Book 2 Chapter 2
2. The Lonely Road to Mora
Summary: Latour and Vaillant are riding to Mora to help a priest there care for refugees when they are caught in a terrible ice storm. They seek shelter at “a wretched adobe house,” the only dwelling they have seen for days. An ugly American (whom we later learn is named Buck Scales) lives there with his Mexican wife. The woman has clearly been the victim of abuse. While Scales husband is stabling the priests’ mules, the woman communicates in a “terrible pantomime” of gestures that the priests’ lives are in danger, and that they should leave. They do so, quickly, and press on to Mora. The next morning, they discover that the woman has followed them. Her name is Magdalena Valdez, and she tells Latour all about her ill treatment at Scales’ hands—as well as how Scales killed the three babies she had borne, and how he murdered four travelers who had stopped at their house for the night, as the priests had. A retired fur trapper at Mora takes down her testimony as evidence. A search party finds the remains of four men’s bodies at Scales’ home, and captures Scales himself along the road to Mora—he had come looking for Magdalena. Magdalena is entrusted to the care of the frontiersman Kit Carson, who treats her tenderly and tells her she can stay with his wife. After a short trial, Scales is hanged. Magdalena eventually becomes housekeeper and manager of a small convent of nuns in Santa Fe.
Analysis: This chapter shows that the dangers facing Latour and Vaillant in their missionary work come not only from nature, but from other human beings. Cather describes Buck Scales in ways that suggest his ill-formed appearance mirrors an ill-formed soul: “He was tall, gaunt, and ill-formed, with a snake-like neck”—the snake, of course, being a common symbol of evil in the Bible and in western literature (p. 66); such adjectives as “repellent” (p. 66) and “malignant” (p. 67) also reflect judgment on the character. Buck Scales seems “not more than half human” (p. 67)—but not, in the end, because of his appearance, but because of his brutal behavior toward his wife, his murdered children, and the innocent travelers who sought shelter with him. In contrast, Magdalena ends the chapter as a beautiful woman, as Kit Carson once knew her to be: “she became beautiful, as Carson said she had been as a girl. After the blight of her horrible youth was over, she seemed to bloom again in the household of God” (p. 77). The mention of a blossom may put readers in mind of the cruciform tree in I.1.