There was a high trailing film over the sun. It dimmed the strong white light that washed against the cathedral. It brought a brief and somewhat breathless coolness to the evening. The people of Durango gathered in little clots along the shady side of the street, and discussed this peculiar cloud. One or two of them, more righteous than the rest, felt justified in calling it to the attention of Father Solano as he passed.
“It is a dust cloud,” he told them. “It is only a cloud of dust, blowing from the high peaks of the Sierra Madres, so that it obscures the sun.”
He did not examine it earnestly for holy shapes and portents, as he would have thirty years ago, when he first came to Durango. But the fanwise bands of light lent him a curious exaltation, made him feel like praying. So, he prayed, not closing his eyes or raising them to heaven. He prayed with a companionable smile, talking straight ahead as to an invisible friend.
“This is a good thing you have done,” he said. “It will lead them to think of things not of this earth, and that is good.”
Father Solano stood on the worn steps of the cathedral, in a pool of shadow. He was not uncomfortable, in spite of the intense heat. Some impish fraction of his mind wondered what his flock would say to learn that he wore nothing under his long black robe. It was not a matter for conscience. Holy orders advised the wearing of a cassock under the robe, but the point was not stressed.
He stood easily, a squat, powerful figure of a man, legs spread wide under his robe, bullet bead thrust well forward. His arms, which would have felt better cocked on his hips, he held loose at his side. It would he unseemly to show anticipation, for bis people knew for whom he waited.
Contreras was long in coming. Father Solano heard his dragging steps, far down on Calle Cineo de Mayo, long he-fore the old man came into view. He marked his slow passage, gauged by the ungentle calls of the naked children in the street. Father Solano had expected Contreras to drive to the cathedral, but be knew why the old man had chosen to walk. It made doubly certain that everything would go as they had planned.
Even in the extremity of Contreras’s illness, there was a sense of purpose about him. Solano saw him come around the corner of the cathedral, tall and spare, with his chin jutted forward. The topknot of his white hair made him look like a road-runner, and there was more of the bird’s look about his lean angularity, about the way he moved, jerkily, with his bright eyes restless and ahead.
Contreras smiled thinlv when he saw the crowd.
He said, ‘Are the lions properly hungry?”
He came up the steps to stand beside Father Solano. There was a dew of perspiration on bis brows and lips. There was a blueness about his mouth, and his breath was ragged and forced. The priest thought, “There is no more than enough time.”
He turned to his people in the cathedral square. He examined their faces, knowing their innermost thoughts and secrets, from the old ones down to the children who played naked and negligent in the gutters.
“My children,” he began, and stopped. How odd it was, he thought, that into this shining fraction of time could be thus compressed the sum of thirty years effort.
He had been little more than an acolyte, he remembered. Thirty years ago, Durango had bulked large in the church.
It has supported a bishop and two assistants. The cathedral had been but a central point for the lands of the church, which lay as far as eye could see from the lesser bell tower. But with one thing and another in the passing years, affairs had gone badly. Now there was only Father Solano, and the fumbling, earnest village boy wdio helped him. The lands of the church were encompassed now by the sundial shadow of its towers.
Contreras had not been to blame for the recession. Father Solano knew that. Contreras had been a symbol, but no more than a symbol. He had been an atheist in the days when the church was strong and flourishing. No one had listened to him then. It was different now. Not that Contreras was militant in his disbelief, but he was Durango’s richest man, and his example was enough to induce a lax-ness about religion in the minds of the town folk.
“He is my only friend,” Solano thought.
It had been an odd sort of friendship, grown up in one night a week, over thirty years. The town had accepted those weekly visits as a priestly zeal for conversion. None would have understood that these two men, antagonists in public, found a companionship in their meetings. Two minds met and fused and fought and explored together, at variance, yet tolerant.
Had they been inclined to do so, the people of Durango might have connected those visits with the surprising amount of money Father Solano managed to have for charity. But the point was never raised.
“They won’t question your alms,” Contreras had said. “As long as you fill their bellies and warm their hides, they won’t ask questions.”
And when Father Solano had demurred, “It smacks of dealing with the devil,” the old man’s smile became even more satanic.
“Don’t tell them the truth,” he advised. “They have little enough faith as it is.” And that was regrettably true. Rice Christians, the missionaries called them—the ones who came to the church when they needed food or clothing or shelter. It was not a spiritual hunger that brought them. Father Solano worried about that, and while Contreras was not a spiritual man, he brought a rough-and-tumble sort of logic to hear on the problem.
“Give them a miracle, Padre,” he would croak. “That’s how the church militant kept them in line. A miracle is worth a thousand converts.”
“One does not give miracles; one accepts them.”
“Por Maria!” the old man snapped. “Things were better arranged at Lourdes, or Guadalupe. Your blackrobes there knew the value of stage dressing.”
“Contreras,” Father Solano said, “you will surely go to hell.”
Contreras grinned his impudent grin. “And I’ll be running the place in a month.”
Certainly the man had done well enough on this earth. His sprawling estancia was almost bidden in a grove of pepper trees and poplars. Within its yard-thick, sun-baked walls was shadowed coolness, and a gracious ease and plenty. The furniture was iron wood, hand-rubbed until it shone soft and mellow as an organ tone. Gay weaving hung from the walls, and drying peppers and gourds rustled from the hand-hewn beams. Mesquite logs snapped into powdery white ash in the great fireplace where Contreras boasted he could roast a whole ox—and had proved it, though it had been but a small ox.
On all sides, his lands rolled away to lap against the Sierra Madres. There were sheep uncounted, and white-faced, bawling Herefords brought down from Nogales, There were fields of fat alfalfa and maize. And there was barren land, beauty left wild and hot and arid where the purple blossoms of the bisnagas were the sole concession to softness.
It was in front of the great fireplace that the two men loved to sit—the swarthy black-robed priest and his lean, tempered, cynical host. There over the thin sour wine from Contrcras’s own vines, the strong black cigarros rolled from the hidalgo’s own tobacco, they wrangled over the merits of Hakluyt and Tolstoy, agreed in praising Michelangelo and Tintoretto. There was argument too of a more personal sort, when Contreras pointed the feathery ash of his cigar and said:
“You are wriggling your bare toes in the panther skin. That is sensual, Padre! Por Maria, you are a bad priest.”
And Father Solano, unembarrassed by his hairy black shanks thrown bare, would roar happily, “And you have just sworn by the Virgin! You, my friend, are a bad atheist!”
In the slow-moving years, Father Solano had found many occasions to repay bis friend for the money that filled his almoner’s purse. There was the perilous time when the workers left the fields at harvest; when only the priest’s slow urging sent them back to save the crops. There had been the revolutionary days, when the looting rurales had by-passed the estancia because once, long ago, Father Solano had ridden all night to give absolution to a wounded man.
But no debt had ever grown between Contreras and the priest. Not even in the closing days, when Solano had ridden one of the hidalgo’s horses to death over a tortured trail to bring the doctor from the next town—had gone riding through the night like a black-gowned witch, spurred by the memory of Contreras’s tortured breathing.
The old man had mocked him on his return, grinned at him with the feeble ghost of that former mockery and said:
“You have saved my body, Padre. That you may have and welcome. But don’t look for a soul with it, for I tell you there is no such thing.”
Through all his illness, Contreras maintained that mocking grin. Alone in Durango, Father Solano knew what the doctor had told the sick man. The short remainder of his life must be spent in bed. Any exertion, any excitement would mean the end. Coldly, Contreras had told the doctor he did not care to continue life upon those terms.
It was then that Father Solano urged his compact. It was in his heart that the time had come to resolve matters, once and for all. If Contreras died peacefully, a rebel to the church, then it might be as well to close the cathedral doors and go quietly away from Durango.
“You have already given much to my work,” Father Solano argued. “This little more is nothing to you. And suppose there should be a soul after all?”
Contreras laughed. “The idea intrigues me. but I’m not sure I could go through with it. Do you think I’m a good enough actor?”
“Beati pauperes spiritu,” Father Solano said, “quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum.”
“Not exactly that,” Contreras said. “I just don’t like to see things bungled.”
The people of Durango had been properly excited when it was announced that Contreras would espouse the church, publicly, upon the cathedral steps. They had looked upon the strange light that afternoon as a hint of Divine presence at the remarkable scene. They did not entirely accept Father Solano’s explanation about a dust cloud. They felt there might be more to it than that. So they gathered in the cathedral square and listened attentively.
“My children,” Father Solano said again, “there is a spiritual rebirth that comes to us all with affirmation of faith. Listen now to our penitent brother, as he follows me in repeating the Credo.”
Contreras stood very straight and tried to keep his hands from shaking. “I have changed my mind,” he said harshly. “I still deny your God. If there is one, let him strike me dead!”
There will be no deeper silence at Durango’s last twilight on earth. Contreras raised his arms and shouted, “Let him strike me, now!”
Then he crumpled slowly down, as a thin vine falls from its last hold upon the rock. His mocking smile died last. And the voiceless whisper that followed was the sound of Durango’s people, kneeling in the dust to pray.
Father Solano prayed also, not closing his eyes, nor raising them to heaven. He prayed with a companionable smile, talking straight ahead to an invisible friend.
“This is a very good thing he has done, Father,” he said. “He has given us our miracle. Let us deal gently with him.”