Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranch
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Jessica Trent’s 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 mother’s 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 gentleman’s business that had caused Mrs. Trent’s 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 we’ll not wait any longer for laggards. I was looking for the children. Jessie, dear, have you seen them?”
“Not since breakfast, mother. But they can’t be far away, for there’s Scruff yonder, trying to get into the alfalfa.”
“Antonio hasn’t come up, either, since the plucking. I wish he would while the food is fresh. If you’ll–”
“We needn’t wait for him, because I met him riding toward the foothills, as I came home. He’s probably off to the mines and that means an all-day’s trip. But I’ll help you dish up, and seek the boys, though they don’t often need seeking at mealtime. You sit right down with Mr. Hale, dear, and I’ll serve you. Pasqual can bring in the tureen, and I hope the eggs aren’t 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 I’m the cause of their present separation. I rode that animal down from old Pedro’s 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 I’m ashamed to recall how readily I consigned them to a tramp I was unwilling to take myself. I wish I’d brought them with me. We could have used Scruff’s back, turn and turn about.”
“Oh how could they! One misstep and they’d have been killed.”
“What is it, mother?” asked Jessica, seeing the lady’s 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 themselves–or had help to bind–and rode Scruff bareback up the canyon! They’re always ‘playing Indian,’ and I wish they’d never heard of one. It’s that Ferd eggs them on. He ‘dares’ them and–Excuse me, Mr. Hale. Mothers are anxious people. Try some of Jessie’s scramble, please. She is just learning to cook and likes to be appreciated.”
“But I didn’t 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. It’s to be hoped they’ll follow the shortest road home. If they’re not here in an hour one of the men must go to fetch them.”
Jessica laughed and kissed her mother.
“Don’t you worry, dear, and do, please, eat your dinner. Aren’t those children always having hairbreadth escapes, and are they ever hurt? Pedro’ll send them down in a hurry. He knows his mistress and her ways, and wouldn’t let her be troubled if he could help it. They’ll get no dinner at Pedro’s, and dinner is something they’ve never missed yet. Hark! Aren’t going to miss now! Listen. They’re fighting along home in their regular fashion. By the sound they’ve about got to prickly-pear hedge. Hola! Ned! Lu-is! Oh! beg pardon. I forgot I was at table. Excuse me, mother, and I’ll bring in the youngsters–after 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 one’s 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 Ned’s instant decision, and Luis was but Ned’s second thought. As Ned’s right descended upon Mr. Hale’s shoulders, Luis’ left delivered a telling blow upon the gentleman’s hand, uplifted toward his lips. This was small assistance to the yellow-haired chief, for the spoon fled straight from the victim’s fingers and landed squarely in Ned’s 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 waiting–but 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 Jessica’s plate.
“Oh! Huh! Please give me my soup, mother.”
“Plea’ gimmesoup, madr’.”
“Isn’t your madre, Luis Garcia. Isn’t nobody’s 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 moment’s 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 friend’s 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! I’m so sorry.”
The hostess’ face grew anxious. “Is it so important? I thought–”
“Humph! That’s another of my blunders. My regret is that I must force myself upon your hospitality after–”
Mrs. Trent interrupted with a laugh.
“I imagine we’re 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, I’d like you to inspect the ranch, thoroughly, and that will require at least a week. Besides, since I’ve 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 peace–an 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.