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her knee, wiping her hands on the cloth with which she had been
polishing it, and then dropping several lumps of sugar into the cup, she
poured herself a liberal allowance of cream. "It's a bill for that
double-j'inted, patent, electrical fishin' rod that I sent East for,
clean to New York City, for a weddin' present for Celia."

Mrs. Thomas gave a faint, scornful laugh at the thought of this most
incongruous gift for Mrs. Nitschkan's pretty, feminine daughter. "A
fishin' rod for Celia!" she exclaimed, "when all she ever thinks about
is cookin' an' sweepin' an' sewin' all day."

"That's it," Mrs. Nitschkan radiated self-approbation and satisfaction.
"It made a nice show at the weddin', didn't it? And it has sure been
useful to me since."

But Mrs. Thomas had again absorbed herself in her correspondence, and it
is doubtful if she heard these last words. "Say, Sadie," she cried
presently, a ripple of joyous excitement in her voice, "listen here to
what Willie Barker says, 'If you don't come back soon, I'm a-going to
lay right down an' die, or maybe take my own life.'"

"Then you'll stay right on here," said Mrs. Nitschkan shortly but
emphatically. "Such a chanst as that's not to be missed."

Mrs. Thomas pouted, "But, honest, can't we pretty soon leave these old
prospects that you're a-nursin' along to salt an' get ready to palm off
on some poor Easterner?"

The gypsy took a long draught of coffee, wiping her mouth on the back
of her hand. "Your ungratefulness'll strike in and probably kill you,
Marthy Thomas. Here I burdened myself with you to save your life
insurance and the nice little property Seth left you from a pack of
wolves in the camp that's after them, an' not you, an' what thanks do I
get? All these months I been workin' like the devil to convert you an'
José, an' as far as either of you's concerned, I might a darned sight
better have put in my time tryin' to save the soul of a flea. You
couldn't even let a poor, God-forsaken robber like José alone. Don't you
know that if you get a thousand husbands they'll all treat you as bad or
worse'n Seth did?"

"He's an angel in heaven right now an' don't you dare say a word against
him, Sadie Nitschkan," cried Mrs. Thomas defensively, "but he was a
devil all the same."

"They'll all be devils," returned Mrs. Nitschkan fatalistically. "They's
no man can stand seein' a feather pillow around all the time an' not
biff it, especially when it can turn on a gallon of tears any time of
the day or night."

Mrs. Thomas made no effort to refute this last aspersion. Instead, she
began to weep loudly and unrestrainedly. "Bob Martin says in his letter
that he hopes I'm havin' a pleasant time," she sobbed. "He don't know
the loneliness, not to say the danger, of being snowed up in these
mountains with a woman that ain't got no more feelin' than to skin you
alive whenever she's a mind to. I ain't afraid of gentlemen, even
husbands, but sometimes when you get to jawin' me, Sadie, with a gun in
your hand, it makes my poor heart go like that, an' I crawl all over
with goose-flesh."

Fortunately, the thaws continued, and if no great quantity of snow fell
between now and then, the first passenger train was scheduled to run
through on the day that Pearl would dance, but Bob Flick, by some method
known to himself, had succeeded in making his journey on the engine, and
thus arrived at Gallito's cabin several days before he was expected,
looking a little more worn than usual and faintly anxious, an expression
which speedily disappeared as he saw the radiant health and spirits of
Pearl. As for her, she was unfeignedly glad to see him.

"I sure have worried a lot about you this winter, Pearl," he said to her
that evening as they two sat a little apart from the rest, Gallito,
José, Hugh and Seagreave, who all clustered about the fire, while Pearl,
as usual, had drawn her chair within the warm gloom of the pine-scented
shadow.

"Ain't you silly!" She looked up at him with her heart-shattering,
adorable smile.

"I am always about you," he said. "You're all I think of, Pearl, night
and day."

She patted his arm lightly. "I've always got you to depend on anyway,
haven't I, Bob?" Her soft, lazy, sliding voice was itself a caress.

"You sure have. Anytime, anywhere. No matter what happens, I can't ever
change, Pearl. Lord! You ought to know that by this time."

"Maybe I do, Bob, and maybe I like knowing it."

"I hope you do, but it wouldn't make any difference whether you did or
didn't. I got to love you. I guess the cards fell that way for me before
I was born and nothing can ever change that layout."

"You've never failed me yet, Bob."

"And never will. Oh, Pearl, don't you, can't you see your way to
marrying me?"

She stirred restlessly, a faintly troubled look shadowing her face.
"There's so many of me, and I never know what I'm going to do or how I'm
going to feel. I'd just be bound to make you miserable."

"It wouldn't be the first time," he said a little sadly. "But you see I
know you. I ain't got any mistaken notions about you, and I love you
more than any other man in this life'll ever do, Pearl."

Again she moved and looked at him as if his words had roused in her some
regret. "I guess that's so; but - it wouldn't be a square deal."

"I'll tend to that," he urged, "and you'll just have to know that I'm
always loving you, no matter what's to pay."

"I - " she began, but was interrupted by José, who bowed low before her.

"Señorita," grandiosely, "the ladies and your father beg that, unworthy
as I am to dance on the same floor as you, that yet, as a compliment to
Mr. Flick, we go through some of the Spanish dances together."

Pearl assented and half rose, but Flick laid a detaining hand on her
sleeve. "She will in a minute," he said. "Run along now, José, me and
Miss Gallito's got something to talk over." He bent close to her again.
"Pearl," there was the faintest shake in his voice, "what are you going
to tell me, now?"

"Oh, Bob," the regret was in her voice now, "I wish, I wish you didn't
feel that way. I love you more than 'most anybody in the world - but not
that way. And - and I don't want to lose your love for me. I like to know
it's there. I sort of lean up against it."

He waited a moment or two before answering her, and then his voice was
as steady as ever. "You can always come back to my love for you. The
stars can fall out of the sky and the mountains slide down, but my love
for you can't change, Pearl. It's fixed and steady and forever."

"Dear old Bob," she touched his cheek as she passed him with a light
caress and went on into the room beyond to get her dancing slippers.

It was later that evening that José began his unceasing importunities to
see Pearl dance in the town hall. A stern and surprised veto of this
plan was his immediate answer. But José was the most convincing and
plausible of pleaders.

"But, Gallito," he cried almost piteously, "since Mrs. Nitschkan has
watched my manners I have been like an angel. No more does the camp say
that this hill is haunted, you know that."

"I told you what you'd get if you didn't stop hootin' at people who was
passin'," remarked Mrs. Nitschkan, knocking the ashes from her pipe out
on the hearth and then carefully refilling it. "But you're none so good
now that you need brag. I don't know that playin' monkey tricks to
frighten folks ain't just as good a way to put in the time as sittin'
'round holdin' hands with Marthy Thomas."

"Sadie!" Mrs. Thomas drew forth her handkerchief and prepared to shed
the ready tear. "How you can have the heart to talk so to a woman that
ain't buried her husband twelve months! Mr. José ain't even thought of
takin' the liberties you sit there accusin' him of. If I had a live
husband to pertect me, you wouldn't dare treat me like what you do.
Whenever you miss a shot, or get fooled on a prospect, or get some money
won away from you, you come back to our little cabin an' sit lookin' at
me like you was a wolf an' talkin' like you was a she-bear. And - and
it's darned hard, that's what it is."

"If you were a man, Nitschkan," José drew himself up truculently, "you
would indeed answer for such speeches, and you would not have converted
me so easily, either. I have no fear of men." This was quite true, he
had not, but his eye quailed and drooped before the steady gaze of Mrs.
Nitschkan.

"Come, come," said Gallito peremptorily, "I am glad to see you all each
evening about my fireside, but I will have no arguing nor quarreling,
understand that. A man's house is his castle."

José diplomatically dropped the subject, which did not mean that he had
abandoned his plan for one moment. He merely waited a more convenient
season. His strongest arguments were that it was not an infrequent
occurrence for Gallito to entertain guests of his own nationality in his
mountain cabin. "And my hair!" cried José pathetically. "It would be a
crown of glory to Nitschkan if she had it; but it is a shame to me, a
man, to have to wear it so long. No one in the camp could possibly know
that I have ears."

Gallito at first absolutely refused to listen to him, but so adroitly
did José bring up the subject every evening that he began to make some
impression on his stern jailer. He was careful, though, not to mention
his hopes until near midnight, when Gallito's normally harsh mood was
greatly softened not only by winning the final game, which José
invariably permitted now, but also by the mellowing influence of his
bland, old cognac. Then Gallito would embark on an argument, determined
to convince José of the wild folly of his desire.

Their debate continued for several evenings and finally ended, as José
meant it should, in Gallito giving a reluctant consent, under certain
conditions which he insisted should be rigidly carried out.

He admitted that it was unlikely that any suspicion would be aroused in
the village. Those who saw the party enter the hall would, if they
thought about the matter at all, take it for granted that the stranger
was some friend of Bob Flick's who had come up with him on the train.
But two conditions Gallito insisted upon: the first, that José was to
turn the collar of his heavy overcoat high up about his face and draw
his hat low over his brows, and the second was that he was only to be
permitted to observe the dancing from behind the curtain of the little
recess at the end of the hall which served Pearl as a dressing room. He
might gaze his fill through the peep-hole there, but under no
circumstances was he to be seen in the body of the hall. But these
conditions, as Gallito pointed out, were entirely dependent on Pearl. It
was a question whether she would tolerate José for a whole evening in
her dressing room.

At first she flatly refused to do so and turned a persistently deaf ear
to José's pleading. She had to slip out of one frock and into another at
least three times. There would not be room with José sitting there.

"But, dear Señorita, I will not be sitting there," he cried. "When the
moment comes that you change your frock I will be standing with my face
to the wall and my eyes covered with my hands."

"I should hope so," murmured Mrs. Thomas, who was present.

But Pearl had another reason for not wishing to be alone with José upon
this occasion. She meant to wear her emeralds, and she was not so
anxious that the light-fingered bandit should have so near a view of
them. When she mentioned this to Bob Flick and her father, however, they
laughed at her fears. Not that they trusted José, but, as they pointed
out, no matter how much he might be tempted by the jewels, there was no
possible way for him to escape with them. He was clever enough to
realize this, therefore his resistance to temptation under trying
circumstances might be taken for granted. So Pearl at last gave her
reluctant consent.

Upon the afternoon of the day that Pearl was to dance Hughie brought the
news that the first train bearing passengers had arrived, hours late,
nearer six o'clock in the evening, than twelve, noon, when it was due;
but nevertheless it had made the journey. It brought several people, but
no one seemed to know who they were.

"It is a question," said Gallito, squinting his eyes at the sky,
"whether they will get back as easily as they came. See, the snow is
again beginning to fall."

It was still snowing as the entire party, men and women, drove down the
hill to the town hall. As there was not room for all in the mountain
wagon, Seagreave again drove Pearl down in his cart.

They arrived early, as Gallito meant they should, and to his
satisfaction found almost nobody in the hall, which was yet but dimly
lighted.

Pearl immediately vanished into her dressing room, with José carrying
the case containing her make-up, changes of costume, slippers, etc.,
close behind her.

Mrs. Nitschkan and Mrs. Thomas, Flick, Gallito and Seagreave selected
their seats in the front row and, sitting down, began a discussion of
certain mining matters while the house gradually filled. This took but a
few moments. The inhabitants of Colina were too keen for a little
diversion after the winter famine of amusement to stand upon the order
of their coming. They came at once, and almost in a body.

Pearl was equally prompt, ready to begin upon the stroke of the hour,
and as the time approached Hughie could be heard running his fingers
over the keys, although the curtains had not yet been drawn back. By
this time there was no longer standing room in the hall.

Mrs. Nitschkan was still deep in a mining discussion. "Who should I run
across yesterday," she was saying, "but the Thompson boys. They just
took a lease on the 'Pennyroyal,' you know, and they wanted me to go up
and look it over. Well, I know, and you know, Gallito, the history of
that mine from 'way back. 'She's got a bad name, boys,' I says, 'a bad
name.' Well, I went through some of the new drifts with 'em, and I
chipped off some specimens." She pulled two or three of these from her
coat pocket and passed them over to the men. "They sure look mighty good
to me," she chuckled. "The truth of the matter is that that mine ain't
never been worked right. We can knock it so skilful, though, Gallito,
that the boys'll be glad to let us have it for 'most nothing. Jus' look
'round the hall, Bob, an' see if you can see 'em here to-night."

To oblige her he turned in his leisurely fashion and began to scan the
audience.

Flick had never been known to start; that was a part of his training. If
a cannon had been fired off close to his ear, the narrowest observer
could not have discerned the twitch of a muscle; neither would he have
exhibited the faintest change of expression; training again. Now, his
face was quite as impassive as usual. His mild, indifferent glance
continued to rove over the house, noting with the accuracy of an adding
machine certain men who either stood or sat in different parts of the
house. Presently he encountered the gaze of Hanson, who was sitting
almost directly opposite to him and who was evidently trying to attract
his attention.

Eye held eye. On Hanson's face was unconcealed triumph, a cynical
exultation. He nodded with smiling insolence, but Flick regarded him
with a blank stare of non-recognition for a moment or so and then turned
indifferently away. It was a matter of considerable surprise to those
who bent watchful eyes on him from various parts of the hall that he did
not, as far as they could see, speak either to Gallito or Seagreave.

In any event, he would have had but little time for consultation with
them, for almost immediately the curtains were drawn aside, Hugh began
to play, and Pearl made her appearance. That was the signal for applause
as prolonged as it was enthusiastic. She was like a vision of the spring
so eagerly awaited by these prisoners of winter. Her frock, which fell
to her ankles, was of some white, silky, soft material and was deeply
bordered with silver; her sleeves were of silver and there was a touch
of silver on the bodice. Her emeralds gleamed like green fire against
her bare white throat and as she danced a froth of rose-colored
petticoat was visible, foaming above her ankles.

To all those eager, watching people Pearl seemed truly the incarnation
of May in all its glory and shimmer, and Hughie's music was like the
silver, fluting notes of her insistent heralds proclaiming the south
wind, and bird calls and murmuring rivulets of melting snow. And when
she ceased and they finally permitted her to withdraw before dancing
again it was almost with a shock that they realized that the snow was
still falling outside.

It was then that Bob Flick turned at last to his two companions. "You've
seen?" was his brief, low-voiced comment. Both men nodded.

"Every deputy in the county here," said Seagreave in as low a voice as
the one Flick had used. "No exits for us anywhere. The sheriff has them
well stationed."

"Thank God, I came," muttered Gallito, "but I wish we knew their plan."

"That's easy," said Flick. "Hanson's so sure that he's won the game
before it's played that he's ready to tell any one that will listen to
him how it all happened, before it's begun. I guess I'll go over and
talk to him a little before Pearl comes on again."

He rose to his tall, languid height and sauntered in his laziest fashion
across the floor.

"Say, stranger," he began, resting his elbow on the back of a chair next
Hanson, and leaning his head on his hand, "haven't we met before. It
seemed to me a few moments ago when I caught your eye that your face was
more or less familiar."

"Well, now ain't that strange!" exclaimed Hanson in affected surprise.
"But I just had a sort of an idea that you'd recognize me to-night in
spite of my disguise. Yes, now you ask me, let me tell you, since your
memory is so poor, that we have met once or twice before, but it ain't
likely that we ever will again. Sad," he shook his head and sighed
heavily, "I hate to disappoint you by telling you so, but, someway, I
got that idea firmly fixed in my head."

"Is that so?" said Flick politely. "Well, maybe you're right. It does
kind of look so from the layout you've got here. How are you going to
play it, anyway? Both ends to the middle, I suppose."

"Correct," returned Hanson blithely. "We lined up outside to watch you
when you got out of the wagon. If you hadn't brought him with you we
wouldn't have disturbed you during the entertainment; just gone up the
hill and got him and then rounded the rest of you up afterward. But you
were kind enough to save us that trouble."

"Don't mention it," drawled Flick; "but I don't just sabe why you didn't
take us when we drove up. You had the whole bunch of us then."

"We're taking no chances," Hanson winked knowingly. "The boys up here
have been having a pretty long, dull winter, and such a move on our part
might have given them the idea that we were trying to break up their fun
this evening, which they wouldn't have stood for. Then, old Gallito's
popular here, God knows why, and if he'd asked the boys to stand by him
and they saw a chance of some excitement, why, we'd have had an
unnecessary mix-up. See? Not but what we'd have been a good deal more
than equal to any scrap they could have put up even if led by you and
old Gallito, but the sheriff didn't want any trouble of that kind when
it was so easy to avoid it."

"Good sense," commended Flick, "but are you so sure you've entirely
side-stepped that danger? There's after-the-ball-is-over still to be
considered."

"Trust old uncle wiseacre over there for that," said Hanson
vaingloriously, and nodding as he spoke toward the sheriff, who leaned
big and calm and watchful against the door at the back of the room.
"He's a born general. The plan, son, can't be beat. They know he's in
the Pearl's dressing room and they got the building well surrounded on
the outside. I guess it's a scheme that even such crafty crooks as
Gallito and - " He paused and quailed a little under Flick's steady
regard, the "_you_" he had meant to say died on his lips. From neither
victor nor victim did Bob Flick ever permit a familiarity. "Yes, there's
no getaway possible," he substituted hastily. "It'd be foolish of you
boys to try and put up a fight."

"I guess you're right," agreed Flick. "I guess we're too old and stiff
and tired to draw our guns unless there's a chance for us, anyway."
Flick rose with his usual languor. "Well, so long Mr. - - your name sure
does escape me." He strolled back to his companions, resuming his seat
in his usual unhurried and indifferent way. The curtains had not yet
parted, so he took occasion to relate to Gallito and Seagreave the
result of his conversation with Hanson, careless of the fact that the
latter sat watching them, gloating with malicious amusement over the
spectacle of the three of them so hopelessly entangled in the net and
yet engaging in the futile discussion of methods of escape.

As Bob Flick whispered the scheme to the two men the gloom deepened on
Gallito's face. It seemed to him too comprehensive and efficacious to
evade. But Harry did not share his depression. As he listened his face
changed and set. In his eyes was a flash like sunlight on steel. He was
the old Seagreave again whom José had once described to Gallito. The
Seagreave whose mind worked with lightning rapidity, who ventured
anything, as gay and invincible he fought in the last ditch, his back to
the wall and all the odds against him.

"I've got an idea," he said. "It may not work, but it's a chance." He
bent forward and in a rapid whisper outlined his plan for them. "I
wonder," he said, "if they'd nab me if I started to go over and talk to
Hughie? Do you suppose they would permit me a word with him?"

Flick laughed. "Any number of them," he said. "If the rats they've
caught want to run around in the trap, what's that to them?"

Seagreave had no opportunity to carry out his plan just then, for Hugh
began to play and Pearl made her second appearance. The very sight of
her, their vision of spring, who seemed to have sped up from the valley
far below and transformed the dark and dreary winter, brought the house
to its feet and sent a storm of applause ringing to the rafters.

But she was spring no longer. In this dance of the seasons she was
giving them she now typified summer, splendid and glowing. Her gown was
a vivid green, spangled with gold and wreathed in roses. A festoon of
pink and crimson flowers lay about her neck, its long ends falling
almost to the foot of her frock, and her hair was crowned with roses.
And her dancing had changed. It was no longer the springtime she
portrayed, with all her plastic grace of motion, symbolizing its
delicate evanescence with arch hesitations and fugitive advances, and
all the playful joyousness of youth.

On this second appearance she was dancing the summer and dancing it with
a passionate zest and spirit, alternated with enchanting languors. When
at last she ceased it seemed as if the encores which drew her back on
the stage again and again would never end.

And the sheriff, noting this, stirred uneasily and whispered to a
grizzled companion: "I wish this was over, Lord, I do! Things don't look
quite so dead sure as they did. Gosh! She's got 'em all right in the
hollow of her hand."

"It's her you got to reckon with," returned the companion gloomily.
"This blasted long winter's got the boys right on edge. They're jus'
spoiling for some deviltry or other, and if she comes out in front of
the curtain and makes an appeal to 'em, why, there'll be one of the
meanest scraps that's been seen in the mountains for some time."

"You bet," agreed the sheriff. "What do you suppose that Seagreave's
chinning Hughie about."

"God knows!" returned his pessimistic companion. "Nothing that's going
to help us any, you can stake your bottom dime on that. Here she comes
again, and you and me's just as big fools about her as the rest if we'd
let ourselves be."

This time Pearl danced the autumn, a vision of crimson and gold, with
grape leaves wreathing her black hair. If Hugh had conveyed to her any
disturbing news during the intermission, she showed no trace of it in
her dancing, and if she had stirred her audience to impassioned
enthusiasm before, it was unlimited, almost frantic now. She was the
flame of autumn upon the mountain hillsides, a torch burning with the
joy of life and flinging her gay, defiant splendor in the menacing face
of winter. Before she had finished the house was on its feet, shouting
and clapping and refusing to let her leave the stage.


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Online LibraryNancy Mann Waddel WoodrowThe Black Pearl → online text (page 14 of 20)