Jessica Trent: Her Life on a RanchŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ďI will have my dinner, so there, you old Aunt Sally! I will go tell my motherĖI wonít be spankedĖI wonít IĖIĖIĖĒ
ďWonbepanked!Ē screamed another childish treble.
ďYes, you will, the brace of you. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Thatís what Gabriella does, all the time, soft-hearted dear that she is. A good, sound spanking once in six months is all that keeps you in a state of salvation. If it wasnít for me I donít know what in reason you little tackers would grow up to be. One thing I do know, though, and so do you, and that isĖthat while your old Aunt Sally is at Sobrante ranch youíll never be late to your victuals again.Ē
In this events proved that the speaker was right, as, indeed, she had often been before on similar occasions.
Knowing that this little family jar would result in no serious harm to her idolized son, Mrs. Trent lay still and thought, but did not sleep. How could she? What a subtle thing is suggestion!
Poor, overburdened Gabriella Trent had known and trusted old Epbraim Marsh for many years; yet the words of Antonio, and now of this stranger within her gates, lingered in her memory and would not then leave.
Up in his pleasant guest chamber Mr. Hale felt within himself the increasing vigor of returning health, tempered for the moment, it may be, by a little indiscretion of diet; yet the assertion of that noisy old woman below stairs, that he was, despite all, on the verge of some serious illness, so worked upon his still weakened nerves that he could neither sleep nor forget them.
The result in both cases was unfortunate.
That evening Mrs. Trent forbade her daughter the rifle practice for which, promply on his return, Ephraim had made special preparation. Her refusal hurt the old fellow, already sensitive from a previous injury, and he reflected, bitterly, as he once more sought his monkish chamber:
ďAfter all, whoever dismissed me was right. Iím too old for use. Iíd better never have come back.Ē
As for Mr. Hale, brooding and an unwise exposure to the night air on the previous evening, did bring on a slight fever. Worriment increased this and, like many men, he was impatient under suffering; so that when his bell rang sharply, demanding attention, he was in a fair way to require all that Aunt Sally or any other had to give.
Meanwhile, down at the adobe quarters, other suspicions were rife.
ďWhat is that man doing here, any way? He donít tell his business, and heís asked a power of questions. Heís wormed out of one and another of us all there is to learn about this ranch, and he hasnít let on a single thing about himself, except that heís a lawyer from New York. New Yorkís a big village and all lawyers can lie. Iím bound to sound that chap before Iím many hours older,Ē said Joe Dean, bringing his hands down heavily upon the table.
ďI know a trick worth two of that. Set mother on him!Ē cried John Benton, gayly. ďSheíll ask more questions to the square inch than any other human being I ever met, and sheíll have all his business, family history, and present undertakings out of him before he can say Jack Robinson.
Lucky for us she got that itching foot just when she did.Ē
So it was agreed; and thus, primed to the fullest investigation, Aunt Sally and her curiosity established themselves within their victimís sickroom. When they emerged from it, at daybreak, the one had been fully satisfiedĖwith horror; and the ruddy face of the other had grown white and heartbroken as no single night of watching should have left it.
THE GUEST DEPARTS
ďWell, mother! What are you doing, waking me out of my beauty sleep, this way?Ē
ďDonít speak to me, John Benton. This is no time for fooling. Not till Iíve got my breath, knocked out of me by the plumb wickedness of this world. That I should have lived to hear such things and not died in my tracks!Ē
Upon leaving Mr. Haleís sickroom, Aunt Sally had traveled as fast as her nimble feet could carry her to her sonís quarters, in the old mission, and had burst in upon his slumbers, with a mighty groan.
ďYou ought to be, for one thing. There, lie still. I can talk and you can listenĖand youíll need support ífore Iím through. That man! Oh! that man!Ē
ďYesím. Which one?Ē
ďShut up. You need spankiní as bad as ever you did. ButĖJohn, John! The vilest wretch that ever trod shoe leather! The best, the generousest, the noblestĖand not here to say a word for his poor self.Ē
ďMother, your remarks seem a little mixed. If youíll face the other way Iíll have on my clothes in a jiffy. Canít ípear to sense things so well, lying a-bed after daylight.Ē
Mrs. Benton stepped outside the house and paced the beaten path with a tread powerful enough to crush all her enemies, had they been in her way. Swiftly, heavily, back and forth, with clinched hands and grim lips, the woman was rather working her indignation to a higher point than allaying it, and as the carpenter limped from his quarters he saw this, and thought:
ďShe meant it. No time for fooling when sheís stirred up that way. What in the name of reason can ail her?Ē
After a plunge of his head in the water of the general washing-trough, through which a fresh stream was continually piped, and a drying on the roller towel suspended near it, his wits were clearer. Finishing his toilet by means of his pocket-comb, he considered himself ready for her story and for anything that it might entail.
Aunt Sally paused and glared at him in such a vicious manner that he felt as if he were again that little boy of hers who needed the usual corporal punishment.
ďYes, but motherĖwhat have I done?Ē
ďDone? Nothing! Not a man jack of you! Let that viper warm himself at her very fireside, least to say, south porch, and not show him up for what he was. Land! The men! I never saw one yet was worth shucks, saviní hers and mine. If you was half the fellow your father was, John Benton, or that noble Cassíus wasĖoh! if ever I wanted to be a man in my life I want to be this minute!Ē
The carpenter darted into his chamber and reappeared with a vial and spoon.
ďTo please me, mother, ífore you say any more, just take a spoonful of this dandelion relish. Made it myself, you know, and warrant no alcohol in it!Ē
The jester was rewarded by a boxed ear, but he had effectually arrested his parentís wandering thoughts, and she burst forth with her news:
ďThat viper-lawyer-man has come to this Sobrante to accuse Cassíus Trent of stealing! lyin! cheating! Cassíus, your best friend and mine. Says thereís a power of money missing, that was all consigned to him, to purchase that Paraiso díOro for a community and never reported on!Ē
John had laid his hand upon her shoulder like a vise, and she began to whimper.
ďNeednít pinch me, child. íTwasnít I said it. You told me to find out what he wanted here and I have. He pretends he lost his way, got off the road he was showed to take and met Lady Jess in the canyon. Says his own horse is up to Pedroís sheep pasture. SaysĖĒ
ďAnd you let him? Had him right there in your power and didnít knock his old teeth down his lying throat?Ē
As Johnís wrath increased his motherís ebbed. She had passed her indignation on to another, as it were, and felt the relief of this confidence.
ďNo, I didnít. I left that for you to do. They was false ones any way and wouldnít have hurt none. Hold on! Where you going, son?Ē
For the carpenter had started forward, as if intent upon instant and terrible vengeance. Neither of them noticed that Jessica had followed Aunt Sally hither till a girlís voice implored:
ďDonít! That would let my mother know and it would kill her!Ē
ďCaptain! You here? You understand?Ē
ďYesĖyes. They waked me, talking, and I crept to the upper hall to stop them, so they should not disturb my poor, tired dear. Oh! I heard! I heardĖeveryĖsingleĖdreadful word!Ē
ďWell, Iím going to fix him for it.Ē
ďJohn, waitĖwait. I must think. My precious motherĖĒ
Jessica rarely wept. Now she flung herself into Aunt Sallyís arms and sobbed in a way that set the carpenter raging afresh. One after another the ďboysĒ came out from the closed or open doors along the row. Some because it was their usual hour for rising, others to learn the cause of these early voices. But one glimpse of Lady Jess in trouble grouped every ranchman about her and set each to hurling a torrent of questions upon that good woman, who held her, without pause for any answer.
But John held up his hand and told the story. It belonged to them all, as Jessica did, and the honor of Sobrante.
They heard it with little comment, save groans and occasional mutterings, punctuated by fresh inquiries of Mrs. Benton. Considerable mystery had been thrown about her cross-examination of her temporary patient, and after all it had proved the simplest matter in the world. Concerning his own personal affairs he was provokingly silent, but he was as ready to talk about his business in that region as she was to have him when, after a roundabout preparation, she brought him to it.
ďI am in honor pledged to do my best for my employers in the East, and unwilling to remain here under false colors, so to speak, any longer. Who is the most responsible person here, excepting Mrs. Trent?Ē had been his words.
ďI am,Ē promptly replied Aunt Sally.
ďThen you shall hear my story,Ē and he told it.
The effect of it was to loose her tongue to its utmost. One may guess the listener heard himself portrayed in colors he failed to recognize and that he realized he had made a mistake in the selection of a confidante. However, his purpose had been to do away with all doubt concerning himself, and to do this with as little distress to his hostess as possible. For that reason he had believed a woman would be his best aid, but it proved that almost any ranchman on the place would have been safer than she.
ďWell, I ought to have known that a female who talks so much must say something amiss, and I canít blame her for her indignation. In her stead I might have behaved worse; and the thing now is to get over this little weakness and go away about the miserable business, at once,Ē he reflected. Then he watched her hurry out of his room and surmised whither she would turn her steps. Therefore, he was not surprised when, somewhat later, he also left the cottage to find himself confronted by great Samson, quietly, but significantly, awaiting the strangerís appearance. For the great fellow had naturally been appointed by his mates to ďsettle that critterís hash and settle it sudden.Ē
ďIt seems so wonderful to me to wake and find this changeless sunshine, day after day, as if no such things as storms could ever exist,Ē said the lawyer, pleasantly.
Samsonís grimness relaxed to a slight degree. ďSome kind of storms blow in fair weather. Likely youíll meet up with one soonerín you expect. Step this way, will you?Ē
The sailorís expression was so formidable that, for a moment, all the wild tales the lawyer had ever read of western desperadoes returned to test his already weakened nerves. But he was no coward, and knew that though in a most uncomfortable position, it was by no means a guilty one.
Samson led the way, if walking closely beside the guest, as a constable walks beside his prisoner, may be termed leading. Nor once did he turn his angry gaze from the gentlemanís face, and the riding-crop in his hand swung to and fro, as if longing to test itself against some enemyís body. The walk ended in the ranchmenís messroom, where Wun Lung, released from the cottage kitchen, had already been impressed into service, and was deftly preparing breakfast. Aunt Sally had disappeared, but Jessica was there, perched on a corner of the dresser, by which stood ďForty-niner,Ē with his arm about her. All the other workmen whom Mr. Hale had seen were also present and an air of silent fury pervaded the whole assemblage.
The strangerís glance passed swiftly from one face to another and saw no kindness on any. Even the little captainís eyes were bent downward and her lovely face wore a sorrow it made his own heart ache to see.
Joe Dean lounged forward.
ďStranger, have you broke your fast?Ē
Another silence, during which the blacksmith poured a cup of inky coffee from the great pot, hacked off a piece of bread from a dusky loaf, and shoved them toward their unwelcome guest across the table by which he had sat down.
ďEat, and be quick about it.Ē
The color rose in the Easternerís cheek, but he made no motion to obey, and after a brief waiting, seeing this, Joe threw the coffee out of the window and tossed the bread to the dogs.
ďThereís a horse outside. Itís for you. The poorest weíve got, because once youíve bestrode him no decent maníll ever mount him again. Heíll answer, though, to carry you beyond this valley, and Samsoníll go with you to see you leave it for good. Then heíll turn the beast loose and may the Lord have mercy on your dirty soul. Get!Ē
Mr. Hale did not stir. His own eye gathered fire and the pink in his face grew scarlet, but his voice was calm as he inquired:
ďAm I still at Sobrante, the home of gentlefolks? By whose orders, please, this present dramatic scene?Ē
ďYes; this is Sobrante. The home of gentlefolksĖyou spoke the truth for once. The home of Cassius Trent, the truest man, the noblest heart, the whitest gentleman the good Lord ever made. The home of a man! and not a free hotel for whelps! Ugh! If I had promised the captainĖLady Jess, let me off that word! I must at him, I mustĖI will!Ē
Joeís attitude was full of menace, but Mr. Hale neither moved nor took his own cool gaze from his enemyís face. Though Jessica had taken swift alarm and leaped down to place herself beside the smith and clasp his hand with her own.
ďNo, no. You promised, and Iím your captain. Soldiers obey their captains and you chose me yourself. You are not to hurt him nor abuse him, though, I, tooĒĖhere she wheeled about and faced her guest, crying: ďhate you, hate you! Oh! thatís wicked. Thatís rude. But, sir, how dared you say my fatherĖthe best man ever livedĖkeptĖtookĖit isnít true, it isnít!Ē
The lawyer rose, somewhat unsteadily. The sight of the daughterís grief disturbed his calmness more than the affronts offered him by her bearded henchmen. It was to her that he addressed the question:
ďAm I permitted to say a word in my own behalf, Captain Jessica?Ē
A growl ran around the room, but she held up her small hand, protestingly.
ďYes. Thatís fair. My father always taught me to be fair. Iím sorry I wasĖI wasnít politeĖĒ
ďNo, you arenít,Ē shouted Samson. ďDonít you dare be sorry for anything but the kindness youíve showed that skunk!Ē
ďSamson, it was you made me captain!Ē
ďAll right. I give in. Be as fair as you like, I canít help it.Ē
ďTell us all there is to tell. As you told Aunt Sally.Ē
ďThank you, captain. Iíll be brief. I came to California, representing a company, a syndicate, which had advanced large sums of money to purchase, improve, and stock a vast tract of land called Paraiso díOro. Though for a time due receipts and reports had been returned to the syndicate for several months these had entirely ceased. Unfortunately, the company had implicit faith in their consignee, and Paraiso díOro was but one of their many enterprises. I had been their legal adviser in other matters, and when my health failed from overwork, they suggested that I should come here and investigate their affairs, while I could recuperate at the same time.
ďI set out on horseback from Los Angeles, my temporary headquarters, without a guide and with many erroneous notions concerning both the State and its people. You see, though Iíd lived at the center of our national civilizationĖĒ
ďYouíre forgettiní Californy!Ē cried somebody.
ďIíd led the narrow life of a man absorbed in one sort of business. I traveled out of my way, and lost it. Then I met your captain in the canyon and she courteously offered me the hospitality of Sobrante. Until I reached this spot I had no idea that it was part and parcel, so to speak, of that Paraiso Iíd come to reclaim. Gradually this fact became clear to me and from that moment I have been anxious to get away from a hospitality I have no moral right to enjoy.Ē
ďSpoke the truth for once, liar!Ē grumbled Cromarty.
ďYou cannot feel it more than I, sir, nor more profoundly regret that it is my misfortune to have undertaken a business which has now become obnoxious to me. But a lawyer must look at facts. One Cassius TrentĖĒ
ďBe quiet, Marty! Go on, Mr. Hale,Ē ordered the little captain.
ďCassius Trent was the man whose hitherto probity and enthusiasm had enlisted the interest of his New York friends. He represented that his projected community would not only be an excellent investment for their money, but a benefaction to humanity. They believed him andĖwell, their money is gone, their community has not even a beginning, and the man is dead. He seems to have been a personĖĒ
ďA white gentleman, sir!Ē
ďWho could obtain a strong hold upon the affections and confidence of all who knew him. I admire the qualities which gained your devotion and I admire your loyalty to him. I am charmed with the home he created in this wildernessĖfor himselfĖ†and I have the profoundest respect for his afflicted family. I wish I had not undertaken this trust. But I have so undertaken, I am sworn to my clientsí interests, and I must further them to my utmost ability. If the missing money can be recovered I shall recover it, painful as my duty may be. AndĖthat is all. Good-by, little captain. It is my sincere wish that I may find some explanation of this mystery, other than circumstantial evidence seems to point. If I so find I shall return and tell you. If notĖgood-by. Make my respectful regards to your mother, and thank you for my entertainment.Ē
He turned and walked to the doorway, nobody interfering; but there he paused and asked:
ďThat horse you mentioned? Can I purchase him of you? If so I need not trouble Samson for his escort, but will bid you, gentlemen, good-morning.Ē
A significant look ran around the circle of intent and lowering faces. The lawyerís succinct explanation of affairs had impressed them, but it had not altered one fact which most mattered to those hardy countrymen.
A dead man, their idolized master and friend, had been accused of black dishonesty, and they had passed their own promise to their girlish captain not to injure the accuser.
But they had not promised he should go scot-free. To some men shame was worse than a bullet wound. It would have been so to them, and they did the stranger thus much honor that they ascribed him equal manliness.
As he stepped across the threshold Mr. Hale found both Samson and John Benton close beside him, at right hand and left; and when he was about to mount the superannuated beast, which a grinning stable lad held for him, he was pinioned and quietly hoisted into the saddle. Instantly, a brace of straps secured him and Samsonís crop cut viciously at the animalís neck. Then the sailor sprang into his own saddle and, amid the insulting shouts and jeers of the assembled ranchmen, the unfortunate Easterner rode out of the mission courtyardĖface backward.
A PROJECTED JOURNEY
Captain Jess screamed and ran forward, but her outstretched hands could not reach her guest, already borne many rods away. Then she faced the jeering men, with an anger she had not believed it possible that she could ever feel toward her beloved ďboys.Ē
ďShame on you! Shame on you, every one! How dared you? And I thoughtĖI thoughtĖyou were gentlemen!Ē
With arms tightly folded over her breast, as if to hold back the conflicting emotions within it, her blue eyes flashing, her small foot stamping, she defied and condemned them all.
A little laughter answered her, but this sound died speedily, and awkward glances shifted among the faces of the men. They were sorry to have offended the ďLittle One,Ē and to have her indignant with them was a new and unpleasant situation, but they were not in the least degree sorry that they had administered some punishment to the maligner of their master. Most of them would have wished this punishment more severe, but the promise Jessica had exacted from them before this interview had prevented.
One by one, as they had first come upon the scene they retreated from it, though Joe Dean lingered a moment to ask:
ďWonít you come share our breakfast, captain, and so bury the hatchet?Ē
She sadly shook her head. All her anger left her as suddenly as it had arisen, and there remained in her mind but one thoughtĖthere were people in the world who believed her father had been a thief. That was the hard and bitter fact which nothing could soften. The former trouble about the lost title deed, and the probable loss of her home seemed as nothing to this new distress. How was she to face it? How disprove it? How save her beloved mother from ever hearing it?
There came a step beside her and a strong arm about her shoulders. It was Ephraim Marsh; erect, resolute, protecting.ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
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