Jessica Trent: Her Life on a RanchŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ďHurrah! Hurrah! Glory to the captain!Ē
ďAnd old ĎForty-niner,íĒ added honest John Benton.
They cheered him to the skies, and when the uproar had subsided, their small chief said:
ďYou are all to take the best care of Sobrante, and firstĖof my mother. Donít you let her worry, nor let Ned and Luis get hurt. And you must keep Aunt Sally here till I come back.Ē
ďOh! thatís not right. I couldnít go if she hadnít come. Sheíll look after everythingĖĒ
ďThatís the true word!Ē
ďAnd I want you all to beĖbe good and not tease her.Ē
ďHurrah! Hurrah! All in favor of minding the captain, say Ay!Ē
They swung her down from her perch and carried her on their shoulders everywhere about the old mission. They offered her all their possessions, including pistols and bowie knives, at peaceful Sobrante more useful for target practice and pruning vines than their original purposes. But she declined all these warlike things, saying that Ephraim would carry only his own rifle, and finally tore herself away from them to the anxious mother at the cottage, naturally jealous of each moment of her darlingís company.
ďDonít see how Eph. ever saved so much. Hasnít had any wages since ours failed, as I know of. Mine always go fast as earned, and thought everybodyís did,Ē said one, when Jessica had left them.
ďSome folks have all the luck! Why didnít it happen to me to have money to give her? or to offer first to go hunt them liars? Shucks!Ē said Samson, in disgust. Though he had been back some time from escorting the stranger ďoff bounds,Ē that task had left him in a bad humor.
ďWell, the captainíd tell me envy was wicked, and when I was hearing her say it Iíd believe it. But I do envy old eighty his chance,Ē complained Joe. ďHello! thereís Ferd! Come to think of it I havenít noticed him around these two days. Not since that stranger cast his ugly shadow on the ranch. Hi, there, Dwarf! Where you been?Ē
ďWhere I seen bad doings.Ē
ďRight. Seeing you was there yourself. What doings was they?Ē
In ordinary the older men had little to say to Antonioís ďLeft Hand,Ē but he afforded them diversion, just then, when they were all a little anxious and downhearted over their captainís departure on what seemed to some of them a wild-goose chase.
Ferd went through a pantomime of theft. Furtively putting one hand into his neighborís pocket to instantly thrust it back into his own. He produced a buckskin bag and twisting some eucalyptus leaves into rolls, suggesting those of money, thrust these within the bag and that within his jacket. Then he glanced about with an absurdly innocent expression, threw his shoulders back, and stepped forward a few paces with so firm a step and erect a bearing that more than one instantly recognized the mimicry.
Having produced the effect he had intended, Ferd slouched back into his own natural attitude and begged:
ďSomething to eat.Ē
At that moment Ephraim had been approaching and was an indignant witness of this performance, nor was he less quick to see its significance than his mates had been.
Also, to him that buckskin bag was a familiar object. With one stride he collared Ferd and shook him like a rat.
ďYou imp! What do you mean by that? And how came you by Elsa Winklerís pouch?Ē
Ferd broke from his captor and his face changed color beneath its filth. He was one who was perfectly satisfied to live in a country where water was scarce; but, by way of fun, another ranchman caught him as he escaped from Ephraim, and forcibly ducked his head and shoulders in the washing-trough. After that he was let go and later on was given a liberal supper at the messroom. He ate this as if he had not seen food since he had gone away two days before, but he was greedy at all times, and the present instance excited no comment.
The morning came and all was ready for the start. Every person at Sobrante gathered before the cottage door, and each with his or her word of farewell advice or good will. Aunt Sally, fluttering with patchwork strips of already ďpieced blocks,Ē flung jauntily over either shoulder, her spectacles slipping off the point of her nose and her hands holding forth a fat fig pie, hot and dripping from the oven.
ďIíve been a-bakiní all night, Ephy. Thereís a pair of fowls, a ham, four loaves, some hard-boiled eggs, salt, pepper, sugar, tea, coffee, butter, dishes, five vials of medicine, some dish towels, someĖĒ
ďWhat in reason! How expect me to carry that great basket, as well as the saddlebags, and myselfĖon one horse? Youíre old enough to have senseĖbut youíll never learn it. One loafĖĒ
ďEphraim Marsh! Are you eighty years old or are you not? At your age would you starve the little darling daughter of the best friends you ever had? Here, Jessie. You get off that donkey. Weíll wait till we can pick out some other man thatĖĒ
ďGive me the basket; Iíll carry it if I have to on my head!Ē interrupted ďForty-niner,Ē indignantly. But he added to himself: ďI can chuck it into the first clump of mesquite I meet.Ē
Jessica was upon Scruff, whose loss the small boys were bewailing far more than that of the girl herself. Without Scruff they would be compelled to stay within walking distance of the cottage, and this was imprisonment. Without JessicaĖwell, there were many things one could do better with Jessica away.
Mrs. Trentís face was pale but calm. Nobody knew what this first parting with her helpful child was to her anxious heart, but it was her part to send the travelers outward in good cheer.
ďPut the saddlebags on Scruff, in front of Jessica. Heís strong enough to carry double, and theyíre not so heavy. Few girls, in my days at the East, would have set out upon an indefinite journey, equipped with only one flannel frock and a single change of underclothing.Ē
ďBut the flannel frock is new and so is the pretty Tam that Elsa gave me last Christmas. What do I want more? specially when thereís this warm jacket you made me take, for a cold nightís ride. Isnít it enough, mother, dear?Ē
ďQuite, I think, else I should have made you delay till I could have provided more. Be sure to write me, now and then. One of the men will ride to the post every few days and fetch any letters. Good-by, and nowĖgo quickly!Ē
She added no prayers, for these were too deep in her heart for outward utterance; but she felt her own courage ebbing, and that if the parting were not speedy she could not at all endure it. Until that moment she had not realized how complete was her dependence upon Jessicaís protecting tenderness; and turning, toward her home hid thus the tears she would not have her daughter see.
But neither could Lady Jess have seen them, because of the sudden mist in her own. All her eagerness for the journey was gone, and her courage was fast following it. If the start were not made at once it would never be.
ďGood-by, mother. Good-by, all! Come, Ephraim! Go, goĖScruff!Ē
A moment later the travelers were disappearing down the sandy road, and upon those whom they had left behind had fallen an intolerable burden of foreboding and loneliness.
ďDesolation of desolations! Thatís what this old ranchíll be till that there little bunch of human sunshine comes safely back to it. A crazy trip, a crazy parcel of folks to let her take it. Thatís what we are,Ē said John Benton, savagely kicking the horseblock to vent his painful emotion.
ďOh, dear! Oh, dear! And I never remembered to put in that guava jell!Ē moaned a voice of woe.
ďThen, mother, just trot it out to us for dinner,Ē said her son, ďweíll take that burden off your mind.Ē
ďYou will? Have you a heart to eat good victuals, John Benton, when that sweet child has just thrust herself into a den of lions, and lawyers, and liars, andĖandĖthings?Ē
ďOh, hush! Lions! The notion!Ē
ďWell, you canít deny thereís bears, anyway,Ē she retorted, with ready dolefulness. ďEphyís shot íem himself in his younger days.Ē
ďAnd ended the crop. Now you go in; and if I hear you downhearting the mistress the least bit Iíll make you take a dose of your own picra,Ē said this much-tried man.
It was a journey of something more than two hundred miles and they were almost a week on the way; riding for several hours each morning and evening; camping in some well-watered spot at midday; or, this failing, sharing the dinner of some friendly ranchman. Also, they slept at some little inn or ranch, and where their hosts would receive it, Ephraim delighted to make liberal payment for their entertainment.
Indeed, he felt a prince, with his well-filled purse, and would have forced all sorts of dainties and knickknacks upon his little charge, at each village they passed through, save that she resolutely refused them.
ďYou generous Ephraim, no! What money we need for the trip and after we get to Los Angeles is all right. But you mustnít waste it. Hear! I am older than you in this thing.Ē
ďButĖI want you to have everything nice in the world, Lady Jess. Any other of the Ďboysí traveling with youĖĒ
ďCould not have been so kind and thoughtful as you. Not one. Dearly as I love them Iíd rather have you to take care of me on this long journey than any other single one. So do be good and not extravagant. And isnít it lovely to find how almost everybody knew of my dear father? Or, if they didnít know him for himself, theyíd heard of him and of something heíd done for somebody. It makes the way seem almost short and as if Iíd been over the road before.Ē
ďHe often passed this way, child; and whenever he went left pleasant memories behind him. He was a grand man, was Cassius Trent. Ugh! To thinkĖĒ
ďThat will be all right, Ephraim. I know it. I feel it. And how I do love all the new places and things I see. I should never have cared to leave Sobrante but for this business; yet now I have left it Iím finding the world a big, splendid, lovely place.Ē
ďH-m-m! I reckon even this old earth could show only its best side to you, little girl. However, it has been pleasant and itís about over. Aunt Sallyís provisions didnít have to go into the mesquite bushes, after all. What we couldnít eat weíve found plenty of others to take off our hands. Even the medicine didnít go begging, and thatíll do her proud to hear. Poor wretches who have to take it!Ē
ďBut they wanted it, Ephraim. Some of the women said they hadnít had a dose of medicine in years and seemed as pleased as if it had been sweetmeats. Now the basket is empty. What shall you do with that?Ē
ďLeave it at the next place we stop.Ē
They had set out upon their ride on Tuesday morning and this was sunset, Saturday. They were descending the slope of a mountain and the guide pointed forward, eagerly.
ďDo you see that hazy spot off yonder? Thatís our City of the Angels! The city where we shall find justice and honor.Ē
ďOh, shall we be there to-night?Ē
ďNo. We might have been days ago if weíd ridden across country and struck the railway lines, but I wanted to do just as we have done. I knew youíd hear so much about your father it would do you good forever. We can go home the quicker way if we think best; and if we have good news to take will, likely, so think, IĖIím almost sorry weíre so near the end.Ē
ďIn one way so am I. Not in another. I long to begin to hunt for that money and the men who have it.Ē
Ephraim sighed. Now that he was thus far on his mission he began to think it, indeed, as Joe Dean had said, ďA good deal of the needle and haymow style.Ē But he rallied at once and answered, cheerfully:
ďThereís a house I know, or used to, at the foot of this slope. I planned to sleep there to-night, make an early start in the morning, and ride the fifteen miles left so as to get to the town in time for the churches. To think youíre eleven years old, Lady Jess, yet have never been inside any church except the rickety old mission.Ē
ďDo you like churches, Ephraim?Ē
ďYes. I do now, child. I didnít care so much about íem when I lived nigh íem. But theyíre right. Thereís a good many kinds of íem and they get me a little mixed, arguing. But theyíre right; and the bellĖItíll be a good beginning of this present job to go to meeting the first thing.Ē
ďOh! this wonderful world and the wonderful things Iím learning! What a lot I shall have to tell the folks when I get home. Seems as if I couldnít wait.Ē
They found the little lodging-house, as Ephraim had hoped, though now kept by a stranger to him. However, the new landlord made them comfortable, charged them an exorbitant priceĖhaving caught sight of his guestís fat purseĖand set them early on their way. ďForty-ninerĒ did not complain. Their next and final stop would be with an old fellow-miner who, at Ephraimís last visit to Los Angeles, five years before, had kept a tidy little inn on one of the cityís central streets. If this old friend were still living he would give them hearty welcome, the best entertainment possible, and what was more to the purposeĖpractical advice as to their business.
ďThe bells! The bells! Oh! they are what you said, the sweetest things I ever heard!Ē cried Lady Jess, in delight, as over the miles of distance there floated to them on the clear air, the chimes and sonorous tollings from many church towers.
ďWe shall be late, after all, I guess. That means itís time for the meetings to begin. Well, thereíll be others in the afternoon; so we may as good take it easy and go slow.Ē
This suited Jessica, who found more and more to surprise and interest her in every stage of their advance, and most of all as they entered the city. This was much altered and improved since the sharpshooter had himself last seen it, but even thus he could point out many of the finest buildings, name the chief avenues, and comport himself after the manner of one who knows enlightening one who does not.
But soon Jessica saw few of the things which interested him and heard him not at all. It was the first time she had ever seen a girl of her own age, and nowĖthe streets were full of them. In their gay Sunday attire, on their homeward way now from the churches whose bells had long ceased to ring, they were here, there, and everywhere. They lined the sidewalks and glittered from the open electric cars. They smiled at one another and, a few, at her; for to them, also, this other stranger girl was a novel sight, just then and there. Besides the oddity of her dress and equipment, the eagerness and beauty of her face attracted them, and more than one pair of eyes turned to look after her, as Scruff scrambled along, unguided by his rider, and dodging one danger only to face another.
ďThatís a country girl, fast enough; and if she doesnít look out that uneasy burro will land her on the curbstone! Look out there, child!Ē cried one passerby, just as the animal bounded across the track of a whizzing trolley.
But this peril escaped, Ephraim grasped Scruffís bridle and presently led the way into a quieter street or alley, and thence to the wide plaza before the inn he sought.
ďThank fortune, thereís room enough here to turn around in! And thereís the very house. Hello! Lady Jess! I say, Jessica!Ē
Without warning the girl had whisked the bridle from his grasp and had chirruped to the now excited beast in the manner which meant:
ďGo your swiftest!Ē
Scruff went. Following he knew not what, and terrified afresh at every square he traversed. Somewhere a band of music was playing, and the beating of the drums seemed to his donkey brain the most horrible of noises. To escape it and the ever-increasing throng his nimble feet flew up and down like mad; he thrust his head between the arms of people and forced the crowd to part for him; he reared, backed, plunged, and shook himself; but did not in the least disturb his mistressí firm seat, as with her own head leaning forward she kept her gaze upon some distant object and urged him to pursuit.
The crowd which made way for this eager pair was first angry, then amused. After that it began to collect into a formidable following. Poor Lady Jess became to them a ďshowĒ and Scruffís antics but meant to exhibit her ďtrickĒ riding.
Now Stiffleg was an ancient beast, which had been a trotter in his day; but his day, like his masterís, was past. By good care and easy stages he had accomplished his long journey in fair condition; but he was a sensible animal and felt that he had earned a rest. So when Ephraim urged him forward after the vanishing burro he halted and turned his head about. If ever equine eyes protested against further effort, his did then; and at ordinary times ďForty-ninerĒ would have been the first to perceive this appeal and grant it. He had always bragged that ďStifflegís more human than most folks,Ē but he forgot this now. He remembered only that his precious charge was fast disappearing from sight and that in another moment she would be lost in a great, strange city.
ďSimpleton that I was! I never even mentioned the name of the tavern we were going to,Ē reflected, ďelse she might tell it and get shown the way.Ē Then came another startling thought. For fear of just such an emergencyĖwhy had he been silly enough to think of it?Ėhe had on that very morning, as they neared their journeyís end, divided their money into two portions and make her carry the larger one. She had objected, at first; but afterward consented, and with pride in his trust. ďIf any scamp got hold of her heíd rob her orĖmaybe worse! Oh, Atlantic! Giddap, Stiff! Giddap, I tell you!Ē
To the crowd this appeared but another feature of ďthe show.Ē These rustics from the plains had evidently come into town to furnish entertainment for Sunday strollers, and Stifflegís obstinacy was to them a second of the ďtricksĒ to be exhibited.
However, it was a case of genuine balk; and the more Ephraim urged, implored, chastised, the firmer were the horseís forefeet planted upon the highway and the more despairing became the riderís feeling.
ďBuild a fire under him,Ē ďThrust red pepper under his nose,Ē ďTie him to a trolley car.Ē ďBlindfold him.Ē
Various were the suggestions offered, to none of which did the sharpshooter pay any heed. The brass band accomplished what nothing else could. Blatantly it came around the corner, keeping time to its own noisy drums, and Stiffleg pricked up his ears. In his youth he had marched to battle and, at that moment, his youth was renewed. He reared his drooping head, a thrill ran through his languid veins, and, though still without advance motion, his hoofs began to beat a swift tattoo, till the towering plumes of the drum major came alongside his own now gleaming eyes. Then, he wheeled suddenly andĖforward!
ďHo! the old war-horse! Thatís a pretty sight,Ē shouted somebody.
Alas! for Ephraim. The unexpected movement of the balking animal did for him what was rare indeedĖunseated him. By the time that it was ďright frontĒ for Stiffleg his master was on the ground, feeling that an untoward fate had overtaken him and that his leg, if not his heart, was broken. Music had charms, in truth, for the rejuvenated beast, and one of the sharpshooterís pet theories was thereby proved false. Had anybody at Sobrante told him that anything could entice his ďfaithfulĒ horse away from him he would have denied the statement angrily. He would have declared, with equal conviction, that, in case of accident like this, the intelligent creature would have stayed beside and tried to tend him.
Now, lying forsaken both by Jessica and Stiffleg, he uttered his shame and misery in a prolonged howl, as he attempted to rise and could not.
ďO! Ough! Oh! My legís broke! My legís broke all to smash, I tell you. Somebody pick me up and carry meĖyonderĖto the Yankee Blade. If Tom Jefferts keeps it still, heíll play my friend. Oh! Ah!Ē
Some in the now pitying throng exchanged glances, and one man bent over the prostrate Ephraim, saying, kindly:
ďWhy, Tom Jefferts hasnít been in this town these three years. He went to íFrisco and set up there. If thereís anybody else youíd like to notify Iíll telephoneĖĒ
ďHe gone, too! Then let me lie. What do I care what becomes of me now? Oh! my leg!Ē
The bravest men are cowards before physical suffering, sometimes. Ephraim would have faced death for Jessica without flinching, but that gathering agony of pain made him indifferent, for the moment, even to her welfare. This calamity had fallen upon him like lightning from a clear sky and benumbed him, so to speak. But it had not benumbed those about him. Within five minutes the clang of an ambulance gong was heard, and the aid which some thoughtful person had summoned arrived. Ephraim was tenderly lifted and placed within the conveyance, and away it dashed again, though almost without jar, and certainly without hindrance, since everything on the street gives place to suffering.
By the time the hospital was reached the patient had recovered something of his customary fortitude, but he was still too confused and distressed to think clearly about his escaped charge and what should be done to find her. As for Stiffleg:
ďI hope Iíll never see that cowardly, ungrateful beast again!Ē he ejaculated; then resigned himself to the surgeonís hands.ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
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