Evelyn Raymond.

Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranch





The gentleman whom you met, as you came in, is a lawyer. A New York lawyer. II would like to consult him about ourthis 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 Im not fond of the profession usually.

The 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, senorabelieve 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.

To you! Belongstoyou? gasped the astonished woman.

The manager shrugged his shoulders and tossed another Spanish proverb toward her: What I have said, I have said.

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 gentlewomans fastidious sense, and it angered her, which was a good thing, for her anger banished her momentary faintness and gave her boldness to demand:

The proof!

It will be forthcoming, senora, at the right time. Yes. Meanwhile, I am content you shall remain, you and your little ones, untilwell, 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 who

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 Sobrantes 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:

What have you been worrying your betters with now, senor?

Keep a civil tongue in your head, rascal.

Returnin the compliment, if you please. All the same, dont you know that a mana mandoesnt go around worrying women as you worry Mrs. Trent? You, that hadnt a shirt to your back when the boss took you in and made you what you are! Im anticipatin a mite, and I dont know just how some of the boysll take it, but wed laid out this very night at moon-upif thered been a moon sensible enough to get up, which there isntto 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 youjust you, yourself, keep that civil tongue you recommend, or youll light out of here so quick ye wont see your heels for dust, dry season though it is.

Hear?

Hear? Yes, I hear. Now, tis your turn. You go tell those malcontents you call the boys to take their packs and foot it. Times have changed. Things have changed. Theres another master here now, and not a weak-willed mistress. That is meIAntonio Bernal, owner of Sobrante rancho and all that appertains thereto. Now, go. Vamos. Depart. Clear out. Get!

Samson wentas 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. Trents shoulders with the protecting tenderness habitual to her. Ned had sprung to his mothers 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 Samsons whistle, there filed over the porch and into the room, Joe, the smith; Marty, the gardener; and Carpenter John. There was missing old Forty-niner, commonly the dominant fifth of this odd quintet, but nobody wondered much at that. Doubtless he was polishing his darlings 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.

Ahem. What say, mates? Has the hour struck?

The hour has struck, 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.

Then I state, madam, that we here, on behalf of ourselves and our whole crew, now, and hereby do, throw off all legiance to that there Spanish skunk, a-settin in your easiest chair, and appoint Our Lady Jess, captain of the good ship Sobrante. Allowin you to be the admiral of that same, madam, but takin no more orders from anybody save and excepting herunder you, of coursefrom this time forth, so help us.

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.

Highly 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 dOro. Mine, Mine. Allall mine. No?

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.

Beg 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. Hehe onlyhas the title deed to dear Sobrante, and II onlyknow the safe place where it is kept!

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:

Seeing is believing, no? To the satisfaction of the assembled most honorable company, here he bowed with mock politeness, let this most interesting document be produced. Si.

Jessica flew from the room and in an intolerable anxiety the whole honorable company awaited her long-delayed return.

CHAPTER VI
NIGHT VISIONS

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:

Did you find it, darling?

Mother, it is gone!

Gone!

Gone. 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 nightbut

It was that, then, which was on his mind, and I could not understand. IAntonio Bernal, he entrusted you and you must know; where is that missing deed?

Deed, 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 ownor 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 senors heart. It does not exist. Sobrante is mine. He knew that this was soI had often spoken

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 boys had not moved, nor Jessica followed, and she now firmly confronted the manager, saying:

I 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 mothers. Nobody shall ever take it from her. Nobody. You hear me say that, Senor Antonio Bernal, and you, dear boys?

Ay, ay, echoed her friends, heartily; but the superintendent regarded her as he might have done some amusing little insect.

Very pretty, senorita. The filial devotion, almost beautiful. But the factswell, am I not merciful and generous, I? There is no haste. Indeed, no. A month

Before a month is out I will have found that deed and placed it in my darling mothers hands. I may be too young to understand the business you talk about so much, but I am not too young to save my mothers 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 dont know how nor where, but somehow and somewhere, I shall find that paper. Boys, will you help me?

To the last drop of our hearts blood! cried John Benton, and the others echoed, Ay, ay!

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 managers path and remarked:

Theres no call to lose sight of the main business count o this little side-play of yours. We boys come up here to-night to quit your employ and hire out to Our Lady Jess. Were all agreed, every man jack of us. Your days over. Account of Mrs. Trent and the kids, wed like things done quiet and decent. Theres a good horse of yours in the stable and though there isnt any moon, you know the roads well. If you tarry for breakfast, likely you wont have much appetite to eat it. Moren 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 youve been keeping from her.

Insolent! Stand aside. How dare you? Let me pass.

Im not quite through yet. Theres no real call to have talk with such as you, but we boys kind of resent being set down as plumb fools. Weve seen through you, though weve kept our mouths shut. Now theyre open; leastways, mine is. This here notion of yours about ownin Sobrante is a bird of recent hatchin. Tisnt full-fledged yet, and s 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 didnt sell for what they ought; olives wasnt 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 readyyou, that was a master hand at figures when the boss took you in and made you, You

Antonio strode forward, furious, and with uplifted hand.

You rascal! This to meI, Antonio Bernal, descendant ofMaster of Sobrante and Paraiso, I

Master? Humph! Owner? Fiddlesticks! Why, that little tacker there, asleep on the floor, pointing to Luis, is likelier heir to this old ranch than you. The countrys full of Garcias and always has been, Pedro says. Garcia himself, when alls told. As for Bernals, who ever heard of moren one o them? Thats you, you skunk! Now, usin your own fine, highfalutin language: Go. Vamos. Depart. Clear out. Get!

I gobecause it so suits me, I, myself. But I return. New servants will be with me and your quarters must be empty. Let me pass.

Certain. Anything to oblige. But dont count on them quarters. We couldnt leave them if we would cause weve all took root. Been growing so long; become indigenous to the soil, like the boss experiments. Thrive so well might have been born here and certainly mean to die on the spot. Going? Well, good-night. Call again. Adios.

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.

Well, my lady, that did me good. Havent 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 sufferin mother of yours and tell her the coasts clear of that pirate craft. Weve all shipped men-o-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 thatll never dip to lying or cheating. Wait. Ill 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, neednt tell me that the family of a man as good as he wasll ever come to want. Heave ahead, captain. Show me the track to sail.

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.

Good-night, dear Samson. I must find that paper. You must help me. My mother must not, shall not, lose her home.

Never. Good-night, captain. Youve a good crew on deck and well make happy haven yet.

That was Jessica Trents 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:

Oh, mother! Ive found it. The black tin box under the three sharp rocks!

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.

How silly! It may be somebody is ill! Wun Lungs hand may hurt him, though it seemed so nearly well, and nobody else would have minded it. That stranger! Yes, I fancy its he. He may need something that I can get him, and Ill go inquire.

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 Forty-niner 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.

Why, Mr. Marsh! Is it you? What in the world are you doing here at this hour? Are you ill? Do you want something?

No, dearie. Im not ill; and Im not robbing you. And Ive got all I want. Thats one more look at your bonny face, God bless it!

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.

Thats funny. Should think youd be tired of it, sometimes, I disappoint you so. But never mind. Im getting handier with my new rifle every day, I think, and I mean to do yet what Samson claims I shouldjust beat the world. Have you finished looking at your things? For it was Mr. Marsh himself who had always used the safe, even after giving it away. Cant I get you something to eat, so you can sleep better?

No, dearie, no, just one more good kissto remember. Good-by. Good-by. Itit might have been done kinder, maybe, buther heart is sad, I know, and her first thought is for you. She must save for you. Here, Lady, take the key. Some time youyou might want to look in that safe for yourself. Good-night.

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.

Thats Mr. Marshs Stiffleg! What should send him off riding now? Oh! I do wish mother was awake, things seem so queer. Yet I dont really wish it. She has so many wakeful nights and just this one is more than I want. Now, Jessica Trent, dont be foolish any longer. Go straight to sleep or youll be late in the morning.

Nature acted upon this good advice, and Our Lady knew no more till a pair of chubby hands were pulling her curls and Neds voice was screeching in her ear:

Wake up, Jessie Trent. We had our breakfast hours ago, and the boys is all out-doors, cant go to work ithout their captain. Thats me, Jessie Trent, cause Im the heir. Samson said so.

Is the heir, Samson said so! echoed Luis from the floor where he was trying the fit of Jessicas new buckskinsthe comfortable moccasin-like footgear which Pedro made for herupon his own stubby toes.

He, he! Whats the heir Samson said? Youre a stupid, Luis Garcia.

Stupid Garcia! laughed the little mimic, not in the least offended.

Well, run away then, laddies, and Ill be ready in a jiffy. Poor mother. To think that I should have left her to do so much alone.

As she threw open the sash of the rear window, Jessica started back, surprised; for there, reined close to the porch, was Neros black form, with the dark face of his master bending low over the saddle.

Good-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.





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