Jessica Trent: Her Life on a RanchŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
Even at that pitch, his tones were full of excited indignation, and her own anger leaped at once.
ďSomebodyís cut the flume? Who dared! WaitĖwaitĖIím coming!Ē
ďNo, no! Donít. You canít help itĖyouíll break your neck! Oh! Lady Jess!Ē
ďIím coming! Wait for me!Ē
The carpenter laughed. ďMight have known she would, and wanted she should, I suppose. Surest-footed little thing in the world. Guess I neednít fret. Though when I think what this old ranch would be without her, I donít feel any great call to send her into danger, myself. My! sheís as nimble as a squirrel! Down to the bottom aíready. Up this side in a jiffy, and wonít her blue eyes snap when she sees this lowdown trick? If I knew whose job it was, well, Iím a peaceable man if Iím let, but there wouldnít be room enough in this here valley for the two of us. And itís all on a piece with the rest. One thing after another. Thereís a snake in this wigwam, but which ítis? H-m-m! Beats me. Beats me clear to Jericho.Ē
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.
ďWell, here I am!Ē
ďAnd a sorry sight to show you. Look aí that now. Isnít that a regular coyote piece of work?Ē
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 Jessicaís 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.
ďJohn Benton, you mustnít say that. Some of the cattle have done it. Itís an accident. It can be mended. Iím sorry, of course, but so thankful you found it. And I see youíve got your tools.Ē
ďOh! I can mend it, all right, but it wonít stay mended. Youíll see. íTisnít the first break Iíve patched, not by any means.Ē
ďOf course it isnít. 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 isnít anything you canít do with an ax and a few nails.Ē
John passed the compliment by unheeding.
ďThereís breaks and thereís cuts. Reckon I can tell the difference quick enough. This is a cut and isnít the first one Iíve found, I say. íTwas a fresh-ground blade did this piece of deviltry, or Iím no judge of edges. Now, who did it? Why? And howís old Pedro?Ē
Despite her faith in her friends, the small ranchwomanís heart sank.
ďHeĖheĖwhy, he isnít sick at all! I was sent up there on a foolís 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, Iím glad heís well, dear old fellow, but I shouldnít have gone this morning if somebody hadnít 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. Heíll likely come to Sobrante, if he can get there, but he looked ill if Pedro didnít, and the sun nearly overcame him. Canít I help you hold that board?Ē
John accepted her offer of help less because he needed it than because he always liked to have her near him.
ďSo ítwas Antonio sent you, eh? H-m-m!Ē
ďHe didnít send me. Course not. He just said somebody said Pedro was dying.Ē
The carpenter laughed, but his mirth was not pleasant.
ďQueer how stories get mixed, even in this lonesome place. There; you neednít hold that. Your little hands arenít so very strong, helpful as they may be. This isnít any great of a job; it ítwould only stay, once ítwas finished!Ē
ďThen Iíll go. Maybe Iíd better send up one of the boys to help you. Shall I? Who do you want?Ē
Upon the point of declining, the carpenter changed his mind.
ďYes, you may. I wish you would. Send Antonio.Ē
ďSendĖAntonio! Why, I should as soon think of Ďsendingí that stranger I told you about. Youíre teasing me, for you know well that Antonio is the only one who ever Ďsendsí Antonio. Even my mother, who has a right to Ďsendí 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.Ē
ďTake care where you step in your hurry, and just try that word on the Ďsenor.í Tell him thereís a bit of a break in the flume Iíd like his advice about.Ē
The workmanís laugh followed the girl down the rough and perilous way, and just as she passed out of hearing came the parting shot:
ďH-m-m! I donít see what it all means. First is old Pedro, with his grim Ď'Ware Antonio!í 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!Ē
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.
ďFerd, the dwarf!Ē
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.
ďThatís 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? AndĖha! how came this here?Ē
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 ďour Lady Jess.Ē 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 Antonioís 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.
ďSomethingís put him out, but I canít help that. I must stop him and speak to him.Ē
So she placed herself in the middle of the road and shouted her familiar:
ďHola! Coo-ee! Coo-ee!Ē
Any other ranchman would have paused and saluted his ďlady,Ē but the ďsenorĒ 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 hairís breadth from his path.
ďHola! Antonio Bernal! I must speak to you, andĖsee that?Ē
Suddenly bending forward she waved something long and black under Neroís nose, who reared and settled on his haunches in a way to test a less experienced rider.
ďWhat do you mean, childĖĒ began that irate gentleman, but pausing at sight of the object she held.
ďI think this a plume from Beppoís wing, donít you, Antonio?Ē
He muttered something under his breath, and she went on, explaining:
ďI 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?Ē
ďThe fool! One of the very best. How dared he. But suppose Iíll have to admit he stole it. I donít see how, though, for I did the work myself. Give it to me, senorita; Iíll put it with the others.Ē
Somehow, when Antonio was sauve ďour Lady JessĒ liked him less than when he was sharp of speech. His native ďsenoritaĒ jarred on her ear, though she blamed herself for her injustice, nor did she yield him the feather.
ďNot yet, please. Iím going to show it to mother. Sheíll 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 youíll make him bring them back.Ē
ďOf course,Ē 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.
ďThereís something else, senor,Ē adopting his title in imitation of his addressing her; ďJohn Benton is up the gulch fixing a break in the flume. Itís a bad one, and more a cut than a break, he says. He asked me to tell you and wishes youíd go up there to advise him. Iím to send up a man to help him. But he wants you, too.Ē
ďWhy should I waste my time on such a foolís errand, eh? I knew there was a leak somewhere and am glad heís found it. Thereís been no water in the ditches these three daysĖmore, ten, maybeĖand the oranges are falling. Send up that idler, Joe; and, by the way, howís Pedro?Ē
It was the blue eyes now which turned keen and searching, and under their gaze Antonioís were averted toward some distant point in the landscape, though the contemptuous smile remained upon his lips.
ďThat was a foolís 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.Ē
Antonio gave a short, derisive laugh, dug his spurs into Neroís 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.
ďVain as a peacock,Ē was his fellow-ranchmenís opinion of their ďboss,Ē 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.
ďI ought to be at home, helping mother, this minute; but Iím 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 Iíll save time by getting one of them to go up the canyon to John. Hola!Ē
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 momentís 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.
ďBut this was your place, Joe Dean. I saw you get up from it.Ē
ďItís yours now, Lady Jess. You do me proud. Whatís the good word? Howís old Pedro?Ē
ďWell 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, andĖfound this! Isnít that a plume to be proud of? Raised right here on our little Sobrante.Ē
ďWhew! Itís a beauty, sure enough. A dozen like that would be worth a tidy sum. How found it?Ē
ďHas anybody seen King Zu? Though, of course, I know it canít be his. He was plucked such a little while ago, nor could he have gotten across the gulch without losing more. Besides, Antonio said Ďstole.íĒ
Then she gave a hasty account of her morningís 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.
ďNow, what do you think? Is there anybody whoíd be mean enough to cut off my motherís irrigation, on purpose, or steal her feathers? Even poor Ferd; Iím sure sheís always been good to him and pitied him.Ē
ďFerd has hands. Others have heads,Ē said Joe, as spokesman for the rest.
They nodded swift assent.
ďExcept yourself, Lady Jess, nobody ever sees the Ďsenorí handle the feathers, and you not often. Only he and his shadow, foolish Ferd, can manage the birds, he claims. Iíve been smoking that in my pipe along back.Ē
ďOh! Joe, you shouldnít be suspicious of evil.Ē
ďNo, I shouldnít be anything you donít want me to be, but I am.Ē
ďEven if I donít like him very well, because heís a little cross, Antonio Bernal is a good man. He must be. Else my father and now mother wouldnít trust him so. She lets him get all the money for everything first and she has whatís leftĖafter youíre all paid, I mean.Ē
ďPoor little woman!Ē
ďNot poor, exactly, Samson. And it isnít Antonioís fault that there isnít so much as there used to be when father was here. If there were, mother would carry out all fatherís plans. Sheíd irrigate that tract beyond the arroyo, toward the sand hills, and test it with strawberries, as he meant. There shouldnít 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.Ē
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.
ďHow queer! Why should this be locked? I didnít know it ever was. Where can the key be?Ē
ďIn Antonio Bernalís pocket,Ē said Joe quietly.
ďThen even before I found this feather he must have suspected somebody and taken care of the others. But itís dreadful if we have come to turning keys on one another, here, at dear Sobrante. Well, Iím off to mother, now; and, Joe, Antonio said you should go to help John. Will you?Ē
ďFor you, fast enough, Lady Jess, though Iím about quit of Top-Loftyís orders.Ē
ďGrumbler!Ē laughed the girl, hurrying away, with her gayety quite restored by this few minutesí chat with the beloved ďboysĒ 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:
ďI 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 íd cry the blue out of her pretty eyes if she knew how long ítwas since weíd seen the color of our money. Pass the word along, boys, and letís confab, to-night, and settle it. Time, about moon-up, in Johnís shop. Howís that?Ē
ďCount me a mutineer,Ē said the ex-sailor, Samson, as he strolled toward his cattle sheds.
ďIím with you,Ē echoed Marty, departing for his orange grove. ďMutinyís an ugly word aboard ship, Iím told, but when psalm-singing Samson takes to using it right here on dry land I reckon the case differs. Anyhow, if itís a bid ítwixt the little one and Top-Lofty, Iím for the little one every time.Ē
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 creatureís pace; and, whimsically, remonstrated when the jolts became too frequent.
ďHere, 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. Iíve a notion of sliding over your head, just to accommodate. Steady, there, steady. I flatter myself I can stick if I canít ride. And weíre getting along. Weíre getting along.Ē
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 arroyoĖjust then a river of sand onlyĖleading straight toward a group of buildings and an oasis of greenery most welcome to the strangerís sun-blinded eyes.
ďSobrante ranch, that must be, and the home of my little ostrich rider. I hope sheíll be there to greet me, for a tempting spot it looks.Ē
The nearer he approached the more charming it appeared, with its one modern, vine-covered cottage, and its long stretches of low adobe structuresĖenough to form a village in themselvesĖand 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 ranchmanís 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 ďthe house,Ē as the cottage was called where the Trents themselves lived.
From the kitchen of this attractive ďhouseĒ 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:
ďYes, mother, Iím sure he was a gentleman, though he didnít look well. I told him you werenít fond of strangers and had little time to give them, but that I thought youíd make him welcome. Indeed, thereís 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?Ē
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: ďWell, right or wrong, here he is!Ē 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.
ďOh! Iím glad youíve gotten here all safe. How did you do it? Itís a long walk for those who arenít used to it. Even for those who are, too. Did you ride your horse? Was he better?Ē
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:
ďThatís Blandinaís own. Sheís the house-cow. Youíll find it delicious. Donít you?Ē
ďItís fine milk,Ē answered the other, cautiously; ďbut, if it isnít too much trouble, a bit of ice would improve it.Ē
ďIce? Why, where could I get ice? Sometimes, in the winter, a little forms along the arroyo, but nowĖIím very sorry, indeed. Iíd be so glad to get it if I could.Ē
Mr. Hale swallowed the sickeningly warm liquid with a gulp and hastened to apologize.
ďIt wouldnít be good for me if you could. My compliments to your house-cow, and Iím very grateful for my refreshment. You have a beautiful home.Ē
ďHavenít 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.Ē
Magnificent though it was, Mr. Hale found his small hostess more interesting than the view.
ďYour fatherĖĒ he began, questioningly.
ďIsnít 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 fatherís experiments, she doesnít want his Ďlife work to be wasted,í she says, and Antonio isnít able to get as much money as he used to be. She tries so bravely not to let it fret her, and I donít 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 isnít to be trusted. Of course, heís a good enough boy, can make beds and such things, butĖcook! 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 thereís all this.ĒŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
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