Jessica Trent: Her Life on a RanchŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
Elsa, who understood its management as well as her husband, grasped its side and motioned Ephraim forward.
ďLadies first,Ē he objected, gallantly.
ďGet in, wretch, already.Ē
ďOh! Iím not loath to get in, now. Even your sweet presence doesnít make this hole a paradise. And I came down here a heavy-hearted man, yet Iíve going up light as a feather. Glad Iíve got you along to ballast, else Iíd likely shoot clean up to the sky.Ē
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.
ďLook, here, old girl, cheer up! Likely itís only a passing fit of madness has got you in tow. Women are kittle cattle, Iíve been told. Except Lady Jess and the madam. But theyíre quality. Itís in their blood to be noble just as ítis inĖwell, let that go. If youíve lost any of your money, as you ípear to think, youíll find it again. Why, youíre bound to. Who is there to steal it save your own selves? Likely youíve got up some dark night in your sleep and hid it away so careful youíve forgot the place. Good! The top and fresh air again, thank Heaven!Ē
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.
ďShe 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,Ē he reflected, forgetting that banks were not accessible to everybody. ďBut itís 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.Ē
Elsaís 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:
ďWhat good? let it lie. When the much is gone who cares for the little?Ē
Then she dropped into a chair and began again to cry, disconsolately.
Jessica could not endure the scene.
ďOh! I hate this! Elsa, stop. Be happy. Nobody has robbed you. If there has ítis nobody here. Iím going home. I was having such a good time and Iíve found dear Ephraim. Iíll ask leave to come again to-morrow, maybe, and youíll have it by then. Just as I shall the title. íTis only that youíve been careless, asĖas somebody else was. Good-by. Weíre going. Say good-by, wonít you?Ē
Elsaís good-by was to seize Ephraimís coat and hold it with all her force, but he was now too happy to object to this.
ďCertain, maíam. If youíve took a notion to it, Iíll leave it with you. Coats donít matter, when hearts are light. Yes, look in the pockets. Like enough ítwill ease your mind a bit. Iíd give her a dose of sagebrush tea, Wolfgang. Catnip íd be better, but ainít so handy. Good-by, all. Iíll be íround again, myself, soon, if the lady can spare me,Ē and with this remark, ďForty-ninerĒ 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 Ephraimís 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 ďboys,Ē 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 didnít 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.
ďOh! oh!Ē cried Jessica, who had been first to observe this object.
ďHeigho! Whatís thatĖa circus?Ē 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:
ďOh! my fathers!Ē
ďLooks like a circus. All the colors of the rainbow,Ē persisted Mr. Hale, glad of any diversion to his perturbed thoughts.
ďíTis a circus, temperance union, a salvation army, a womanís rights convention, what Samson calls a Mother Careyís chicken, an Amazon, a wild Indian, aĖaĖshucks! There isnít anything on earth that yonder doesnít try a hand at. Land of Goshen! Iíd almost rather turn and go back to be jawed by the Dutchwoman. And Iíve come homeĖjust for this!Ē
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.
ďOh! how glad I am!Ē she cried, and touched Buster to his swiftest gallop, while the sharpshooter grimaced and groaned:
ďTo have come back to this!Ē
ďAunt Sally! Aunt Sally, wait for me!Ē
At the shrill cry and the clatter of Busterís 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 Jessicaís eyes, fasten upon these articles and explained:
ďMet a little water cominí along and used it. Never know where youíll be when you need water nextĖin Californy. Howís all?Ē
ďWell, thank you. Iím so glad youíve come.Ē
ďThatís a word to cure deafness. Here.Ē
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.
ďWell, I declare! Eat your playmates, do you?Ē
ďYes, indeed, when you make them!Ē
ďWhoís that loping along behind?Ē
ďEphraim, of course. Oh! yes. A Mr. Hale, from New York.Ē
ďWhatís he at here?Ē
ďJust staying. Lost his way and making a visit.Ē
ďH-m-m! Donít look wholesome. Needs picra.Ē
ďI doubt it. He has a great row of bottles in his room and takes medicine every time he eats, or doesnít. That is, since heís been at Sobrante, which isnít long.Ē
When the wagon had halted on the road before them Ephraim had turned to his companion, with a whimsical smile, suggested:
ďBetter ride along as if we was glad to see her. Itís like a dose of that bitter stuff she makes everybody take, whether or noĖget it over with. And she isnít so bad asĖH-m-m.Ē
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 ďcrossing the plainsĒ 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 ďprairie schooner,Ē 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.
ďInstead of a little weeny corner full of stars, that you can count on your fingers, Iíve made a skyful right overhead. I always thought if Iíd had the designiní of Old Glory, Iíd have made it regular, like a patchwork quiltĖand nobody ever pieces a Ďblockí that way. Things must compare even, and so they would be if women had had a hand in the business.Ē
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.
ďWith Balaam in the middle, and him inclininí 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 sheís in a moviní mood, that drags him. If she gets lazy, he butts her and thus, whyĖIíve tried it both ways, changing their places moreín once. This is the best. How you like Californy?Ē
ďCome for your health?Ē
ďPartly, for that.Ē
ďH-m-m. Folks with you?Ē
ďNo. Iím alone.Ē
ďMaybe youíve got no folks. Some hasnít. Ephraim, yonder, is one. Heíd be in a fix if ítwasnít for Jessie and me. I come about once in so often and straighten out all the crooks. Took them pills, Ephy?Ē
Mr. Hale tried to repress a smile and failed, but ďForty-ninerĒ burst into a loud laugh, and replied:
ďNo, Aunt Sally, and whatís more Iím not going to. Why should I? Who never have an ache or painĖthat medicine will cure,Ē he added, looking tenderly upon Lady Jess and remembering his grief of the past night.
ďWell, you ought to have. íTisnít human nature to live to eighty and not have. Iím twenty years youngerín you are and I ache from head to foot, some days.Ē
ďAsking questions sort of wears you out, I reckon.Ē
ďNow, Ephy, donít get playful. Not at your age. Itís not a good sign. Besides, my hen chickenís been crowing moreín once this trip. Thatís a sign of deathĖsomewhere.Ē
Ephraim urged his horse forward, meaning to forewarn the ďboysĒ 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 ďblock,Ē pinned here and there about her person; and as he watched her nimble fingers fly from one seam to another the gentlemanís amazement found expression.
ďHow can you manage to drive and sew at the same time? And is it necessary?Ē
ďI guess youíre a Yankee yourself, arenít you? Well, if I hadnít been able to manage how do you sípose Iíd ever have got my quilt done in time for the State fair? Fifty-five thousand five hundred and fifty pieces thereís in it, and Iíve willed it to Jessica Trent when Iím done exhibitiní it. None of íem bigger ín a finger nail, and all done over paper. Thatís a piece of work, I ílow. Whatís your complaint?Ē
ďIĖI donít know as I have any. Theyíve made me very comfortable and welcome.Ē
ďDare say. They couldnít do otherwise. Giddap there, Balaam. Rosetty smells alfalfa, and youíll have to step out to keep up with a cow íat does that. I mean whatís your disease?Ē
ďOh! wellĖitís of no consequence.Ē
ďMan alive, donít neglect yourself. Youíre yallar. Youíve got the janders. Sureís Iím a living woman thatís what it is.Ē
ďI think not. I hope not,Ē said the poor man, but rather feebly.
ďSure. Or shingles. Iíve never seen a real likely case of shingles, and if it should be that, Iíd just admire to nurse you. What victuals you been eating?Ē
The dyspeptic winced. This sounded truly professional, for all his numerous physicians had prefaced their treatment by a similar question.
ďIíve 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 Winklerís swiebach and honey-sweetened coffee.Ē
ďYou donít say! Oh! oh! Poison, sir, rank poison. You may as well count yourself dead and laid outĖĒ
The unfortunate stranger shivered and turned pale. For some half hour past, he had been suffering various qualms which he had attributed to Elsaís 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. Elsaís 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: ďFrom Sobrante,Ē 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. Trentís 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 himĖas he walked away, grinning and leading the now obstreperous cowĖwith a vial in her hand, begging:
ďNow son, please me, before you eat that Ďmessí of menís cooking by taking one spoonful of this dandelion relish. Made it myself, purposely for you, and Iíll warrant no alcohol in it, either.Ē
Experience had proved that protestation was worse than useless; so, with another grin, but a really affectionate ďThank you,Ē John accepted the vial and once more started stableward.
ďNow, Aunt Sally, come! You must be hungry yourself, after your long ride,Ē 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 ďrough diamondĒ which she claimed herself to be.
ďAll right, honey; in a minute. Iíll just step out to the kitchen and pass the time of day with Wun Lung. BesidesĖĒ
Jessica caught Aunt Sally around her waistĖas far as she could reachĖand tried to prevent her leaving the room, but was lightly set aside, with the remark:
ďFace is next door to the mouth. Guess I want to see what sort of food that heathenís got ready for us, ífore I touch it!Ē
ďOh, Aunt Sally! In my houseĖcanít you trust me?Ē asked the hostess, with mild protest. Though she knew before she spoke that her will as opposed to Mrs. Bentonís, 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.
ďThe 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. Iíd be glad to keep her here, always, if I could.Ē
ďOld Ephraim Marsh did not appear to share your sentiments,Ē and he described ďForty-ninerísĒ behavior and remarks at first sighting Mrs. Bentonís wagon.
ďThen you found him. Heís come back with you? Oh! I am so thankful. Sobrante wouldnít seem itself without that straightforward, honest old man.Ē
ďYou are certain he is that?Ē asked, rather than asserted, the other.
ďAs certain as that there is honesty anywhere. What can you mean? Why do you seem so doubtful?Ē
ďI donít 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.Ē
ďSuch a thing would be impossible.Ē
ďSo it seemed to me. Yet that old Wolfgang finally got it through his headĖhe appeared duller of wit than his wifeĖthat 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.Ē
Mrs. Trent was paying but slight attention to his words. Her mind was already disturbed by many inexplicable things and would revert to Antonioís insinuations which, without Jessicaís 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:
ďGive me that platter, monkey-face! Suppose Iíll put your dirty victuals into my clean mouth or anybody elseís? Iíve tasted your stuff before. A burnt bairn dreads the fire. Hand it over. Iíll see if itís fit. There! That rice is boiling over.Ē
The dish of savory lamb stew had been most daintily and carefully prepared after his mistressí 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.
ďLat míloman comeĖme glo. Good-by.Ē
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 ďBoston,Ē 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. Bentonís feet called their owner elsewhere. Between ďBostonĒ and Sobrante the patriotic wagon vibrated, like a long-distance pendulum, and departing from either point carried everything belonging to its proprietor within it. ďBostonĒ having become wearisome it was now Sobranteís turn.
ďI havenít been so happy since I first trod shoe leather. Now, honey, youíll have good, clean fixings, with no opium nor rat tails in íem,Ē she gleefully announced, returning to the table.
ďAunt Sally, hush! What an opinion youíll give our guest of my housekeeping!Ē laughed Mrs. Trent.
ďPooh, child! Anybody that looks at youíll know you hate dirt. Now, eat, all. OnlyĖyou, 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 signsĖGabriella Trent, if that man hasnít got the janders or shingles, or malary fever, donít you tell me a thing!Ē
ďI 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. ButĖonce be ill! Ah! dear Aunt Sally, I know how tender is your touch and how faithful your watch. God bless you!Ē
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.
ďLand, 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!Ē
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 neighborsí plates with the savory dinner, which was wholly due to Wun Lungís 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, ďwhether or no;Ē and to aid the ladyís 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.ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
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