Evelyn Raymond.

Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranch





Jessica Trents sweet face glowed with loving pride in her fair home, but this was as nothing of the tenderness which filled her eyes as they now caught sight of a tall woman in black coming over the garden path.

There she is, my mother!

Mr. Hale rose as the lady drew near and one glance showed him what model Lady Jess had chosen as a type of that perfect breeding to which the little maid aspired. The mistress of Sobrante was a real gentlewoman, even though her gown was of cheapest print and her surroundings those of an isolated western ranch. Her daughter ran to cast a clinging, yet protecting, arm about her, and proudly turning toward their guest, presented:

My mother, Mrs. Trent, Mr. and smiling waited for him to finish the sentence.

Hale. I had forgotten to mention my name before, even though we have chatted so cosily. Permit me, madam.

The card he offered bore the inscription:

Mr. Morris Hale, Attorney at Law, 156 Broadway, New York.

Watchful Jessica saw her mothers face pale, while into her native cordiality of manner crept that slight hauteur with which she regarded the most objectionable of tourists. This, then, was one such, and the girl was sorry. She had liked the stranger so much and was already planning pleasant entertainment for him; but if her dear did not approve of him her own opinion went for naught.

Yet it was only the statement of the gentlemans business that had caused Mrs. Trents momentary coldness, for at that time, though her daughter did not know this, the mere suggestion of law or lawyers disturbed her. But she was quick to feel the possible injustice of her fear and to atone for it by a deeper cordiality.

You have come just in time to share our dinner, Mr. Hale, and well not wait any longer for laggards. I was looking for the children. Jessie, dear, have you seen them?

Not since breakfast, mother. But they cant be far away, for theres Scruff yonder, trying to get into the alfalfa.

Antonio hasnt come up, either, since the plucking. I wish he would while the food is fresh. If youll

We neednt wait for him, because I met him riding toward the foothills, as I came home. Hes probably off to the mines and that means an all-days trip. But Ill help you dish up, and seek the boys, though they dont often need seeking at mealtime. You sit right down with Mr. Hale, dear, and Ill serve you. Pasqual can bring in the tureen, and I hope the eggs arent spoiled by waiting.

Is Scruff that mottled burro poking his nose through that fence? asked the guest.

Yes. He belongs to my little son, Ned, who shares him with his playmate, Luis. An inseparable trio, usually.

Then Im the cause of their present separation. I rode that animal down from old Pedros cabin and at his advice, Mr. Hale described his meeting with the two small lads, the fright they had given him, and his own desertion of them.

Though now Im ashamed to recall how readily I consigned them to a tramp I was unwilling to take myself. I wish Id brought them with me. We could have used Scruffs back, turn and turn about.

Oh how could they! One misstep and theyd have been killed.

What is it, mother? asked Jessica, seeing the ladys hand shake so that she could scarcely serve the soup which formed the chief dish of their plain dinner.

Only another prank of those terrifying children. Bound themselvesor had help to bindand rode Scruff bareback up the canyon! Theyre always playing Indian, and I wish theyd never heard of one. Its that Ferd eggs them on. He dares them andExcuse me, Mr. Hale. Mothers are anxious people. Try some of Jessies scramble, please. She is just learning to cook and likes to be appreciated.

But I didnt see them, as I went up or down. They must have taken the long road around by the north end. Where the old Digger village is, observed Jessie.

A forbidden route. Its to be hoped theyll follow the shortest road home. If theyre not here in an hour one of the men must go to fetch them.

Jessica laughed and kissed her mother.

Dont you worry, dear, and do, please, eat your dinner. Arent those children always having hairbreadth escapes, and are they ever hurt? Pedroll send them down in a hurry. He knows his mistress and her ways, and wouldnt let her be troubled if he could help it. Theyll get no dinner at Pedros, and dinner is something theyve never missed yet. Hark! Arent going to miss now! Listen. Theyre fighting along home in their regular fashion. By the sound theyve about got to prickly-pear hedge. Hola! Ned! Lu-is! Oh! beg pardon. I forgot I was at table. Excuse me, mother, and Ill bring in the youngstersafter a deluge!

Already there was an uproar in the outer kitchen, where two tired and hungry little boys were assaulting the unoffending Pasqual, diligently scrubbing away at his pots and pans. Any victim will do, at a pinch, to vent ones wrath upon, and Pasqual was nearest. But he was not one to suffer patiently, and promptly returned the puny blows of his assailants with much more vigorous ones, till Jessica reached the spot, rescued the truants, and conducted them to the washbasin.

From there, disdaining the towel, they made rapid transit to the porch and the presence of the stranger. All along their enforced walk home they had laid plans of vengeance, among which tommyhawking and shootin chock full o arrers were the wildest. But, alas! Now that their enemy was in their very power, they had no fiercer weapons than four grimy little fists. Better these than nothing, was Neds instant decision, and Luis was but Neds second thought. As Neds right descended upon Mr. Hales shoulders, Luis left delivered a telling blow upon the gentlemans hand, uplifted toward his lips. This was small assistance to the yellow-haired chief, for the spoon fled straight from the victims fingers and landed squarely in Neds face.

This created intense diversion. The blows intended for the guest were now bestowed upon each other, and so impartially that neither side was worsted. Mrs. Trent rose in her place, flushed and apologetic, though the stranger was far more surprised than offended, while the sister had once more appeared and terminated a battle almost before it was begun. With a strength of which she did not look capable she caught up and lifted a child into each of the two high chairs in waitingbut wisely placed at opposite sides of the board. There they settled themselves composedly, beaming and smiling upon each other like a pair of wingless cherubs, while Ned thrust forth a tin basin and demanded:

Give me my soup, mother.

Gimmesoup! echoed Luis, choking over a piece of bread he had filched from Jessicas plate.

Children!

Oh! Huh! Please give me my soup, mother.

Plea gimmesoup, madr.

Isnt your madre, Luis Garcia. Isnt nobodys mother but mine, so there!

Humph! remarked Jessica. What about me?

This set Ned off into a giggle, in which Luis dutifully joined, and the laughter restored the best of feelings all around. The meal over, Mrs. Trent offered the guest the use of a room in which to rest, and this he gladly accepted; adding that he wished he might be able to make some arrangement with her by which he could occupy it indefinitely, till his health was restored and the business which had brought him to that region was completed. Any terms she would make would be most satisfactory to him, for he was charmed with Sobrante and most anxious to sojourn there for a time.

Jessica was already clearing the table, yet watching her mother closely, and was surprised to see a moments hesitation on the dear face before the expected and customary answer came:

We are always glad to make our friends welcome at Sobrante, and for as long as our simple life suits them, but we could not accept payment for our hospitality. I am glad you like our home, and Jessica will show you to the friends room at once. Tell Pasqual, my dear, to attend Mr. Hale and see that he has all which he requires. All that may be supplied at this isolated spot, that is, she added, with a smile.

Mr. Hale thanked his hostess and withdrew, but he felt that he had practically been dismissed from the ranch and that he had no past friendship to urge as a plea for any but the briefest visit there.

Yet the cool chamber into which the traveler was shown proved so restful that the forty winks only which he intended were prolonged till sunset. Then he hastily descended to the lower floor to find that the early supper of the household was over; though Mrs. Trent had kept his own portion hot, and smilingly waved aside his apologies as she placed before him a dish of delicately broiled quail, prepared by her own skillful hands.

Why, this is a luxury! and to be expected only at some great hotel. By the way, where is the nearest one? I should have been on my way long ago.

I hope not. And you cannot well reach any hotel to-night. The nearest is thirty miles away, and for a long distance the road is a mere track across the plain. Even those who are used to it, would find it difficult to keep it on a moonless night, as this will be.

Oh! Im so sorry.

The hostess face grew anxious. Is it so important? I thought

Humph! Thats another of my blunders. My regret is that I must force myself upon your hospitality after

Mrs. Trent interrupted with a laugh.

I imagine were talking at cross-purposes. While I cannot make any guest comfortable at Sobrante indefinitely, as you proposed, I should be disappointed to have you leave us hurriedly, Id like you to inspect the ranch, thoroughly, and that will require at least a week. Besides, since Ive learned from your card that you are a lawyer, I would like to ask your advice. Of course, if you are willing to give it in a business way.

I shall be happy to serve you and more than happy to stay for the week you propose, I came

But he did not finish his sentence. There rang through the quiet room the echoes of rifle shots, repeated singly and in volleys, and accompanied by shouts and shrieks, so fierce and unearthly that Mr. Hale sprang to his feet while his hand sought his own pistol pocket.

Horrible! In the midst of this peacean Indian outbreak!

A curious thrill ran through his veins, as if his sixty years had suddenly turned backward to sixteen, and, with an answering cry, he leaped through the open window and rushed straight into the arms of a man who had already reached the porch and was making for the very room that the stranger had just quitted.

CHAPTER V
COUNTER REVOLT

The collision staggered both men and gave Mrs. Trent time to reach the side of her guest and to lay a restraining hand upon his arm. Her voice was tremulous with laughter as she explained:

Its only a rifle practice. The ranchmen and the childrenall children in this sportand always noisy. Im sorry it disturbed you, butIndians! How could you imagine it. Ah! Antonio, good-evening. Have you had supper?

No, senora. I need it.

It is waiting. This visitor, Mr. Hale, Senor Antonio Bernal, the manager of Sobrante.

The gentlemen bowed, one with the brevity of a busy man, the other with the profound salutation of his race. But they parted immediately, for the Easterner was anxious to witness the shooting and the superintendent to break his long fast; and with disgust at his own readiness to fancy danger where none existed, Mr. Hale followed the sound of the yells and cheers.

Hi! hi! for the little one! Hit him again, blue jacket! shrieked Samson, as, steadying upon a tie-post the rifle he was too small to support, Ned sighted the bulls-eye of a distant target, took a careless aim, yet struck it squarely.

Whereupon the strong ex-sailor thrust the weapon aside and tossed the lad in the air as if he had been a ball. Yet caught him as he lightly descended, and placed him astride his own shoulders.

Wholl beat the little master? Three times out o seven, with an iron heavy as that, hows the showing for an eight-year-old?

But Ned slipped from the ranchmans back, picked up his own tiny, perfectly finished gun, and swung it over his head.

Huh! Thats nothing! Huh! This the feller! Huh! Guess tis. Shot moren forty-leven quails this day t ever was. Had em for my supper. Had em for the man broke his horses leg and stole Scruff. Hello, Mister! Had your supper? Wasnt them good birds? I shot em for you. I did.

You? demanded the gentleman, astonished. He had now joined the group surrounding the three children, and his presence caused a lull in the uproar which had preceded his arrival. You! Why you arent big enough to do such a thing.

I did! I did! I never told a lie in all my lifenever, never, never! So, there! and unable to endure such an imputation, the child rushed upon his traducer and pounded him well with the butt of his little rifle.

Ned! Edward Trent! Stop! Youa little gentlemanmothers son!

Jessicas arms were about her brother, restraining his movements and for a moment making him drop his head in shame. The next he had broken from her grasp, caught up another gun and dragged it toward her.

Your turn, Jess. Hurry up. Theres just an inch of sun leftI mean there was a minute agohurry up! Me an Luiss got to go to bed quick as a wink! Hurryhurry!

Hurry up! echoed Luis, with a yawn, and dropping down where he stood, was instantly asleep.

John Benton crossed to the visitors side and remarked:

Now, I tell you, stranger, youll see the sight of your life. If I was a betting man Id back Our Lady Jess again any other girl-shooter on the globe. You just watch outif the dark holds off a spell.

There were a dozen, maybe, of the ranchmen standing or lying around in a semi-circle, but now all quiet and intent upon the little girl, as, nodding and smiling upon her guest and her beloved boys, she stepped into the open space before them all. Forty-niner March, unerring marksman and the childrens instructor, took his place beside her, examined her rifle, handed it to her and also observed to the stranger:

Now, if nothin happens, youll see sunthin. Sorry its so dusk, but any gent what doubts is free to walk up to the target and look where the ball strikes. You, lady, do me proud.

Ill try, said Jessica, simply. Is it the little nail in the center?

Just that.

She sighted and fired; and a ranchman who had run forward to the target, shouted back across the darkening space:

Hit her plumb!

A roar of applause greeted this announcement, but the girl accepted this tribute with no comment save another nod and smile, as she waited her teachers next direction.

This was given silently by a gesture downward.

Instantly Jessica dropped upon the ground, rested herself upon her elbows, aimed, fired, andHit her again! Hooray for Our Lady! Hoorayhoorayhooray!

In his excitement big Samson seized Mr. Hale by the sleeve and compelled that gentleman to jog-trot across the open and view at closer range the wonderful skill of the little maid who was so dear to them all.

Stand aside, Psalm Singer. Your heads in the way! cautioned somebody.

Still clutching his companion, Samson obeyed, and they saw Jessica now lying upon her back, sighting upward and backward over her head a small, white object that had been placed in the target where the tack had been. There was no cheering then, nor any movement among the eager watchers who fairly held their breaths lest they disturb their darling in that supreme moment of her success or failure.

But shell not fail! thought more than one, and would have given a years wages that she should not.

There was a swift rush of something through the air, so close to Mr. Hales nose that he visibly drew back, and a double report as the bullet hit the toy torpedo which had been the chosen mark.

After that, pandemonium; or so it seemed to Mr. Hale. Those gray and grizzled menfor there were few young among themshouted themselves hoarse and gave way to the wildest expressions of pride and delight. As for Jessica, the heroine, though her eyes sparkled and a flush rose to her cheeks, she was by far the calmest person present. Even Mr. Hales heart was beating rapidly and he caught the girls hands and shook them violently, in his congratulations.

That was marvelous! marvelous! Ive seen pretty good sharp-shooting done by professionals, but never anything so fine as that last shot of yours. How could you ever learn it, so young as you are?

How could I help learning? It is Forty-niner's work, a deal more than mine. Hes been teaching me ever since I could hold a tiny bow and arrow. Hes wonderful, if you please; but IWell, it seems just to do itself, somehow. But I must go in now. Time for the little ones to be in bed. Come, Ned. Come, Luis. Oh, dear! hes fast asleep.

Ill pack him for you, lady. And say, boys, isnt this the time?

Samson had lifted the sleeping Luis, tucked him under one arm and swung Ned to the other, but now paused to glance around among his fellow-workmen.

Time was moon-up, answered Joe, minded to be facetious.

This would be moon-up, if the old girl knew her business, retorted the sailor. In ten minutes well be with you. Come, on, my lady. Ive a word to say to you and the mistress.

The daily evening sport was over and the ranchmen rapidly dispersed, each to his own quarters, and none considering it his especial business to entertain the stranger, who was now strolling slowly houseward mindful of the sudden chill which came with the nightfall and of his own unfitness for exposure.

Proudest of all, Forty-niner gathered up the weapons and carried them off, to clean and put in order for the next evenings practice. He was well satisfied with his pupils achievements, though already planning more difficult feats for their performance. The man was eighty; yet, while his abundant hair was white, his back was still straight and his step firm. The joy of his old age was the athletic training of the Sobrante children, and it would have amazed him, even broken his heart, had he been told that by such means he did not well earn his keep. He was eldest of all the elderly workmen that the late master of the ranch had gathered about him, and his appreciation of this good home in which to end his days perhaps, the greatest of all. It was, therefore, a terrible shock which awaited him, as entering his own room, he lighted his lamp and saw lying on his table a white envelope addressed to himself.

He knew what it meant. Dismissal.

One year before, when Cassius Trent died, there had been twenty employees where there were now but thirteenhe the odd one of the bakers dozen. Seven times, when least expected or desired, some one of these twenty had found in his room just such an envelope, containing his arrears of wages, and the curt information that, by the order of Mrs. Trent, his services were no longer required at Sobrante, nor would any wages be forthcoming from that day forward.

These men had all been friends, rather than servants, and in each case the result had been the same. Cut to the heart by the manner of discharge, and, for the first time it may be, realizing that he was no longer young, and, therefore, valuable, the recipient of the envelope had quietly disappeared, saying farewell to nobody.

My turn! My turn, at last! broke from the aged frontiersmans lips, and a groan followed. Ten years Ive lived in this old adobe cell till Ive come to feel like the monk for whom it was first built. Now

The white head drooped forward on the outstretched arms and all the burden of his eighty years seemed suddenly to have descended upon that bowed and shrunken figure.

In the pretty dining-room Antonio Bernal had eaten a hearty supper served by his own mistress, since Wun Lung was not to be found and the house-boy, Pasqual, claimed his usual recreation hour at the rifle practice. But neither thought anything amiss in this, and the manager would, indeed, have asserted that it was quite the proper thing. Was not he a Bernal, and superior to all at Sobrante? Even though he was, for the time being, receiving wage instead of bestowing. Well, it was a long lane that had no turning.

Pushing back from the table, Antonio had murmured the proverb in Spanish, with a smile of satisfaction lighting his dark face, and Mrs. Trent had failed to hear distinctly, though she was familiar enough with the language so often in use about her.

Beg pardon, I did not understand.

Begging pardon, ones self, senora, it is seldom that you do. It is the business was never made for the small brains of the women, no? Tis the senoras place to be beautiful and let the business rest in the capable hands of I, myself. En verdad.

Mrs. Trent colored and bit her lip. This mans insolence was becoming insupportable, and she could scarcely recognize him for the obsequious fellow who had been her husbands right-hand dependence. His brief authority had turned his head, she reflected, and, again, that she must in no wise offend him. The welfare of her children demanded this, and forcing herself to smile as pleasantly as if his insult were a jest, she remarked:





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