Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranchñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Jessica drew back, repelled. Why did that man make her so unhappy whenever she saw him nowadays? What did he mean by that speech about old Ephraim Marsh and the safe? Well, he was gone, riding swiftly away and lightening her trouble with every rod of ground he put between them.
“He’ll not come for a month, he said, and by that time everything will be straight. If Sobrante is ours it cannot possibly be his. That’s simple. Though he might have lived here always if he’d wished. The title paper has been mislaid. That’s all. I’m sure to find it when I have time to look thoroughly, and how different things do seem by daylight. Now, to say good-morning to the ‘boys,’ dear fellows, and then for breakfast. I’m as hungry as on ostrich.”
Though since sunrise each had been busy about his accustomed duties, neglecting nothing because of the change in command, it suited the ideas of these faithful ranchmen to report for duty to their newly appointed “captain” and to ask for orders from her. With the ready intuition of childhood she fell in with their mood at once and received them in a manner which robbed the affair of burlesque and invested it with dignity.
From a shaded corner of the porch, from behind his book, Mr. Hale watched the scene with an amusement that soon gave place to wonder and admiration. They were all profoundly in earnest. The fair young girl with folded arms and serene composure, poised at the head of the steps and the group of sunburned workmen standing respectfully before her.
By tacit consent Samson was spokesman for the company and his words had their usual nautical tinge.
“We’re ready to set sail, captain, and here’s wishing good luck to the v’yge! Old ‘Forty-niner’ hasn’t showed up on deck yet, but he’ll likely soon heave to, and the rest the crew’ll vouch for his being a good hand in any sort o’ storm we’re apt to strike. We’ve overhauled this chart. Each of us solemnly promise to abide and obey no orders but yours, captain, or the admiral’s through you. And would respectfully suggest–each man sticks to the post he’s always filled, till ordered off it by his superior officer. Right, mates?”
“How’s that suit you, commodore?”
“That suits me, Samson. It will suit my mother.”
“As for pay–being as we’ve got along without any these five months back, and Senor Top-Lofty’s rode off, forgettin’ to leave them arrears we mentioned, we wash the slate clean and start all over again. For five months to come we’ll serve you and the admiral for mess and berth, no more, no less.”
“Samson, do you mean that? Haven’t you boys been paid your wages regularly, just as in my father’s time?”
“Come, now, captain, that’s all right. Give us the word of dismissal and let that slide. You missed your own mess this morning–”
“But that will break my mother’s heart. I know! I know! I’ve often heard her ask him, and Antonio tell her–he said that your wages were always taken out before he brought what little money he could to her.
I know you said something about ‘arrears’ last night, but I didn’t understand. What are ‘arrears,’ Samson?”
“Blow me, for an old numskull. Why couldn’t I keep my long tongue still! I only meant that we are willing, we want, we must work for you and all the Trents for nothing till we’ve made up part to ’em of what that sweet ‘senor’ cheated ’em of. That’s all. We’ve settled it. No use for anybody to try change our minds, even if there was spot cash lying around loose, waiting to be picked up and you havin’ no call for it. Not one of which conditions hits the case.”
“You are a good talker, dear old Samson, and a long one. I can talk, too, sometimes. Maybe you’ve heard me! You’ve read me your chart. Hear mine. It’s my father’s own–that he always meant, but was never able to follow. That I know my mother wants to follow for his sake, though she does know so little of business. Now, if we’re starting fresh, with the clean slates you like, we’ll put this at the top: ‘share and share alike.’ There was another long name dear father used to call it–I–”
“Co-operation,” suggested John Benton.
“Yes, yes. That’s it. As soon as he was out of debt and had a right to do what he would with Sobrante, he meant to run it that way. But you know, you know. It was only that last day when he came home so late from that far-off town that he had his own ‘title’ and was all ready to do as he wished. Let us do that now. I know how. He told me. He was to make you, Samson, responsible for all the cattle on the ranch. You were to hire as many of the other boys as you needed and were to have a just share for your own money. The more you made out of the cattle the better it would be for yourself. Isn’t that right?”
“Right to a dot. Atlantic! but you’ve a head for business, captain!”
“I’ve a head must learn business, if I’m to be your captain. That is true enough. It isn’t my father’s fault if I don’t know some simple things. He was always teaching me, because Ned was too little and my mother–well, business always worried her and he’d do anything to save her worry, even talk to a little girl like me. And as Samson was to do with the cattle, so George Cromarty was to do with the raisins and oranges. The ostriches–Oh! but they were to be Antonio’s charge. And now–”
“They’re yours, captain, with any one or lot of us you choose for helpers.”
“Ferd knew much about them, and they minded him. But–”
“Ferd’ll trouble Sobrante none while the senor is away. Joe is a good hand at all live stock, and I’ll pledge you’ll get every feather that’s plucked when he does the counting. He won’t let any eggs get cooked in hatchin’, neither. You can trust Joseph–if you watch him a mite.”
A laugh at honest Joe’s expense, in which he heartily joined, followed this and Lady Jess stepped down among her friends, holding out her hands to first one, then another. Her blue eyes were filled with happy moisture, for she was not too young to feel their devotion to be as unselfish as it was sincere, and her smile was full of confidence in them and in herself.
“Eleven years old is pretty early to be a captain, I guess, but I’ll be a good one–just as good and true as you are! What I don’t know you’ll teach me, and if I make mistakes you’ll be patient, I know. One thing I can do, I can copy bills and papers. I can put down figures and add them up. It was good practice for me, my father said. So I’ll put down your names and all your business in these new books he bought and was going to use in his co–co-operation–is that right, John?”
“Right as a trivet.”
“And our admiral, that’s the dear mother, will not have to fret so any longer. Between us we’ll make Sobrante all my father meant it should be and–as soon as I have my breakfast–I will find that title. I must find it. I will. Sobrante is yours and ours forever. Oh, boys, I love you! I’m all choked up–I love you so and I feel like that my father used to read in Dickens: ‘God bless you every one!’”
With her hands clasped close against her breast, and her beloved face luminous with her deep affection, their little maid stood before her hardy henchmen, a symbol to them of all that was best and purest in life. Their own eyes were moist, and even Mr. Hale had to take off his glasses and wipe them as, looking around upon his comrades, great Samson swung his hat and cried:
“And may God bless Our Lady Jess! And may every man who seeks to injure her be–stricken with numb palsy! And may every crop be doubled, prices likewise! Peace, prosperity and happiness to Sobrante–destruction to her enemies!”
“Forgiveness for her enemies, Samson, dear, if there really are. That will be nobler, more like father’s rule. Make it peace, prosperity and happiness to all the world! Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!”
Mr. Hale clapped his hands to his ears, then hastily moved forward and joined in the cheer, that was deafening enough to have come from many more throats than uttered it. Yet he had an uncomfortable feeling that he might be classed among those “enemies” whom Samson wished afflicted with numb palsy and that, at that moment, he was, by no fault of his own, playing a double part.
But he gave himself the benefit of the doubt until he should learn, as he meant to do at once, the whole history of Sobrante with its strange hodge-podge of industries, its veteran employees, and its childish “captain.” So, while the ranchmen dispersed to their business and Jessica sought her long-delayed breakfast, he turned towards the kitchen where he hoped to find the mistress of the ranch.
But he was disappointed. There was visible only the broad, purple-covered back and black pig-tail of a Chinaman, pounding away at the snowy loaves of his kneading-board, as if they were “enemies” of his own and deserving something much worse than “numb palsy.”
No answer, save the whack, whack, whack of the tormented dough.
“Ahem. I say, John!”
“Wun Lung, where’s your mistress?”
“Indeed? I fancy your hand is better. I’m glad of it. That bread ought to be fine. At your leisure, kindly point the direction of the ‘dlaily,’ will you?”
One yellow, floury hand was lifted and extended eastward, but as this signified nothing definite to the stranger he continued his inquiries.
“And the little boys?”
“I congratulate you on your English, though I’m uncertainly whether you mean me to ‘go on’ or assert that somebody else has gone on. I don’t like to disturb Miss Jessica at breakfast, but–”
“Back polchee,” suggested Wun Lung, anxious to be rid of the intruder, whose irony he suspected if he did not understand.
Mr. Hale betook himself around the house, and, fortunately, in the right direction; for just issuing from her dairy, which was in a cellar under the cottage, was Mrs. Trent, bearing a wooden bowl of freshly made butter.
The guest’s heart smote him as he saw her sad face brighten at meeting him, for he knew she trusted him for help he was in duty bound to give elsewhere. But it was not a lawyer’s habit to anticipate evil, and he was thankful for her suggestion.
“You should have a ride this fine morning, Mr. Hale, before the sun is too high. I’ve ordered a horse brought round for you at nine o’clock, and Jessica shall act your guide, on Scruff. That is–if the laddies haven’t already disappeared with him. Ah! here comes my girl, herself. You are to show our friend as much of Sobrante as he cares to see, in one morning, daughter. If the children have ridden the burro off you may have Buster saddled.”
“Shan’t you need me, mother? One of the men–”
“No, dear. Wun Lung is at his post again and Pasqual will do the milk and things. But as you go, I’d like you to take this butter to John’s. It’s the weekly portion for the men, who mess for themselves,” she explained to the stranger.
“Lucky men to fare on such golden balls as those!”
“Come and see my dairy. I’m very proud of it. You know, I suppose, that cellars are rarities in California. Everything is built above ground, in ordinary homes; but I needed a cooler place for the milk, and my husband had this planned for me. See the water, our greatest luxury; piped from an artesian well to the tank above, and then down through these cooling pipes around the shelves. After such use supplying the garden, for whatever else may be wasted here it is never a drop of water. Will you taste the buttermilk? I can’t give you ice, but we cool it in earthen crocks sunk in the floor.”
More and more did the lawyer’s admiration for his hostess increase. She displayed the prosaic details of her dairy with the same ease and pride with which she would have exhibited the choicest bric-a-brac of a sumptuous drawing-room, and her manner impelled him to an interest in the place which he would have found impossible under other circumstances. But above all he wondered at the unselfishness with which she set aside her own anxieties and gave herself wholly to the entertainment of her guest.
“The loss of that title deed means ruin for her and her family–even if I were not also compelled to bring distress upon her. But she does not whine nor complain, and that’s going to make my task all the harder. Well, first to see this ranch, and then–I wish I’d never come upon this business! Better suffer nervous dyspepsia all the rest of my life than break such a woman’s heart. Her husband may have been a scamp of the first water, but she’s a lady and a Christian. So is that beautiful little girl, and it’s from her I mean to get all my needed information.”
Absorbed in thoughts that were far from pleasant, the gentleman walked beside Mrs. Trent to the horseblock, and mounted the horse which a gray-haired stable “boy” was holding for him, all without rousing from the preoccupation that held him. It was not till he heard Jessica’s excited call coming over the space between the cottage and the “quarters” that he realized where he was and looked up, expectant.
The little girl who had left them for a few moments, was galloping toward them on the back of a rough-coated broncho, waving a paper in her hand and with distressed indignation, crying out as she came:
“‘Forty-niner’ has gone. Dear old ‘Forty-niner!’ I found this letter in his room and it’s forever–forever! Oh, mother! And he says you discharged him–or it means that–without show of chance! Mother, mother, how could you? That dear old man that everybody loved!”
“Discharged him–I? I should as soon have thought of discharging myself! What fresh distress is this?”
Catching the paper from Jessica’s hand Mrs. Trent read it, then turned and without a word walked slowly into the house. But her head was giddy and her limbs trembled, and she had a strange feeling as if she were being swiftly inclosed in a net from which she could not escape.
IN THE MINER’S CABIN
“Forgive me, mother! I oughtn’t to have told it that way. But what does it mean? Why should you want him to go?”
“Did you not hear me say I would not have dismissed him? No, dear. There is something in this I don’t understand. How do we know but that all the other ‘boys’ who left so suddenly have been deceived in just this way? As long as there was food enough to eat and a roof to shelter them the men whom your father befriended and who, in turn have befriended us, were as welcome to Sobrante as my own children. I must think this over. We must then find Ephraim and bring him back. We must. There! We’ll not discuss it any more at present. You are keeping Mr. Hale waiting and that is rudeness. Go, now, and explain all your father’s plans to him, as you ride.”
“I’d so much rather stay with you. I don’t like to leave you now.”
“I shall be busy and you’ll be back for dinner.”
“I’d like to look for that paper–the title.”
“When you come back.”
“Good-by, then, and don’t do any hard work. I’ll send the children up to stay around the house. That will be one worry off your mind.”
When she had again sprung into her saddle, Lady Jess apologized for keeping Mr. Hale so long, and suggested:
“Suppose we ride first to the mines, while it is coolest. Then come around by the olive and orange orchards. We can rest at the lemon house awhile. It’s interesting to see how they are cared for, or so most strangers think.”
“Anything and anywhere suits me, for I’m full of curiosity about Sobrante. How did your father happen to take up so many different lines of industry?”
“Oh, they were all his ‘experiments.’ You see he wanted to do good to some sorts of people that nobody else seemed much interested in. Men that were getting old and were not rich or well. He was born in California, and he always thought it the land where everybody could find a place if he only had a chance. He went to New York and lived a long time, and he and mother were married there. He’d once ridden over this valley, on a horseback trip–just like yours, maybe–and after that he always meant to buy it if he could. So, when he began to lose his own health he came right away. He hadn’t much money himself, but he worked and mother helped, and he’d paid for it all before he died. It was the title deed which proved it, that he had just brought home and I could not find last night. Though, of course, I shall find it yet,” she added confidently.
“I hope so, my child. I devotedly hope so. Yet if it was duly recorded the matter should easily be set right.”
Jessica’s face fell.
“I don’t believe it was. He said something about that, I didn’t understand it quite, but I know he said ‘recorded’ and that he meant to have it done the next time he went to Los Angeles. But–he didn’t ever go.”
The lawyer’s face grew still more serious. Something of the love with which she inspired everybody was already in his heart for this little maid, and thoughts of his own young daughters, threatened with the misfortune which menaced her, stirred him to fresh regret for the mission he had undertaken.
They had now turned their horses’ heads toward the foothills on the north and he asked:
“What are these ‘mines’ of which you speak?”
“For coal. It was an old man from Pennsylvania first thought there might be such stuff in the mountains near, and it’s worth so much here. Father had found him in one of the towns, with his wife and sick son. They’d spent all they had, to come West to try to cure the son, and were very poor. So, of course, father brought them to Sobrante, and the boy got better at once. They didn’t understand any sort of work except mining, and old Wolfgang couldn’t rest without trying to do something back for father. So he and Otto dug and picked around till they found a ‘vein’ and then they put up a little cabin near and there they live. Their name is Winkler, and Elsa, the mother, is the quaintest little Dutchwoman. Of course, there’s never been money enough to work the mine right. All they can do is to get out enough coal for us to use. That’s why we always have such lovely grate fires in the winter time, that make the house so cosy. You’ll like the Winklers, and you’ll like Elsa’s coffee. Go there what time of day you will she always makes you drink some, sweetened with the wild honey she gets in the hills and with her goat’s milk in it.”
Mr. Hale made a wry face.
“Oh! you’re sure to like it. It is delicious, drank with a slice of her hard, sweetened bread. And their little cabin is as clean as can be. Elsa is a great knitter. She has knitted covers for everything, her beds, chairs, table, everything. All the furniture is made out of wood they found in the hills, and when they’re not mining Otto carves it beautifully.”
“Are all the people who work for you unfortunate? I mean, was some misfortune that which made your father engage them?”
“Yes, just that. They are his ‘experiments.’ He said this valley was made for every sort of work there was to be done. All men can’t be the same thing, and every man was happiest at his own trade. Young men can get work anywhere, but dear Sobrante is a Home with a capital H, for anybody who needs one. My father said the more he trusted people the less they ever disappointed him. He’d proved his plan was right on his own single ranch and he was trying to make others do the same on theirs. Paraiso d’Oro–oh! you’re from that same New York. Do you know a–a Mr. Syndicate, I think he was, who owns Paraiso. Of course, I know in such a big city you might not, though maybe–”
The listener started, then looked keenly into the innocent face bending toward him from the broncho’s back.
“Suppose I do know a syndicate–a company–not an individual, which is interested in Paraiso? Can you tell me anything about such a place? Until last night I had no idea that I had come anywhere near to it, and then by accident, hearing Antonio Bernal mention it as his. Is it hereabouts?”
Jessica turned her horse about in a circle, rapidly swinging her pointing arm to indicate every direction of the compass.
“Know it? It is there, and there, and there–everywhere. The very richest tract of land in all the country, my father believed. Sobrante is the heart of it, he said, but the rest of the valley is even better than Sobrante. It is so big one can hardly believe. He said there was room in it, and a little ranch apiece, for every poor down-trodden man–not bad men, but poor gentlemen, like worn-out lawyers and doctors and–and nice folks–and make a new home in which to live at peace. He said there were plenty of people always ready to help the very poor and ignorant, but nobody so willing to help gentlefolks without money. That’s why he asked a lot of rich people he used to know in New York to buy Paraiso. He gave it its name, himself, and he believed that there might be really gold somewhere in it. There’s everything else, you see. But it was a name of ‘syndicate’ he talked about most and was most grieved by because the money to buy it had not been sent as it had been promised.”
“It was nothing. I was thinking. So this ‘Mr. Syndicate’ never sent the money your father hoped for?”
“No. It was a great disappointment. Antonio had charge of all the letters, only he; so there could have been nobody careless enough to lose them had any come. Father left all the writing to Antonio, for he was nearly blind, you know. That’s how he came to get hurt. He could not see and his horse stepped over the ledge and somebody brought him home that way. Poor mother!”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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