La Perdida, by Gertrude Atherton

Splendid Idle Forties, Stories of Old California

On her fourteenth birthday they had married her to an old man, and at sixteen she had met and loved a fire-hearted young vaquero. The old husband had twisted his skinny fingers around her arm and dragged her before the Alcalde, who had ordered her beautiful black braids cut close to her neck, and sentenced her to sweep the streets. Carlos, the tempter of that childish unhappy heart, was flung into prison. Such were law and justice in California before the Americans came.

The haughty elegant women of Monterey drew their mantillas more closely about their shocked faces as they passed La Pérdida sweeping the dirt into little heaps. The soft-eyed girls, lovely in their white or flowered gowns, peered curiously through the gratings of their homes at the "lost one," whose sin they did not understand, but whose sad face and sorry plight appealed to their youthful sympathies. The caballeros, dashing up and down the street, and dazzling in bright silken jackets, gold embroidered, lace-trimmed, the sun reflected in the silver of their saddles, shot bold admiring glances from beneath their sombreros. No one spoke to her, and she asked no one for sympathy.

She slept alone in a little hut on the outskirts of the town. With the dawn she rose, put on her coarse smock and black skirt, made herself a tortilla, then went forth and swept the streets. The children mocked her sometimes, and she looked at them in wonder. Why should she be mocked or punished? She felt no repentance; neither the Alcalde nor her husband had convinced her of her sin's enormity; she felt only bitter resentment that it should have been so brief. Her husband, a blear-eyed crippled old man, loathsome to all the youth and imagination in her, had beaten her and made her work. A man, young, strong, and good to look upon, had come and kissed her with passionate tenderness. Love had meant to her the glorification of a wretched sordid life; a green spot and a patch of blue sky in the desert. If punishment followed upon such happiness, must not the Catholic religion be all wrong in its teachings? Must not purgatory follow heaven, instead of heaven purgatory?

She watched the graceful girls of the wealthy class flit to and fro on the long corridors of the houses, or sweep the strings of the guitar behind their gratings as the caballeros passed. Watchful old women were always near them, their ears alert for every word. La Pérdida thanked God that she had had no dueña.

One night, on her way home, she passed the long low prison where her lover was confined. The large crystal moon flooded the red-tiled roof projecting over the deep windows and the shallow cells. The light sweet music of a guitar floated through iron bars, and a warm voice sang:—

  "Adios, adios, de ti al ausentarme,
  Para ir en poz de mi fatal estrella,
  Yo llevo grabada tu imagen bella,
  Aqui en mi palpitante corazon.

  "Pero aunque lejos de tu lado me halle
  No olvides, no, que por tu amor deliro
  Enviáme siquiera un suspiro,
  Que dé consuelo, a mi alma en su dolor.

  "Y de tu pecho la emoción sentida
  Llegue hasta herir mi lacerado oido,
  Y arranque de mi pecho dolorido
  Un eco que repita, adios! adios!"

La Pérdida's blood leaped through her body. Her aimless hands struck the spiked surface of a cactus-bush, but she never knew it. When the song finished, she crept to the grating and looked in.

"Carlos!" she whispered.

A man who lay on the straw at the back of the cell sprang to his feet and came forward.

"My little one!" he said. "I knew that song would bring thee. I begged them for a guitar, then to be put into a front cell." He forced his hands through the bars and gave her life again with his strong warm clasp.

"Come out," she said.

"Ay! they have me fast. But when they do let me out, niña, I will take thee in my arms; and whosoever tries to tear thee away again will have a dagger in his heart. Dios de mi vida! I could tear their flesh from their bones for the shame and the pain they have given thee, thou poor little innocent girl!"

"But thou lovest me, Carlos?"

"There is not an hour I am not mad for thee, not a corner of my heart that does not ache for thee! Ay, little one, never mind; life is long, and we are young."

She pressed nearer and laid his hand on her heart.

"Ay!" she said, "life is long."

"Holy Mary!" he cried. "The hills are on fire!"

A shout went up in the town. A flame, midway on the curving hills, leaped to the sky, narrow as a ribbon, then swept out like a fan. The moon grew dark behind a rolling pillar of smoke. The upcurved arms of the pines were burnt into a wall of liquid shifting red. The caballeros sprang to their horses, and driving the Indians before them, fled to the hills to save the town. The indolent women of Monterey mingled their screams with the shrill cries of the populace and the hoarse shouts of their men. The prison sentries stood to their posts for a few moments; then the panic claimed them, and they threw down their guns and ran with the rest to the hills.

Carlos gave a cry of derision and triumph. "My little one, our hour has come! Run and find the keys."

The big bunch of keys had been flung hastily into a corner. A moment later Carlos held the shaking form of the girl in his powerful arms. Slender and delicate as she was, she made no protest against the fierceness of that embrace.

"But come," he said. "We have only this hour for escape. When we are safe in the mountains—Come!"

He lifted her in his arms and ran down the crooked street to a corral where an hidalgo kept his finest horses. Carlos had been the vaquero of the band. The iron bars of the great doors were down—only one horse was in the corral; the others had carried the hidalgo and his friends to the fire. The brute neighed with delight as Carlos flung saddle and aquera into place, then, with La Pérdida in his arms, sprang upon its back. The vaquero dug his spurs into the shining flanks, the mustang reared, shook his small head and silver mane, and bounded through the doors.

A lean, bent, and wiry thing darted from the shadows and hung upon the horse's neck. It was the husband of La Pérdida, and his little brown face looked like an old walnut.

"Take me with thee!" he cried. "I will give thee the old man's blessing," and, clinging like a crab to the neck of the galloping mustang, he drove a knife toward the heart of La Pérdida. The blade turned upon itself as lightning sometimes does, and went through stringy tissues instead of fresh young blood.

Carlos plucked the limp body from the neck of the horse and flung it upon a cactus-bush, where it sprawled and stiffened among the spikes and the blood-red flowers. But the mustang never paused; and as the fires died on the hills, the mountains opened their great arms and sheltered the happiness of two wayward hearts.