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- The Queen of the Pirate Isle - 2/4 -
The Pirates (hesitating): "No--o--"
Patsey: "I am; know where I kin get a six-shooter?"
The Pirates (almost ready to abandon piracy for bear-hunting, but preserving their dignity): "Can't! We've runn'd away for real pirates."
Patsey: "Not for good!"
The Queen (interposing with sad dignity and real tears in her round blue eyes): "Yes!" (slowly and shaking her head). "Can't go back again. Never! Never! Never! The--the--eye is cast!"
Patsey (bursting with excitement): "No-o! Sho'o! Wanter know."
The Pirates (a little frightened themselves, but tremulous with gratified vanity): "The Perleese is on our track!"
Patsey: "Lemme go with yer!"
Hickory: "Wot'll yer giv?"
Patsey: "Pistol and er bananer."
Hickory (with judicious prudence): "Let's see 'em."
Patsey was off like a shot; his bare little red feet trembling under him. In a few minutes he returned with an old-fashioned revolver known as one of "Allen's pepper-boxes" and a large banana. He was at once enrolled, and the banana eaten.
As yet they had resolved on no definite nefarious plan. Hickory, looking down at Patsey's bare feet, instantly took off his own shoes. This bold act sent a thrill through his companions. Wan Lee took off his cloth leggings, Polly removed her shoes and stockings, but, with royal foresight, tied them up in her handkerchief. The last link between them and civilization was broken.
"Let's go to the Slumgullion."
"Slumgullion" was the name given by the miners to a certain soft, half-liquid mud, formed of the water and finely powdered earth that was carried off by the sluice-boxes during gold-washing, and eventually collected in a broad pool or lagoon before the outlet. There was a pool of this kind a quarter of a mile away, where there were "diggings" worked by Patsey's father, and thither they proceeded along the ridge in single file. When it was reached they solemnly began to wade in its viscid paint-like shallows. Possibly its unctuousness was pleasant to the touch; possibly there was a fascination in the fact that their parents had forbidden them to go near it, but probably the principal object of this performance was to produce a thick coating of mud on the feet and ankles, which, when dried in the sun, was supposed to harden the skin and render their shoes superfluous. It was also felt to be the first real step towards independence; they looked down at their ensanguined extremities and recognized the impossibility of their ever again crossing (unwashed) the family threshold.
Then they again hesitated. There was a manifest need of some well-defined piratical purpose. The last act was reckless and irretrievable, but it was vague. They gazed at each other. There was a stolid look of resigned and superior tolerance in Wan Lee's eyes.
Polly's glance wandered down the side of the slope to the distant little tunnels or openings made by the miners who were at work in the bowels of the mountain. "I'd like to go into one of them funny holes," she said to herself, half aloud.
Wan Lee suddenly began to blink his eyes with unwonted excitement. "Catchee tunnel--heap gold," he said quickly. "When manee come outside to catchee dinner--Pilats go inside catchee tunnel! Shabbee! Pilats catchee gold allee samee Melican man!"
"And take perseshiun," said Hickory.
"And hoist the Pirate flag," said Patsey.
"And build a fire, and cook, and have a family," said Polly.
The idea was fascinating to the point of being irresistible. The eyes of the four children became rounder and rounder. They seized each other's hands and swung them backwards and forwards, occasionally lifting their legs in a solemn rhythmic movement known only to childhood.
"It's orful far off!" said Patsey with a sudden look of dark importance. "Pap says it's free miles on the road. Take all day ter get there."
The bright faces were overcast.
"Less go down er slide!" said Hickory boldly.
They approached the edge of the cliff. The "slide" was simply a sharp incline zigzagging down the side of the mountain used for sliding goods and provisions from the summit to the tunnel-men at the different openings below. The continual traffic had gradually worn a shallow gully half filled with earth and gravel into the face of the mountain which checked the momentum of the goods in their downward passage, but afforded no foothold for a pedestrian. No one had ever been known to descend a slide. That feat was evidently reserved for the Pirate band. They approached the edge of the slide, hand in hand, hesitated, and the next moment disappeared.
Five minutes later the tunnel-men of the Excelsior mine, a mile below, taking their luncheon on the rude platform of debris before their tunnel, were suddenly driven to shelter in the tunnel from an apparent rain of stones, and rocks, and pebbles, from the cliffs above. Looking up, they were startled at seeing four round objects revolving and bounding in the dust of the slide, which eventually resolved themselves into three boys and a girl. For a moment the good men held their breath in helpless terror. Twice one of the children had struck the outer edge of the bank, and displaced stones that shot a thousand feet down into the dizzy depths of the valley; and now one of them, the girl, had actually rolled out of the slide and was hanging over the chasm supported only by a clump of chamisal to which she clung!
"Hang on by your eyelids, sis! but don't stir, for Heaven's sake!" shouted one of the men, as two others started on a hopeless ascent of the cliff above them.
But a light childish laugh from the clinging little figure seemed to mock them! Then two small heads appeared at the edge of the slide; then a diminutive figure, whose feet were apparently held by some invisible companion, was shoved over the brink and stretched its tiny arms towards the girl. But in vain, the distance was too great. Another laugh of intense youthful enjoyment followed the failure, and a new insecurity was added to the situation by the unsteady hands and shoulders of the relieving party, who were apparently shaking with laughter. Then the extended figure was seen to detach what looked like a small black rope from its shoulders and throw it to the girl. There was another little giggle. The faces of the men below paled in terror. Then Polly,-- for it was she,--hanging to the long pigtail of Wan Lee, was drawn with fits of laughter back in safety to the slide. Their childish treble of appreciation was answered by a ringing cheer from below.
"Darned ef I ever want to cut off a Chinaman's pigtail again, boys," said one of the tunnel-men as he went back to dinner.
Meantime the children had reached the goal and stood before the opening of one of the tunnels. Then these four heroes who had looked with cheerful levity on the deadly peril of their descent became suddenly frightened at the mysterious darkness of the cavern and turned pale at its threshold.
"Mebbee a wicked Joss backside holee, he catchee Pilats," said Wan Lee gravely.
Hickory began to whimper, Patsey drew back, Polly alone stood her ground, albeit with a trembling lip.
"Let's say our prayers and frighten it away," she said stoutly.
"No! no!" said Wan Lee, with a sudden alarm. "No frighten Spillits! You waitee! Chinee boy he talkee Spillit not to frighten you."*
* The Chinese pray devoutly to the Evil Spirits NOT to injure them.
Tucking his hands under his blue blouse, Wan Lee suddenly produced from some mysterious recess of his clothing a quantity of red paper slips which he scattered at the entrance of the cavern. Then drawing from the same inexhaustible receptacle certain squibs or fireworks, he let them off and threw them into the opening. There they went off with a slight fizz and splutter, a momentary glittering of small points in the darkness, and a strong smell of gunpowder. Polly gazed at the spectacle with undisguised awe and fascination. Hickory and Patsey breathed hard with satisfaction: it was beyond their wildest dreams of mystery and romance. Even Wan Lee appeared transfigured into a superior being by the potency of his own spells. But an unaccountable disturbance of some kind in the dim interior of the tunnel quickly drew the blood from their blanched cheeks again. It was a sound like coughing, followed by something like an oath.
"He's made the Evil Spirit orful sick," said Hickory in a loud whisper.
A slight laugh, that to the children seemed demoniacal, followed.
"See!" said Wan Lee. "Evil Spillet he likee Chinee; try talkee him."
The Pirates looked at Wan Lee, not without a certain envy of this manifest favoritism. A fearful desire to continue their awful experiments, instead of pursuing their piratical avocations, was taking possession of them; but Polly, with one of the swift transitions of childhood, immediately began to extemporize a house for the party at the mouth of the tunnel, and, with parental foresight, gathered the fragments of the squibs to build a fire for supper. That frugal meal, consisting of half a ginger biscuit
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