth spreads over me as thoughts of my childhood float round about. The mission’s walls of blue-grey stone rose from the musky earth, unfolding in humble yet magnificent display against the gnarled live oaks hung with stringy lichen. In the far distance, foothills of the Gabilan range lent a sense of security to the adobe—like God sheltering us with his arms.

Even now in the recess of memory, a part of me pads along the worn tiles of Mission San Carlos. My tongue still tastes the dust, my nostrils quicken with the tang of salt and the scent of sun-warmed earth and pinesap. I used to fear I would never know another place I could call home. I craved a spiritual sense of ownership. I longed for land where I could scoop a handful of the earth claiming it as mine.

I was twelve the day Señor Viandante forced me from the newly dug grave where my padre lay buried. My heart was broken. Wrenched from my home, I learned my fate when the fierce hacendado dragged me from the cemetery and flung me astride my pinto. My reaction was instant and horrid. I never considered a future without my beloved parent. I wasn’t smart enough to think beyond the moment. A searing, knife-like pain stabbed me senseless with the loss of the only person to ever love me and care for me. I had no thought of how weary he’d become of late. I only thought of myself. Not only had I lost my padre, but also this stranger from Hades meant to force me from my home.

Mymadre died giving birth to me. I used to rest my cheek on the warm soil that blanketed her. I did that as a child for many years. I thought I could hear her whisper to me. Her soft, melodious tones mingled with the swish of the leaves, a sort of childish lullaby. I lived but a few steps beyond her grave, so I did not feel abandoned.

Never, in retrospect, should I have. My padre was a Franciscan priest and governed all of Mission San Carlos. He also delivered me from my dying mama. She was a white woman who washed ashore in a tender, and I was born as the small boat rocked with the gentle slap of the waves. Moments later, in my padre’s arms, she died. The Indian women who also attended my unusual birth named me Chenoa. A loose translation means white dove in the neophyte’s tongue. The name meant to recognize my heritage in this land of dark-eyed, brown-skinned people. My certificate of baptism records Lea Chenoa Sandoval, the year being 1818. Lea is the only sound my madre uttered during the process of my birth. My padre wrote it on the certificate, a grain of my legacy, he would say.

I am an old woman now and babble about the past, like the rio. So let me tell you a little story. There have been three men in my life. Do women boast of more? Or less?

Of the three, the first I never met. His seed created me. To this day, I don’t know his name, his origin, nothing. I only know that my madre’s pregnancy was not another virgin birth... so blasphemous. Forgive me, Lord.

The second man, Padre Tomas Sandoval, raised me. I will always think of him as my true father, my heart and soul created by him, my mind his to mold. My beloved father. My eyes mist, and my heart quickens as I tell you this. I miss the swish of his rosary girdle against the wool of his robe when he bustled about the corridors of the mission, ledgers in hand, glasses dangling from the end of his nose.

He died as my arms clung to him, and my lips implored him to live for me. I came to understand I was a very selfish niñain that moment.Nonetheless, to this day I crave the presence of him in my life. He was the center of my being. The sun rose with his hand on my cheek moments before he gave me Holy Communion, and the moon came up with his kiss upon my brow after Vespers in our chapel. Life was simple and lovely where the sea sparkled in the sunlight, its breakers curling lazy fingers around wild and rocky shores. Crimson paintbrush and golden yarrow colored the land.

I grew up with the Rumsen and Esselen Indians at the mission. It was a very slow realization that I wasn’t one of them. I had no reason to question the color of my skin, nor the green of my eyes, nor my hair streaked by the sun. Actually, my personal attributes were unkempt most of the time. This is not a confession of my health habits. I knew no better, and it was beneath my padre to broach the subject. For the most part, the Indian women recognized me as Padre Sandoval’s own and would not interfere as a form of etiquette. So, there I was, dirty as a small brave, allowed to ride astride and dress as a male child. Still, I was educated in Latin, French, and English. Cipher, I refused. Music, I had no time for. Philosophy, I loved. Probably that was the part of me that was so contrary most of the time. My padre introduced me to Socrates, who taught that every person has full knowledge of the truth in his soul and that a person needs reflection for self-discovery. That was a challenge my padre presented to me often.

This brings me to the rest of my tale. 

I said there were three men. The first two gave me life. One physical, the other intellectual and spiritual. I was a young branch, tender and supple, eager for life. But, this third man—ah yes, this third man, he gave me a future.

Our first meeting was on the day my beloved padre lay dying. We exchanged heated words, this third man and I. At least I spit words of anger. Señor Viandante was the soul of comportment. Fear welled up within me that day, and it spilled out of my mouth in the worst imaginable display. At some point, I offered apologies, but there was a distance of many months between my insult and my apology. Oh, my infuriating pride. My words of atonement came too late to stop a devastating turn of events. In the years that followed, I accepted ownership of all my troubles. A decision was to be made that allowed me a very long time to reflect upon my behavior. Socrates and my padre would have been pleased. I was not.

I am getting ahead of myself. I want you to grasp the first day I met this man.

That single, horrid day began unremarkably enough with Mass in the chapel, whispered words of devotion to the santos and Padre Serra, the Consecration, Holy Communion. My padre spoke more softly than usual. He required assistance walking to the altar. There were eleven or twelve of us in attendance. Two years earlier, the order to secularize the mission arrived. Attendance steadily diminished. Before the decree, several hundred would come in from the fields for Matins. After the decree, only Islay, Padre’s faithful plum-colored neophyte, the women from the ramada, their children, and I were usually in attendance. I sat with the latter. We younger participants in the Holy Sacrifice had plans for the time after Mass.

Niños questioned my riding skills. I was quick to rise to the taunt and itched to remove the silly grins of my accusers. To sit near them ensured they not forget the insult or my eagerness to rectify their misconception.

So wrapped in my injured self, I did not notice Islay carry my padre from the chapel. I did not notice him faltering and grabbing at the sacred altar cloth to right himself. I would not have run from the chapel as the last words of prayer lifted upward if I had. However, I did not notice, so self-absorbed was I. Later in the night, Islay explained my dear padre’s altar mishap.

I spent the hours astride the pony given to me because my padre wanted me to have a childhood of some normalcy. Birthed of a white woman in this land that edged the ocean, he felt I lost so very much. I could never convince him I would not trade him or my life with him for a mother, father, brother, and sister. Perhaps I could not convince him because I was never sure myself.

However, being a man of great wisdom, he knew without question what he meant to me, and I to him. I have drawn strength and comfort from this knowledge all these years since. And, as I said, this was the day I met Señor Viandante, the third man in my life.

After my contest of daring in the hills, I returned to the mission in search of my padre to relate my skill. I discovered he was in his room, a sparse, whitewashed cubicle with one tiny window for air and light. The tiles, worn by the padding of many feet, were cool to my step. The day’s heat had not risen full. Upon entering his cubicle, Islay with head bowed stood at my padre’s cot. The love of my young life laid prostrate, hands folded across his grey-robed chest. I knew immediately something was wrong and dropped to my knees at his side.

I’m sure I babbled of seeing to his comfort and scorned Islay for not informing me. My small frame, garbed in shabby breeches and a faded pink shirt the same color as the pictures in his library of flamingos from his native Spain. My sash, which kept my breeches from falling about my ankles, was the color of an orange-ripened sunset. As I disliked having to comb and fuss with hair, I insisted on keeping the curls cropped close. The third man saw this filthy, bedraggled sight from his shadowed corner. At the time, I was unaware of a deathbed promise between him and my padre. 

In that very moment, I was thrust from one world to another, from poverty to plenty, from benevolence to indifference, and from loving guardianship to emotional neglect.

Eventually, with seasoning gained from years spent in a convent, I accepted padre’s wisdom. Nevertheless, it was a long journey on the road to maturity for me.

Señor Sebastian Viandante and I have shared all the years since. Our many children grounded me in a life filled with love. A few leagues from our ranch, the crumbled edifice of the mission continues to claim the land. Once a year, I take a wagonload of children and baskets of food to the mission grounds. We sit under the old oaks that edge the cemetery, and I tell them tales of my first twelve years.

Life is fragile with uncertainty. Like lightening, sometimes I am awestruck when I look back at the pebbles of my madre’s love. What if she died before reaching shore? What if my padre had not fought with the Archdiocese in Mexico to keep me? Today I would be without a history. I like to think they look down at their legacy. My heart warms at the thought my padre stands next to her, rosary dangling from his waist. They are smiling.

Then, of course, there was the deathbed promise.

My soft-soled mocs push against the weathered floorboards, setting the rocker in motion once again as I await the call to dinner.

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