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eye. "Pleasant for Bob!" he remarked in vindictive satisfaction; but as
he had still an end to gain, he did not permit his mind to gloat long
upon the agreeable picture Mrs. Gallito's words had suggested.

"Now, just let me talk a minute, Mrs. Gallito," leaning forward and
speaking in his most persuasive manner. "This whole thing is a
misunderstanding, that's all. Pearl didn't understand what I was trying
to say to her, and she lost her temper and wouldn't let me finish. Now
taking all the blame to myself for everything, admitting that I haven't
acted right in any particular, still I haven't had a square deal. You've
got the sand and the fairness to admit that, Mrs. Gallito, and I may say
in passing that you're the only one that has, and you've got to admit
that I haven't had a square deal; not from the Pearl, God bless her, and
certainly not from her Pop and that Flick," his eyes flashed viciously.

Mrs. Gallito filled up his waiting pause with a murmur of confused but
sympathetic assent.

"I'm telling you now what I'd told them if they'd given me a chance, and
it's this," emphasizing his words by striking the palm of one hand with
the forefinger of the other, "I'm going back to Los Angeles and I'm
going to move heaven and earth to get free; but in the meantime, Mrs.
Gallito, I got to hear from her, I've got to keep in touch with her, and
I believe you've got too much heart and too much common sense not to
help me."

She drew back with feeble, inarticulate murmurs of fright and protest.
"I wouldn't dare," she began.

"Wait a moment," said Hanson soothingly. "I'm not suggesting anything
that could get you into trouble. Mercy, no! All I want you to do is
this, just write me now and then and let me know how things are going,
and maybe, once in a while, slip a letter of mine in one of yours to
Pearl; but," as she gasped a little and opened her eyes widely, "not
till you're sure it's quite safe."

"Well," she agreed, still in evident perturbation of mind, "maybe - "

"Oh, Mrs. Gallito," pleadingly, "can't you see that me and Pearl are
born for one another? You know that she can't live away from the
footlights. She just can't. And you know that I can put her where she
belongs. You know that our hearts are better guides than all Bob Flick
and her Pop can plan for her."

His efforts were not wasted. As he had foreseen, his arguments were of a
nature to appeal to Mrs. Gallito, and it required only a little more
persuasion to win her promise of assistance. He further flattered her
self-esteem by interlarding his profuse thanks with vague hints of the
extreme lengths to which his despair might have led him had it not been
for the saving power of her sympathy and understanding.

He had already risen and was halfway to the door before he appeared to
remember something. "Oh," halting, his hand on the latch, "where is
that - that José? Pearl could not go up there with him about."

Mrs. Gallito, all timorousness again, beat her hands lightly together,
in a distressful flurry. "No, he's there," she whispered, and glanced
anxiously about her. Then she came nearer. "I heard Gallito and Bob
talking about him only yesterday and Bob said there was some mischief
brewing among José's pals down on the coast, and Gallito said, yes, and
if he let José leave the mountain he'd be right back there again and in
the thick of it and sure to be taken and that he, Gallito, meant to keep
José in Colina all year, if necessary."

So great was Hanson's satisfaction at this news that he had difficulty
in concealing it, but Mrs. Gallito was not an observant person,
fortunately, and, hastily changing the subject, he again expressed his
thanks and departed.

He left the next morning for Los Angeles to the regret of his
benefactress, Jimmy and the station agent.




CHAPTER VIII


The train which bore Pearl and her father to Colina had already
completed its smooth progress through smiling foot hills and had begun a
steep and winding ascent among wild gorges and great overhanging rocks
before she noticed the change.

For the greater part of the journey she had sat motionless, huddled in a
corner of the seat, a thick veil covering her face; but now she began to
observe the physical changes in the landscape with a somber
satisfaction, and, for the first time, accepted the mountains
listlessly, almost gratefully, instead of rebelliously. In truth any
change was grateful to her; she did not want to think of the desert or
be reminded of it, and this transition, so marked, so sharply defined as
to make the brief railway journey from the plains below seem the passage
to another world, was especially welcome.

The human desire for change is rooted in the conviction, a vain and
deceptive one, that an entirely different environment must include or
create a new world of thought and emotion. So for once the Pearl's
desire was for the hills. She who had ever exulted in the wide, free
spaces of the desert, who had found the echo of her own heart in its
eternal mutation, its luring illusions, its mystery and its beauty, now
turned to the austere, shadowed, silent mountains as if begging them to
enfold her and hold her and hide her.

It was dark when they reached Colina, but a station wagon awaited them
and in this they drove through the village, a straggling settlement, the
narrow plateau permitting only two streets, both of them continuations
of the mountain roads, and surrounded by high mountains. Scattering
lights showed here and there from lamps shining through cabin windows,
but the silence, differing in kind if not in degree from the desert
silence, was only broken at this hour of the night by the desolate,
mocking bark of the coyotes.

Clear of the village, the horses turned and began to mount the hill
which led to Gallito's isolated cabin. Their progress was necessarily
slow, for the road was rough and full of deep ruts. The velvety
blackness of a mountain night was all about them and even the late
spring air seemed icy cold. Pearl had begun to shiver in spite of her
wraps when the light from a cabin window gleamed across the road and the
driver pulled up his horses.

"Somebody's waiting for you," said the driver.

"Yes, Saint Harry," answered Gallito. "He's getting supper for us."

The door, however, was not opened for them and it was not until the
driver had turned his horses down the hill that they heard a bolt
withdrawn. Then Gallito pushed in and Pearl followed, stepping wearily
across the threshold.

The room, a large one for a mountain cabin, was warm and clean; some
logs burned brightly on the hearth; a table set for supper was placed
within the radius of that glow and a man was bending over a stove at one
side of the fireplace, while two women, who had evidently been seated on
the other side of the fire, rose and stood smiling a welcome. The air
was full of appetizing odors mingled with the fragrance of coffee.

As they entered the man turned with a quick movement. He was an
odd-looking creature, brown as a nut, with glinting, changing, glancing
eyes which can see what seem to be immeasurable distances to those
possessed of ordinary sight. He had a curiously crooked face, one eye
was higher than the other and his nose was not in the middle, but set on
one side; its sharp, inquisitive point almost at right angles with the
bridge. He had the wide, mobile mouth of the born comedian, and his chin
was as much to the right as his nose was to the left. He was extremely
light and slender in figure and his movements were like quicksilver. His
hair was black and straight and long, especially over the ears, and he
had long, slender, delicate hands, which one noticed at once for their
uncommon flexibility and deftness.

"Supper ready?" asked Gallito, without other greeting.

"Now," replied the other man. He began lifting the food he had been
preparing from the pans, arranging it on various dishes and slipping
them upon the table with a rapidity and noiselessness which suggested
sleight of hand.

Gallito gave a brief nod and advanced toward the two women, bowing low
with Spanish courtesy. A smile, a blending of pleasure and amusement,
softened his grim mouth and keen eyes as he shook hands with one, whom
he introduced to his daughter as Mrs. Nitschkan. About medium height,
she was a powerfully built creature, her open flannel shirt disclosing
the great muscles of her neck and chest. Rings of short, curly brown
hair covered her round head; and small, twinkling blue eyes shone oddly
bright in her deeply tanned face, while her frequent smile displayed
small, milk-white teeth. A short, weather-stained skirt showed her
miner's boots and a man's coat was thrown over her shoulders. A bold,
freebooting Amazon she appeared, standing there in the fire-glow, and
one to whom hardihood was a birth-right.

The other woman towered above her and even above Gallito. She was a
colossal Venus, with a face pink and white as a may-blossom. Tremulous
smiles played about her soft, babyish mouth and a joyous excitement
shone in her wide, blue eyes. Upon her head was a small, lop-sided
bonnet, from which depended a rusty crêpe veil of which she seemed
inordinately conscious, and at the throat of her black gown was a large,
pink bow.

"Make you acquainted with Mis' Thomas, Miss Gallito," said Mrs.
Nitschkan heartily. "Marthy's one of my oldest friends an' one of my
newest converts. She's all right if she could let the boys alone, an'
not be always tangled up in some flirtation that her friends has got to
sit up nights scheming to get her out of. That pink bow an' that crêpe
veil shows she ain't got the right idea of her responsibilities as a
widow. So I brought her up to my little cabin, just a quarter of a mile
through the trees there, hopin' I'd get her mind turned on more sensible
things than men. Gosh a'mighty! She's got a chance to shoot bear here."

"I don't think you got any call to introduce me to the Black Pearl
that-a-way, Sadie." Mrs. Thomas's eyes filled with ready tears. "It
ain't manners. I wouldn't have come with her, Miss Gallito, but I got to
see pretty plain that the gentleman," here she blushed and bridled,
"that was courting me was awful anxious to get hold of the money and the
cabin that my last husband, in his grave 'most six months now, left me."
She wiped the tears from her eyes on the back of her hand, a movement
hampered somewhat by the fact that her handkerchief had been fashioned
into a bag to hold some chocolate creams and was tied tightly to her
thumb.

"That's what you get for cavorting around with a spindle-shanked,
knock-kneed, mush-brained jack-rabbit of a man," muttered Mrs. Nitschkan
scornfully.

But this thrust was ignored by Mrs. Thomas. The color had risen on her
cheeks and there was a light in her eyes. Shyly, yet gleefully, she drew
a letter from her pocket. "I got a letter from him to-day with an awful
cute motto in it. Look!" She showed it proudly to Pearl, José and
Gallito. "It's on cream-tinted paper, with a red and blue border, an',"
simpering consciously, "it says in black and gold letters, 'A Little
Widow Is a Dangerous Thing.'"

The little group seemed for the moment too stunned to speak. Mrs.
Nitschkan was the first to recover herself. "Gosh a'mighty!" she
murmured in an awed whisper, and allowed her glance to travel slowly
over Mrs. Thomas's well-cushioned, six feet of womanhood,
"A - little - widow!" huskily.

Gallito seized the opportunity here to direct Pearl's attention to the
bandit, who had been nudging him and whispering to him for the last
moment or so.

"Pearl, this is - " he hesitated a moment, "José."

Mrs. Nitschkan looked up at him in quick astonishment. "Gosh a'mighty,"
she cried, "ain't that kind o' reckless?"

But José nodded a quick, cynical approval and, with a sudden turn,
executed a deep bow to the Pearl, one hand on the heart, expressing
gallantry, fealty, the humblest admiration; all these sincere and yet
permeated with a subtle and volatile mockery.

"Better so, Francisco," he said in a voice which scarcely betrayed an
accent, and indeed this was not strange considering that he spoke the
patois of many people, being a born linguist. His father had been a
Frenchman, a Gascon, but his mother was a daughter of Seville. "But you
have not said all." He drew himself up with haughty and self-conscious
pride and, with a sweeping gesture of his long fingers, lifted the hair
from his ears and stood thus, leering like Pan.

"Crop-eared José!" cried Pearl, falling back a pace or two and looking
from her father to the two women in wide-eyed astonishment. "Why, they
are still looking for him. Are you not afraid?" She looked from one to
the other as if asking the question of all. She was not shocked, nor, to
tell the truth, particularly surprised after the first moment of wonder.
She had been used to strange company all her life, and ever since her
childhood, on her brief visits to her father's cabin, she had been
accustomed to his cronies, lean, brown, scarred pirates and picaroons,
full of strange Spanish oaths.

"You will not mention this in letters to your mother," ordered Gallito,
glooming at her with fierce eyes. "You know her. Caramba! If she should
guess, the world would know it."

"Lord, yes!" agreed Pearl uninterestedly. "You needn't be afraid of me,"
to José, "I don't tell what I know."

"That is true," commended Gallito, motioning her at the same time to the
table.

It seems a pity to record that such a supper was set before a woman
suffering from a wound of the heart. Women at all times are held to be
lacking in that epicurean appreciation of good food which man justly
extols; but when a woman's whole being is absorbed in a disappointment
in love, nectar and ambrosia are as sawdust to her.

On the outer rim of that circle which knew him but slightly, or merely
knew of him, the causes of the charmed life which José bore were a
matter of frequent speculation, also continual wonder was expressed that
his friends would sometimes take incredible risks in effecting the
escape of this rogue after one of his reckless escapades. But José had
certain positive qualities, had these gossips but known it, which
endeared him to his companions; although among them could never be
numbered gratitude, a lively appreciation of benefits received or a
tried and true affection.

Certainly a dog-like fidelity was not among José's virtues. He would
lift the purse of his best friend or his rescuer from a desperate
impasse, provided it were sufficiently heavy. A favor of a nature to put
him under obligations for a lifetime he forgot as soon as it was
accepted. He caricatured a benefactor to his face, nor ever dreamed of
sparing friend or foe his light, pointed jibes which excoriated the
surface of the smoothest vanity.

No, the only virtues which could be accredited to José, and these were
sufficient, were an unfailing lightness of heart, the facile and
fascinating gift of yarn-spinning - for he was a born raconteur, with a
varied experience to draw upon - a readiness for high play, at which he
lost and won with the same gay and unruffled humor, and an incomparable
and heaven-bestowed gift of cookery.

To-night the very sight of the supper set before him softened Gallito's
harsh face. Brook trout, freshly caught that afternoon from the rushing
mountain stream not far away from the cabin, and smoking hot from the
frying pan; an omelette, golden brown and buttercup yellow, of a fluff,
a fragrance, with savories hidden beneath its surface, a conserve of
fruits, luscious, amber and subtly biting, the coffee of dreams and a
bottle of red wine, smooth as honey.

"I hope you don't think that we're the kind of wolves that's always
gatherin' round wherever there's a snack of food," murmured Mrs. Thomas
softly as she took a seat beside Pearl. "We got our own cabin just a
piece up in the woods, but José, he kind of wanted to make a celebration
of your coming up."

Pearl did not answer, but slipped languidly out of her cloak, untwisted
her heavy veil, removed her hat, José's eyes as well as Mrs. Thomas's
following her the while with unmixed admiration, and sat down.

José immediately began to roll cigarettes and smoke them while he ate.

"Well, what is the news?" asked Gallito, as he, at least, began his
evening meal with every evidence of appreciation; "good fishing, good
hunting, good prospecting, eh, Mrs. Nitschkan?"

The gipsy, for she was one by birth as well as by inclination, nodded
and showed her teeth in a satisfied smile. "So good that it looks like
we'd be kep' here even longer than I expected when we come." She drew
some bits of quartz from her pocket and threw them out on the table
before him. "Some specimens I chipped off in my new prospect," she said,
her eyes upon him.

"So," he said, examining them with interest, "your luck, Mrs. Nitschkan,
as usual. Where - ? Excuse me," a dark flush rose on his parchment skin
at this breach of mining-camp etiquette which he had almost committed.

For a few moments they talked exclusively of the mining interests of
the locality. It is this feverish, inexhaustible topic that is almost
exclusively dwelt upon in mining camps, all other topics seeming tame
and commonplace beside this fascinating subject, presided over by the
golden fairy of fortune and involving her. To-day she tempts and eludes,
she tantalizes and mocks and flies her thousands of wooers who follow
her to the rocks, seeking her with back-breaking toil and dreaming ever
of her by day and by night. Variable and cruel, deaf to all beseeching,
she picks out her favorites by some rule of caprice which none but
herself understands.

Supper over, Gallito ensconced his two feminine visitors in easy chairs
and took one himself, while José, with noiseless deftness, cleared away
the remains of food. Pearl had wandered to the window and, drawing the
curtain aside, stood gazing out into the featureless, black expanse of
the night.

"Quite a few things has happened since I saw you last, Gallito," said
Mrs. Nitschkan conversationally, filling a short and stubby black pipe
with loose tobacco from the pocket of her coat. "For one, I got
converted."

"Ah!" returned Gallito with his unvarying courtesy, although his raised
eyebrows showed some perplexity, "to - to - a religion?"

"'Course." Mrs. Nitschkan leaned forward, her arms upon her knees. "This
world's the limit, Gallito, and queer things is going to happen whether
you're looking for 'em or not. About a year ago Jack and the boys went
off on a long prospectin' spell, the girls you know are all married and
have homes of their own, an' there was me left free as air with a dandy
spell of laziness right in front of me ready to be catched up 'twixt my
thumb and forefinger and put in my pipe and smoked, and I hadn't even
the spirit to grab it."

"Why didn't you think about getting yourself some new clothes, like any
other woman would?" asked José, eyeing her curiously.

"What I got's good enough for me," she returned shortly.

"You should have gave your place a nice cleaning and cooked a little for
a change, Sadie," said Mrs. Thomas softly and virtuously.

"Such things look worse'n dying to me," replied the gipsy. "And,"
turning again to Gallito, "the taste goin' out of my tea and coffee
wasn't the worst. It went out of my pipe, too. Gosh a'mighty, Gallito!
I'll never forget the night I sat beside my dyin' fire and felt that I
didn't even take no interest in winnin' their money from the boys; and
then suddenly most like a voice from outside somep'n in me says: 'What's
the matter with you, Sadie Nitschkan, is that you're a reapin' the
harvest you've sowed, gipsyin' and junketin', fightin' and gamblin' with
no thought of the serious side of life?'"

"And what is the serious side of life, Nitschkan?" asked José, sipping
delicately his glass of wine as if to taste to the full its ambrosial
flavors, like the epicure he was. "I have not yet discovered it."

"You will soon." There was meaning in the gipsy's tone and in the
glance she bestowed upon him. "It's doin' good. I tell you boys when I
realized that I'd probably have to change myself within and without and
be like some of the pious folks I'd seen, it give me a gone feeling in
the pit of my stomach. But you can't keep me down, and after I'd saw I
was a sinner and repented 'cause I was so bad, I saw that the whole
trouble was this, I'd tried everything else, but I hadn't never tried
doin' good."

"No, Sadie, you sure hadn't made duty the watch-word of your life,"
agreed Mrs. Thomas.

Mrs. Nitschkan ignored this. "Now doin' good, for I know you don't know
what that means, José, is seein' the right path and makin' other folks
walk in it whether they're a mind to or not. Well I cert'ny gave the
sinners of Zenith a run for their money."

She smoked a moment or two in silence, sunk in agreeable remembrance.
She had been true to her word and, having decided to reform as much of
the community as in her estimation needed that trial as by fire, she had
plunged into her self-appointed task with lusty enthusiasm. As soon as
her conversion and the outlet she had chosen for her superabundant
energy were noised abroad, there was an immediate and noticeable change
in the entire deportment of the camp. Those long grown careless drew
forth their old morals and manners, brushed the moths from them,
burnished the rust and wore them with undeniable self-consciousness, but
without ostentation.

Upon these lukewarm and conforming souls Mrs. Nitschkan cast a darkling
eye. It was the recalcitrant, the defiant, the professing sinner upon
whom she concentrated her energies.

"So you see, Gallito," rousing herself from pleasant contemplation of
past triumphs, "it wasn't only a chance to hunt and prospect that
brought me. I heard from Bob Flick that José was still here and I see a
duty before me."

"She could not keep away from me," José rolled his eyes sentimentally.
"You see beneath that rough old jacket of her husband's which she wears
there beats a heart."

"I got some'p'n else that can beat and that's a fist." She stretched out
her arm and drew it back, gazing with pride at her great, swelling
muscles.

"But never me, who will tidy your cabin and cook half your meals for
you." He smiled ingratiatingly at Mrs. Thomas, who grew deeply pink
under his admiring smile. "Why do you not convert Saint Harry?"

"Harry's all right," she said. "You need convertin', he don't. I got an
idea that he's been right through the fiery furnace like them Bible boys
in their asbestos coats, he's smelted."

"Harry got my telegram?" asked Gallito, speaking in a low tone, after
first glancing toward Pearl, "and you have made a room ready for her?"

"Clean as a convent cell," said José, with his upcurling, mordant smile.
"The wind has roared through it all day and swept away every trace of
tobacco and my thoughts."

"That is well," replied Gallito with a sardonic twist of the mouth,
"and where do you sleep to-night?"

"In Saint Harry's cabin."

"So," Gallito nodded as if content. "That will be best."

"Best for both," agreed José, a flicker of mirth on his face. "My
constant companionship is good for Harry. It is not well to think you
have shown the Devil the door, kicked him down the hill and forgotten
him; and that he has taken his beating, learned his lesson and gone
forever. It is then that the Devil is dangerous. It is better, Gallito,
believe me, to remain on good terms with him, to humor him and to pass
the time of day. Humility is a great virtue and you should be willing to
learn something even of the Devil, not set yourself up on a high, cold,
sharp mountain peak, where you keep his fingers itching from morning to
night to throw you off. I have observed these things through the years
of my life, and the middle course is ever the safest. Give to the
church, observe her laws as a true and obedient son, in so far as
possible, and only so far. Let her get her foot on your neck and she
will demand such sacrifices!" He lifted his hands and rolled his eyes
upward, "but the Devil is more reasonable; treat him civilly, be a good
comrade to him and he will let you alone. But Saint Harry does not
understand that. Saint Harry on his ice peak, and the Devil straddling
around trying to find a foothold so that he can climb up to Harry and
seize him with those itching fingers. Ho, ho!" José's laughter rang loud
and shrill.

Pearl, hearing it, turned from the window with a disturbed frown and
began to walk up and down the far end of the room, and Mrs. Nitschkan


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Online LibraryNancy Mann Waddel WoodrowThe Black Pearl → online text (page 8 of 20)