Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranchñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Elsa, who understood its management as well as her husband, grasped its side and motioned Ephraim forward.
“Ladies first,” he objected, gallantly.
“Get in, wretch, already.”
“Oh! I’m not loath to get in, now. Even your sweet presence doesn’t make this hole a paradise. And I came down here a heavy-hearted man, yet I’ve going up light as a feather. Glad I’ve got you along to ballast, else I’d likely shoot clean up to the sky.”
Poor Elsa thought his hilarity ill-timed. She glared at him first, then began to weep, and her tears sobered him as no frowns could do.
“Look, here, old girl, cheer up! Likely it’s only a passing fit of madness has got you in tow. Women are kittle cattle, I’ve been told. Except Lady Jess and the madam. But they’re quality. It’s in their blood to be noble just as ’tis in–well, let that go. If you’ve lost any of your money, as you ’pear to think, you’ll find it again. Why, you’re bound to. Who is there to steal it save your own selves? Likely you’ve got up some dark night in your sleep and hid it away so careful you’ve forgot the place. Good! The top and fresh air again, thank Heaven!”
Mr. Hale had left the cabin immediately after Elsa, and though inclined to stoop and gather up her scattered coins had refrained from doing so, restrained by that prudence which becomes second nature to lawyers.
“She thinks somebody has robbed her and would probably accuse me of pocketing some of these. Too much money for anybody to keep in a house,” he reflected, forgetting that banks were not accessible to everybody. “But it’s an ill wind, etc. Now I shall be apt to escape that promised visit to an amateur coal mine, and not endanger my life in their rickety car.”
Elsa’s conduct upon reaching home was as curious and contradictory as ever. Instead of collecting her scattered treasure, she merely said, with a shrug of her fat shoulders:
“What good? let it lie. When the much is gone who cares for the little?”
Then she dropped into a chair and began again to cry, disconsolately.
Jessica could not endure the scene.
“Oh! I hate this! Elsa, stop. Be happy. Nobody has robbed you. If there has ’tis nobody here. I’m going home. I was having such a good time and I’ve found dear Ephraim. I’ll ask leave to come again to-morrow, maybe, and you’ll have it by then. Just as I shall the title. ’Tis only that you’ve been careless, as–as somebody else was. Good-by. We’re going. Say good-by, won’t you?”
Elsa’s good-by was to seize Ephraim’s coat and hold it with all her force, but he was now too happy to object to this.
“Certain, ma’am. If you’ve took a notion to it, I’ll leave it with you. Coats don’t matter, when hearts are light. Yes, look in the pockets. Like enough ’twill ease your mind a bit. I’d give her a dose of sagebrush tea, Wolfgang. Catnip ’d be better, but ain’t so handy. Good-by, all. I’ll be ’round again, myself, soon, if the lady can spare me,” and with this remark, “Forty-niner” quietly slipped out of the loose garment and made his escape.
There was no more talk of inspecting the ranch.
The little party of three rode thoughtfully homeward. Even Ephraim’s gayety had ebbed and the strange accusation Elsa had made began at last to claim his serious attention. Thieving was a new matter at Sobrante, though he, along with all the other “boys,” had thought for many months that the manager was dealing unfairly by his mistress and employer. This affair would have to be sifted to the bottom, and he didn’t like it. He was glad to be going back to his familiar quarters, glad of many things, yet his light-heartedness was quite gone.
Mr. Hale was equally silent and self-absorbed. Every hour he spent among these people, like innocent children all they seemed to him, but interested him the more in them. Their unhappiness disturbed him and yet his own mission was to make them more unhappy still.
Jessica was angry, indignant, and amused by turns; but these troubles were changing her swiftly from a careless little girl to a sadly perplexed captain, and she rode along in silence, for most of the way, forgetting entirely that she had meant to take quite another route, or that her present errand was to exhibit the wonders of her beloved Sobrante.
They cantered peacefully downward across the valley, old Stiffleg himself leading the way, till they struck upon the main road and saw in the distance a vehicle crawling forward upon it.
“Oh! oh!” cried Jessica, who had been first to observe this object.
“Heigho! What’s that–a circus?” asked Mr. Hale, gazing curiously at the strange wagon.
Ephraim shaded his eyes with his hand and peered into the distance. Then he dropped it, and drooping ridiculously, groaned:
“Oh! my fathers!”
“Looks like a circus. All the colors of the rainbow,” persisted Mr. Hale, glad of any diversion to his perturbed thoughts.
“’Tis a circus, temperance union, a salvation army, a woman’s rights convention, what Samson calls a Mother Carey’s chicken, an Amazon, a wild Indian, a–a–shucks! There isn’t anything on earth that yonder doesn’t try a hand at. Land of Goshen! I’d almost rather turn and go back to be jawed by the Dutchwoman. And I’ve come home–just for this!”
But Jessica was laughing as she had not laughed all day, and if the person driving along in front was objectionable to Ephraim it was evidently not the fact in her case.
“Oh! how glad I am!” she cried, and touched Buster to his swiftest gallop, while the sharpshooter grimaced and groaned:
“To have come back to this!”
“Aunt Sally! Aunt Sally, wait for me!”
At the shrill cry and the clatter of Buster’s feet the crawling vehicle came to a standstill, and from under its canvas cover peered the smiling face of a hale, elderly woman, whose gray head was bare save for its abundant crown of curling hair. A straw Shaker bonnet, with green curtains, hung over her shoulders. Her print gown was of brilliant pink and her capacious apron of blue gingham. She was collarless and her sleeves were tucked above her round elbows, but she was clean, as if just from a laundry. Indeed, at that moment, her conveyance suggested such an institution on wheels, for well-strung clotheslines were taut against its sides, and from these fluttered freshly washed garments and scraps of cloth.
Aunt Sally saw Jessica’s eyes, fasten upon these articles and explained:
“Met a little water comin’ along and used it. Never know where you’ll be when you need water next–in Californy. How’s all?”
“Well, thank you. I’m so glad you’ve come.”
“That’s a word to cure deafness. Here.”
The woman pulled a gigantic cookie from her apron pocket and held it toward the girl, who had now come alongside. The cake was in the shape of a doll, with flaring skirt, and was promptly nibbled.
“Well, I declare! Eat your playmates, do you?”
“Yes, indeed, when you make them!”
“Who’s that loping along behind?”
“Ephraim, of course. Oh! yes. A Mr. Hale, from New York.”
“What’s he at here?”
“Just staying. Lost his way and making a visit.”
“H-m-m! Don’t look wholesome. Needs picra.”
“I doubt it. He has a great row of bottles in his room and takes medicine every time he eats, or doesn’t. That is, since he’s been at Sobrante, which isn’t long.”
When the wagon had halted on the road before them Ephraim had turned to his companion, with a whimsical smile, suggested:
“Better ride along as if we was glad to see her. It’s like a dose of that bitter stuff she makes everybody take, whether or no–get it over with. And she isn’t so bad as–H-m-m.”
Mr. Hale was not sorry to do this, for his curiosity was roused. The wagon box was long and narrow, and contained as many articles as would have sufficed a family “crossing the plains” in the olden times. A kerosene cooking stove, a cat in a parrot cage, a hencoop, with mother and brood inside it, a trunk, a blanket and pillow, a pail for watering the animals, and a box of tin dishes. The cover, like a small “prairie schooner,” was patriotic in extreme, shining with the national colors, newly applied by Aunt Sally herself, and with no stingy hand. The arrangement was also her own, and as she considered, an improvement upon the flag; for she made the whole top a field of stars, and the sides of the stripes.
“Instead of a little weeny corner full of stars, that you can count on your fingers, I’ve made a skyful right overhead. I always thought if I’d had the designin’ of Old Glory, I’d have made it regular, like a patchwork quilt–and nobody ever pieces a ‘block’ that way. Things must compare even, and so they would be if women had had a hand in the business.”
This decorative turnout was drawn by a tandem team, consisting of a milch cow and a burro, with the cow in front. Which, after due introduction to the stranger, she explained, regulated the behavior of both animals.
“With Balaam in the middle, and him inclinin’ to balk, and Rosetty in front, it works double-action. Them that use their wits is twice served. If he stops, the wagon runs onto him, and if she’s in a movin’ mood, that drags him. If she gets lazy, he butts her and thus, why–I’ve tried it both ways, changing their places more’n once. This is the best. How you like Californy?”
“Come for your health?”
“Partly, for that.”
“H-m-m. Folks with you?”
“No. I’m alone.”
“Maybe you’ve got no folks. Some hasn’t. Ephraim, yonder, is one. He’d be in a fix if ’twasn’t for Jessie and me. I come about once in so often and straighten out all the crooks. Took them pills, Ephy?”
Mr. Hale tried to repress a smile and failed, but “Forty-niner” burst into a loud laugh, and replied:
“No, Aunt Sally, and what’s more I’m not going to. Why should I? Who never have an ache or pain–that medicine will cure,” he added, looking tenderly upon Lady Jess and remembering his grief of the past night.
“Well, you ought to have. ’Tisn’t human nature to live to eighty and not have. I’m twenty years younger’n you are and I ache from head to foot, some days.”
“Asking questions sort of wears you out, I reckon.”
“Now, Ephy, don’t get playful. Not at your age. It’s not a good sign. Besides, my hen chicken’s been crowing more’n once this trip. That’s a sign of death–somewhere.”
Ephraim urged his horse forward, meaning to forewarn the “boys” of who and what was coming. Jessica comprehended and quickly followed, but her object was to bespeak a different kind of welcome from that he intended. Neither knew, then, just how heartily glad they would be before many hours were over of the helpful, yet disturbing, presence of this same masterful woman.
The Easterner was left to jog alongside the curious team and its more curious mistress, who, even, while she held the rope reins in one hand, was threading her needle and sewing that patchwork which was as characteristic of her as the ceaseless knitting was of Elsa.
In fact, when one came to look at her closely, there were seen assorted bits of cloth, fragments of some “block,” pinned here and there about her person; and as he watched her nimble fingers fly from one seam to another the gentleman’s amazement found expression.
“How can you manage to drive and sew at the same time? And is it necessary?”
“I guess you’re a Yankee yourself, aren’t you? Well, if I hadn’t been able to manage how do you s’pose I’d ever have got my quilt done in time for the State fair? Fifty-five thousand five hundred and fifty pieces there’s in it, and I’ve willed it to Jessica Trent when I’m done exhibitin’ it. None of ’em bigger ’n a finger nail, and all done over paper. That’s a piece of work, I ’low. What’s your complaint?”
“I–I don’t know as I have any. They’ve made me very comfortable and welcome.”
“Dare say. They couldn’t do otherwise. Giddap there, Balaam. Rosetty smells alfalfa, and you’ll have to step out to keep up with a cow ’at does that. I mean what’s your disease?”
“Oh! well–it’s of no consequence.”
“Man alive, don’t neglect yourself. You’re yallar. You’ve got the janders. Sure’s I’m a living woman that’s what it is.”
“I think not. I hope not,” said the poor man, but rather feebly.
“Sure. Or shingles. I’ve never seen a real likely case of shingles, and if it should be that, I’d just admire to nurse you. What victuals you been eating?”
The dyspeptic winced. This sounded truly professional, for all his numerous physicians had prefaced their treatment by a similar question.
“I’ve been able to eat almost anything and everything since I came into this country of open-air living. The last thing was some of Elsa Winkler’s swiebach and honey-sweetened coffee.”
“You don’t say! Oh! oh! Poison, sir, rank poison. You may as well count yourself dead and laid out–”
The unfortunate stranger shivered and turned pale. For some half hour past, he had been suffering various qualms which he had attributed to Elsa’s hospitality, but to tell a nervous invalid that he has been poisoned is to increase his misery a hundredfold. If Aunt Sally had desired a patient she was now in a fair way to secure one; but her words were without any significance to herself beyond the fact that she favored neither Elsa nor her cookery. Elsa’s knitting work had crowded her own patchwork pretty closely at that famous fair, and the handsome money prize, which she felt belonged of rights to herself, had been halved between the pair. Because, though their skill lay along different lines, they had both signed their exhibits: “From Sobrante,” and, manifestly, the judges could not give two first premiums to one estate.
This memory served to change her thoughts from disease to a detailed history of the wonderful quilt, during which they arrived at Mrs. Trent’s cottage and dinner.
But this could not yet be served. Aunt Sally must needs first see her son, and after the fondest of greetings, cautiously consign to him the care of her personal outfit. She even ran after him–as he walked away, grinning and leading the now obstreperous cow–with a vial in her hand, begging:
“Now son, please me, before you eat that ‘mess’ of men’s cooking by taking one spoonful of this dandelion relish. Made it myself, purposely for you, and I’ll warrant no alcohol in it, either.”
Experience had proved that protestation was worse than useless; so, with another grin, but a really affectionate “Thank you,” John accepted the vial and once more started stableward.
“Now, Aunt Sally, come! You must be hungry yourself, after your long ride,” urged Mrs. Trent, hospitably, and with sincere pleasure lighting her gentle face. Living so far from other women made the presence of even this uncouth one a comfort, and experience had proved that Mrs. Benton was, in time of need, that “rough diamond” which she claimed herself to be.
“All right, honey; in a minute. I’ll just step out to the kitchen and pass the time of day with Wun Lung. Besides–”
Jessica caught Aunt Sally around her waist–as far as she could reach–and tried to prevent her leaving the room, but was lightly set aside, with the remark:
“Face is next door to the mouth. Guess I want to see what sort of food that heathen’s got ready for us, ’fore I touch it!”
“Oh, Aunt Sally! In my house–can’t you trust me?” asked the hostess, with mild protest. Though she knew before she spoke that her will as opposed to Mrs. Benton’s, at least in minor matters, was powerless. So she quietly brought a book and offered it to Mr. Hale, with the suggestion that he make himself content for the present.
“The dinner will be delayed and there will be a rumpus in the kitchen. But the dinner will be all the better for waiting and the rumpus will end in Wun Lung taking another rest while Aunt Sally does his work. Fortunately, she is a prime cook, and we shall fare sumptuously every day. I’d be glad to keep her here, always, if I could.”
“Old Ephraim Marsh did not appear to share your sentiments,” and he described “Forty-niner’s” behavior and remarks at first sighting Mrs. Benton’s wagon.
“Then you found him. He’s come back with you? Oh! I am so thankful. Sobrante wouldn’t seem itself without that straightforward, honest old man.”
“You are certain he is that?” asked, rather than asserted, the other.
“As certain as that there is honesty anywhere. What can you mean? Why do you seem so doubtful?”
“I don’t wish to be a talebearer, but another of your adoring proteges is in dire trouble. Elsa has been robbed and accuses this unfortunate person of being the culprit.”
“Such a thing would be impossible.”
“So it seemed to me. Yet that old Wolfgang finally got it through his head–he appeared duller of wit than his wife–that to lose sight of Ephraim was to lose the money forever. Your little daughter promised to produce him when needed, and after considerable opposition they allowed him to come away. I fancy they began to suspect me even. I fear, madam, I have visited Sobrante at an unfortunate time.”
Mrs. Trent was paying but slight attention to his words. Her mind was already disturbed by many inexplicable things and would revert to Antonio’s insinuations which, without Jessica’s knowledge, she had also overheard. After a moment, recalled by high voices in the kitchen, she rallied, and apologizing for so doing, hastily left the dining-porch.
There were several gleaming pots and pans upon the oil cooking-stove and behind these stood Wun Lung, tenaciously grasping a meat dish and glaring unutterable things out of his beady eyes upon the excited woman who faced him, demanding:
“Give me that platter, monkey-face! Suppose I’ll put your dirty victuals into my clean mouth or anybody else’s? I’ve tasted your stuff before. A burnt bairn dreads the fire. Hand it over. I’ll see if it’s fit. There! That rice is boiling over.”
The dish of savory lamb stew had been most daintily and carefully prepared after his mistress’ own minute directions, but Wun Lung now slammed it upon the table with much violence and seized the pipkin of rice from the stove. With undue emphasis he placed this beside the stew and, advancing toward Mrs. Trent, made several profound salaams.
“Lat m’loman come–me glo. Good-by.”
And for many a day thereafter Wun Lung served no more in that, his own beloved kitchen.
Not a whit disturbed was Aunt Sally. Revolution had become as the breath in her nostrils. Wherever she went old orders were reversed and all things became new. At a little town, with an unpronounceable Spanish name, which it suited her to call “Boston,” she had her home-room in the house of a long-suffering woman cousin, whose ill-health afforded her infinite employment, therefore enjoyment. The invalid endured these ministrations because Aunt Sally also supported her, as well as ruled her; but she appreciated the rest which followed whenever the itching of Mrs. Benton’s feet called their owner elsewhere. Between “Boston” and Sobrante the patriotic wagon vibrated, like a long-distance pendulum, and departing from either point carried everything belonging to its proprietor within it. “Boston” having become wearisome it was now Sobrante’s turn.
“I haven’t been so happy since I first trod shoe leather. Now, honey, you’ll have good, clean fixings, with no opium nor rat tails in ’em,” she gleefully announced, returning to the table.
“Aunt Sally, hush! What an opinion you’ll give our guest of my housekeeping!” laughed Mrs. Trent.
“Pooh, child! Anybody that looks at you’ll know you hate dirt. Now, eat, all. Only–you, Mr. Hale, I must insist you take a dose of this saffron tea. I steeped it while I was having that set-to with the Chinaman, for I thank my stars I can always do two things at once. And if I know the signs–Gabriella Trent, if that man hasn’t got the janders or shingles, or malary fever, don’t you tell me a thing!”
“I certainly shall not tell you any such thing as that, dear soul. The trouble is, Mr. Hale, Aunt Sally is never so happy as when she has a sick person to nurse. If nobody is ill she does her utmost to make somebody so, with her uncalled for doses and stews. But–once be ill! Ah! dear Aunt Sally, I know how tender is your touch and how faithful your watch. God bless you!”
Not often was the gentle mistress moved to such emotion, and Mrs. Benton now put on her spectacles and regarded her hostess over them with a critical air.
“Land, honey! You must be coming down with something yourself! I never heard that janders was catching, but, heart of grace, it might be! Yes, in-deedy, it might be!”
The delight of her tone was equaled only by the sparkle of her eye. To have come to Sobrante, guided merely by the itching of a foot and to find two patients ready to hand, what mortal could ask more?
Possibly, with the intention of helping on their timely disorders, she heaped her neighbors’ plates with the savory dinner, which was wholly due to Wun Lung’s skill, and not, as she fancied, to her brief supervision.
When the meal was over, Aunt Sally retreated to the kitchen, after forcing Mrs. Trent to lie down and rest, “whether or no;” and to aid the lady’s slumbers, there presently arose from without the lusty cries of two small lads who had returned from some prank, late as usual, and as usual, desperately hungry.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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