Evelyn Raymond.

Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranch





Do you know the trail to El Desierto?

Do I know a pisen serpent? What in the name of reason put such a forsaken hole into your head on this joyful occasion?

Never mind what, and never mind speech-making, dear old fellow. I have to call at El Desierto on my way to Sobrante and would like to know the shortest road.

Is shehas she got a little touched down there in your City of Angels and Scamps, eh?

Samson, am I still the captain, or am I not?

Captain, I salute. Ride on! You, Aleck, hitch up a board and take that trunk of Miss Trents to her country seat, and be quick about it. Hurray! Im so happy Im looney! Heres for El Desierto and no questions asked. Hurray!

CHAPTER XXI
BACK AT SOBRANTE

For an hour and a half they rode swiftly along a comparatively level trail, though to Ninian Sharps untrained eyes there was no road visible. How Samson managed to pick his way so undeviatingly over the dried herbage and sandy soil was a mystery; but neither the guide nor Jessica found anything strange in this. Those who live in wide solitudes grow keen of sight and hearing, and there were tiny roughnesses here and there which clearly marked to these experienced ranch people where other feet had passed that way.

Presently the roughness increased, and the trail climbed steadily toward a mesa, which seemed to the reporter but ten rods distant, yet was, in reality, as many miles.

We turn here, captain. Shall I ride ahead?

Yes, Samson, but slowly. Scruffs been so idle all these weeks and grown so lazy hell hardly move.

Hell get over that as soon as he meets up with the tackers. My, but theyve led Aunt Sally a life! And taken more medicine than was due em during the natural course of their lives. Say, Sharp, do you enjoy picra?

Never tasted the stuff.

And never too late to mend. Here, take this vial, I present it to you with my compliments. With the captains respect. With the good will of the whole outfit.

But, beg pardon, I have no use forpicra.

Dont delude yourself. Youll have to have it, outside or in. Im a friend. I give you this bottle. Then, when Aunt Sally appears with her little dish and spoon, produce this from your pistol pocket and knock her plumb speechless. Its your only salvation. Now or never.

All right. Thanks. A case of forearmed, I suppose.

Exactly. Nowthere she is!

Samson rose in his stirrups and pointed forward with his crop. Upon a barren, wide-stretching tableland stood a cluster of adobe huts. Behind them a clump of live oaks, beside them a sandy, curving streak, an arroyo, lighter in hue than the surrounding soil, but parched and dry as if part of the desert itself; behind them, three mighty, jagged, upward-pointing rocks.

There she is. The weirdest, lonesomest, God-for-sakenest habitation that fools ever made or lived in, quoted the joker, giving Samsons hand a cordial grasp.

Hello! Whats up captain?

For Jessica had also caught sight of the desolate homestead and, having too low stirrups for standing, had sprung to Scruffs back and poised thus on his saddle, was straining her eager, excited gaze toward the distant El Desierto.

My dream! The spot! For once he told the truth! Follow, follow me, quick!

Land of love! She has gone queer, and thats a fact. Does the mite think that there little donkey can outrun your horse or mine? After her, stranger, lest she do some harm to herself.

Ninian smiled softly and touched Nimrod lightly, and in a moment all three were again racing over the mesa, side by side, the girl foremost, and the men reining in their horses lest they should forestall her of the goal to which she aspired. The reporter, as eager and almost as wise as she, but good Samson completely in the dark and growing a trifle angry over the fact.

When they came up to it the place seemed utterly deserted. The doors opened to the touch and in all but one of the three small buildings the windows were broken. The third was in better repair and was evidently sometimes still used by somebody. There was a bed, or cot, spread with blankets, a coal-oil stove, some canned meats and biscuits, and a well-wrapped gun.

But Jessicas attention passed these details over.

The rocks! They are the very same as in my dream and he told me of them when he drew the map. Is that in your pocket, Mr. Sharp? Oh! is it?

Sure. He drew it forth and held it so that Samson, too, could see.

Come! In the dream there was a little cave beneath the rocks and in the cave a box. You know it, Samson, the black tin box in which the valuable papers were kept. We could find it nowhere, mother nor I, but I shall find it here and in itoh! in itthere will be that title deed! You look, boys, I cant, I tremble so.

Samson forced his great length downward and inward under the bowlders and found, as Jessica had felt sure, a small but perfectly dry and well-protected cave. The rocks and live oaks screened it from the sight of those who did not know it existed, and it would never have been suspected that there was aught but solid ground beneath those jagged stones.

The horses and Scruff were willing to stand without tying, and Ninian was, in any case, too excited now to have remembered them. He saw that Lady Jess was trembling, indeed, and trembled himself. If this should prove a disappointment, how would she bear it?

But it was not to be that. From the little cave there presently issued a mighty shout. That is it would have been mighty had the space been large enough to give it vent. As it was, it came like the subdued roar of a wild animal, and it was almost surprising to see the soles of Samsons boots emerge from the opening instead of furry feet.

When he had crawled outward so far that he could lift himself upright, the sailor leaped so high that Ninian felt as if he were the one who had gone queer instead of Jessica, suspected. But this reason was obvious; for there in his hand was the veritable black tin box familiar to the girl from her earliest memory, and seen often enough by the herder to be instantly recognized.

When, at last, the box was in her own hands Jessica became very quiet, though her voice still trembled as she said:

This belongs to my mother. It is for her to open it.

No, captain.

Not so, Jessica. If the deed for which she looked were not there it would be but a fresh distress to her. You look. It is your interest as well as hers, and if it is not there you can save her, at least, one disappointment on this day of your return.

The opinions of her two friends prevailed; and, since they had no key, Samsons great knife forced the lock, and stored within were papers and vouchers of great value to Sobrante, which the faithless manager had carried away for his own purposes.

The deed? Ah, yes. There it lay at the very bottom of the pile, and Jessica knew it at once for the queer paper which her father had shown her on the night before his death.

For a time she could only weep over it and caress it, remembering the dear hands which had held it before her, and the unforgotten voice which had explained its value and all about the necessary recording which must be made. Then she rallied, remembering, also, that other precious parent, alive and waiting for her and it.

Keep you the box, Samson. I, myself, must keep and carry this.

She fastened it within her blouse and kept one hand upon it all the rest of the way. A brief and happy way, which ended in a mothers arms and in the wild welcome of every dweller at Sobrante. And when the mothers arms set their recovered treasure free for a moment there were all the boys ready and waiting to seize and carry her from point to point, telling how careful had been each ones stewardship and how they would never let her go again. Never.

As for Ninian Sharp he did not recognize himself in the hero they all made of him, nor did even Aunt Sally presume to offer him, so wonderful a man, a nauseous dose. But she was overheard to remark to Wun Lung, who had also joined the company unforbidden by his arch enemy:

I do believe, Wun Lungy, that if ever that there handsome young man should go and get married Id set him up in my fifty-five thousand five hundred and fifty-five piece bedquilt. I did lay out to bequeath it to Jessica, but, la! I can piece her another, just as willin as not. What you say, Wun Lungy?

I slay, fool woman!

For a time joy and surprise turned Ned and Luis speechless; yet they were sent to bed late that night, each hugging a sharp-edged train of tin cars and breathing, Choo! choo! as if a railway were a common sight instead of an unknown one.

But there came at last a quiet hour for mother and child, when they sat in close embrace, telling all that had befallen each during the days of separation.

Oh! if dear Ephraim were only here, mother! I said it should not be a month before that title deed was found, and the month will not be up until to-morrow. Poor Ephraim! It was bitter hard to leave him alone in that hospital, well-liked and cared for though he is. If it hadnt been for him I could never have gone. And the boys would have made such a hero of him. Even as they did of Mr. Sharp. Cant you guess how proud theyd have been of him, mother?

When Mrs. Trent did not reply, Jessica looked up quickly and saw that dear face so near her own still clouded by a shadow of trouble.

Why, mother! What is it? You look as if you were not perfectly, absolutely happy, and yet how can you be elseto-night?

Yes, darling, I am happy. So glad and thankful that I cannot put it into words. But Ephraim? My darling, at present, not for some days, if I were you I would not talk about Ephraim. You will be happier so. No. He is alive and getting well, so far as I know. There has been no later news than yours. Dont look so alarmed. Only this: the boys have taken some queer notion about our Forty-niner, and so I say he is probably happier just where he is to-night than if he were back at Sobrante.

Oh! mother! Another mystery? and about such a simple, honest, splendid old fellow as my Ephraim? Well, never mind. I seem to be sent into the world to solve other peoples mysteries, and Ill solve his.

Eventually she did. But how and when cannot be told here. This is a story which must be related another time. But for the time Jessica was happy and all went well.

THE END

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