Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranchñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“Poor mother, indeed!” echoed Mr. Hale, with something like a groan.
“Thank you for caring about it,” said Jessica, quickly touched by his ready sympathy. “But she says her life now must be to carry on all father’s work, and I shall help her. In that way it will be always as if he were still with us. Oh! see! That’s Stiffleg’s track! Ephraim Marsh has passed this way! Maybe I shall find him at the Winklers’ cabin! Would you mind hurrying, just a little bit?”
“I’ll do my best, little lady. But I’m a wretched horseman, I fear.”
“Oh! you’ll learn. If you would only let yourself be easy and comfortable. But, beg pardon, you do it this way–so stiff, with your hands all clinched. Your horse feels that something’s wrong, and that’s why he fidgets so. You should get Samson to show you how. He’s a magnificent rider. I’ll coax him to do some tricks for you, to-night, when we get through supper. I’m off. Just drop all care and let the horse do the work and–catch me if you can.”
As they approached the foothills they had dropped into a little hollow where the sandy ground was moist and retained an impression distinctly, and it was thus that Jessica’s keen eyes discovered the peculiar footprints of “Forty-niner’s” halting steed. But she quickly forgot these in the interest of the race she had started and was now bent upon nothing save beating Mr. Hale at the goal, the miner’s cabin.
“He has by far the better horse. He ought to win, but he shall not–he can’t. He mustn’t! Go, Buster! A taste of Elsa’s honey if you get there first!”
Bending forward the girl rested her cheek against the broncho’s neck and, as if the touch fired him with new ambition, he shot forward so swiftly that the question of winning was soon settled. However, Mr. Hale’s own pride was touched, and he put to the test the advice just given him, and with such good results that he, too, soon came in sight of a small house at the end of the trail, a dark hole in the mountain side, and a group of people eagerly surrounding his little guide.
Indeed, Elsa had already drawn the child upon her capacious lap, and was tenderly smoothing the tumbled curls with her hard hand, while she asked endless questions, yet waited for no answers.
Till, suddenly remembering, Lady Jess demanded:
“But have you seen our Ephraim? Is he here? Has he been here?”
Elsa’s fat form grew quite rigid and her hand ceased its caressing stroke. Not for her to betray the confidence of one who had taken refuge with her.
“Why ask that? What if he has and is? Is he not the old man, already? Even here there is no room for the old. When one is fifty one should die. That would be wisdom.”
“Elsa Winkler, nonsense! That’s not polite for me to say, but it’s true. You’re fifty, yourself, I guess, and you don’t want to die, do you?”
Elsa shivered slightly. “When the right time comes and the usefulness is past. As the Lord wills.”
Jessica laughed and kissed the woman’s cheek, then sprang to the ground, demanding:
“Where is he? For he’s mine, you know.
He belongs to Sobrante just as much the sunshine does. If he’d loved us as we love him he’d not have ridden away in the night time just because of one little bit o’ note. Wherever you’ve hidden him you must find him for me, and he’s to go straight away back with me. With us, I mean, for here comes a–a friend of ours; I guess he is. Any way he’s a guest and you must make him a cup of your very best coffee, and Otto must show him his carved clock that he is making. He’s a pleasant gentleman, and so interested in everything, it’s fun to tell him things. In that New York, where he came from, they don’t have much of anything nice. No ostriches, nor mines, nor orange groves. Fancy! and he doesn’t know–he’s only just learning to ride a horse!”
As Mr. Hale now approached, this description ceased and Jessica presented him to her mountain friends:
“This is dear Elsa Winkler, and ‘her man,’ Wolfgang. And Otto–where’s Otto gone? He needn’t be shy. Mr. Hale would like to see the carvings and the knittings, and maybe, go down the shaft. But first of all, he’d like the coffee, Elsa, dear.”
The portly Dutchwoman, whose needles could click as fast as her tongue, now thrust the stocking, at which she had resumed working the moment Jessica left her lap, into her apron pocket and waddled inside the cabin. Already she was beaming with hospitality and calling in harsh chiding to the invisible Otto:
“You bad little boy, where are you at already? Come by, soon’s-ever, and lay the dishes. Here’s company come to the house and nobody but the old mother got a grain of sense left to mind them. Wolfgang! Wolfgang! Hunt the child and set him drawing a tether o’ milk from Gretchen, the goat. Ach! but it shames my good heart when my folks act so foolish, and the Lady Jess just giving the orders so sweet.”
Wolfgang heard his wife’s commands and obeyed them after his own manner, by lifting his mighty voice and shouting in his native patois–“Little heart! Son of my love! Come, come hither.”
But he did not, for all that, cease from his respectful attention to the stranger, for whom he had promptly brought out the best chair he owned, and whose horse he had taken to a shaded spot and carefully rubbed down with a handful of dried grass.
Presently, the “child” appeared, and the Easterner flashed a smile toward Jessica, whose own face was dimpled with mirth; for the “child,” Otto, proved to be a gaunt six-footer, lean as he was long, and with a manly beard upon his pink and white face. He shambled forward on his great feet and shyly extended his mighty hands.
Mr. Hale grasped them heartily, eager to put the awkward youth at ease; and, nodding toward the chair from which he had risen, exclaimed:
“So, you are he who does that beautiful carving! I congratulate you on your skill, and I hope you will have some trifle of your work to sell a traveler. I’ve never seen finer.”
Otto flushed with pleasure and was about to reply, but again Elsa commanded:
“Milk the goat, little one. After the guest feeds let the household talk.”
As if he had been the “child,” the “little heart,” his parents called him he obediently entered the cabin, tied an apron before his lank body and spread a tablecloth. Then, as deftly as if he had been a girl, he arranged it with the three cups and plates the family possessed, took his mother’s cherished spoons from her chest, and, taking a small pail, sought the goat, Gretchen.
“Now, I’m in for it,” thought Mr. Hale, regretfully. “My poor dyspepsia! Coffee, honey, and goat’s milk! A combination to kill. But even if it is, one must respond to such whole-souled hospitality as this.”
Jessica had no such qualms; and, indeed, the refreshment which her visitor forced himself to accept was far more palatable than he had dared expect; and, besides, he now brought to it that astonishing appetite which had come to him on this eventful trip. When the luncheon was disposed of, Dame Elsa held an exhibition of her wonderful knitting and it seemed to the unappreciative stranger that a small fortune must have been expended in yarns, and that even in this wilderness one might be extravagant and wasteful.
“My wife would know more about such things than I do, but I should think you might easily stock a whole shop with your tidies and things.”
“Man alive, do I not? Didst think it was for the pleasure of one’s self the fingers are always at toil? Ach! Yet, of course, how could a poor man from a far city understand! It is Elsa’s knitting, and Elsa’s only, will all the tourists have who come to Sobrante; and in that Los Angeles, so distant, where the master went but once every year already, there is a merchant buys all. Ay. See here. I show you!”
“I–I don’t really care–I mean–ought we not to be going, Jessica?” cried Mr. Hale, hopelessly, foreseeing another exhibition of “trash,” as he considered it.
But Elsa could not conceive that everybody should not be interested in all that concerned everybody else; and, besides, this was quite another matter. One for pride, indeed, beyond the accomplishment of the most difficult “lacework” or “overshot” stitch.
From the same chest in which her precious half-dozen plated spoons had reposed she now drew forth a buckskin sack; and, from this, with radiant eyes fixed on Mr. Hale’s own, another bag, knitted, of course, and seemingly heavy. Sitting before him she spread her own apron over her guest’s knees and poured therein a goodly pile of gold and silver coins. With a little catching of his own breath the lawyer realized that among these were many eagles and double eagles.
“Why, this is wealth. This is money. I can see now, after our paper bills and ‘checks’ how real this seems. You are a fortunate woman, Dame Elsa. Now, I begin to respect your ‘tidies’ and notions as things of moment. Did you earn it all?”
“Ach! wait. There is more already. This but begins; and it is for the child. Some day, when there is enough, he shall this mine buy and the machinery hire, and the workmen. Then he will repay to the mistress of Sobrante, and our Lady Jess, all that their dead man spent for us. More. He will make the great money–this but leads the way. Wait.”
Trustful and eager of appreciation, which came so rarely into her isolated life, the woman thrust her hand again into the buckskin sack, her shining eyes still fixed upon the stranger’s face, and her fingers fumbling nervously in the depths of the narrow bag. Her excitement and delight communicated itself to him, and he found himself watching her broad, beaming face with intense curiosity.
But–the face was changing. The light was dying out of the sparkling eyes, an ashy color succeeding the ruddy hue of the fat cheeks. Bewilderment, then anxiety, then terror.
“Why, good Elsa, what is it?”
“Gone–gone–but I am robbed, I am ruined! Mein Gott, man! Little one–lost, lost, lost!”
With a shriek the poor creature sprang up, and in so doing scattered far and wide the coins she had already poured into her apron, but heeded nothing of this as she rushed frantically out of doors.
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SHAFT
While Elsa had been entertaining the stranger within doors Jessica had sought Wolfgang and compelled him, by her coaxing, to admit that Ephraim Marsh had been there and, also, that Antonio Bernal had ridden up that morning to give orders about the coal.
“None of it is to be sent down to the ranch, he said, no matter who calls for it, till he comes back. He was going away for a time and–How will you get on at Sobrante without him, Lady Jess?”
“Wolfgang, better than with him. Listen. Look at me. I’m the ‘manager’ now. The captain. The ‘boys’ all elected me or made me, whatever way they fixed it. I’m to be the master. I, just Jessica. Guess I’m proud? Guess I’ll do the very, very best ever a girl can do? Nobody is to be any different, though. You’re to go on mining just the same and John Benton says, quite often, it’s high time you had another hand to help up here. He says with coal fifteen dollars a ton there’s money in it, even if it is a weeny little mine. So, if you want a man, any time, just let me know. Ha!”
With an amusing little strut that was mostly affectation the girl passed up and down before the miner, and ended her performance by a hearty hug. It was impossible for her to withhold her caresses from anybody who loved her; and who did not, at Sobrante, save Antonio and Ferd, the dwarf? But she sobered quickly enough and at Wolfgang’s petition to “Tell me all about it already,” gave him a vivid picture of the changes at her home.
“But now Antonio has gone for a month, things will get straightened all out again. When he comes back I’ll have that deed to show him, and once he gets it out of his vain head that he is owner and not my mother, he’ll get sensible and good again, as he used to be. I wish I liked him better. That would make it easier for me to give up being ‘captain’ when the time comes. What makes one love some people and not others, Wolfgang? You ought to know, you’ve lived a long time.”
“The good God.”
“He wouldn’t make us dislike anybody. That can’t be the right reason.”
“Then I know not. Though I am getting old I’m not so wise, little one. But–ought I? Ought I not?”
“Now you hark me. This Ephraim–guess you what that Antonio said of him?”
“How should I? Yes, that’s not the truth. But what he said was so dreadful I wouldn’t even tell my mother.”
“Ach! A child should tell the mother all things. Heed that. It is so we train our Otto.”
“Otto is no child. He is a grown man. He is bigger than you. You should not shame him by keeping him a boy always.”
“Pst! girl! I would not he heard you, for my life.”
“He’ll not hear. Elsa is talking. But what did Antonio say about my old ‘Forty-niner’?”
“That much went with that old man besides his boots.”
“Of course. The feet that were in them, I suppose. Silly Wolfgang, to be so impressed by a sillier Antonio. The boys say his Spanish maxims have little sense in them. That proves it.”
“This deed of yours. He said: ‘Where Ephraim, the wicked, goes, goes their deed to the land.’ And more.”
“What more? The cruel, cruel man!”
“That it mattered not already. He would come back, the master. It was his, had always been. My friend–your father–well, it was not we who listened. Nor for once would Elsa make the cup of coffee she was asked. Not a morsel got he here, save that the little boy ran after him and gave him his own bit swiebach lest he faint by the way. And that was the last word of Antonio Bernal.”
Jessica’s laughter was past. On her face there was a trouble it grieved her old friend to see, and he hastened to comfort her.
“If one goes, some are left already. Come now to one whose eyes will be cured by a sight of your pretty face.”
He took her hand to lead her, like the tender babe he still considered her, and they passed behind the cabin, toward the rickety shaft leading into the mine. At its very mouth stood old Stiffleg, and in her delight the girl gave him, too, one of her abounding hugs, which called a comment from the miner.
“Beasts or humans, all one to your lips. Well, no matter. It’s nature. Some are made that foolish way. As for me–old horses–”
“Wolfgang Winkler, shame! Now, sir, you’ll wait till you ask before I kiss you again!”
“Then I ask right quick. Now! Eh? No? Well, before you go then, to prove you bear no malice; and because I’ll show you a new vein I didn’t show Antonio. Ach! He’ll mine his own coal when once he comes–‘the master’–as he said! And so I think, though I know not, will all the others say. Sobrante will not be Sobrante with us all gone. So?”
“You’ll not be gone. It is my mother’s.”
“He is big and strong. He can plot evil, I believe.”
Wolfgang spoke as if he were disclosing a mystery and not a fact well known to all who really knew the Senor Bernal.
“I will be stronger. He shall not hurt my mother. I will fight the world for her and for my brother!”
The miner had been arranging the rope upon the windlass and now held the rude little car steady with his foot.
“Is he below? Down in the mine?”
Jessica needed no second bidding, but leaped lightly into the car and Wolfgang followed her more cautiously. He knew that was a forbidden delight to her, for Mrs. Trent was nervously timid concerning such visits, but, like her, felt that the present circumstances justified the proceeding. Was not one below in the darkness, nursing a broken heart? And was not it the supreme business of each and all at Sobrante to comfort the sorrowing? How else had he and his been there, so happy and comfortable? So rich, also. Why, Elsa had–
“Lady Jess! Get Elsa to show you the buckskin bag! It has grown as fat as herself since you last saw it. The child will own the mine some day, believe me!”
Moved by the thought he swiftly lowered away, and as the car touched the bottom, the girl sprang out and ran calling in the narrow tunnel:
“Ephraim! My Ephraim! Where are you? I’ve come for you, I, Jessica! It’s a dreadful mistake. My mother–ah! here you are! Why down in this horrid hole, Ephraim Marsh? You’re all shivering, it’s so damp and dismal. For shame! To run away from your best friends and never give them a chance to tell you. Whoever wrote that note and sent you off from your own home, it never was my mother. Never! She said so, and it’s almost broken her heart.”
“It’s quite broken mine,” said the old frontiersman, sobbing in his relief at having been thus promptly sought and found by his beloved “lady.” For he did not know it was quite by accident that she had stumbled on this trace of him, nor did anybody enlighten him. Whether she would have set him right or not she had no chance, for, at that instant, they heard a hoarse cry at the mouth of the shaft and saw the car, their only means of ascent, moving swiftly out of reach.
“Heart of grace! Why that? Hark the woman! ’Tis the child! It is the little boy! Harm has befallen and I–the father–I below in the ground!”
In his alarm Wolfgang danced about the narrow space and wrung his hands, gazing frantically up the shaft, catching hold of his companions and conducting himself altogether like one bereft of common sense. Which behavior was sufficient to restore Ephraim Marsh to his own self-command, and none too soon; for the anxious father had already begun to try the ascent by climbing up the timbered sides when, suddenly, as if propelled by some extraordinary force the car shot downward again. Before it really touched bottom the shrieks had become deafening, and when Elsa jumped out and rushed upon her husband, he clapped his hands to his ears and retreated as far as the chamber permitted.
“She has gone mad, already! The woman is dement! Hark, the clamor!”
Then he remembered his first fear and clutched his wife’s arm, which promptly went around his neck and threatened him with suffocation.
“Well, well, I never had no wife, but if I’d had I wouldn’t cared to have her choke me to death a-loving me, nor split my ears a-telling me of it,” commented “Forty-niner,” dryly.
At which Elsa’s screams instantly ceased, and she turned her attention upon him.
“Where is it, thief? Give it up, this minute! How could you rob me of my hard-earned money? That was to buy the mine–and the vein runs deep–for my little boy, my child! ’Twas Antonio Bernal, the great man, told us already of the deed you stole! But I believed him not–I. Now, give me my money, my money–money!”
Overcome by her own violent emotion, rather than by any opposition of poor Ephraim’s, her hands slid from his shoulders, which she had been shaking as if she would jingle the cash from his pockets, and her plump person settled limply against him for support.
“Hello, here, woman! This is a drop too much! Take the creature, Winkler, and find out if you can what in misery ails her. She’s clean out of her wits.”
Instinctively, Jessica had placed herself at the old sharpshooter’s side. He should feel that she did not believe this terrible accusation, which recalled to her, with painful significance, the parting words of Antonio Bernal as he had ridden away from her window that morning. These had practically accused him of stealing the missing deed, and now came Elsa with this talk of “money, money.” She brushed her hand across her eyes as if to waken herself from some frightful dream and then smiled up into Ephraim’s eyes, now bent inquiringly upon her. Dim as the light was, there was yet sufficient descending through the shallow shaft to reveal each troubled face to the other, and the old man’s own frightened at the confiding trust of his beloved pupil’s.
“Never mind her. Let her scream and loll around, if she wants to. What matters it? Little lady, am I or am I not a–a–that pizen thing she called me?”
“Then come on. Let’s get out of this.”
But he was not to be permitted to escape so easily. Elsa had now recovered her full strength and, oddly enough, her composure. She waved her husband toward the waiting car and he obeyed her gesture without protest, gently lifting Jessica into it, for she would not otherwise have been removed from Ephraim’s side.
“Go with him, lady. Elsa won’t want to live down here and we’ll follow presently. Never had a woman seem so fond of my company, not in all my eighty years. H-m-m!”
Commonly, the most genial of men, the sharpshooter’s spirits had fully regained their normal poise. Since he had not been dismissed by Mrs. Trent, and since his little Jessica believed in him, everything was all right. Elsa had been hoarding so long for her overgrown “child” that she had lost her wits. He wasn’t surprised. She was a woman.
So, with a smile, he was able to watch the car disappear upward, and he even began to whistle, lest Elsa should improve this opportunity and resume her racket.
“No disrespect to you, ma’am, remembering the good victuals you’ve often given me, but kind of to keep my courage up, like the boy going through the woods.”
Elsa vouchsafed no reply, beyond grasping his sleeve firmly, as if to assure herself that he should not vanish through the solid wall behind them; and he, at least, was relieved when the little car came rolling downward again, empty.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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