THE BLACK PEARL
MRS. WILSON WOODROW
Author of "Sally Salt," "The New Missioner," Etc.
New York and London D. Appleton and Company 1912 Copyright, 1912, by D. Appleton and Company Published August, 1912 Printed in the United States of America
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'I'm feelin' particularly good right now'"—(Frontispiece)
"I'll show you what I'll do'" 102
"There stood the Black Pearl alone" 244
"Holding cautiously to a little branch, she bent over him" 302
THE BLACK PEARL
It was just at sunset that the train which had crawled across the desert drew up, puffing and panting, before the village of Paloma, not many miles from the Salton Sea. After a moment's delay, one lone passenger descended. Paloma was not an important station.
Rudolf Hanson, the one passenger, whom either curiosity or business had brought thither, stood on the platform of the little station looking about him. To the right of him, beyond the village, blooming like an oasis from the irrigation afforded by the artesian wells, rose the mountains, the foothills green and dimpled, the slopes with their massed shadows of pines and oaks climbing upward and gashed with deep purple canons, and above them the great white, solemn peaks, austere and stately guardians of the desert which stretched away and away, its illimitable distances lost at last in the horizon line.
Hanson, of the far west, was used to magnificent scenic effects, but the desert that sparkled like the gold of man's eternal quest, that lay with its sentinel hills enfolded and encompassed in color, colors that seemed as if some spinner of the sunset courts wove forever fresh combinations and sent these ethereal tapestries out to float over the wide spaces of the wilderness—this caused him to catch his breath and exclaim.
It was truly a sight to take any man's breath away; but even such a view could only arrest Hanson's interest temporarily. He was hungry, and the station agent, a weedy youth, was making a noisy closing up. Intentionally noisy, for when one is the agent of a small desert station, the occasional visitor is apt to whet one's curiosity to razor edge.
Roused by these sounds, and by his growing hunger, which the cool purity of the air only augmented, Hanson turned to the boy.
"Where's a place to stay?" he asked.
"There ain't but one," replied the youth; "the San Gorgonio hotel. You walk right up this street until you come to it, on the left side. It's got a sign out, electric," he added with some pride. He looked curiously at Hanson, standing tall and straight with his ruddy, good-looking face, keen, quick, gray eyes and curling light hair. "Going to be here long?" he asked tentatively.
"I don't know," returned Hanson idly. "Guess not. No string on me, though, even if I'd choose to put in a month or so here. This way, you say?" He lifted his suit case and began to walk in the direction the station agent had indicated.
"Say," the latter called after him, "you don't want to miss the show to-night."
"What show?" Hanson turned, interest amounting almost to eagerness in his tone.
"Benefit." The boy rolled the word unctuously under his tongue. "I guess maybe you saw why in the papers. The river got on a tear and cut into a nice little town here on the desert, drowned some of the folks and did a lot of damage generally, so we're raising some money to send to 'em."
The stranger's interest had increased perceptibly. "Sounds good to me," he said heartily. "What's your features?"
"Just one," the other answered impressively. "We don't need no more in this part of the world, if we got her."
"Her!" cried Hanson, and now his cold eyes were alight. "Who the hell is her?"
"Why, the Black Pearl!" as if surprised that anyone should be unaware of the fact. "'Course we got a few thousand square miles of desert waiting to be reclaimed, and any amount of mountains full of ore, but to us they's small potatoes and few in a hill beside the Black Pearl."
Hanson swore softly and ecstatically. "If that ain't that good old blind luck of mine hitting me again after all these years," he muttered. "Say, son, I'm making no secret of my business. Don't have to. I am a theatrical manager—vaudeville. Got great backing this year and am out for new features. Set my heart on the Black Pearl and got to figuring on her. Sweeney had her on his circuit last winter. Well, Sweeney, let me tell you, is pretty shrewd. He knows a good thing when he's got it, so I thought there was no show for me. Presently, I hear that she's scrapped with Sweeney and is off to the desert like a flash. So she's really here?"
"Sure," said the boy.
"So," continued Hanson, who was loquacious by nature, but sufficiently shrewd and experienced only to let himself be so when he thought it worth his while, "I begin to figure on my chances. I learn that Sweeney's trying to coax her back by letter, so I says to myself: 'Rudolf, you just chassez down to Paloma and see what you can do,' but honest, son," he put his suit case down in the road and pushed his hat back on his head and put his hands on his hips, "honest to God, I didn't expect anything like this, the first night I got here, too."
His companion shifted his quid of tobacco to the other side of his mouth and nodded understandingly.
Hanson's eyes were fixed ruminatively but unseeingly upon the golden desert, its sand dunes touched with a deep rose soon to be eclipsed by the jealous tyrian purples which were beginning to mass themselves gorgeously beneath the oranges and flame of the setting sun.
"Gee whiz!" he muttered, "and I was figuring that if I hung round here a week or so and played my hand all right, I'd maybe get her to do a few steps for me in the parlor. Oh, Lordy! And now I got a chance to see her before the footlights and size up her capacity for getting over them."
The station agent looked puzzled and a little offended. "There won't be any footlights," he said; "and you're mistaken if you think she's up to any rough work like climbing over them, any way."
Hanson laughed loudly. "That's all right, son, you ain't on to the shop talk, that's all. But now, where is this show and what time does it begin?"
"Oh, in an hour or so, whenever Pearl's minded, and it's to be held at Chickasaw Pete's place—saloon. You see," apologetically, "we ain't a very big community, and that's the only place where there's a decent floor for her to dance on."
Hanson raised his brows and laughed. "Well"—he pulled out his watch and looked at it—"I've got time to wash the upper crust of sand off anyway, and get a bite or so first. I suppose I'll see you later. Up this way, you say?"
The agent nodded assent. "It's a good betting proposition," he mused. "He knows what he wants and he usually gets it, I'm thinking, or there's something to pay. But what'll the Pearl do? I guess she's the biggest gamble any man could tackle."
As his new acquaintance had predicted, Hanson had no difficulty in finding the San Gorgonio, a small hostelry not by any means so gorgeous as its name implied, being merely an unpretentious frame building with a few palms in the enclosure before it, and there he speedily got a room and some supper. It might be deemed significant that he gave more time and attention to his toilet than his food, but that may have been because he believed in the value of a pleasing appearance as well as in a winning address when transacting business with a woman. In any event, his motives, whatever they might be, were quite justifiable, as he undoubtedly possessed a bold and striking type of good looks which had never failed of receiving a due appreciation from most women.
Assured, aggressive, his customary good humor heightened by the comforting sense of his luck being with him, he finally emerged into the open air to discover that the stars were out and that it might be later than he thought. The air, infinitely pure, infinitely fresh, exhaled from the vast, breathing desert, and the delicious aromatic desert odors touched him like a caress. He drew them in in great draughts. The air seemed to him a wonderful, potent ichor infusing him with a new and vigorous life. Hanson was sure of himself always, but now, in this awakened sense of such power and dominance as he had never known, he threw back his head and laughed aloud.
"Gosh!" he muttered, "I feel like all I got to do was to reach up and pull down a few of those stars and use them for poker chips." He exulted like a sleek and lordly animal in this thrilling vitality, this imperious and insistent demand for conquest.
Chickasaw Pete's place, as he soon discovered, was no more pretentious in appearance than the San Gorgonio. It also was a long, low frame building with some great cottonwood trees before it and a few palms with their infinite and haunting suggestions of the tropics.
It was with a sense of mounting excitement which still held that strong element of exultation that Hanson crossed the porch, opened the door and walked in. He saw before him a long room well lighted with electricity and with a shining polished floor. The bar ran along one side, and behind it lounged a short, stout, round-faced man with very black hair and eyes and a perpetual smile. This was the bar-keeper, known familiarly as Jimmy. At the rear of the room, covering about half of the floor, were rows and rows of chairs, occupied by both men and women, strong, sun-burned looking people in the main, but with the invariable and unmistakable sprinkling of "lungers" in various stages of recovery.
Hanson saw his friend, the station agent, leaning across the bar talking to Jimmy, and knew from the interested glances cast in his direction that he was the topic of conversation.
At the opposite end of the room was a piano. A young man sat before it facing the wall, while beside him there stood a woman intently tuning a violin which she held tucked under her chin. Approaching middle age, she was rather stout, with a sallow, discontented face, which yet held some traces of its former evanescent prettiness. Both lashes and brows of her faded light eyes were heavily blackened, and the rouge which lay thickly on her cheeks only served to accentuate their haggard lines. The hair, dark at the roots, was blondined to a canary color where it rolled back under her hat, large and black, of a dashing Gainsborough style and covered with faded red roses. For the rest, her costume consisted of a white shirt waist, a wine-colored skirt and shoes with very high heels which were conspicuously, and no doubt uncomfortably, run over.
Her violin finally tuned to her satisfaction, she bent her head to speak to the young man at the piano. He turned to answer her, and for a moment his delicate, sad face was outlined against the wall behind him. Then, with an emphatic little nod, he began to play and the woman lifted her violin and swung in with him.
The only virtue she possessed as a violinist was that she kept good time, but although it was extremely unlikely that any member of that audience recognized the fact, the boy was a musician by the divine right of gift, a gift bestowed at birth. A wheezy old piano, and yet he drew from it sweet and thrilling notes; a hackneyed, cheap waltz measure, and yet he invested it with the glamour of romance.
A ripple stirred all those waiting people, as a wind stirs a field of wheat, a movement of settling and attention. Hanson, who had been careful to secure a seat in the front row of chairs, was conscious that his heart was beating faster.
"This is where she whirls in through that door by the piano," he muttered to himself with the acumen born of long knowledge of the stage and its conventions. He had a swift mental vision of a graceful painted creature, all undulating movement, alluring smiles, twinkling feet and waving arms. This passed with a slight shock as a girl entered the door by the piano, as he had foreseen, and walked indifferently to the center of the room, and then, without a bow to her audience, began, still with an air of languor and absorption, to take vague, sliding steps, gradually falling in with the waltz rhythm, but, even so, the movement was without any definite form, certainly not enough to call it a dance.
As she swayed about, listless, apparently indifferent to any effect she might be producing, Hanson had a full opportunity to study her, and, in that concentrated attention, the man and the manager were fused. He was at once the cynical showman discounting every favorable impression and the most critical and disillusioned of audiences.
In this dancer he saw a woman who was like the desert willow and younger than he had supposed; straight and supple, with a body of such plasticity, such instant response to the directing will of its possessor as only comes from the constant and arduous exercises begun in early childhood.
"Been trained for it since she was born, almost," was Hanson's first unspoken comment.
She wore a soft, clinging frock of scarlet crepe. It was short enough to display her ankles, slender for a dancer, and her arched feet in heelless black slippers. In contrast to her red frock was a string of sparkling green stones which fell low on her breast. Her long, brown fingers blazed with rings, and in her ears, swinging against her olive cheeks, were great hoops of dull gold. Her black shining hair was gathered low on her neck, her unsmiling lips were scarlet as a pomegranate flower, and exquisitely cut; and the fainter, duskier pomegranate bloom on her oval cheeks faded into delicate stains like pale coffee beneath her long, narrow eyes.
"She ain't done a thing yet; she ain't even showed whether she can dance a few bars or not, but, Lord! how she has got over!" was Hanson's unspoken comment. "Clean to the back seats. There's nobody else here."
Although still aimlessly moving with the rhythm of the waltz she no longer merely followed the music. She and it were one now. And Hanson, a connoisseur, familiar with the best, at least in his part of the world, recognized the artist whose technique is so perfect that it is absorbed, assimilated and forgotten; but its essence remains, nevertheless, a sure foundation upon which to build securely future combinations and improvisations.
The Black Pearl was generous to-night. She was the program—its one feature. She gave the audience its money's worth, judged by their standards, which were measured by time; and yet, when she finished, she gave one no idea of having exhausted her repertoire. In fact, she could not have defined that repertoire. Dancing was her expression, and the Black Pearl was conscious of infinite and unsounded phases of self.
Most of the features of the program were familiar to Hanson by her reputation. They included some old Spanish dances, some gypsy ones and others manifestly her own. But dancer though she was by nature and training, her personality dominated and eclipsed her art.
Hanson was not imaginative, but as he watched her he seemed to be gazing at some gorgeous cactus blossom opening its scentless petals to the burning sun. Beneath and beyond her stretched the gray wastes of the desert turning to gold under her feet, but still untrammeled and merciless, holding strange secrets close to its savage heart; now, exerting all its magic of illusion in delicate and exquisite mirages, all of its luring fascination which has drawn men to it from the beginning of the world; and now revealing itself desolate and unashamed in all of its repulsive, stark aridity.
The Pearl certainly made no effort to attract. If a glance from those narrow eyes enthralled, it stung too. It was the flame of wine in the blood, the flick of a whip on the raw, which roused in a man's heart, in Hanson's at least, the passionate disposition to conquer and subdue.
Finally she gave a slight signal to the musicians, her steps slowed, the music stopped, and she went over and sat down beside the woman, who had placed her violin on the piano, and then flung herself into a chair, where she sat, carefully dabbing her warm brow with her handkerchief.
The vague pictures which Hanson had been seeing vanished. "Gee! She got me going!" he said to himself, half dazedly, "hypnotized me sure." This, the manager. But the man exulted: "She ain't easy. She ain't easy."
The moment the Pearl stopped dancing the audience was on its feet applauding, and then, to a man, it eddied about her, casting banknotes into her lap. These she lifted in handfuls and gave to two men who had sat down beside her to count, while a third bent over them watching the operation.
Hanson, although he had drawn nearer her, still stood on the edge of the crowd, leaning against the bar. "So that's the Black Pearl!" he said presently to the bar-keeper.
"That's her," responded Jimmy equably. "Can't be beat. What'll you have?"
"Nothing, just yet. Say, those stones around her neck look good to me." Hanson narrowed his eyes.
"Good!" Jimmy laughed shortly, a characteristic, mirthful little chuckle. "I guess so. Bob Flick, up there beside Pearl, counting that money, he gave 'em to her after she found him when he'd been lost on the desert about three days. I'll tell you about it when I got more time."
Hanson had been conscious from time to time of the close but furtive scrutiny of the man whom the bar-keeper had designated as Bob Flick, and now he, in turn, made Flick an object of observation.
He saw a tall man of noticeable languor and deliberation of movement, doubtless so long studied that it had become natural. His face, with regular, rather aquiline features, was devoid of expression, almost mask-like, while the deep lines about the mouth and eyes showed that he lived much in the hard, brilliant, western sunlight.
Hanson was quick enough to size up a man and a situation. "I'll make a note to look out for you," he thought, "just about as cold and just about as deadly as a rattler."
"Say," he turned to Jimmy again, "I want to meet her. I'm a theatrical manager, always looking out for new turns. Heard of this Black Pearl and thought I'd run down and sign her up if I could."
"She does go traveling once in a while," returned Jimmy dubiously, "but it's all in the mood she's in whether she'll let you even talk to her. You might as well count on the desert out there as the Pearl."
"I suppose she's out for big money?" queried Hanson.
"She'll get all she can, I guess," Jimmy chuckled. "But," he added boastfully, "she can make big money by staying right here. Look at what she's pulled in to-night. And there's her father, old Gallito, he's got more than one good 'prospect,' and is foreman beside of one of the big mines in the mountains. And her mother, there, that played the violin, she's got some nice irrigated land, and even Hughie, that played, he makes money playing for dances in the different towns. Oh, they're smart folks."
"Is Hughie the brother?" asked Hanson, looking at the boy, who sat listlessly at the piano.
"No. Adopted." Jimmy spoke briefly. "Born blind, but let me tell you, he sees considerable more than those of us who have eyes."
"Well, the Pearl's a certain winner," said the manager earnestly, "a flower of the desert, a what-you-may-call-'em, a cactus bloom."
"Correct, and don't forget the spines," chuckled Jimmy. "Looks as if they were all out to-night, too. Kind of sulky, ain't she? Well, did you say you was waitin' to be introduced? I'll take you up and ask her. Like as not, she'll turn you down. She ain't looked at you once, I notice. I been watching her."
"So've I," said Hanson good humoredly, "but you're wrong, son"—there was a brief, triumphant flash of his light eyes—"she's looked at me twice, took me all in, too. Numbered the hairs of my head and the size of my shoes. Threw a search light on my heart and soul. Gee! It felt like the violet rays. Now, look here, friend, I ain't going to take chances on a turn-down, nor of your Mr. Bob Flick having fun all night shooting holes in the floor while this little Johnny Tenderfoot does his imitation Black Pearl dancing. Listen," he tapped the bar sharply, "when I meet the Black Pearl, it's because she requested an introduction. You take me up to that old lion tamer, her mother."
Jimmy threw him a glance of ungrudging admiration. "You ain't so dumb," he vouchsafed. "Say, have one on me."
"A little later," replied the other. "Never drink during business hours."
A small table had been placed before Mrs. Gallito, upon which were two glasses, one of beer for herself, and one of lemonade for her daughter.
As Jimmy performed the introduction, she put down her beer from which she had been somewhat thirstily drinking and received Hanson with a perfunctory bow and a brief mechanical smile. "Think of settling here?" she asked politely.
"No, I'm just down for a few days," replied Hanson genially. He had drawn a chair up and seated himself on the other side of the table, directly opposite Mrs. Gallito and her daughter.
The surprise of the glance she threw at him was heightened by a quick curiosity. "Just prospecting?" she asked. "I saw at once that you weren't a 'lunger.' I didn't think you were an engineer, so I made up my mind that you were looking for land."
"None of them," returned Hanson, smiling, and hastened to inform her of his real calling. Immediately she relaxed, her smile became genuine, the bored and constrained politeness vanished from her manner.
"Well, that is certainly nice," she exclaimed with real animation and cordiality. "I'm always glad to meet any of the profession. No folks like your own folks, you know." She bridled a little.
"That's so," agreed Hanson heartily. "I knew the minute that I saw you that you belonged."
She lifted her head with a gesture of pride, the glow and color came back into her face, giving it a transitory appearance of youth, and restoring, for a fugitive moment, something of its vanishing beauty.
"Born to it," she said. "My mother and her mother, and my father and his father, and, 'way back on both sides, was all circus people. Yes, I was born in the sawdust—rode—drove—tight-rope—trapeze—learned dancing on the side—ambitious, you know. Say, you must have heard of my mother—greatest bare-back rider ever in the ring. Isobel Montmorenci. English, you know. I wasn't so shy myself, Queenie Madrew."
"Gee! Well, you were some. Shake." Hanson extended his hand, which Mrs. Gallito shook warmly. "And I do remember your mother. I should say so. First time I went to the circus, I was about ten years old—ran off you know. Knew well enough what I'd get when I turned up at home. Pop laying for me with a strap. Goodness! It takes me right back. It's all a kind of jumble, sawdust ring and animals and clowns and all; but what I do remember plain is Isobel Montmorenci, her and a big black horse she was riding."
"Caesar!" cried Mrs. Gallito excitedly. "Lord! don't I remember! I learned to ride on him."
"Yes," mused the manager, "all I recall of that circus is her and my two nickels. I broke my bank to get 'em. They seemed a fortune to me; but even then I was a shrewd kid and meant to get my money's worth. Well—the first one I laid out in a great tall glass of lemonade. Say, that was the first time I came up against the disillusions of life. Nothing but a little sweetened water. The next nickel went for peanuts, and they were too stale for even a kid to chew."
"Ain't that just like a young one at the circus!" Mrs. Gallito laughed loudly.
"What's the joke, mom?" drawled a lazy, sliding, soft voice on the other side of her.
"A circus story, honey. Oh!" as the sudden formal silence recalled her to her duty. "I forget. You two ain't been introduced, have you? Pearl, make you acquainted with Mr. Hanson. He's in the show business."
Pearl bowed without lifting her eyes, giving Hanson ample opportunity to note the incredible length, as it seemed to him, of the upcurling lashes upon her smooth cheeks. But just as he bent forward to speak to her, she half-turned from him and said something to one of the men beside her.
The manager's quickness saved him. He was perfectly aware of all those jealous masculine eyes, flickering now with repressed and delighted laughter over his discomfiture. He recovered himself in a moment and slipped easily and with unabated geniality into a conversation with Mrs. Gallito.
"Funny you should marry out of the profession," deftly catching up his threads.
"She didn't," again that soft, sliding voice. "Pop was born in the sawdust, too."
Without a change of expression in his face, Hanson waited imperturbably for Mrs. Gallito's answer. Since his eyes were fixed on the red spark at the end of his cigarette, who could see the quick flash in them?
Mrs. Gallito took a hasty gulp of beer. "It's just like Pearl says," she murmured. "Her pop came of a long line of circus people, same as me, but he broke clean away from it, couldn't bear the life." There was unabated wonder in her tones. "I guess," resignedly, "it's the Spanish of him."
"Say," cried Hanson, and now his voice rang with a new note in it, something of gay, masterful, masculine dominance, "say, what you ladies drinking beer and lemonade for? It's got to be wine to-night. Hey, Jimmy. Wine for this table, and treat the house. Wine, understand? Got enough to float 'em?"
"Hold on a minute, Jimmy." Hanson heard Bob Flick's voice for the first time, soft as the Pearl's, liquidly southern, gentle, even apologetic. "I'm sorry, stranger"—he leaned forward courteously to Hanson—"we all would enjoy accepting your hospitality, but you see, it ain't etiquette."
A silence that could be felt had fallen upon the room. Mrs. Gallito, pale under her paint, was nervously biting her handkerchief and glancing from one man to the other, while the Pearl leaned back in her chair as lazily, languidly, scornfully indifferent as ever.
Then Hanson laughed, and a little thrill went over the room. The new man was game. "Ain't that just your ruling, stranger?" he asked pleasantly. "Since we've not been introduced, I can't call your name. But I hold that it is etiquette. Jimmy, get on your job. The occasion when I first set my eyes upon the Black Pearl has got to be honored."
"Hold on just a moment, Jimmy." It was Flick now. "You see," again to Hanson, his voice more apologetic than ever, "you being new here, naturally don't understand. It ain't etiquette on a Benefit night, when Miss Pearl Gallito, whose name you have, most unfortunately, just miscalled, condescends to dance. I'm afraid I got to ask you to take back your order and to apologize to Miss Gallito."
Hanson was on his feet in a minute. "I'm sure ready now and always to apologize my humblest to Miss Gallito, although I don't know what's the offense. But the order stands."
"Oh, Pearl," wailed her mother, "you raise mischief wherever you go. You know Bob wouldn't go on so if you'd ask him to stop. You just like to raise the devil."
Then, for the first time, the Pearl's face became animated. It broke into brilliance, her eyes gleamed, she showed her white teeth when she laughed.
"Quit your fooling, both of you," she said composedly, rising to her feet. "I ain't going to have tales flying all over the desert about the ructions stirred up the night I danced for the benefit of the flood sufferers. Shake hands, you two," imperiously. "Go on, do what I tell you. That's right," as the two men perfunctorily shook hands. "Bob don't mean a thing, Mr. Hanson. It's just his temper, and there ain't going to be any wine, because I'm going home, but—" and here she smiled into his eyes—"you can walk a piece of the way with me, if you want to. Come on, mother and Hughie. Good-night, Bob."
Hanson had decided that the best way to gain certain information he desired was to seek the bar-keeper, who, after his constitution, gossiped as naturally and as volubly as a bird sings; so, quite early the next morning, he sauntered into Chickasaw Pete's place.
Jimmy, who was industriously polishing the bar and singing the while one of the more lugubrious and monotonous hymns, looked up with his customary little chuckle.
"Feeling fine, ain't you?" he said derisively. "Want to start right out and corral the whole desert, don't you? Think you can travel right over to San Bernardino yonder? Looks about three miles off, don't he?"
"Me?" said Hanson, expanding his chest. "I feel like I was about sixteen. Like I was home in Kaintucky, jumping a six-bar fence after a breakfast of about fifty buckwheat cakes and syrup."
"That's the way it takes them all; but you just wait until about noon, and you won't feel so gay," warned Jimmy. "What are you doin' to-day, anyway, hunting more trouble?"
"Not me," cried the other. "I came here to the desert pearl fishing."
"That's a good one." Jimmy's chuckle expanded into a series. "But you ain't the only one. There's Bob Flick, for instance, as you discovered last night."
The smile went out of Hanson's eyes, his face set. He ceased to lounge against the bar and involuntarily straightened himself:
"What about Bob Flick?" he asked.
"Lots about Bob." Jimmy's tone was equable, but he shot Hanson a quick glance. "He was our faro dealer for a while, but he's interested in mines now. He's dead sure. Come to think of it, he's a lot of dead things," he mused; "but don't ever confuse him with a dead one." Delight at his own wit expressed itself in mirthful chuckles. "He's dead game, and he's a dead shot, two important things for a man that's playing to win when in certain localities, and he's dead certain that he's the God-appointed guardeen of the Black Pearl."
"What's she got to say about it?" growled Hanson.
The bar-keeper shrugged his shoulders. "Ask me what the desert out there's thinking, and I'll tell you what's going on inside the Pearl's head. Say," animatedly, "I told you to ask me about those emeralds last night, didn't I?"
The manager laughed shortly. "I saw 'em close, son, after I left you. I know stones. Square cut emeralds. Lord! They sure cost some good man his pile, and he was no piker, either."
"Bob Flick," said Jimmy, with a glow of local pride. "Kind of thank offering, when the Pearl found him in the desert after he'd been lost three days. Bob was new to this country then and reckless, like a tenderfoot is, and the first thing he did was to go and get lost. Well, they had several searching parties looking for him, but the Pearl, she got on her horse and went after him alone, and, by George! she found him, lying about gone in a dry arroyo.
"Bob said he'd been wandering round crazy as a loon, seeing three big lions with eyes like coals of fire stalking him night and day, and him always trying to dodge 'em. He says at last they came nearer and nearer until he stumbled and fell, and then he felt their hot breath on his cheek, and he knew nothing more until he finally realized that some one was trying to pour water down his throat and he kind of half come to himself; and suddenly, he said, that awful gray desert, worse than any hell a man ever feared, seemed all kind and tender like a mother, and then, some way, it burst into bloom, and that bloom was the Black Pearl bending over him. Oh, you ought to hear him tell it! Well—she got him up on her horse and got him home, and her and her mother nursed him back to health. And since that time Bob ain't never felt the same about the desert. You couldn't drive him away now.
"When he was well enough to travel, he went to 'Frisco and ordered a jeweler there to get him the handsomest string of matched emeralds that money could buy. The fellow was a year matching them, had to make two trips to the other side. They do say," Jimmy lowered his voice cautiously, "that Bob's father was a rich man and left him a nice little fortune, and that he blew every cent of it in on those stones. The Pearl certainly likes jewels. All the rings and things that she wears were given her by the boys."
"Umm-m-hum. Great story!" he nodded perfunctorily. "Guess I'll take a walk." He strolled toward the door.
"Bet I know which way you're going," chuckled Jimmy, as he disappeared.
The unspoken surmise was perfectly correct. Hanson took his way slowly and with apparent abstraction in the direction of the Gallito home, and it was not until he was at the very gate that he paused and looked up with a start of well simulated surprise.
The house stood beyond a garden of brilliant flowers, and in the shadow of the long porch—a porch facing the desert and not the mountains—sat Pearl, swinging back and forth in a rocking chair and talking impartially to the blind boy, who sat on the step beneath her, and a gorgeous crimson and green parrot, which walked back and forth in its pigeon-toed fashion on the arm of her chair, muttering, occasionally screaming, and sometimes inclining its head to be scratched.
"Good morning," called Hanson in his blithest, most assured fashion. "Can I come in?"
"Sure," drawled the Pearl. "Hughie and I were just waiting for company, weren't we, Hughie?"
The boy tossed his head impatiently, but made no answer. From the moment Hanson had spoken he had assumed an air of immobile and concentrated attention, tense as that of an Indian listening and sighting in a forest, or of a highly trained dog on guard.
"Take you at your word," laughed Hanson, and swung up the path, a big, dominant presence, as vital as the morning. "Howdy," he shook hands with Pearl and then turned to the boy, but Hugh drew quickly away from that extended hand, quite as if he saw it before him.
Hanson raised his eyebrows in involuntary surprise, but his good humor was unabated. "What's the good word with Hughie?" he asked genially. "I can't call you anything else, because I don't know your last name."
"My name is Hugh Braddock," said the boy coldly.
Again Hanson lifted his brows, this time humorously, as at a child's unexpected rebuff, and looked at Pearl, and again he experienced a feeling of surprise, for she was gazing at Hugh with a puzzled frown, which held a faint touch of apprehension.
"Then," Hanson looked from one to the other, but spoke to Pearl, "you ain't brother and sister?"
"No," said Pearl, and it disturbed Hanson more than he would have dreamed to notice the change in voice and manner. The warm, provocative, inherent coquetry was gone from both smile and eyes; instead of a soft, alluring girl ready to play with him a baffling, blood-stirring game of flirtation, she was again the sphynx of last night, whose unrevealing eyes seemed to have looked out over the desert for centuries, until its infinite heart was as an open page to her, and she repressed in the scarlet curves of her mouth its eternal, secret enigma.
"We are brother and sister." Hugh edged along the step until he could lay his head against Pearl's knee. "But we're not blood relations, if you're curious to know." The insolence of his tone was barely veiled. "My mother was a circus woman that Mrs. Gallito knew. She deserted me when I was a baby, and Mrs. Gallito has been all the mother I ever had or wanted, and Pearl the only sister. I was born blind."
"Oh, Hughie," remonstrated Pearl, "you've got no call to say that. He don't see with his eyes," she turned to Hanson, "but I never saw anybody that could see so much."
"How's that?" asked Hanson easily. He was used from long experience to the temperamental, emotional people of the stage, and he had no intention of being daunted by any moods these two might exhibit.
"Hughie, what color are Mr. Hanson's clothes?" asked Pearl.
Still with a petulant, disdainful expression, the boy leaned forward and ran his long, slender fingers with their cushioned tips over Hanson's coat. "Brown," he replied indifferently.
"He can tell you the color of every flower in the garden, just by touching them," explained Pearl. "He knows all the different kinds of birds just by the whirr of their wings. He can tell the color of every dress I wear. He—"
But Hugh had risen. "I don't like you to tell strangers about me," he cried with passionate petulance, "and you know it. I'm going to find mother."
"Well, tell her that Mr. Hanson's here," called Pearl after him, unaffected by his outburst. "He hasn't taken a shine to you," she remarked frankly to Hanson.
Again he was disturbed to notice that she seemed to give this obvious fact some weight. She had rested her chin on her hand and was gazing meditatively at the gay garden. A shadow of disappointment was on her face, and more than a touch of it in her voice.
"That don't bother me," affirmed Hanson confidently. "All that I'm caring about is whether some one else shares his opinion." His bold, gay eyes looked straight into hers.
"I wonder who?" drawled Pearl. The gleam of her eyes shining through narrowed lids and black, tangled lashes flicked him like the tang of a whip. "Maybe you mean Lolita?"
The parrot, which had perched on her shoulder and was tweaking her ear, now hearing its name, looked up, fluttered its wings, and called out in a gruff, masculine voice: "Mi jasmin, Pearl. Mi corazon."
"He's talking for me, sure," said Hanson, who knew enough Spanish to make out.
"Oh, damn," said the parrot disgustedly; "why the hell can't you shut up?"
Hanson gave a great burst of laughter. "Lolita and Hughie are well matched when it comes to politeness."
"They got the artistic temperament, and me, too, and mom, also," said Pearl. "That's what the newspaper boys always wrote about me when I was on the road."
The manager did not miss the opening. "Look here," he said earnestly; "ain't you tired loafing around here? I guess you know what I'm in Paloma for. I've made no secret of it. Now all you got to do is to show me your contract with Sweeney and I'll double what he gave you, play you over a bigger circuit, and advertise you, so's before your contract with me's expired you'll be asked to do a few turns on the Metropolitan Opera stage of New York City, New York."
"Love me to-day," sang Lolita, meltingly, if with grating harshness.
"That's right, Lolita, sing your pretty song," coaxed Pearl. "Come on, I'll sing with you." She lifted her languorous eyes and sang softly, almost under her breath, but straight at Hanson:
"Love me to-day, Love me an hour; Love is a flower, Fading alway."
The blood surged to his temples at the direct challenge, he half rose and leaned toward her. Then, as she laughed at him, he sat down. "Treble Sweeney's offer, by God!" he said hoarsely. "Cash down beforehand." He brought his fist down on the arm of the chair with a crash.
"Oh, I ain't ready to make any plans yet," Pearl announced indifferently. "I want to talk things over with Pop first. He'll be down from the mines before long, maybe to-day."
She sat for a few moments in silence, her eyes fixed on the far purple hazes of the desert. "Oh, I wish there weren't so many of me," she said at last and wistfully. "After I'm 'out' a while, I'll get to longing so for the desert that I'm likely to raise any kind of a row and break any old contract just to get here. I can't breathe. I feel as if everything, buildings and people and all, were crowding me so's if I didn't have a place to stand; and then, after I'm here a while, I got to see the footlights, I got to hear them clapping, I got to dance for the big crowds. Oh, Lord! life's awful funny, always trying to chain you up to one thing or another. But I won't be tied. I got to be free, and I will be free." She threw out her arms with a passionate gesture.
"You'd be free with me," he cried.
But, if she heard him, she gave no indication of having done so. "Can you ride?" she asked presently.
"You bet," said Hanson eagerly. "I was born in Kaintucky. Just tell me where I can get a horse here, and—"
"I'll lend you one of mine, and we'll have some rides. I'll take you out on the desert. It ain't safe to go alone. You see those sand hills yonder? Do you think you could walk out to them and back?"
"Sure," said Hanson confidently and looking at her in some surprise.
Pearl laughed. "Oh, Lolita!" she cried; "a tenderfoot is sure funny. The chances are, Mr. Hanson, that if you started to walk around those dunes you'd never get back. Goodness! ain't that mirage pretty?"
The desert, which had lain vast, dun-colored and unbroken before their eyes, had vanished; instead, a sapphire sea sparkled in the sunshine, its white-capped waves breaking upon the beach. Upon one side of it spread a city with white domes and fairy towers, and palm trees uplifting their graceful fronds among them.
Hanson rubbed his eyes and looked again. It was the first time that he had ever seen one of these miracles of illusion, and he became so absorbed in it that he failed to notice that some one else had entered the gate and was making a leisurely progress toward the house.
It was Bob Flick, and Rudolf Hanson could not repress a slight scowl at this unexpected appearance of one whom he was constrained to regard as more or less of an enemy, and certainly this morning as a blot upon the landscape.
Without a smile, but politely enough, Flick greeted him, after speaking to Pearl, who looked at the newcomer with a sort of resigned resentfulness. Lolita, however, made up what was lacking in cordiality. With a loud squawk of welcome she flew to Flick's shoulder, uttering gutteral and incoherent expressions doubtless meant to convey endearment.
"Call Mom, Bob," commanded Pearl lazily, and Flick obediently stepped inside of the door in search of Mrs. Gallito. She must have been near at hand, for she and Flick emerged before the manager could do more than give Pearl a glance of eloquent disappointment, which she returned with teasing mockery.
Mrs. Gallito had evidently been making a toilet, and it is to be regretted for her own sake that she might not have reserved all of her appearances for the evening, for this brilliant desert sunshine was pitiless in revealing those artificial aids with which she strove to recreate and hold her vanished youth and bloom.
Bob Flick she evidently regarded as a matter of course, but at the sight of Hanson she showed unmistakable pleasure.
"Hughie told me you were here," she said, sitting down beside him and patting somewhat anxiously the mass of canary-colored puffs on the back of her head; "and I been hurrying to get out before you got away."
"I wouldn't have thought of going before you came," Hanson assured her. She smiled and bridled a little, evidently well pleased.
"Has Pearl told you that her Pop'll probably be down to-day?" she leaned across Hanson to speak to Flick.
"No, is that so?" he asked in his smooth, pleasant tones.
"Where are the mines that Mr. Gallito is interested in?" asked Hanson, determined to keep in the conversation.
"Up in Colina." It was Mrs. Gallito that spoke.
An up-darting gleam of suddenly aroused interest and curiosity flashed for a moment in Bob Flick's eyes. Was it possible that at the mention of that name Hanson had started and that something which might have been taken for the shadow of dismay had overfallen his face?
"Fine mining camp," Flick commented. "You know it at all, Mr. Hanson?"
Hanson had scratched a match to light his cigarette, but now he lifted his eyes and looked across its tiny flare straight at Flick. "No," he said indifferently, "never was in it in my life."
His tone and manner were both open and convincing, and yet the ruddy color, as Flick noticed with merciless satisfaction, had not returned to his face.
"He's an awful queer man," confided Mrs. Gallito in a low voice to Hanson. "I suppose," with a sigh, "it's the Spanish of him. Just think," she spoke as one who has never overcome an unmitigated wonder, "born in the sawdust same as me; his folks from way back all in the business, and him with no use for it. Never rested till he got away from it. Why, he didn't even want me to train Pearl, but," and here triumph rang in her tones, "he couldn't help that. She took to it like a duck takes to water. Always ready for it, never cried or complained at the long hours."
"She's sure got cause to be grateful to you." Hanson spoke sincerely.
"I wouldn't have known what else to do with a child," said Mrs. Gallito simply. "I always saw them trained that way. But her Pop didn't stand for it."
During this conversation Pearl and Flick had risen and, with Lolita still on Flick's shoulder, had sauntered down through the garden.
Seeing this, Rudolf, with his customary philosophy, made the best of the situation. "Well," with rather vague gallantry, "I don't see how he can stay away from a home like this."
"It's the Spanish of him." This was Mrs. Gallito's explanation of all the eccentricities in which her husband might indulge. "And," with unwonted optimism, "maybe it's a blessing, too, 'cause he's awful queer. And, anyway, he's what they call a man's man. Why, you might think he lived all by himself up there in Colina; but he don't. He's got more old Spaniards around"—she raised her eyes—"and they're the awfullest! Cut-throats and pirates, I call 'em. They come up from the coast. And it's funny, too," she exclaimed in a sort of querulous wonder, "because Gallito's awful respectable himself."
"That is queer, isn't it?" His tone was politely interested, but his errant glance strayed to where Pearl and Flick stood gazing over the vast spaces of the desert, flooded with illimitable sunshine.
But Mrs. Gallito needed only a modicum of interest upon which to launch her confidences. "Yes, he certainly is queer, and Pearl's like him in lots of ways. Neither of them can stand anything holding them. They're always wanting to be free, and they both got the strongest wills."
"And does he ever bring his cut-throat friends here?" asked Hanson.
"My, no!" cried Mrs. Gallito. "It wouldn't be safe."
"I should think it would be as safe here as in the mountains."
"He don't keep 'em there long, if they're wanted bad," whispered Mrs. Gallito. "He knows more than one secret trail over the mountains."
Hanson was beginning to show a more genuine interest now and, spurred on by this flattering appreciation of her revelations, Mrs. Gallito went on.
"If you won't ever tell," she bent toward him after glancing about her cautiously, "I'll tell you something. Of course, I'd never mention it if I didn't feel that you're as safe as a church and one of our very best friends."
"You haven't got a better in the world," he fervently assured her, his curiosity really aroused now.
"Well," glowing with the importance of her news, "did you ever hear of Crop-eared Jose?"
It was with difficulty that Hanson repressed a long, low whistle. "I should say," he answered. "He's been wanted by the police of several States for some time, and since that last big robbery they've had sheriffs and their parties scouring the mountains."
For once Mrs. Gallito really had a piece of news which was sure to command the most flattering attention.
Crop-eared Jose was a famous and slippery bandit, and his latest exploit had been the robbery of an express car and subsequent vanishing with a sum approximating thirty thousand dollars. It was supposed that he had jumped the train while it was making its slow progress across the mountains at night and had lain on the top of the car until what he regarded as the proper moment for action had arrived. He had then slipped down, forced the lock on the door, held up both messengers, making one tie and gag the other, under his direction, and then himself performed that office for the first with his own skillful hands. After that, to open the safe, take the money and drop from the train was mere child's play to so accomplished a professional as Jose.
"Gallito's got him." Mrs. Gallito enjoyed to the full the sensation she had created, and then a sudden revulsion of fright shook her. "But, for goodness' sake, Mr. Hanson, don't let on I told you. I—I wish I hadn't spoke," she whispered.
"Trust me," comfortingly. "Now don't give it another thought. I'll forget it on the spot, if you say so."
"Gallito'd kill me"—she still shook and looked at him fearfully.
"Oh, come now," his tone was infinitely reassuring, "forget it; I have already. Such things don't interest me."
"Love me to-day, Love me an hour;"
sang Lolita, and his eyes turned to the two at the gate, still chaperoned by the faithful parrot. In them was a flash like fire on steel, as they rested on Bob Flick. Then he turned again to Mrs. Gallito. "Forget it," he said again, as he rose to take his leave; "and believe that I have, too."
But his musings on his way back to the hotel would certainly not have proved calming to that lady could she have but known them.
"Gosh!" he muttered, "and I thought it had broke, this blessed blind luck of mine, when I heard 'em mention Colina; but it's holding after all, it's holding. I guess what I know now about the whereabouts of Crop-eared Jose just about offsets anything Pop Gallito may know about me and anything that Mr. Bob Flick can discover."
Pearl's father came the next day, an older man than Hanson had imagined and of a different type. There was no smack of the circus ring about him, no swagger of the footlights; nor any hint of the emotional, gay temperament supposed to be the inheritance of southern blood. He was a saturnine, gnarled old Spaniard with lean jaws and beetling brows. His skin was like parchment. It clung to his bones and fell in heavy wrinkles in the hollows of his cheeks and about his mouth; and his dark eyes, fierce as a wild hawk's, were as brilliant and piercing as in youth.
Little resemblance between him, gaunt and stark and seamed as a desert rock, and his tropical blossom of a daughter, and yet, indubitably, Pearl was the child of her father. The secretiveness, the concentrated will, the unfettered individuality of spirit, which protected its own defiant isolation at all costs, the subtlety, the ability to seek sanctuary in indefinitely maintained silence, these were their traits in common.
Hanson, Gallito met with grave and impersonal courtesy which, the former was relieved to feel, held a real indifference. There were many moths ever circling about this glowing flame of a daughter. Gallito accepted that, met them, observed them, and assumed those introspective meditations in which he seemed ever absorbed.
There was evidently an understanding between Pearl and himself, but no show of affection, and what small tenderness of nature the Spaniard possessed appeared to be bestowed upon Hugh.
Grim and silent, sipping a little cognac from a glass on a table by his side, the old man would sit on the porch for an hour at a time listening to the boy playing the piano in the room within.
Flick and himself also seemed on fair terms of friendship and would hold apparently endless discussions concerning various mining properties. It was understood that Gallito had come down now to give his opinion on some claim that Flick had recently staked, and they two, usually accompanied by Hughie, would ride off over the desert and be gone two or three days at a time.
Hanson, finding that the theatrical tie, "we be brothers of one blood," had not that potency for Mr. Gallito that it exercised for his wife, and that it was not for him as for her the open sesame to confidence and friendship, speedily ceased to strike this note and approached him on the ground of pure business. The offer he had made to Pearl he repeated to her father.
And Gallito had gazed out over the desert and considered the matter with due deliberation. "Sweeney's been writing to me considerable," he said at last. "He's made a good deal better proposition that he did last year."
"I told your daughter I'd double any offer Sweeney made," Hanson said, and then expatiated on the advantage of the wider circuit and increased advertising that he proposed to give.
Gallito nodded without comment. Again he seemed to turn the matter over in his mind. "I'll write to Sweeney," he said finally, "and get him to give me a statement in writing of just what he proposes to do, a complete outline of his plans down."
The manager could not restrain the question which rose to his lips: "But your daughter, is she willing that you should make all these arrangements?"
Gallito looked at him sharply from under his beetling brows. There was surprise in his glance and a touch of cynical scorn: "She knows that I look out for her interests."
Another query crossed Hanson's mind, one he had no disposition to voice. Was the understanding between father and daughter, and this apparent and most uncharacteristic submission to his judgment on her part, based on a common passion, acquisitiveness? He thought of Pearl's jewels. More than once he had seen her lift her fingers and caress the gems on her hand, just as the Spaniard sat and shook his buttons and nuggets of gold together, pouring them from one palm to another, his frowning gaze fixed on the ground before him.
"Yes, I'll write to Sweeney," continued Gallito. "It'll take a few days, though, before I can get his answer." He looked at the other man questioningly. "It might be a week in all. I don't want to keep you here that time. I could write you."
"Nothing to do just now," said Rudolf easily. "Left things in good hands, business running easily. Came down here to stay a while, needed a vacation. And, Lord! This air makes a man feel like he never wanted to leave."
To this Gallito made no comment and, as there was nothing further to say, the subject was, for the time, dropped between them.
Hanson had made known his reasons, obvious reasons, for his presence in Paloma, so, as he would have expressed it, he let it go at that and left the observer to draw any conclusions he pleased as to his almost constant presence at the Gallito home, and yet, after all, his visits were only a little more frequent than those of a number of others, and no more so at all than those of Bob Flick.
There were long evenings when Hughie played the piano, and when Pearl, now and then, touched the guitar, when Mrs. Gallito indulged in her querulous monotonous reminiscences, while Gallito and various men sat and smoked cigarettes about the card table; but always, no matter who came or went, there was Flick, silent, impassive, polite, but, as Hanson realized with growing irritation, ever watchful.
Gallito sat down to his cards in the evening as regularly as he went to bed exactly at twelve o'clock; and not cards alone. When he came "inside" there were brought forth from various nooks of obscurity in his dwelling other gambling devices, among them a faro layout, a keno goose, and a roulette wheel.
Undoubtedly, the play ran high in the Gallito cabin, but although Hanson sometimes sat in at this or that game, more often he sat talking to Pearl in the soft shadow of the porch. To her he made no secret of his infatuation, but it seemed to him that when with her they were ever more constantly and more irritatingly interrupted. Either Mrs. Gallito, or Hughie, or some of the visitors would join them and Hanson realized that his opportunities for speech with Pearl were becoming increasingly rare.
The only times when he could really see her alone were on the occasions of some morning rides together, which they had begun to take.
As for her, she was still repelling, still alluring, still drawing him on, but how much of it was a game which she played both by nature and practice with consummate skill, or how much he might have caught her fancy or touched her heart, he had no way of determining, and this tormented him and yet daily, hourly, heightened his infatuation.
And he was still further goaded by the knowledge that he was, in a measure, under surveillance, which he was sure was instituted by Gallito and Flick and connived at by Hughie; a watchfulness so subtle that it convinced him even while he doubted. He felt often as if he were stalked by some stealthy and implacable animal. This situation, imaginary or real, began to affect his nerves and he would undoubtedly have left had it not been for his mounting passion for Pearl, a passion fanned always to a more ardent flame by her tantalizing coquetries.
Then, too, he felt that, although Bob Flick and Gallito had probably acquired some information about himself which he would gladly have withheld, still they did not hold all the winning cards. The ace of trumps, as he exultantly told himself, is bound to take any trick, and the ace of trumps he felt that he possessed in the information which Mrs. Gallito had so obligingly furnished him. In other words, his ace was Crop-eared Jose, and his ace was not destined to be unsupported by other trump cards.
Only the evening before, he and Mrs. Gallito had sat alone for a few moments on the porch gazing out over the wonder and glory of the desert flooded in moonlight, and the patient, flattering interest with which he invariably received her confidences had gained its reward, for she had leaned toward him and whispered with many cautious backward glances:
"He's up there in the mountains yet."
"Who?" asked Hanson, attempting to conceal his eagerness under an air of mystification.
"Crop-eared Jose," she answered, "and Gallito's going to keep him there for several months yet."
"Is he?" and again Hanson strove to speak with disarming indifference. "How do you know?"
"I heard him and Bob Flick planning it," she answered. "They don't think it's safe to try and get him out of the country now." Then, having delivered herself of her burden of important news, she suffered one of her quick revulsions of fright, and clapped her hand to her mouth and turned white.
"Oh, Lordy!" she cried. "Lordy! Ain't I the leaky vessel, though! Oh, say, Mr. Hanson," she clutched his arm like a terrified child, "promise me you won't give me away."
"Sure," soothingly. "Why, Mrs. Gallito, you got to believe that everything that you tell me just goes in one ear and out of the other. But look here, just to take your mind off of this, I wish you'd do me a little favor."
"'Deed I will," she fervently assured him. "What is it?"
"Why, Miss Pearl and I are going riding to-morrow morning, and I particularly want to talk business to her. You know how anxious I am to get her signed up. Well, I wish you'd manage to keep Hughie from butting in as usual?"
"Is that all?" she cried. "'Course I'll keep Hughie at home. I didn't realize how he was tagging round after you and Pearl. I want him to help me, anyway. We got to patch up my chicken house and yard so's to keep the coyotes out some way or other."
True to her word, she kept Hugh so busily employed the next morning that to Hanson's infinite relief he and Pearl were able to ride off alone.
"I'm going to take you to a palm grove to-day," said Pearl, as they started off.
She was in the gayest of humors, and for a time she bantered and coquetted with him with an unrestrained and childlike enjoyment in her mood, taking his ardent lovemaking as a matter of course; but, gradually, as they rode, she became more quiet and fell into silence, the Sphynx expression appearing on her face.
Suddenly she leaned forward in her saddle and looked at him. There was a hint of laughter in her glance, and yet behind it a certain serious scrutiny.
"I'm wondering a lot about you, do you know it?" she drawled softly.
"Turn about's fair play, then, honey," he answered. "You keep me guessing all the time. But what is it now?"
She did not answer him immediately, but rode on in silence as if cogitating whether or no she would reply to his question, and in some way he received the impression that it was not the first time she had mentally debated the matter. But finally she decided to speak, and again she turned in her saddle and regarded him with that piercing scrutiny which reminded him uncomfortably of her father.
"Say," she began, with apparent irrelevance, "what you been doing, anyway?"
"Me!" cried Hanson. "You know. Been falling in love with you as hard as I could, and"—his voice ringing with a passionate sincerity—"that's God's truth, Pearl."
She looked up at him, her wild eyes melting, her delicately cut lips upcurling in a smile; then her head drooped, her whole body expressed a soft yielding.
Hanson grew white, almost he stretched out his arms as if to clasp her, when she threw up her head with a low laugh, a tinkle of mockery through it, like the jangled strings of her guitar.
"But I mean it," she insisted, and now he saw that she had something really on her mind, something she had determined to say to him. "Listen to me," imperiously, "and stop looking at me as if you were looking through me and still didn't see me."
"I'm seeing your eyes, Pearl," he muttered, "and they drown me. And I'm seeing your lips and they draw me like a magnet does a needle; but if they drew me through hell, I'd go."
"Listen," she spoke more imperiously than before. "Have you noticed how Pop's been watching you—looking slantwise out of the corners of his eyes whenever you come around."
"I sure have," replied Hanson, "being as I'm not blind. But what of it? I supposed he treated every one that came around you like that."
"No," she shook her head thoughtfully. "I been studying over it, but I can't quite make it out. Pop don't pay much attention to men that ain't his kind, and you're not. And Bob Flick is always jealous, of course, but he doesn't usually take it out watching folks like a ferret does a rat hole. No, it isn't that."
"Well, what do you put it down to?" Rudolf tried to speak easily.
Pearl paid no particular heed to this question. "And it's not all Hughie," she mused. "Of course," and here he saw an expression of real regret, almost worry, on her face, "of course it's bad for all of us when Hughie takes a dislike to any one."
Hanson's sense of injury was inflamed. "But why the devil," he cried, "should Hughie's unreasoning cranks count with commonsense people? I can't understand," with wondering impatience, "why you all act like you do about that boy!"
"We've all learned that Hughie knows things that we don't know."
"Umph!" the exclamation was disgustedly incredulous. "And so, simply because Hughie chooses to take a dislike to me, I'm to be watched like a criminal and treated, even by you, with suspicion."
"No," she said, "I've been studying over it, but I can't quite make it out. Pop don't pay much attention, usually. But," she spoke slowly, "I thought maybe you'd tell me this morning."
"Well, there's nothing to tell," he affirmed obstinately.
She looked out over the desert for a moment. "Bob Flick hit the trail last night," she spoke casually.
"To go where?"
"I don't know. I wish I did. But I kind of feel, I can't help but feel, that it had something to do with you, and I wanted to tell you, to let you know, so that you can clear out if you've a mind to."
"I've no cause to clear out," said Hanson. "Gee!" his bold eyes looked gaily into hers, "you all seem determined to make me out bad, don't you? But if that's your way of trying to get rid of me, it don't go. When you tell me that you won't sign up with me, and are going back to Sweeney, for just half of what I offer you, then I'll know that you want to get rid of me, and I'll clear out."
"But I ain't told you that yet," the corners of Pearl's mouth were dimpling.
"No, and, by George, until you do I stay right here."
"Look!" she cried with a change in her voice. They had entered a canon, where palms grew and involuntarily they drew up their horses to gaze at the sight before them. The stately, exotic palms lifted their shining green fronds to the blue, intense, illimitable sky, flooded with the gold of sunshine, and beyond them was the background of the mountains, their dark wooded slopes climbing upward until they reached the white, dazzling peaks of snow.
The sharp and apparently impossible contrasts, the magic illusions of color made it a land of remote enchantment, even to the most unimaginative. And to Hanson the world outside became as unreal as a dream that is past. Here was beauty, and the wide, free spaces of nature, where every law of man seemed puny, ineffectual and void. In this unbounded, uncharted freedom the shackles of conventionality fell from him. Here was life and here was love. He was a primitive man, and here, before him in visible form, stood the world's desire. Barriers there were none. A man and woman, both as vital as the morning, and love between them. The craving heart of the eternal man rose up in Hanson, imperatively urging him to claim his own.
He drew his hand across his brow almost dazedly. "Whew!" he muttered, "I kind of remember when I was a kid that my mother used to tell me about the Garden of Eden. I thought it was a pipe dream, but, George! it's true—it's true, and I can't quite believe it."
The Pearl stood leaning against a great palm tree. She seemed hardly to hear him. Her eyes were on the waving, shimmering horizon line of the desert. Her face held a sort of wistful dreaming.
"'The Garden of Eden!'" she repeated. "I've heard of it, too. It was a place where you were always happy, but"—still wistfully—"I haven't found that place yet." She turned her vaguely troubled eyes on him and then sighed and drooped against the tree.
"You can have things as you please, if you'll come to me." His speech was rapid, hard-breathing; it was as if he hardly knew what he was saying, but was talking merely to relieve the tension. "I'm boss and I can manage that you shall dance when you please, and come back here for a little breathing spell whenever you want. But," with an impatient gesture, "I ain't here to talk business. That's what I came to Paloma for—business. That's all I was before I met you, just a cold, hard business proposition. I guess I was pretty hard-headed. They seemed to think so in my line, anyway. I thought I knew it all." He gave a short laugh. "I'm not so young. I thought I knew life pretty well—had kind of wore it out, in fact. I thought I'd loved more than one woman; but I know now that I've never loved, never lived before, that I've just woke up, here in this Garden of Eden.
"Pearl," the beads of sweat stood out on his brow, "I ain't made you out. I know you're one thing one hour and another the next. I'm no vain boy. I can't tell whether you've been drawing me on one minute and holding me back the next just because you got to annex the scalp of every man your sweet eyes fall on. That's all right, honey, I ain't blaming you; but there's been moments lately, Pearl, when I've thought that maybe you might care, moments when I been plumb crazy with joy. You ain't let 'em last very long, honey," with a strained smile, "but they most made up for the black question mark that came after 'em." He drew out his handkerchief and wiped his wet brow with a trembling hand.
She threw back her head and smiled into his eyes through her narrowed lids. She held out her hands to him; and with one step Hanson lifted her clear off the ground, gathering her up in his arms, holding her against his heart and kissing her scarlet mouth.
And she wound her arms about his neck and returned those kisses.
"Put me down," she said at last, and Hanson did so, although he still held her close to his heart with one arm.
"Pearl!" he cried aloud, and it was like some strong affirmation of life. He lifted his eyes, bold and unafraid, as an eagle's, to the sun-flooded, brazen, blue heavens. Time stood still. He had drunk at a new fountain—love, and, although his thirst was still unquenched, he was eternal youth. The heart of life breathed through him. He looked upon the sky, a man unconquered, unbeaten, undaunted by life. He was its master. Did she ask the snow peaks yonder? He would gather them as footstools for her little feet. Was it gold she desired? It should be as dust for her hands to scatter to the winds. Was it name, place, state, she asked? They should be plucked forthwith from a supine world and offered her as a nosegay.
Again, confidently now, he stooped and kissed her lips. It seemed to him that roses and stars fell about them. "You love me, Pearl," he had cried, in incredulous joy, "you love me."
For answer she smiled sweetly, ardently into his eyes: "'Love me to-day,'" she sang, nestling close to his heart.
It was almost a week before Bob Flick returned, and during that time Pearl saw Hanson almost constantly, although to do so she had continually to match her quickness and subtlety against that of her father and Hughie; but even while she and her father met each other with move and counter-move, check and checkmate, it was characteristic of both of them that Hanson's obvious infatuation and her equally obvious return of it were never mentioned between them.
With Hughie it was different, and Pearl met his petulant remonstrance, his boyish withdrawal of the usual confiding intimacy which existed between them, with laughter and caresses. As for Mrs. Gallito, she alone was unchanged, apparently quite oblivious to storm conditions in the mental atmosphere. But this was not unusual; when matters of importance were transacted in the Gallito household Mrs. Gallito did not count.
But these disturbing conditions could not daunt Pearl's high spirits; she was like flame, and the light of her eye, the glow on her cheek, the buoyancy of her step were not all due to the ardor of her loving and the joy of being ardently loved. There was also the zest of intrigue.
And, oh! what a mad and splendid game she and Hanson played together! He rose to her every soaring audacity; they took almost impossible chances as lightly as a hunter takes a hurdle. The lift of her eyelash, an imperceptibly significant gesture, a casual word spoken in conversation, these Hanson met with an incredible quickness of understanding. It was a game at which he was master, and which he had played many times before, but never had his intuitions been so keen, his always rapid comprehension been so stimulated.
Beneath the eye of another master of intrigue, Gallito, watchful as a spider, they met and loved until, it seemed to Hanson, that the whole, wide desert rang with their glorious laughter. And through it all Francisco Gallito sat and smoked and sipped his cognac imperturbably; apparently unruffled by defeat, a defeat—the Pearl with subtle femininity saw to that—which was not without its elements of ignominy.
But now Bob Flick had returned and had sat late with Gallito the night before, talking, although Mrs. Gallito, who tendered this information to her daughter, had not been able to overhear any part of their conversation, in spite of her truly persistent efforts to do so. These circumstances, and results which would probably ensue when a definite course of action had been decided upon, occupied the Pearl's thoughts as she stood at the gate gazing out on the gray wastes spread before her in the broad morning sunshine. Lolita was perched on the fence beside her, swaying back and forth, muttering to herself and occasionally dipping down perilously in a curious effort to see the garden upside down through the fence palings.
Pearl turned at last from her contemplation of the subject which absorbed her attention, and smiled as her glance fell upon the gaudy tail, the only part of Lolita now visible, although, even then, the horse-shoe frown, which showed faintly on her smooth forehead, a facsimile of the one graven deep on her father's wrinkled brow, did not disappear.
"They've got it in for us, Lolita—Rudolf and me." She laughed outright now. Pearl's laughter was ever a disagreeable surprise; low, harsh, unpleasantly vibrant, and in strange dissonance to her soft, contralto voice. "Lay you any odds you say, Lolita, that it's poor old Bob that's got to be the goat."
The parrot swung back to a normal position with surprising rapidity. "Bob, Bob," she croaked. "Mi jasmin, Pearl, mi corazon," and she gazed at her mistress with wrinkled, cynical eyes.
"Yes, Bob's got to do the telling." Pearl confided more to Lolita than she ever did in her fellow beings. "Oh, Rudolf, this is where you get knifed! They've been laying for you right from the first. When Bob's got to do a thing, he never wastes any time; he'll be along sure this morning. I guess we'll just wait right here and catch him."
Lolita hopped clumsily on to Pearl's shoulder and tweaked her ear. "Hell and damnation!" she muttered, and then sang:
"Love me to-day, Love me an hour."
Pearl shrugged impatiently. "Shut up!" she cried, and resting her chin in her cupped hands gazed over the sparkling, shimmering plain, where all unshadowed day-beams seemed to gather as pure light and then, as if fused in some magic alembic, became color. There, the ineffable command: "Let there be light!" included all. It is only in the silence and light of the desert that men may fully realize that the universe is one, that light is music and music is color and color is fragrance, undifferentiated in the eternal harmony of beauty.
Pearl's eyes drank the desert, unconsciously seeking there in its haunting enigmas and unsolved mysteries an answer to the enigma of self. Like life, like truth, like love, like all realities viewed from the angle of human vision, the desert is a paradox. Its vast emptiness is more than full; its unashamed sterility is but the simile for unmeasured fecundity.
For an hour thus she leaned and gazed, Lolita restlessly walking back and forth, singing and croaking, until, at last, as Pearl had predicted, Bob Flick appeared, a fact not unheralded by Lolita's cries; but Pearl did not alter her languid pose, nor even turn her head to greet him. She was watching a whirling column of sand, polished and white as a colossal marble pillar.
"It's kind of early for them to begin, ain't it, Bob?" she remarked casually.
"Yes." He paused by the gate, leaning one arm on it, and in the swift glance she cast at him from the corners of her eyes she could see that his expressionless face looked worn, the lines about the mouth seemed to have deepened and the eyes were heavy, as if he had not slept.
Lolita had, as usual, perched upon his shoulder, and was murmuring in his ear.
"Say, Pearl," Flick spoke again after an interval of silence, "I wish you'd take a walk with me. I—I got something on my mind that I want to talk about."
"All right," she acquiesced readily, the nicker of a smile about her lips quickly suppressed. "I'll be ready in a minute, as soon as I get my hat."
They walked through the village, the great broken wall of the mountains rising before them, deceptively near, and yet austerely remote, dazzling snow domes and spires crowning the rock-buttressed slopes and appearing sometimes to float, as unsubstantial clouds, in an atmosphere of all commingling and contrasting blues and purples. Presently they turned into a lane of mesquite trees. The growth of these trees was thick on either side and the branches arched above their heads. They had stepped in a footfall's space into a new world. It was one of those surprising, almost unbelievable contrasts in which the desert abounds.
A moment before they had gazed upon the mountains, spectacularly vivid in the clear atmosphere, white peaks and azure skies, green foothills, serrated with black shadows. Behind them the sun-flooded white glare of the great, waste place and behold! all these vanished as they set their feet in this garden inclosed, this bower as green and quiet as the lane of a distant and far softer and more fertile country.
Pearl never made any conventional attempts at conversation, and for a time they walked in silence through those fairy aisles where the light fell golden-green and the sun only filtered in tiny broken disks through the delicate lace of the mesquite leaves. Then Flick spoke:
"Pearl, I got something to say to you, and it's about the hardest thing I ever tried to do, because I know," his mouth twisted a little, "that you're not going to like me any better for it."
"What do you do it for then, Bob?" she asked, and there was more than a half impatient mockery in her tone, there was wonder.
"I got to," he said doggedly. "I guess there's no sense in it, but, whether you like it or not, I always got to do what seems the best thing for you."
It was an inflexible attitude, an ideal of conduct unfalteringly held, and uncompromisingly adhered to, and she knew it. Therefore, she shrugged her shoulders resignedly, the faint horse-shoe frown again appearing in her forehead. "Well—go on, then," her voice as resigned as her shoulders, "and get it over."
"It's this—" he hesitated and looked down at her a moment, and the tenderness his glance expressed she did not lift her eyes to see and would not have noticed if she had; "Pearl, Hanson ain't on the level."
She laughed that slightly grating, almost unpleasant, laugh of hers. "It's no secret to me, Bob, that several of you are thinking that."
"We got cause to," he answered moodily; and then, as if struck by something in her words, he looked at her quickly. "Has your Pop told you anything?" There was surprise in both glance and voice.
"Not a thing," she assured him, scornfully amused by the question, "but there are some things that don't have to be told. Do you suppose I haven't caught on to the way you've all been acting?"
Again he looked his surprise. "We all been acting?" he repeated.
"Yes. I've seen things and I've felt them. Oh, you might just as well out with it, Bob. What is it all about?"
He stared unseeing down the sun-sifted dusk of the green lane. Here the desert silence was like a benediction of peace, broken now and then by the faint, shrill note of an insect, or the occasional soft, mournful plaint of a dove.
"Pearl, you can laugh at me if you want to, and say I'm jealous. That's true, I am. I can't help it; but this time it wasn't all that. I got to size up men quick; that was my business for a good many years, and the first minute I set eyes on Hanson I knew he wasn't straight. And then, Hughie—"
"And so you stirred up Pop to watch him?" she broke in quick as a flash.
"No," he answered patiently, "no, but Hughie's feelings got so strong about him that your Pop kind of woke up and got to studying him, and then he saw what—what neither of you tried to hide," there was bitterness in his tone, "and then he kind of remembered something he'd heard up in Colina, and—"
"And so you've been up to Colina tracking round after a woman." Her verbal strokes were swift and hard as a flail. And again Flick started in surprise. His cheeks flushed faintly, his jaw set.
"What you mean, Pearl? Has he been having me trailed? I don't believe it."
"No," she drawled, taking a malicious amusement in this unwonted perturbation on his part, "he hasn't. You slipped away so quiet and easy that you didn't stop to say good-by, even to me. Were you afraid I'd put him on to it?"
She did not hesitate to plant her banderillos where they would sting most, and Flick winced at this imputation which struck so near home. "How did you know about the woman, then?" he asked quickly.
Pearl lifted her head and laughed aloud, and, at the unwonted sound breaking the desert silence, three pairs of brilliant eyes gazing through the screening mesquite branches vanished and the gray, shadowy figures of three coyotes disappeared as noiselessly as they had come.
"How did I know about the woman?" She repeated the question and considered it, still with amused scorn, as if debating whether she would enlighten him or not. "Well—" drawling aggravatingly, "I knew you and Pop had the knife ready for Ru—Mr. Hanson." Flick's mouth twisted again. "That wasn't very hard to see. So when you hit the trail, Bob, I gave him the chance to clear out. I did so, tipped him off, you know. Now I guess if he'd been wanted bad for anything that would—well, put him behind the bars, say, he'd have gotten out pretty quick. And, anyway, if he'd been wanted like that he wouldn't have stayed here so long, for they wouldn't have had any trouble in nailing a man as well known as him before, so, you see, I knew it wasn't any of the usual things. But," and here she stopped and, looking up into his face, spoke more emphatically, "I gave him the chance, too, to tell me all about himself and he didn't take it. Now, there isn't a man living that wouldn't have taken it—under the circumstances—" she spoke with a deliberately cruel emphasis, and Flick's shoulders contracted a little as the dart pricked him—"unless it was some mix-up about a woman."
"It's about a woman, all right," grimly.
"What about her?" Pearl's voice cut the air like the swift, downward stroke of a whip.
"She's his wife," returned Flick. "She's been living up near Colina. She owns a part of a mine there and has been managing it."
Pearl took this in silence; and they had walked a dozen yards or so before they spoke again.
"Well, what of it?" she said at last, carelessly, almost gaily. "Divorces are easy."
His expressionless face showed a cynical amusement, with just a hint of triumph in the lighting of his eye. He shook his head. "I talked to her," he said. "She's a good, decent woman, but she ain't quite straight in her head when it comes to Hanson. He lied to her right along about the others, even from the first; played fast and loose with her, and finally eloped with one of his burlesque head-liners. She took it. What else was there for her to do? But she spends about all of her time watching her fences to see that there's no divorce in question. He's done everything, tried to buy her off more than once, but it's no good. Every place he goes she follows him up sooner or later, and she writes him letters, too, every once in so often, offering to come back to him. And he can't get anything on her, for she lives as straight as a string. Oh, no, Pearl, Mr. Rudolf Hanson'll never marry again as long as that lady's living, or I miss my guess."
It was evidently with difficulty that Pearl had controlled herself, her brow had darkened and her upper lip had curled back from her white teeth in a particularly unpleasant and disfiguring fashion. Again they walked in one of those silences in which she was wont to entrench herself, and then she looked up at him with a faintly scornful smile. "Well, you've sure done your duty, Bob, and I guess you've got just about as much thanks as folks usually do for that."
He drew his hand across his brow and looked before him a little drearily. "I didn't expect anything else," he said simply. "I knew what I'd get. But whether you like it or not," and here he caught her shoulder, his eyes holding hers, "as I told you before, I always got to do what seems the best for you, no matter what's the cost."
Her face did not soften. She merely accepted this as she did all else that he had to give her, himself included.
They had reached the end of a long alley, and now they turned and retraced their steps, but they had traversed almost half of the distance they had come before Pearl spoke again. "Well, now you've told me, what else are you and Pop planning to do?"
He weighed his answer for a few moments. "I guess nothing," he said at last. "I guess we'll leave it to you to send him about his business."
She stopped in the path and looked at him; her blue cotton gown fell in long lines of grace about her slender figure. "If you and Pop want to know what I'm going to do," she said, "I'll tell you. I'm going to accept Rudolf's offer and go out on the road, that's what. You know by this time that I can take care of myself."
He pondered this seriously, but without a change in the expression of his face. "Would you go with him," he asked, "if Sweeney offers you as much or more money?"
"Sweeney won't offer me more money. I know Sweeney and his limits," significantly, "and you won't make up the balance of what Sweeney lacks, either, do you hear? Now you, and Pop, too, can just keep your hands off. I manage this affair myself."
Flick merely shrugged his shoulders, and they walked on without further speech on the matter. Presently Bob's keen eyes descried some one walking down the mesquite avenue toward them. "Why, it's Hughie!" he exclaimed.
Even as he spoke the boy stopped and listened intently. He stood motionless, waiting until they drew nearer, and then he lifted his head, which he had bent sidewise the better to hear their almost soundless footsteps.
Pearl, seeing that her interview with Flick was soon to be interrupted, stopped short in the path and laid one hand detainingly upon his arm. "Bob," she said, in her softest tone, "Bob, you and I have been pals for a good while; you aren't going against me now?"
He stopped, obedient to her touch, and looked at her unwillingly. He could always hold to his resolution in the face of her anger, but to withstand her when she chose to coax! That was another and more difficult matter. But if he met her gaze reluctantly there was no wavering in either his glance or his voice.
"I'm going to save you from Hanson, Pearl," he paused for the fraction of a second, "by any means I got to use."
She flashed one swift, violent glance of resentment, and then immediately controlled herself, as she could always do when she chose and when she was playing to win; so now she cast down her eyes and sighed.
The motes of the glancing sunbeams fell over her like a shower of gold, spangling the blue cotton frock until it appeared a more regal vesture than purple and ermine; her head was bent, her body drooped like a lily in the noonday heat, her whole attitude was soft, and forlorn and appealing, as if she, this wilful, untamed creature, subdued herself to accept a wounding decree, and bore it with all the pathos of unmurmuring resignation.
Flick's heart smote him, he longed to clasp her to his breast and give her everything she impossibly craved. And now it was he who sighed, and then clinched his hands as if to steel his resolution.
She heard the sigh: she saw from the quick movement of his hands, the sudden, involuntary straightening of the shoulders that the struggle was on, so she lifted her eyes half wistfully, half doubtingly to his and thus gazed a moment and then smiled her faintly crooked heart-shattering smile:
"You and I have been friends too long for us to begin to quarrel now, isn't that so, Bob?" Again she laid her hand on his arm.
He caught it in both of his and pressed it hard. "I guess you know we'll never quarrel, Pearl. I guess you know that, no matter what you say or do, it'll never make any difference to me."