Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranchñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Even at that pitch, his tones were full of excited indignation, and her own anger leaped at once.
“Somebody’s cut the flume? Who dared! Wait–wait–I’m coming!”
“No, no! Don’t. You can’t help it–you’ll break your neck! Oh! Lady Jess!”
“I’m coming! Wait for me!”
The carpenter laughed. “Might have known she would, and wanted she should, I suppose. Surest-footed little thing in the world. Guess I needn’t fret. Though when I think what this old ranch would be without her, I don’t feel any great call to send her into danger, myself. My! she’s as nimble as a squirrel! Down to the bottom a’ready. Up this side in a jiffy, and won’t her blue eyes snap when she sees this lowdown trick? If I knew whose job it was, well, I’m a peaceable man if I’m let, but there wouldn’t be room enough in this here valley for the two of us. And it’s all on a piece with the rest. One thing after another. There’s a snake in this wigwam, but which ’tis? H-m-m! Beats me. Beats me clear to Jericho.”
Then he fell to watching the slower, steady ascent of Jessica, who had descended the further side so swiftly, and who had clambered lightly enough over the roughness of the gulch bottom; at times filled with a roaring torrent, but now quite dry after a long, hot summer.
“Well, here I am!”
“And a sorry sight to show you. Look a’ that now. Isn’t that a regular coyote piece of work?”
Along this face of the canyon descended a line of small wooden troughs, closely joined, and supported upon slender but strong cedar uprights. This flume connected with the distant reservoir of an irrigating company and had been built by Jessica’s dead father at a great and ill-afforded expense. But of all good things there was nothing so precious to the tillers of that thirsty land as water, and the cutting off of this supply meant ruin to Sobrante.
Young as she was, Jessica fully understood this, though she could not understand that any human being should do a deed so dastardly.
“John Benton, you mustn’t say that. Some of the cattle have done it. It’s an accident. It can be mended. I’m sorry, of course, but so thankful you found it. And I see you’ve got your tools.”
“Oh! I can mend it, all right, but it won’t stay mended. You’ll see. ’Tisn’t the first break I’ve patched, not by any means.”
“Of course it isn’t. Only last week in that stampede, when the boys were changing pasture, the creatures ran against it and you fixed it, good as new. There isn’t anything you can’t do with an ax and a few nails.”
John passed the compliment by unheeding.
“There’s breaks and there’s cuts. Reckon I can tell the difference quick enough. This is a cut and isn’t the first one I’ve found, I say. ’Twas a fresh-ground blade did this piece of deviltry, or I’m no judge of edges. Now, who did it? Why? And how’s old Pedro?”
Despite her faith in her friends, the small ranchwoman’s heart sank.
“He–he–why, he isn’t sick at all! I was sent up there on a fool’s errand, and just on plucking-day, when I was so needed at home.
With Wun Lung hurt and mother so busy, I ought to have a dozen pairs of hands. Of course, I’m glad he’s well, dear old fellow, but I shouldn’t have gone this morning if somebody hadn’t told Antonio wrong. I met a stranger on the trail, too, and Zulu scared his horse, and it stumbled in a gopher hole or something and is lamed for ever so long. He’ll likely come to Sobrante, if he can get there, but he looked ill if Pedro didn’t, and the sun nearly overcame him. Can’t I help you hold that board?”
John accepted her offer of help less because he needed it than because he always liked to have her near him.
“So ’twas Antonio sent you, eh? H-m-m!”
“He didn’t send me. Course not. He just said somebody said Pedro was dying.”
The carpenter laughed, but his mirth was not pleasant.
“Queer how stories get mixed, even in this lonesome place. There; you needn’t hold that. Your little hands aren’t so very strong, helpful as they may be. This isn’t any great of a job; it ’twould only stay, once ’twas finished!”
“Then I’ll go. Maybe I’d better send up one of the boys to help you. Shall I? Who do you want?”
Upon the point of declining, the carpenter changed his mind.
“Yes, you may. I wish you would. Send Antonio.”
“Send–Antonio! Why, I should as soon think of ‘sending’ that stranger I told you about. You’re teasing me, for you know well that Antonio is the only one who ever ‘sends’ Antonio. Even my mother, who has a right to ‘send’ everybody on the ranch whither she will, never orders the manager. Well, good-by. You shall have a nice dinner out of the house-kitchen to pay for your hard climb.”
“Take care where you step in your hurry, and just try that word on the ‘senor.’ Tell him there’s a bit of a break in the flume I’d like his advice about.”
The workman’s laugh followed the girl down the rough and perilous way, and just as she passed out of hearing came the parting shot:
“H-m-m! I don’t see what it all means. First is old Pedro, with his grim ‘'Ware Antonio!’ And now John Benton speaks in that queer way, as if there were two meanings to his words. Heigho! I hear somebody coming up. I wonder who!”
Hurrying downward as fast as the uneven path allowed, her own softly-shod feet making no noise, she reached a turn of the road and suddenly slackened her pace. The man approaching was one of the few whom she feared and disliked.
“Ferd, the dwarf!”
Instinctively, she hid behind a clump of shrubbery and waited for him to pass, hoping he would not see her. He did not. He was too engrossed in handling, apparently counting, something within a deep basket that hung on his arm, and his bare feet loped around over the rocks as easily as they would have carried him across the level mesa.
As soon as he had gone by Lady Jess started onward, but she had grown even more thoughtful.
“That’s queer. Antonio must need Ferd to-day if ever he does. Indeed, nobody seems able to serve him as well as that poor half-wit. What could he have had in his basket? And–ha! how came this here?”
With a cry of surprise she lifted a small, soft object from the ground before her and regarded it in gathering dismay.
Ever since Jessica could remember, Antonio Bernal had been manager of the Sobrante ranch, and after the death of her father, a few months before, he became practically its master. Even Mrs. Trent deferred to his opinions more and more, and seemed to stand in awe of him, as did most others on the great estate. He was the only person there, save his own servant, Ferd, who did not treat the little girl with that adoring sort of reverence which had given her the love-name of “our Lady Jess.” For some reason unknown to her he disliked her and showed this, so that she shrank from and feared him in return.
As she emerged from the canyon upon the broad, sandy road which crossed the valley, she saw him loping toward her on the powerful black horse with which he made his daily rounds to inspect the many industries that Mr. Trent had established. Jessica could always tell by the way he rode what Antonio’s mood might be, and it did not lessen her dread to see that his sombrero was well over his eyes and his shoulders hunched forward.
“Something’s put him out, but I can’t help that. I must stop him and speak to him.”
So she placed herself in the middle of the road and shouted her familiar:
“Hola! Coo-ee! Coo-ee!”
Any other ranchman would have paused and saluted his “lady,” but the “senor” made as if he would ride her down, unseeing.
Jessica did not flinch. That ready temper which she was always lamenting flamed at the insult, and she would not move a hair’s breadth from his path.
“Hola! Antonio Bernal! I must speak to you, and–see that?”
Suddenly bending forward she waved something long and black under Nero’s nose, who reared and settled on his haunches in a way to test a less experienced rider.
“What do you mean, child–” began that irate gentleman, but pausing at sight of the object she held.
“I think this a plume from Beppo’s wing, don’t you, Antonio?”
He muttered something under his breath, and she went on, explaining:
“I found it in the canyon, just after Ferd has gone up it. I knew it in a minute, for I was looking Beppo over yesterday, and I never saw such perfect feathers on any bird. How do you suppose it came there, and why?”
“The fool! One of the very best. How dared he. But suppose I’ll have to admit he stole it. I don’t see how, though, for I did the work myself. Give it to me, senorita; I’ll put it with the others.”
Somehow, when Antonio was sauve “our Lady Jess” liked him less than when he was sharp of speech. His native “senorita” jarred on her ear, though she blamed herself for her injustice, nor did she yield him the feather.
“Not yet, please. I’m going to show it to mother. She’ll be so delighted to know the plucking was a rich one; and if Ferd did steal this, or has others in his basket, of course you’ll make him bring them back.”
“Of course,” answered Antonio, though he frowned and searched her face with his black eyes as if to read all her suspicions.
But as Jessica was not suspicious; she was vaguely troubled, as if she had come into some dark and unknown world. Surely Antonio was able to clear off all these little mysteries, and she checked him again as he was about to ride on.
“There’s something else, senor,” adopting his title in imitation of his addressing her; “John Benton is up the gulch fixing a break in the flume. It’s a bad one, and more a cut than a break, he says. He asked me to tell you and wishes you’d go up there to advise him. I’m to send up a man to help him. But he wants you, too.”
“Why should I waste my time on such a fool’s errand, eh? I knew there was a leak somewhere and am glad he’s found it. There’s been no water in the ditches these three days–more, ten, maybe–and the oranges are falling. Send up that idler, Joe; and, by the way, how’s Pedro?”
It was the blue eyes now which turned keen and searching, and under their gaze Antonio’s were averted toward some distant point in the landscape, though the contemptuous smile remained upon his lips.
“That was a fool’s errand, too, Senor Bernal, and I did so want to be at home this morning. Pedro was never livelier. Whoever told you he was ill was quite mistaken.”
Antonio gave a short, derisive laugh, dug his spurs into Nero’s sides and loped away. A picturesque, noticeable figure in his quaint, half-Spanish dress and his silver-decorated sombrero, bestriding the heavy Mexican saddle upon his powerful horse.
“Vain as a peacock,” was his fellow-ranchmen’s opinion of their “boss,” though had his affectations been all his shortcomings these had not lessened their liking for him.
Lady Jess looked after him for a moment, her face still sober and perplexed.
“I ought to be at home, helping mother, this minute; but I’m going first to the corral to speak a word of comfort to poor Beppo, and see how big a plucking there was. If it was a good yield that will be so much the better news to tell my dear, and this certainly is the finest plume we ever got. Good! There are some of the boys over there, too, and I’ll save time by getting one of them to go up the canyon to John. Hola!”
Her soliloquy ended in the gay little Spanish salute, and this was now instantly answered by a hearty shout of welcome from a group of rough-garbed men, taking a moment’s rest in the shade of the old adobe packinghouse.
As lightly as if she had not already walked a long distance, the girl ran to her friends, to be at once caught up by a pair of strong arms and gently placed upon a cushion in the box of an empty wagon.
“But this was your place, Joe Dean. I saw you get up from it.”
“It’s yours now, Lady Jess. You do me proud. What’s the good word? How’s old Pedro?”
“Well just plain, every day well. Never been sick a minute. Had all that climb for nothing; or, maybe, not quite for nothing, because I met a stranger up there and liked him; and saw John Benton as I came down, and–found this! Isn’t that a plume to be proud of? Raised right here on our little Sobrante.”
“Whew! It’s a beauty, sure enough. A dozen like that would be worth a tidy sum. How found it?”
“Has anybody seen King Zu? Though, of course, I know it can’t be his. He was plucked such a little while ago, nor could he have gotten across the gulch without losing more. Besides, Antonio said ‘stole.’”
Then she gave a hasty account of her morning’s adventures, during which meaning glances were exchanged between the trio of workmen who, by the time she had finished, had grown as glum as they had before been cheerful.
“Now, what do you think? Is there anybody who’d be mean enough to cut off my mother’s irrigation, on purpose, or steal her feathers? Even poor Ferd; I’m sure she’s always been good to him and pitied him.”
“Ferd has hands. Others have heads,” said Joe, as spokesman for the rest.
They nodded swift assent.
“Except yourself, Lady Jess, nobody ever sees the ‘senor’ handle the feathers, and you not often. Only he and his shadow, foolish Ferd, can manage the birds, he claims. I’ve been smoking that in my pipe along back.”
“Oh! Joe, you shouldn’t be suspicious of evil.”
“No, I shouldn’t be anything you don’t want me to be, but I am.”
“Even if I don’t like him very well, because he’s a little cross, Antonio Bernal is a good man. He must be. Else my father and now mother wouldn’t trust him so. She lets him get all the money for everything first and she has what’s left–after you’re all paid, I mean.”
“Poor little woman!”
“Not poor, exactly, Samson. And it isn’t Antonio’s fault that there isn’t so much as there used to be when father was here. If there were, mother would carry out all father’s plans. She’d irrigate that tract beyond the arroyo, toward the sand hills, and test it with strawberries, as he meant. There shouldn’t be an inch of untilled land on all the ranch, if the crops we have paid out just a little better. But, no matter. As long as you boys get your due wages, we can wait for the rest.”
There was another exchange of glances which Jessica did not see. Neither did she see herder Samson, lying at length on the ground, lift his great boot and significantly point to a hole in its toe. Nor would she have surmised his meaning had she done so. Indeed, she suddenly remembered her errand at the packinghouse and ran to its open door, but failed.
“How queer! Why should this be locked? I didn’t know it ever was. Where can the key be?”
“In Antonio Bernal’s pocket,” said Joe quietly.
“Then even before I found this feather he must have suspected somebody and taken care of the others. But it’s dreadful if we have come to turning keys on one another, here, at dear Sobrante. Well, I’m off to mother, now; and, Joe, Antonio said you should go to help John. Will you?”
“For you, fast enough, Lady Jess, though I’m about quit of Top-Lofty’s orders.”
“Grumbler!” laughed the girl, hurrying away, with her gayety quite restored by this few minutes’ chat with the beloved “boys” who had petted her all her life.
They did not laugh, however, as they watched her going, and Joe, rising to do her bidding, slapped his thigh emphatically and remarked:
“I call it the time has come. The longer we put it off the worse it is. Poor little missy! Getting our wages due! That little angel ’d cry the blue out of her pretty eyes if she knew how long ’twas since we’d seen the color of our money. Pass the word along, boys, and let’s confab, to-night, and settle it. Time, about moon-up, in John’s shop. How’s that?”
“Count me a mutineer,” said the ex-sailor, Samson, as he strolled toward his cattle sheds.
“I’m with you,” echoed Marty, departing for his orange grove. “Mutiny’s an ugly word aboard ship, I’m told, but when psalm-singing Samson takes to using it right here on dry land I reckon the case differs. Anyhow, if it’s a bid ’twixt the little one and Top-Lofty, I’m for the little one every time.”
Scruff knew the road home as well as another, and doubtless reasoned in his burro mind that the sooner he reached there the sooner he would be rid of his awkward rider. So he made all speed over the steep descent, though Mr. Hale used his own feet, now and then, as human brakes to check the creature’s pace; and, whimsically, remonstrated when the jolts became too frequent.
“Here, you beast! Hold on! If ever I ride a donkey again just let me know about it, will you? Keep that front end of yours up, please. I’ve a notion of sliding over your head, just to accommodate. Steady, there, steady. I flatter myself I can stick if I can’t ride. And we’re getting along. We’re getting along.”
Indeed, much earlier than he had hoped for, they were on level ground and had struck out upon that road where Jessica had met the manager, and which for some distance followed the tree-bordered arroyo–just then a river of sand only–leading straight toward a group of buildings and an oasis of greenery most welcome to the stranger’s sun-blinded eyes.
“Sobrante ranch, that must be, and the home of my little ostrich rider. I hope she’ll be there to greet me, for a tempting spot it looks.”
The nearer he approached the more charming it appeared, with its one modern, vine-covered cottage, and its long stretches of low adobe structures–enough to form a village in themselves–and as dingily ancient as the other was freshly modern.
In reality, these old adobes were remnants of a long-abandoned mission, but still in such excellent repair that they were utilized for the ranchman’s quarters and for the business of the great estate. Antonio Bernal was the only one of all the employees who had his own rooms at “the house,” as the cottage was called where the Trents themselves lived.
From the kitchen of this attractive “house” now floated a delectable odor of well-cooked food, and with the reflection that he was always hungry nowadays, the visitor crossed to its open window; there came, also, a girlish voice, exclaiming:
“Yes, mother, I’m sure he was a gentleman, though he didn’t look well. I told him you weren’t fond of strangers and had little time to give them, but that I thought you’d make him welcome. Indeed, there’s nowhere else for him to go, since his horse is lame and we so far from everybody. He lost his trail, he said. Was I right?”
Then his shadow fell across the sun-lighted floor and Jessica faced about. With a whisk of the saucepan, in which she was scrambling eggs, she added: “Well, right or wrong, here he is!” But she was talking to empty air, for her mother had disappeared.
AN INTERRUPTED SUPPER
The young ranchwoman placed her pan in safety and ran out upon that north porch, where the table was already spread, to meet the visitor.
“Oh! I’m glad you’ve gotten here all safe. How did you do it? It’s a long walk for those who aren’t used to it. Even for those who are, too. Did you ride your horse? Was he better?”
She rattled off her questions without waiting for replies and to give him time to recover his breath, which he seemed to have lost. Then she poured him a glass of milk and urged him to drink it, with the remark:
“That’s Blandina’s own. She’s the house-cow. You’ll find it delicious. Don’t you?”
“It’s fine milk,” answered the other, cautiously; “but, if it isn’t too much trouble, a bit of ice would improve it.”
“Ice? Why, where could I get ice? Sometimes, in the winter, a little forms along the arroyo, but now–I’m very sorry, indeed. I’d be so glad to get it if I could.”
Mr. Hale swallowed the sickeningly warm liquid with a gulp and hastened to apologize.
“It wouldn’t be good for me if you could. My compliments to your house-cow, and I’m very grateful for my refreshment. You have a beautiful home.”
“Haven’t we? The prettiest in the world, I guess. My father thought so and my mother loves it. So do we all, but to her it is dearest. Because, you see, father and she have made it all it is. Please, just let me move your chair nearer the edge of the porch. So. Now, look away off to the east. Father said there could be no view more uplifting. He wished everybody who had to live in cities could see it. He knew it would make them better men.”
Magnificent though it was, Mr. Hale found his small hostess more interesting than the view.
“Your father–” he began, questioningly.
“Isn’t here, now. He passed heavenward a year ago. Since then nothing seems just the same, and dear mother is often sad and troubled. You know she wants to carry on all father’s experiments, she doesn’t want his ‘life work to be wasted,’ she says, and Antonio isn’t able to get as much money as he used to be. She tries so bravely not to let it fret her, and I don’t see where she is. She was in the kitchen with me. We were getting dinner because Wun Lung, the cook, cut his hand, and Pasqual isn’t to be trusted. Of course, he’s a good enough boy, can make beds and such things, but–cook! One must be very dainty to do that. My mother can cook deliciously! She taught herself everything and the why of it. When she and father came here they lived in that tiny adobe away at the end of the second row. Do you see it? By the old corridor. Their table was a packing box and they had just a little camping outfit. Now there’s all this.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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