Jessica Trent: Her Life on a RanchŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ďThe gentleman whom you met, as you came in, is a lawyer. A New York lawyer. IĖI would like to consult him about ourĖthis business you mention. I was born and reared in New York and have a feeling that anything which comes from there must be all right. Even a lawyer, though Iím not fond of the profession usually.
ďThe senor is not wont to waste so many words upon her most humble servant, no. And as for the lawyers, have I not this day been to the consulting of the most eminent, the wisest of his kind, no? But yes; and the truth is, senoraĖbelieve me, it breaks my heart so to inform you, but this barren rancho of Sobrante belongs not to the Dona Gabriella and her children, but to one Antonio Bernal, even I, myself.Ē
ďTo you! BelongsĖtoĖyou?Ē gasped the astonished woman.
The manager shrugged his shoulders and tossed another Spanish proverb toward her: ďWhat I have said, I have said.Ē
Mrs. Trent felt her strength leaving her and sank into a chair, still gazing incredulously at the other, who now lounged back in his own chair and began to leisurely pick his teeth. It was a trivial action, but one wholly disgusting to the gentlewomanís fastidious sense, and it angered her, which was a good thing, for her anger banished her momentary faintness and gave her boldness to demand:
ďIt will be forthcoming, senora, at the right time. Yes. Meanwhile, I am content you shall remain, you and your little ones, untilĖwell, say a month. By that date all things should have been arranged and the senora will have found herself another home less lonely than Sobrante. One so beautiful as the Dona Gabriella must have hosts of friends whoĖĒ
Senor Bernal paused. There were footsteps approaching, and the merry voices of children, and an instant later Samson was in the room, still carrying the little lads in his arms, and with Jessica clinging affectionately to his ragged sleeve.
One glance showed the faithful ranchman that something was amiss. There was fresh sorrow, even consternation, in the beloved face of Sobranteís mistress, fresh insolence in that of her chief assistant. He was not one to hesitate when his friends were in trouble, and turned to Antonio with an angry demand:
ďWhat have you been worrying your betters with now, senor?Ē
ďKeep a civil tongue in your head, rascal.Ē
ďReturniní the compliment, if you please. All the same, donít you know that a manĖa manĖ†doesnít go around worrying women as you worry Mrs. Trent? You, that hadnít a shirt to your back when the boss took you in and made you what you are! Iím anticipatiní a mite, and I donít know just how some of the boysíll take it, but weíd laid out this very night at moon-upĖif thereíd been a moon sensible enough to get up, which there isnítĖto haul you and a few other matters over the coals and stir up a fresh sort of blaze. Now, I warn you, just you let matters slide, peaceable, and youĖjust you, yourself, keep that civil tongue you recommend, or youíll light out of here so quick ye wonít see your heels for dust, dry season though it is.
ďHear? Yes, I hear. Now, ítis your turn. You go tell those malcontents you call Ďthe boysí to take their packs and foot it. Times have changed. Things have changed. Thereís another master here now, and not a weak-willed mistress. That is meĖIĖAntonio Bernal, owner of Sobrante rancho and all that appertains thereto. Now, go. Vamos. Depart. Clear out. Get!Ē
Samson wentĖas far as the long, open window, and stepped out upon the porch. He did not see Mr. Hale, who had seated himself in a rocker, an unintentional witness of a scene he would gladly have missed, and putting a whistle to his lips blew a summons which was understood by every fellow-workman on the ranch. Then he quietly re-entered the house, folded his arms, and leaned carelessly against the door frame.
Senor Bernal started up as if he would forcibly eject the herder, but thought better of this and sank back nonchalantly in his great chair. Jessica had placed herself behind her mother, and clasped Mrs. Trentís shoulders with the protecting tenderness habitual to her. Ned had sprung to his motherís lap and Luis continued his nap at her feet; while all seemed waiting for some fresh development of the affair.
This came and speedily; for, in answer to Samsonís whistle, there filed over the porch and into the room, Joe, the smith; Marty, the gardener; and Carpenter John. There was missing old ďForty-niner,Ē commonly the dominant fifth of this odd quintet, but nobody wondered much at that. Doubtless he was polishing his darlingís rifle and making ready for some astonishing display of her skill wherewith to dazzle the stranger upon the morrow. In any case he rarely disagreed with the opinions of his cronies and was sure to be one with them in the matter of that hour.
With a respectful salute to Mrs. Trent, a grin toward the children, and a scowl for Antonio, these stalwart ranchmen lined up against the wall and stood at attention. Mr. Hale, observant through the doorway, again noticed that each of these was well along in years, that each had some slight physical infirmity, and that, despite these facts, each looked a man of unusual strength and most entire devotion. Indeed, the gaze fixed upon the little lady, was one of adoration, and the situation boded ill for anybody who meant harm to her.
ďAhem. What say, mates? Has the hour struck?Ē
ďThe hour has struck,Ē answered John Benton, solemnly, shifting his weight from his lame leg to his sound one.
Samson strode a mighty step forward and pulled his forelock.
ďThen I state, madam, that we here, on behalf of ourselves and our whole crew, now, and hereby do, throw off all ílegiance to that there Spanish skunk, a-settiní in your easiest chair, and appoint Our Lady Jess, captain of the good ship Sobrante. Allowiní you to be the admiral of that same, madam, but takiní no more orders from anybody save and excepting herĖunder you, of courseĖfrom this time forth, so help us.Ē
Then there burst from the trio of throats a cheer that shook the windows, and called a contemptuous laugh from the superintendent so valiantly defied.
The cheer died in an ominous silence which Senor Bernal improved.
ďHighly dramatic and most edifying, en verdad. Senor, I kiss your hands in even greater devotion. But the play has one little drawback. To I, me, myself, belongs Sobrante. Already I have had the law of which you spoke. My claim I have proved. From the long back generations the good title from the Mission Padres to my own fathers, yes. Sobrante? Si. More and better. Wide lies the valley of Paraiso díOro. Mine, Mine. AllĖall mine. No?Ē
He rose to his feet and pompously paced up and down the room, insolently handsome and proud of the fact, while out on the darkened porch Mr. Hale had heard a word which set his own pulses beating faster and the row of ranchmen started forward as if minded to throw the braggart out of the house.
But Jessica stepped forth and cried, triumphantly, though still with an effort toward that courtesy she desired.
ďBeg pardon, Senor Antonio Bernal, but surely you are quite mistaken. My father taught me some things. He said I was not too young to learn them. HeĖhe onlyĖhas the title deed to dear Sobrante, and IĖI onlyĖknow the safe place where it is kept!Ē
Antonio halted in his strutting march and for a moment his face grew pale. The next instant he had regained more than his former confidence, and with a sneering laugh, exclaimed:
ďSeeing is believing, no? To the satisfaction of the assembled most honorable company,Ē here he bowed with mock politeness, ďlet this most interesting document be produced. Si.Ē
Jessica flew from the room and in an intolerable anxiety the whole ďhonorable companyĒ awaited her long-delayed return.
When the tension of waiting was becoming intolerable, and Mrs. Trent was already rising to seek her daughter, Jessica reappeared in the doorway. Her white face and frightened eyes told her story without words, but her mother forced herself to ask:
ďDid you find it, darling?Ē
ďMother, it is gone!Ē
ďGone. Yet it was only that dear, last day when he was with us, in the morning, before he set out for the mines, that he showed it to me, safe and sound in its place. He was to tell you, too, that nightĖbutĖĒ
ďIt was that, then, which was on his mind, and I could not understand. IĖAntonio Bernal, he entrusted you and you must know; where is that missing deed?Ē
ďDeed, senora? This day, just ended, is it not that I have been over all the records and there is none of any deed to Sobrante later than my ownĖor that proves my claim. In truth, the honorable Dona Gabriella is right, indeed. I was the trusted friend of the dead senor, and if any such precious document existed, would I not have known it? Si. What I do know is the worry, the trouble, the impossibility of such a paper broke the senorís heart. It does not exist. Sobrante is mine. He knew that this was soĖI had often spokenĖĒ
The untruth he was about to utter did not pass his lips. There was that in the white face of Gabriella Trent which arrested his words, as, clasping her boy in her arms, she glided into the darkened hall and entered her own rooms beyond.
The ďboysĒ had not moved, nor Jessica followed, and she now firmly confronted the manager, saying:
ďI am sorry to tell you, Antonio Bernal, that you are not acting square. My father did have that title deed, and I believe you know it. Somebody has taken it from the place where his own hands put it, but I will find it. This home is ours, is all my motherís. Nobody shall ever take it from her. Nobody. You hear me say that, Senor Antonio Bernal, and you, dear Ďboys?íĒ
ďAy, ay,Ē echoed her friends, heartily; but the superintendent regarded her as he might have done some amusing little insect.
ďVery pretty, senorita. The filial devotion, almost beautiful. But the factsĖwell, am I not merciful and generous, I? There is no haste. Indeed, no. A monthĖĒ
ďBefore a month is out I will have found that deed and placed it in my darling motherís hands. I may be too young to understand the Ďbusinessí you talk about so much, but I am not too young to save my motherís happiness. I can see that paper now, in my mind, and I remember exactly how it looked inside and out. It seemed such a little thing to be worth a whole, great ranch. I donít know how nor where, but somehow and somewhere, I shall find that paper. ĎBoys,í will you help me?Ē
ďTo the last drop of our heartsí blood!Ē cried John Benton, and the others echoed, ďAy, ay!Ē
Antonio thought it time to end this scene and walked toward the porch, at the further end of which was another long window opening into his own apartments. But he was not permitted to leave so easily. Great Samson placed himself in the managerís path and remarked:
ďThereís no call to lose sight of the main business ícount oí this little side-play of yours. We boys come up here to-night to quit your employ and hire out to Our Lady Jess. Weíre all agreed, every man jack of us. Your dayís over. Account of Mrs. Trent and the kids, weíd like things done quiet and decent. Thereís a good horse of yours in the stable and though there isnít any moon, you know the roads well. If you tarry for breakfast, likely you wonít have much appetite to eat it. Moreín that, the senora, as you call her, has waited on your whelpship for just the last time. Before you start you might as well pay up some of our back wages, and hand over to the mistress the funds youíve been keeping from her.Ē
ďInsolent! Stand aside. How dare you? Let me pass.Ē
ďIím not quite through yet. Thereís no real call to have talk with such as you, but we Ďboysí kind of resent being set down as plumb fools. Weíve seen through you, though weíve kept our mouths shut. Now theyíre open; leastways, mine is. This here notion of yours about owniní Sobrante is a bird of recent hatchiní. íTisnít full-fledged yet, and ís likely never to be. Your first idea was to run the ranch down till your mistress had to give it up out of sheer bad luck. Fail, mortgage, or such like. Oranges didnít sell for what they ought; olives wasnít worth shucks; some little varmint got to eating the raisin grapes; mine petered out; feathers growing poorer every plucking, though the birds are getting valuabler. Never had accounts quite readyĖyou, that was a master hand at figures when the boss took you in and made you, YouĖĒ
Antonio strode forward, furious, and with uplifted hand.
ďYou rascal! This to meĖI, Antonio Bernal, descendant ofĖMaster of Sobrante and Paraiso, IĖĒ
ďMaster? Humph! Owner? Fiddlesticks! Why, that little tacker there, asleep on the floor,Ē pointing to Luis, ďis likelier heir to this old ranch than you. The countryís full of Garcias and always has been, Pedro says. Garcia himself, when allís told. As for Bernals, who ever heard of moreín one oí them? Thatís you, you skunk! Now, usiní your own fine, highfalutiní language: ĎGo. Vamos. Depart. Clear out. Get!íĒ
ďI goĖbecause it so suits me, I, myself. But I return. New servants will be with me and your quarters must be empty. Let me pass.Ē
ďCertain. Anything to oblige. But donít count on them quarters. We couldnít leave them if we would ícause weíve all took root. Been growing so long; become indigenous to the soil, like the bossí experiments. Thrive so well might have been born here and certainly mean to die on the spot. Going? Well, good-night. Call again. Adios.Ē
By this time Jessica was laughing, as her old friend had meant she should be. In his contemptuous harangue of the man he disliked and mistrusted, there had been more humor than anger.
ďWell, my lady, that did me good. Havenít had such a thorough housecleaning of my mean thoughts in quite a spell. Feel all ready for a fresh voyage under the new captain. You rest run along and find that long sufferiní mother of yours and tell her the coastís clear of that pirate craft. Weíve all shipped men-oí-war, now, and run up the old flag of truth and love. That was the banner your father floated from his masthead, and the colors thatíll never dip to lying or cheating. Wait. Iíll pack this baby Luis to his bed. Poor little castaway, that your good father picked up in the canyon and fetched home in his arms, to share the best with his own. Well, neednít tell me that the family of a man as good as he wasíll ever come to want. Heave ahead, captain. Show me the track to sail.Ē
Jessica stopped to bid the other ranchmen good-night, then led the sailor to the little bedroom which the lads shared in common, and where Ned was already asleep, tucked in his white cot by his mother, who let no personal grief interfere with her care for others.
ďGood-night, dear Samson. I must find that paper. You must help me. My mother must not, shall not, lose her home.Ē
ďNever. Good-night, captain. Youíve a good crew on deck and weíll make happy haven yet.Ē
That was Jessica Trentís first wakeful night. Though she tried to lie quietly in her own little bed, lest she should disturb her mother whose room she shared, she fancied all sorts of strange sounds, both in-doors and out; and whenever she dropped into a doze, dreamed of the missing paper and of searching for it.
One dream was so vivid that she woke, exclaiming:
ďOh, mother! Iíve found it. The black tin box under the three sharp rocks!Ē
But her eyes opened upon vacancy, and there was no response from the larger bed where her anxious parent had, at last, fallen asleep. Yet the vision remained, painted upon the darkness, as it were, a sun-lighted glowing spot, with three pyramidal rocks and a clump of scraggly live oaks. A spot she had never seen, indeed, but felt that she should instantly recognize, should she come upon it anywhere.
Then she curled back upon her pillows and again shut her eyes.
Could it be possible that she, a healthy little girl, was growing fidgety, like Aunt Sally Benton, who sometimes came to visit her son and help with the sewing? For she surely was hearing things. Movements, hushed footfalls, softly closing doors, creaking floors, at an hour when all the household should be at rest.
ďHow silly! It may be somebody is ill! Wun Lungís hand may hurt him, though it seemed so nearly well, and nobody else would have minded it. That stranger! Yes, I fancy itís he. He may need something that I can get him, and Iíll go inquire.Ē
Slipping a little wrapper over her gown, but in her bare feet, the girl noiselessly left the room and followed the sound she had heard. These led her to a small apartment which her father had used as an office and where stood the desk in whose secret drawer she had expected to find the title deed. A small fireproof safe was in this office. It was an old-fashioned affair, with a simple, but heavy key, which the Sobrante children had played with in their infancy. She remembered her father remarking, with a laugh, that a safe was the most useless thing he possessed, for he never had anything worth putting in it; but it had been a belonging of old ďForty-ninerĒ Marsh, a gift to his employer, and therefore accorded a place of honor.
Before this safe now bent a man whom Jessica recognized with surprise and relief.
ďWhy, Mr. Marsh! Is it you? What in the world are you doing here at this hour? Are you ill? Do you want something?Ē
ďNo, dearie. Iím not ill; and Iím not robbing you. And Iíve got all I want. Thatís one more look at your bonny face, God bless it!Ē
It was close to his shoulder now, that face he loved, and he kissed it tenderly; though with equal tenderness, if less emotion, the little maid returned his caress and clasped his neck with those strong, young arms that so yearned to protect and comfort everybody.
ďThatís funny. Should think youíd be tired of it, sometimes, I disappoint you so. But never mind. Iím getting handier with my new rifle every day, I think, and I mean to do yet what Samson claims I shouldĖjust beat the world. Have you finished looking at your things?Ē For it was Mr. Marsh himself who had always used the safe, even after giving it away. ďCanít I get you something to eat, so you can sleep better?Ē
ďNo, dearie, no, just one more good kissĖto remember. Good-by. Good-by. ItĖit might have been done kinder, maybe, butĖher heart is sad, I know, and her first thought is for you. She must save for you. Here, Lady, take the key. Some time youĖyou might want to look in that safe for yourself. Good-night.Ē
Jessica went with him to the outer door, wondering much at this oddly-timed visit. Yet the ranchman walked erect, still carrying his lighted candle quite openly, as one who had done nothing of which to be ashamed; and when he had departed the girl returned to her own bed still more wakeful because of this queer incident.
Ten minutes later, it may have been, she heard the limping footfall of a slowly-moving horse, the echoes growing fainter continually.
Again she sat up and listened.
ďThatís Mr. Marshís ĎStiffleg!í What should send him off riding now? Oh! I do wish mother was awake, things seem so queer. Yet I donít really wish it. She has so many wakeful nights and just this one is more than I want. Now, Jessica Trent, donít be foolish any longer. Go straight to sleep or youíll be late in the morning.Ē
Nature acted upon this good advice, and Our Lady knew no more till a pair of chubby hands were pulling her curls and Nedís voice was screeching in her ear:
ďWake up, Jessie Trent. We had our breakfast hours ago, and the Ďboysí is all out-doors, canít go to work íithout their captain. Thatís me, Jessie Trent, ícause Iím the Ďheir.í Samson said so.Ē
ďIís the heir, Samson said so!Ē echoed Luis from the floor where he was trying the fit of Jessicaís new ďbuckskinsĒĖthe comfortable moccasin-like footgear which Pedro made for herĖupon his own stubby toes.
ďHe, he! Whatís the heir Samson said? Youíre a stupid, Luis Garcia.Ē
ďStupid Garcia!Ē laughed the little mimic, not in the least offended.
ďWell, run away then, laddies, and Iíll be ready in a jiffy. Poor mother. To think that I should have left her to do so much alone.Ē
As she threw open the sash of the rear window, Jessica started back, surprised; for there, reined close to the porch, was Neroís black form, with the dark face of his master bending low over the saddle.
ďGood-morning, senorita, and good fortune. Those who hid may find. I kiss your hand in farewell, and may it rule in peace till I return, I myself, the master. One month hence I come, bringing my servants with me. Adios. Ah! but what did you and the old sharpshooter at the office safe at midnight? When the senora would seek her title, seek him. It is farewell.Ē
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