Jessica Trent: Her Life on a RanchŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ON THE CANYON TRAIL
ďHello, there! What in the name of reason is this?Ē
The horsemanís excited cry was echoed by a startled neigh from his beast, which wheeled about so suddenly that he nearly precipitated both himself and rider into the gulch below.
ďOh! Iím sorryĖHold on, Zu! Go! Do, please. Quick! Itís so narrow just beyond and I canítĖĒ
The stranger obeyed, perforce, for his spirited animal having now headed up the slope, continued on his course at breakneck speed, pursued at equal pace by the unknown creature that had terrified him.
The race would not have been so even had the trail been wider, for King Zulu could easily have beaten his contestant, but, as it was, the fleeing bay bruised his masterís leg against the canyon wall, now and then, while bits of the birdís plumage were torn on the same projecting rocks. There was no point of passage till more than a mile higher on the mountain, and Jess knew this if Mr. Hale did not. He knew nothing save that he was clinging and riding for his life, and that this ďWestern horseback tourĒ which his doctor had prescribed for him, seemed now more likely to prove his death than his cure.
But when a laugh rang out, close to his shoulder, he turned his head and glanced angrily backward.
ďOh, I beg your pardon, butĖitís so funny! Iíve often wanted to try King Zu against a strange horse and now I have. Only, if we were up there on the mesa, heíd show you!Ē
ďDoes this trail never end, nor turn?Ē
The laughter on the girlís face changed to anxiety.
ďNot ill, exactly; only Iím not experienced at this business and it shakes me.Ē
ďYou ride too hard and stiff. Thatís why. Let yourself goĖjust be part of your horse. Heís a beauty, isnít he? Even the boys couldnít stand that gait.Ē
ďAnd you. Who taught you to ride an ostrich? Where did you get it? Itís almost the first one I ever saw and quite the first that Prince did. I was nearly as scared as he, meeting such a creature on a lonely mountain trail.Ē
ďI never learnedĖit just happened. Zulu is Ďpatriarchí of the flock. The only imported bird left alive. We just grew up together, he and I. Didnít we, King?Ē
Speech was now easier, for the speed of both animals had slackened, that of Prince to a comfortable trot. While the sidewise lurching motion of the ostrich was enjoyable enough to Jessica, it turned Mr. Haleís head dizzy, watching. Or it may have been the blinding sunshine, beating against the canyon wall and deflected upon the riders in waves of heat.
ďWhew! This is scorching. How far, yet?Ē
Jessica saw that what she minded not at all was turning the stranger sick, and answered swiftly:
ďYou wouldnít be able to get further than Ďfive timesí before we reach the turn. Thereíll be a glorious breeze then. There always is.Ē
ďWhat do you mean by Ďfive timesí?Ē
ďWhy, just the multiplication table.
I always say it when Iíve something I want to get over quick. You begin at one-times-one, and see if it isnít so.Ē
ďWhat shall we find at the top; your home?Ē
ďOh, no, indeed. That is quite the other way. Down in the valley. Sobrante ranch. Thatís ours. Were you going there?Ē
ďI was goingĖanywhere. I had lost my way. ĎMissed the trail,í as you say in this country.Ē
ďI thought, maybe, you were just a Ďtourist.íĒ
Mr. Hale laughed, and the laugh helped him to forget his present discomfort.
ďPerhaps I am, even if you do speak so disdainfully. Are all Ďtouristsí objectionable?Ē
Jessicaís brown cheek flushed. She felt she had said something rudeĖshe, whose ambition it was to be always and everywhere ďOur Lady Jess,Ē that the dear ďboysĒ called her. But she remembered how annoyed her mother was by the visits of strangers who seemed to regard Sobrante and its belongings as a ďshowĒ arranged for their special benefit.
ďWeĖwe are generally glad when the rains come,Ē she answered, evasively.
ďTo keep them away? Yet if, as I suspect, you have an ostrich farm, I canít blame their curiosity. Iím hoping to visit one, myself.Ē
ďOurs is not a real Ďfarm.í It is just one of the many things our ranch is good for. But I know my mother would make you very welcome. YouĖbut there! Look down, please. Yonder it is, Sobrante. That means Ďrichness,í you know. And now up. The next turn will land us on the mesa, and I hope, I hope, I have come in time!Ē
The road had now broadened, and with a little chirrup to King Zulu, she passed and forged ahead so rapidly that she was soon out of sight. The great bird upon whose back she was perched was not, apparently, at all wearied, but poor Prince was utterly winded, while a curious feeling of loneliness stole upon his rider.
But, presently, the sound of voices came over the bluff, and Mr. Hale urged his tired beast forward. The next he knew he was sprawling on the plateau and his horse had fallen beside him. Princeís forefoot was in a hole, from which he was unable to withdraw it.
ďOh! oh! The poor creature! And you, sir, are you hurt?Ē
ďNo, I think not. Rather a shake-up, though, and I was dizzy with the heat before. Prince, Prince, lie still; weíll help you.Ē
One glance had showed the stranger that they were near a shepherdís hut, and that its occupant was at home. The man had been sitting quietly in the shade of the little building and of the one pepper tree which grew beside its threshold. He did not move, even now, till the girl called impatiently:
ďPedro! Come! Quick!Ē
Then he arose in a leisurely fashion and, carefully depositing his osiers in a tub of water, came forward.
ďSo? He canít get up, yes? A wise man looks where he rides, indeed.Ē
Despite his anxiety over Prince, Mr. Hale regarded the shepherd with amused curiosity. Pedroís swarthy face was as unmoved as if the visits of strangers with disabled horses were daily events; but the manís calmness did not prevent his usefulness. In fact, during every step of his deliberate advance he had been studying the situation and how best to aid the fallen animal, which had now ceased to struggle and lay gazing at his master with a dumb, pitiful appeal.
Then Pedro bent forward and, with a strength amazing in a man of his small build, seized Princeís head and shoulder and with one prodigious wrench freed him from the pitfall. Then he stooped again and carefully examined the bruised forefoot.
ďA moon and a half heíll go lame. Yes. For just so long let him be left with Pedro. Si?Ē
Then he led the limping beast toward the hut and began to bathe its injured ankle with the water from the tub.
ďMarvelous! I never saw anything done as easily as that!Ē cried Mr. Hale, recovering from his astonishment.
ďAh; but youíve never seen our Pedro before. And to think I was so angry with him, I!Ē
With a remorseful impulse Jessica sprang forward and threw her arms about the old shepherdís shoulders. He received her caress as calmly as he did everything else, though a keen observer might have seen a fleeting smile around his rugged lips.
Smiles did, indeed, spring to all three faces when, a moment later, the rattling of tins discovered Zulu rummaging a heap of empty cans, even in the very act of swallowing a highly decorated one.
The jingling startled Prince, also, from the repose into which he had now settled, and, after one terrified glance toward his unknown enemy, King Zu, he dashed across the mesa as if lameness were unknown.
At which Pedro smiled, well content.
ďGood. He that uses his own legs spares his neighbors. Yes.Ē
ďMeaning that he would have to be exercised by somebody?Ē
The shepherd did not answer. He had lived alone so long amid the great solitudes of nature that speech had grown irksome to him. He regarded it a sin to waste words, and his young mistress understood this, if Mr. Hale did not. To this gentleman the situation presented itself as a very serious one. There was no habitation visible save the small hut, a place barely sufficient to its ownerís simple needs and utterly inadequate to those of a lately recovered invalid. He was not strong enough to make his way to the valley on foot, and even if Prince were now able to carry him, he felt it would be brutal to impose so hard a task.
But Jessica came to his aid with the suggestion:
ďIf youíll come and rest behind the cabin Iíll make you a cup of coffee on Pedroís little stove. He often lets me when I come up to see him, and then, when youíve rested, weíll go home. I am so angry I can hardly breathe.Ē
ďIndeed; I should never have guessed it,Ē he answered, laughing, and allowing the girl to lead him to the shelter proposed.
ďAh! but I am. And a gentlewoman never gets angry. Least of all with such a darling as Pedro. You see, he ought to have been about dying, and he hasnít even a single ache!Ē
ďWhat an odd child you are!Ē
ďAm I?Ē regarding him gravely. ďIím sure I donít want to be that. I want to be justĖperfect.Ē
Mr. Hale sighed as he dropped upon the bench to which Jess had guided him. ďWe are none of us thatĖever.Ē
ďI suppose thatís because Ďnone of usí ever try quite hard enough. But I will be, if trying will fetch it.Ē
Then she whisked inside the hut and presently there came to the gentlemanís nostrils the aroma of freshly steaming coffee. He had not realized that he was hungry, but now could scarcely wait until the little maid came out to him again with a tin cup of the liquid in one hand and a can of condensed milk in the other.
ďMy mother always lets her guests Ďtrimí their drink for themselves, but Iíll drop in the cream if youíll say how much. Enough? Now sugar. One? How queer. And itís sugar of our own making, too; beet sugar, you know.Ē
The tin cup was decidedly rusty, the cheap spoon dingy, and ďcannedĒ milk the aversion of Mr. Haleís dyspeptic stomach; yet despite these facts he had never tasted a more delicious draught than this, nor one served with a gentler grace. For Jessica was quite unconscious that there was anything amiss with Pedroís dishes, and now offered the stranger a tin of time-hardened biscuits, with the air of one proffering the rarest of dainties.
ďYou would better eat one of these; theyíre quite fine, with the coffee.Ē
ďIíllĖIíll try, thank you, if youíll fetch your own cup and sit beside me.Ē
ďAll right. Only Iíll have to wait till Pedroís finished. Thereís only this and the egg, you know. Heís rather stubborn, dear fellow. My mother has offered him more dishes, but he says Ďmore careí and wonít take them. Excuse me.Ē
With a dip and swirl of her short skirts, the little hostess ran into the hut, to reappear, a moment later, bearing in both hands a drinking-cup which made the guest exclaim in delight:
ďWhat an exquisite thing!Ē
ďIsnít it? But just wait until you see those which Pedro made for mother! This is fine, but theyíre like cobwebs.Ē
She did not offer to show him the cup more closely, for she had seen the shepherd lay down his rushes and sit waiting, and Jessica would not disappoint the old friend for the new. Still the less, because she had so lately been vexed with him, and wholly without cause.
But when the silent fellow had emptied the cup she proudly gave it for Mr. Haleís inspection.
ďAn ostrich egg, you see, cut off at the top. Pedro wove all this lacelike outside, of just the common tule rushes. He splits them till they are like threads, and see that handle! Nothing could break it, nor can one tell just where it begins or endsĖthe joinings, I mean. There are many wonderful weavers among the Indians, but none so deft as our Pedro, my mother says.
ďNow, will you not fill this again and drink it with me? For I see that our speechless friend, yonder, has gone to work again as if his life depended on his industry.Ē
ďHeís always at work, like that. Yet he never neglects his flock. He has been herding ever since he was a little boy. That must have been years ago. Heís so very old.Ē
ďHe doesnít look it. I should guess he might be fifty.Ē
ďFifty! Why, thereís nobody anywhere around who remembers when our Pedro was born. Not even Fra Mateo at the mission, yet even he is more than a hundred,Ē she answered, proudly.
ďPossible? Well, this is all wonderful to me who have lived always in a crowded city. This big West is like a romance, a fairy tale; not the least of its marvels to find a little girl like you riding alone on such a steed up such a desolate canyon, yet not in the least afraid.Ē
ďWhy, why should I be afraid? Except, of course, I was, for a bit, when I saw that Zulu made your horse rear. A step nearer and youíd have both gone over.Ē
Mr. Hale shuddered, and Jessica hastened to add:
ďBut the step wasnít taken and youíre quite safe up here. Is the dizziness all gone? Many are like that before they get used to the glare. Some of the Ďtouristsí wear blue glasses, and veils, and things. They look so funny.Ē
Into her laughter burst Pedroís speech.
ďíWare Antonio. Is it plucking day, no? His third hand is Ferd, who lies and steals. I know. The mistressí chest has many openings. Nina, go home, and bid Antonio come himself when next heíd have me die. Yes.Ē
Jessica sprang to her feet. These were many words for the shepherd to utter, and was not to be disobeyed. Though the old manís age was doubtless far less than was accredited him, he was commonly considered a sage whose intelligence increased, rather than diminished, with the passing years.
ďIíll go at once, Pedro. Please forget that I was angry andĖgood-by.Ē
Mr. Hale was unprepared for this sudden departure, which bereft the scene of its fairest feature; for even while he listened to the brief speech between this odd pair there was a flash of twinkling feet and a scarlet Tam, and Jessica was gone.
ďWhyĖwhyĖwhat? Eh, what?Ē he demanded, rising.
His answer came with a crash and clatter which could never have been made by one small, fleeing figure, and with the startling force with which everything happened on that eventful day.
Over the bluff scrambled a shaggy piebald burro, from whose back there tumbled at the strangerís very feet a brace of little lads, securely lashed together; even their wrists and ankles bound beyond possibility of their own undoing.
ďHorrors! Indian captives!Ē cried the gentleman, aghast.
A BAD BUSINESS
Captives? Far from itĖsave to their own reckless disregard of life and limb, and all for a bit of hitherto untested fun.
Shrieking with laughter at the success of their experiment, they rolled and floundered on the ground, till the laughter changed to cries of pain as their restless writhings to and fro drove their self-inflicted bonds deeper into the flesh.
By some dexterity they got upon their feet, at last, and one implored:
ďOh! you Pedro! or you, man! Cut us loose, canít you? Donít you see we canít do it ourselves?Ē
Mr. Hale adjusted his eyeglasses and looked rather helplessly toward the shepherd; but that phlegmatic person was working away on his wonderful basket as stolidly as if there was none beside himself upon the mesa.
ďOh! you hateful old Pedro! Cut us free, I tell you! Ainít I your master? Youíd do it mighty quick for ĎLady Jess.íĒ
The frightened little fellow, whose fun had now ebbed into a terrible fear of an indefinite bondage, began to whimper, and Mr. Hale to act. A few sharp slashings of the horsehair thongs and the captives were free to express their delight in a series of somersaults, which were only arrested by sight of Prince in the distance, holding up his injured foot and seeking for some pasture amid the dry herbage.
ďHello! That horse is new. Is he yours, mister? Whatís the matter with him? Humph! I guess youíre new, too, arenít you? I never saw you in our valley before. Whereís your ranch?Ē
The questioner was a blue-eyed, fair-haired little chap whose close resemblance to Jessica proclaimed him her brother; but he was younger, sturdier, and less courteous than she. Yet his prolonged stare at the stranger had less of rudeness than surprise in it, and Mr. Hale laughed at the frank inspection.
ďYou look rather Ďnewí yourself, my man. About eight years, arenít you?Ē
ďHowíd you guess?Ē
ďLads of my own.Ē
ďSeveral thousand miles away, over the Atlantic coast.Ē
ďWhy didnít you fetch íem?Ē
ďCouldnít afford it.Ē
ďOh! couldnít you? H-m-m.Ē Then he turned his attention to Pedro, with the remark: ďWhy arenít you sick, like íTonio said? Making my sister come way up here for nothing. Donít you dare do that again, I tell you. Youíre just as well as ever, and I smell coffee. Come on, Luis!Ē
Catching his mate around the shoulders the boy rushed into the hut, only to be as promptly banished from it. With a swiftness matching the childrenís own, the shepherd had followed and caught the pair, a lad in either hand, and flung them out of doors, exactly as one might a couple of mischievous kittens. Evidently, what was permissible to ďLady JessĒ was forbidden these, though they were not at all disturbed by their sudden ejection. Such incidents were too familiar, and, having landed in one heap upon the ground, they immediately fell to wrestling as if this were the business they had originally intended. Now the black head of Spanish Luis was uppermost, now the sunnier one of Ned, with a flying jumble of vari-colored hands and feet, till Pedro came out and offered to each contestant a cup of cold, but well-sweetened coffee.
This meant instant truce and they carried their treat to the bench Mr. Hale had occupied, leaving him to stand or sit upon the ground, as he preferred. He chose the latter and near enough to hear their eager chatter, which was still full of indignation against the shepherdís robust health.
ďíCause he ought to been dead, ímost. And my mother wanting Jess the worst ever was. íCause Wun Lung cut hisself.Ē
ďMaybe Wun Lung die now, maybe,Ē suggested Luis, with hopeful heartlessness.
ďPshaw! No, he wonít. Chinamen donít. You never saw one, Luis Garcia. Hi! Look at Zulu. Hi! Keno, Keno, Keno! Oh, Wow!Ē
By a mutual impulse, Prince and the ostrich had put as wide a space between themselves as possible, and the latter had strolled close to Pedroís quiet flock before he had perceived it. This was evident, even from the distance; but now up rose Keno, the collie, and with angry yelps rushed fearlessly upon the great bird.
King Zulu hesitated but an instant before he turned his back upon his assailant and made all speed over the bluff into the canyon below.
ďWell, of all cowards! A creature that could have killed the dog with one kick of his foot!Ē cried Mr. Hale, amazed.
ďHuh! No, he couldnít. Kill you or Pedro. Kill that old horse of yours, easy as scat. Canít kick low down as Keno. Huh! Guess I know more about ostriches than you do,Ē exulted Ned, in whose opinion the stranger had now greatly fallen.
ďHuh! Donít know about ostrichers!Ē echoed Luis, loyally, and was rewarded by a friendly slap from his pattern and playmate.
Roused by the disturbance of his sheep, Pedro hurried to quiet them, but, as he passed, fixed a piercing gaze upon the strangerís face. The scrutiny seemed to partially reassure him, for he observed:
ďHorse lame, Zulu gone, catch burro, yes. Let the feet which take the trail be young, not feeble and unused. But to him who journeys with evil in his heart evil will surely come. The widow and the orphan belong to God. Indeed, yet. íWare, Antonio.Ē
Mr. Hale reflected swiftly. He smiled at thought of his own long legs bestriding the low back of the donkey, but a memory of that heated trail down which he must pass to reach the nearest house, decided the matter. While the small owners of the burro were improving the time of the shepherdís absence to ransack his dwelling the sturdy little animal bore its accustomed rider out of sight.
Meanwhile, Jessicaís moccasined feet were flying down the slope, her blue skirts and scarlet Tam making a moving spot of color against the sandy glare of the canyon wall, and long before she came within hailing distance catching the eyes of one who eagerly awaited her approach.
This was John Benton, the carpenter and general utility man at Sobrante; who had come up the opposite side of the canyon, where were many huge bowlders, a few trees, and no trail at all. Indeed, a passage along that face of the gulch was difficult in extreme, and so dangerous that it must have been serious business which brought a lame man thither. Fortunately for his patience, the girl paused for breath at a point level with his own narrow perch upon a shelving rock, and where there was no great width of the V-shaped chasm.
ďLady Jess! Oh! I say! Miss Jessica! Lady Jess!Ē
The girl looked about her, up and down, everywhere save to the further side where nobody ever went if it could be avoided. But she answered, cheerily:
ďHola! Cooíee! Cooíee! Who are you?Ē
The man made a trumpet of his hands and shouted back:
ďThe flume! Look eastĖto the flume!Ē
She followed his example and called through her own fingers:
ďWhatís wrong? How came you there?Ē
He pointed downward, and she shaded her eyes from the blinding sunshine to see why, but could discover nothing new in the familiar scene.
ďThe water! Thatís where it goes! The flume is cut!ĒŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
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