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This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and their endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.
In Monterey, that old city on the coast of California, these things are well known, and they are repeated and sometimes elaborated. It is well that this cycle be put down on paper so that in a future time scholars, hearing the legends, may not say as they say of Arthur and of Roland and of Robin Hood—“There was no Danny nor any group of Danny’s friends, nor any house. Danny is a nature god and his friends primitive symbols of the wind, the sky, the sun.” This history is designed now and ever to keep the sneers from the lips of sour scholars.
Monterey sits on the slope of a hill, with a blue bay below it and with a forest of tall dark pine trees at its back. The lower parts of the town are inhabited by Americans, Italians, catchers and canners of fish. But on the hill where the forest and the town intermingle, where the streets are innocent of asphalt and the corners free of street lights, the old inhabitants of Monterey are embattled as the Ancient Britons are embattled in Wales. These are the paisanos.
They live in old wooden houses set in weedy yards, and the pine trees from the forest are about the houses. The paisanos are clean of commercialism, free of the complicated systems of American business, and, having nothing that can be stolen, exploited, or mortgaged, that system has not attacked them very vigorously.
What is a paisano? He is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted Caucasian bloods. His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years. He speaks English with a paisano accent and Spanish with a paisano accent. When questioned concerning his race, he indignantly claims pure Spanish blood and rolls up his sleeve to show that the soft inside of his arm is nearly white. His color, like that of a well-browned meerschaum pipe, he ascribes to sunburn. He is a paisano, and he lives in the uphill district above the town of Monterey called Tortilla Flat, although it isn’t a flat at all.
Danny was a paisano, and he grew up in Tortilla Flat and everyone liked him, but he did not stand out particularly from the screeching children of Tortilla Flat. He was related to nearly everyone in the Flat by blood or romance. His grandfather was an important man who owned two small houses in Tortilla Flat and was respected for his wealth. If the growing Danny preferred to sleep in the forest, to work on ranches, and to wrest his food and wine from an unwilling world, it was not because he did not have influential relatives. Danny was small and dark and intent. At twenty-five his legs were bent to the exact curves of a horse’s sides.
Now when Danny was twenty-five years old, the war with Germany was declared. Danny and his friend Pilon (Pilon, by the way, is something thrown in when a trade is conducted—a boot) had two gallons of wine when they heard about the war. Big Joe Portagee saw the glitter of the bottles among the pines and he joined Danny and Pilon.
As the wine went down in the bottles, patriotism arose in the three men. And when the wine was gone they went down the hill arm in arm for comradeship and safety, and they walked into Monterey. In front of an enlistment station they cheered loudly for America and dared Germany to do her worst. They howled menaces at the German Empire until the enlistment sergeant awakened and put on his uniform and came into the street to silence them. He remained to enlist them.
The sergeant lined them up in front of his desk. They passed everything but the sobriety test and then the sergeant began his questions with Pilon.
“What branch do you want to go in?”
“I don’ give a god-damn,” said Pilon jauntily.
“I guess we need men like you in the infantry.” And Pilon was written so.
He turned then to Big Joe, and the Portagee was getting sober. “Where do you want to go?”
“I want to go home,” Big Joe said miserably.
The sergeant put him in the infantry too. Finally he confronted Danny, who was sleeping on his feet. “Where do you want to go?”
“I say, what branch?”
“What do you mean, ‘branch’?”
“What can you do?”
“Me? I can do anything.”
“What did you do before?”
“Me? I’m a mule skinner.”
“Oh, you are? How many mules can you drive?”
Danny leaned forward, vaguely and professionally. “How many you got?”
“About thirty thousand,” said the sergeant.
Danny waved his hand. “String ’em up!” he said.
And so Danny went to Texas and broke mules for the duration of the war. And Pilon marched about Oregon with the infantry, and Big Joe, as shall be later made clear, went to jail.
How Danny, Home from the Wars, Found Himself an Heir, and How He Swore to Protect the Helpless.
When Danny came home from the army he learned that he was an heir and an owner of property. The viejo, that is the grandfather, had died, leaving Danny the two small houses on Tortilla Flat.
When Danny heard about it he was a little weighed down with the responsibility of ownership. Before he ever went to look at his property he bought a gallon of red wine and drank most of it himself. The weight of responsibility left him then, and his very worst nature came to the surface. He shouted; he broke a few chairs in a poolroom on Alvarado Street; he had two short but glorious fights. No one paid much attention to Danny. At last his wavering bowlegs took him toward the wharf where, at this early hour in the morning, the Italian fishermen were walking down in rubber boots to go out to sea.
Race antipathy overcame Danny’s good sense. He menaced the fishermen. “Sicilian bastards,” he called them, and “Scum from the prison island,” and “Dogs of dogs of dogs.” He cried, “Chinga tu madre, Piojo.” He thumbed his nose and made obscene gestures below his waist. The fishermen only grinned and shifted their oars and said, “Hello, Danny. When’d you get home? Come around tonight. We got new wine.”
Danny was outraged. He screamed, “Pon un condo a la cabeza.”
They called, “Good-by, Danny. See you tonight.” And they climbed into their little boats and rowed out to the lampara launches and started their engines and chugged away.
Danny was insulted. He walked back up Alvarado Street, breaking windows as he went, and in the second block a policeman took him in hand. Danny’s great respect for the law caused him to go quietly. If he had not just been discharged from the army after the victory over Germany, he would have been sentenced to six months. As it was, the judge gave him only thirty days.
And so for one month Danny sat on his cot in the Monterey city jail. Sometimes he drew obscene pictures on the walls, and sometimes he thought over his army career. Time hung heavy on Danny’s hands there in his cell in the city jail. Now and then a drunk was put in for the night, but for the most part crime in Monterey was stagnant, and Danny was lonely. The bedbugs bothered him a little at first, but as they got used to the taste of him and he grew accustomed to their bites, they got along peacefully.
He started playing a satiric game. He caught a bedbug, squashed it against the wall, drew a circle around it with a pencil and named it “Mayor Clough.” Then he caught others and named them after the City Council. In a little while he had one wall decorated with squashed bedbugs, each named for a local dignitary. He drew ears and tails on them, gave them big noses and mustaches. Tito Ralph, the jailer, was scandalized; but he made no complaint because Danny had not included either the justice of the peace who had sentenced him or any of the police force. He had a vast respect for the law.
One night when the jail was lonely, Tito Ralph came into Danny’s cell bearing two bottles of wine. An hour later he went out for more wine, and Danny went with him. It was cheerless in the jail. They stayed at Torrelli’s, where they bought the wine, until Torrelli threw them out. After that Danny went up among the pines and fell asleep, while Tito Ralph staggered back and reported his escape.
When the brilliant sun awakened Danny about noon, he determined to hide all day to escape pursuit. He ran and dodged behind bushes. He peered out of the undergrowth like a hunted fox. And, at evening, the rules having been satisfied, he came out and went about his business.
Danny’s business was fairly direct. He went to the back door of a restaurant. “Got any old bread I can give my dog?” he asked the cook. And while that gullible man was wrapping up the food, Danny stole two slices of ham, four eggs, a lamb chop, and a fly swatter.
“I will pay you sometime,” he said.
“No need to pay for scraps. I throw them away if you don’t take them.”
Danny felt better about the theft then. If that was the way they felt, on the surface he was guiltless. He went back to Torrelli’s, traded the four eggs, the lamb chop, and the fly swatter for a water glass of grappa and retired toward the woods to cook his supper.
The night was dark and damp. The fog hung like limp gauze among the black pines that guard the landward limits of Monterey. Danny put his head down and hurried for the shelter of the woods. Ahead of him he made out another hurrying figure; and as he narrowed the distance, he recognized the scuttling walk of his old friend Pilon. Danny was a generous man, but he recalled that he had sold all his food except the two slices of ham and the bag of stale bread.
“I will pass Pilon by,” he decided. “He walks like a man who is full of roast turkey and things like that.”
Then suddenly Danny noticed the Pilon clutched his coat lovingly across his bosom.
“Ai, Pilon, amigo!” Danny cried.
Pilon scuttled on faster. Danny broke into a trot. “Pilon, my little friend! Where goest thou so fast?”
Pilon resigned himself to the inevitable and waited. Danny approached warily, but his tone was enthusiastic. “I looked for thee, dearest of little angelic friends, for see, I have here two great steaks from God’s own pig, and a sack of sweet white bread. Share my bounty, Pilon, little dumpling.”
Pilon shrugged his shoulders. “As you say,” he muttered savagely. They walked on together into the woods. Pilon was puzzled. At length he stopped and faced his friend. “Danny,” he asked sadly, “how knewest thou I had a bottle of brandy under my coat?”
“Brandy?” Danny cried. “Thou hast brandy? Perhaps it is for some sick old mother,” he said naïvely. “Perhaps thou keepest it for Our Lord Jesus when He comes again. Who am I, thy friend, to judge the destination of this brandy? I am not even sure thou hast it. Besides I am not thirsty. I would not touch this brandy. Thou art welcome to this big roast of pork I have, but as for thy brandy, that is thine own.”
Pilon answered him sternly. “Danny, I do not mind sharing my brandy with you, half and half. It is my duty to see you do not drink it all.”
Danny dropped the subject then. “Here in the clearing I will cook this pig, and you will toast the sugar cakes in this bag here. Put thy brandy here, Pilon. It is better here, where we can see it, and each other.”
They built a fire and broiled the ham and ate the stale bread. The brandy receded quickly down the bottle. After they had eaten, they huddled near the fire and sipped delicately at the bottle like effete bees. And the fog came down upon them and grayed their coats with moisture. The wind sighed sadly in the pines about them.
And after a time a loneliness fell upon Danny and Pilon. Danny thought of his lost friends.
“Where is Arthur Morales?” Danny asked, turning his palms up and thrusting his arms forward. “Dead in France,” he answered himself, turning the palms down and dropping his arms in despair. “Dead for his country. Dead in a foreign land. Strangers walk near his grave and they do not know Arthur Morales lies there.” He raised his hands palms upward again. “Where is Pablo, that good man?”
“In jail,” said Pilon. “Pablo stole a goose and hid in the brush; and that goose bit Pablo and Pablo cried out and so was caught. Now he lies in jail for six months.”
Danny sighed and changed the subject, for he realized that he had prodigally used up the only acquaintance in any way fit for oratory. But the loneliness was still on him and demanded an outlet. “Here we sit,” he began at last.
“—broken-hearted,” Pilon added rhythmically.
“No, this is not a poem,” Danny said. “Here we sit, homeless. We gave our lives for our country, and now we have no roof over our head.”
“We never did have,” Pilon added helpfully.
Danny drank dreamily until Pilon touched his elbow and took the bottle. “That reminds me,” Danny said, “of a story of a man who owned two whorehouses—” His mouth dropped open. “Pilon!” he cried. “Pilon! My little fat duck of a baby friend. I had forgotten! I am an heir! I own two houses.”
“Whorehouses?” Pilon asked hopefully. “Thou art a drunken liar,” he continued.
“No, Pilon. I tell the truth. The viejo died. I am the heir. I, the favorite grandson.”
“Thou art the only grandson,” said the realist Pilon. “Where are these houses?”
“You know the viejo’s house on Tortilla Flat, Pilon?”
“Here in Monterey?”
“Yes, here in Tortilla Flat.”
“Are they any good, these houses?”
Danny sank back, exhausted with emotion. “I do not know. I forgot I owned them.”
Pilon sat silent and absorbed. His face grew mournful. He threw a handful of pine needles on the fire, watched the flames climb frantically among them and die. For a long time he looked into Danny’s face with deep anxiety, and then Pilon sighed noisily, and again he sighed. “Now it is over,” he said sadly. “Now the great times are done. Thy friends will mourn, but nothing will come of their mourning.”
Danny put down the bottle, and Pilon picked it up and set it in his own lap.
“Now what is over?” Danny demanded. “What do you mean?”
“It is not the first time,” Pilon went on. “When one is poor, one thinks, ‘If I had money I would share it with my good friends.’ But let that money come and charity flies away. So it is with thee, my once-friend. Thou art lifted above thy friends. Thou art a man of property. Thou wilt forget thy friends who shared everything with thee, even their brandy.”
His words upset Danny. “Not I,” he cried. “I will never forget thee, Pilon.”
“So you think now,” said Pilon coldly. “But when you have two houses to sleep in, then you will see. Pilon will be a poor paisano, while you eat with the mayor.”
Danny arose unsteadily and held himself upright against a tree. “Pilon, I swear, what I have is thine. While I have a house, thou hast a house. Give me a drink.”
“I must see this to believe it,” Pilon said in a discouraged voice. “It would be a world wonder if it were so. Men would come a thousand miles to look upon it. And besides, the bottle is empty.”