PELICAN SMITH AND THE
BY WALLACE IRWIN
WE'RE all of us Poets, I reckon, just so long as we worship the God o' Things That Never Happened. "Sanctimonious" Anderson says that a Poet is a feller that'll creep up on a rattlesnake and tickle him behind the ear with a feather just to see him smile; and when he gits bit he goes off and writes a pome about it. I've been bit more'n onc't, sometimes foolin' with horses, sometimes with women, but I never took it poetical like Smuggler King Garcia, him bein' born to lisp in numbers, though he couldn't sign his Greaser name.
It was in the Fall o' Ninety-eight that I seen Garcia on the wharf at Enciñada squeezing a yeller demijohn between his knees. The jug was supplying the stuff that dreams is composed of and Garcia was a Poet. So he stopped me and poured Mexican sunshine into me with a tin cup.
Of all the gaudy, oncivilized outfit o' man-clothes I ever seen wore, I think the King's took the tart. He was a smallish, kind o' peanut-size man and more than half of him was mustache. Never seen anything like the way them woolly fringes stood out—like long, black wings—from the side of his face. He had on a pair o' brown velvet pants with a red sash as big—twic't as big—as a boarding-house table cloth twisted around his waist. In this he had stuck enough killing-tools to stock a carpenter's kit. All Garcia needed was a chorus to make him a real good show.
Pete Garcia and me had been college chums in our youth—third grade primary at San Diego where the teacher spent most of 'er time a-culturin' our minds with a trunk trap—share and share alike, swat for swat. Soon after Garcia went South to the mines and I went to hell by another trail. Next I heard o' him he was eighteen years old and a real, genu-wine Smuggler King with a price on his head—five hundred dollar, which was more than he was ever worth.
Well, there he sat a-twisting them black beauties on his lip and talking, talking—gee, how that yap could waste the conversation! Spoke English fluent and natural, bein' a San Diego half-breed. His heart was broke, he said, because he loved an Injun girl who went and married a padrone.
"Then," said Garcia, "what remained? Nothing! I went to the coast. I wanted to be a priest or a bandit. Not having an education I tried the bandit business. And now," he says, slow and impressive, "I'm a-smuggling guano fertilizer off the Bird Islands into the States."
Broken heart and guano fertilizer! Pete was sure romantical.
By moonrise we had wiped the inside o' the jug and Mexico seemed small 'longside of us. "Come and be a smuggler," says Garcia, so arm in arm we sauntered along the wharf and walked right into piracy.
I don't know nothing about ships, but I'm sure that Garcia's wasn't no flowery barge for perfume. In size it was small. In shape it resembled a bath-tub that had been jilted by a ferryboat.
"What d'ye call it?" I asks, as one speaks of infants and diseases.
"Lolita Sanchez de Guadelajara," says Garcia fluently, while I looks over the side to see if her name was run around her like a barrel-hoop.
"Lolita!" he repeats fond and long, "that was the false one's name. Up and married a paisano dog and deserted me—me, the King o' the Smugglers!" He tried to fold his arms, but the boat gave a lurch and he 'most went overboard.
All this happened Wednesday. By Sunday we had tied up to the Bird Island, took on a load, and started back to San Diego. It seemed like going home, and I was plenty glad of it.
Garcia kep' impressin' on my mind that this was a very cautious job. The Lolita Sanchez de Guadelajara, as she floundered over the waves, looked about as cautious as a burglar walking over a tin roof in cowhide boots. Every time we seen a sail we shied out to sea. Once we sighted a schooner a-smokin' close to shore. She was a safe distance, so Garcia looked awful brave.
"For Lolita's sake I would gladly fight her!" he growls, raising a dirty paw toward the sun. "But no! I scorn their coward challenge. Besides, this cargo is worth two hundred and seventy dollars."
A Poet, you see, is a guy that sees things what ain't there. To Garcia that load o' fertilizer was a shipment o' golden loot from Montezuma's treasure house; that snub-nosed, mildewed old tub he sailed was one o' them old Spanish terrors with gilt trimmings and real silk banners a-floating from the topmasts. Imagination! Garcia wanted to be a swashbuckler, but the Lolita was a measly small boat to do much swashing around in.
Garcia's crew was a sad bunch—a red-headed Cockney cook, escaped from Coronado, and a one-eyed Chinaman, name of Lee Bong. Lee Bong hadn't no respect for Garcia, so he lavished his affections on two pounds of Oriental lunch which he carried around in a blue cotton handkerchief. He worshiped this and squatted with it in his lap whenever there was nothing doing. Every time he sighted a sail he grabbed his bundle, and pointing to Garcia, would holler, "Him clazie, you sawbee!" Then he'd try to dive over the side.
Ours was a gallant crew, all right!
For half a day the wind died down and we stood like a post. Dead calm. Nothing around us but miles and miles o' blue China silk with a fog-veil 'way off toward the edge. Lee Bong squatted near the rail still worshiping that blue cotton bundle. Sometimes he sang. The name of his song, he said, was "Lotus-on-the-river," but I've heard tom-cats die easier.
When the breeze struck us again the miles o' China silk was rumpled up and sprinkled all over with diamonds. By sunset we was a-lyin' outside San Diego Bay. At dark we crep' in under the stars and tied up at La Playa. "Jingo Jo," a Portuguese "fence," met us at the wharf and looked over our cargo. He was a square cornered foreigner with a big, brown beard like a door-mat. Jo looked nervous. Had luck for the "traders," he said—revenue cutter Wolverine was in the bay—Miguel Thompson's outfit seized, crew and all, only last week.
So twenty-four hours we lay in La Playa a-waitin' for the Wolverine to clear out. At the end o' that time Garcia got another demijohn, then there was more poetry, and more talk about the beautiful Lolita Sanchez.
As the shades o' night and the licker in the demijohn was fallin' fast, Garcia began a-gettin' braver and braver.
"I dee-fy the United States Navy!" he says, jumping up.
"Any damn fool can do that," I says. "Sit down!"
"No, no!" yells Garcia. "We will sail acrost 'er bows! We will board 'er in the darkness! Come here, you China pig! Wake up, Bill!"
"No good, no good! You all samee too muchee heap loco!" yells Lee Bong, jumping for the wharf; but Garcia nabbed his pigtail with one hand and his blue cotton bundle with the other, so Bong came back and went to work in perfec' order. Almost before I knowed it sails was up and we was off on a fool's adventure. Last I seen o' Jingo Jo he was standin' with his mouth wide open just as if a hole had been singed in them door-mat whiskers.
As we rolled farther into the bay we could see a flash o' lights over white sides where the Wolverine was a-lyin' like a spook in the channel. Garcia, in his daffy humor, drew up so close to the neat, white vessel that you could 'a' tossed peanuts into the hatchways. The sight o' the ship seemed to make him more sentimental than ordinary.
"Ah, Lolita——" he began.
"Cut out Lolita!" I groans, "and let's git out o' here."
As we swung around in the wind something must of attracted the attention of the cutter's crew, for a whistle blowed, a gong sounded, lights doused in the port-holes, somebody on deck hollered orders.
"What are they after?" I asks, not understandin' for a minute.
"Us," says Garcia as he jumps for the tiller.
"Clazie, clazie!" says Bong, jumping and howling like the zoo.
The wind was coming strong now, and that moony idiot Garcia had sense enough to take advantage of it, for the Lolita hit the waves like a motor-boat. Bong knelt in the bow praying to his bundle.
We could see a few lights from the Wolverine still a-lyin' steady, but as we cleared the heads a streak o' silver fog shot out from her over the water.
"Search-lights!" says Garcia. Bong prayed.
The Wolverine now began a-moving out to sea, the silver ray o' light playing right and left, up and down, in circles that looked a million miles long. The devil loves fools and we had a good start. The "woollies" came puffing over the waves and our creaky boat went shooting along like a lop-sided cannon ball with that search-light a-reaching out for our heels. She was coming closer and closer. We could fairly feel that ghostly white glare burnin' into our clothes. Then suddenly a black cliff loomed ahead out of the sea, a high surf was a-swearing on the rocks. We'd struck the Coronado Island.
Garcia forgot to curl his mustache and his teeth was a-chatterin' something fierce.
"We could hide in there," he says, "but it's impossible. We'd be wrecked."
"All right," says I. "It's impossible—let's do it anyhow."
There was a wide cut in the cliffs and the sea a-spouting through, howling like a dervish. We rode on dynamite. The Lolita stood on her ear, buck-stepped, took the bit in her rotten teeth and flew like a bird. The sea soused us, our keel scraped, but still we hung on. Suddenly the trouble stopped and we swum quiet like a duck in still water. Fools butt in where angels walk around.
The Wolverine was now right up close, the white finger of her search-light running slow-like over the island, swingin' toward us till it came to the crack where our boat floated. Here it stopped, trickled in among the boulders, sniffed at the rocks and surf, then moved on. … They missed us!
Three hours we lay there only taking half breaths. The sea water was oozing from our hair to our boots. Garcia found his demijohn and there was two drinks for him and me, one for the cook and a drop and a half for the Chink. Towards morning the tide turned and sucked our boat out o' the hole, back onto them swearing breakers. This time the mast went down as the Lolita throwed a somersault over the reef.
The Wolverine was nowheres in sight.
"Cowards!" bawls Garcia, gitting brave again. "I see—they're afraid!"
"Oh, are they?" I inquires very gentle. "So's a bald eagle afraid of a caterpillar. If you want to fight any naval battles a-shootin' spit-bills from this here old wash-boiler, why jest let me off. I'll walk."
"You sawbee! him all same so muchee long-talk he no can do!" says Bong, rising scornful out of a bundle o' rags.
Well, we limped around for two days a-trying to swaller enough wind to blow us into Enciñada. During that time, there being nothing much to do, the King kep' harkin' back to his love affair till the rest of us wanted to jump overboard. He didn't look much like a pirate no more, neither. Them han'some velvet pants o' his hadn't took water very well—shrunk in places and clung to his physique like damp dish-cloths around a stove-pipe.
Sunsets affected him partickilar bad.
"Ah, but she was beautiful!" he would sigh. "Don't you think them blushing tints o' sky can compare with her damask cheek. They sure can't."
"Say, Garcia, honest," I asks at last. "What did she look like—comin' down to facts, measurements, and statistics, ye know?"
"Dark," he says. "Hair like the night, eyes o' topaz. A woman like the heroes was a-huntin' for. Stately—robust——"
"Fat?" I inquires carelessly.
"No, stately!" says Garcia, kind o' snappish.
"Me catch 'em too," says Lee Hong. "Me catch 'em one, two, thlee wife—all up Shanghai."
Finally at dusk as we staggered into San Diego Harbor, a tug full o' Mexican customs officers hailed us. No sooner had we sighted 'em than there was a plump! and a plunk! in the water as the cook and Lee Bong went over the side.
"I shall never surrender!" said the King, but I knowed durn well he was afraid to jump over and swim for it.
A Captain climbed aboard and touched Garcia on the shoulder. Three rurales up and grabbed me by the suspenders. "It's bed-tick pants and the stone quarry for my next five years," I thought to myself, but the King was a-jabbering like a coffee mill with the Captain. Pretty soon the Greasers took us in tow and ties us to a stake about three rods from the water front. Then Garcia and the Captain done some more sabe-talking, and his military nibs gave some orders to the soldiers who hung a lantern to our bows and got back in the launch. Garcia handed a demijohn to the Captain, who bowed and smiled; both of 'em smiled; and the first thing I knowed the Captain and the jug crawled over the side, pulled for the shore and left us alone in the boat!
"I explained," said Garcia, "that a night on shore might inconvenience us, so the Captain, an efficient officer, volunteered to watch us from the shore and arrest us in the morning. He has the jug."
The Mexican night was shuttin' down as black as velvet now. The lantern at our bows made fiery snake-tails in the tide that gurgled past the hull. The King stood in the stern a-gazing like a wounded dove out over the black water. "Here comes Lolita again," I says, groaning to myself—but I was wrong. He was a-thinking up the only practical plan of his brilliant poetical career.
He sneaked over to the bows, reached down and brought up the lantern, walked soft as a fly on eggs to the stake where we was moored and hung the lantern over the top. Then taking off his hat and placing it careful on the stake above the lantern, he drawed his knife and cut the moorings.
We drifted away, and together flapped up the old, greasy sail.
"Adios, Captain!" says Garcia, "watch well our lantern, which will remain perfectly quiet."
Dawn found us a-drifting along a clean, deserted beach somewheres between Mexico and nowheres. On the horizon we could see a black cloud o' smoke which we sort o' felt was after us.
"Garcia," says I, "the time has come when we've got to duck out o' this elegant and commodious yacht."
"Fergit 'er!" says I, pulling him to the rail, "and come on!"
We made two very neat splashes as we went into the water. The surf rolled us up onto the beach and we cut for thelike a pair o' wet kittens. There wasn't much time to lose, as we could see the Inspector's tug loomin' bigger and bigger. Safe on the hills, among the trees, we looked back. Agoin' sad and docile-like out to sea, a-lookin' more than ever like a disappointed bath-tub, was the Lolita Sanchez Guadeelajara bein' towed along by a tug.
The Smuggler King jest swallered a lump and walked on.
By noon, a pair o' sad and muddy hoboes, we dragged into San Xavier. Castro, who kep' a restaurant, fed us chile con carne. We hadn't much to talk about as we sat by the window and watched the inhabitants go by—six Injun kids, a goat, four hens, a yeller dog, a priest, a drunken sheep-herder. Pretty soon up strolled a large, leather-colored lady of about forty summers and two hundred averdupois. She wore a brunette mustache and was a-smoking a cigar. You couldn't have bribed a blind man to call 'er beautiful.
Something was the matter with Garcia. He jumped up holdin' his heart.
"Mira! Look! It is my Lolita!" he sobbed.
"Gee, Garcia, you are a Poet " I says.