Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranch
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“Take it easy, daughter. It’s you and me together’ll nail this lie on the door of the man who started it. There’s a blue sky up yonder and a solid earth down here. I’m good to trust the one and tread the other for forty miles a day yet, spite of my white head. If I have to travel this old State over its hundred and fifty-six thousand square miles, before I clinch that falsehood, I’ll clinch it, if I live. If I don’t–laws, dearie, I’m in the same poor box myself. There’s them that believe me a–you know the word. Even your mother–”
“No, Ephraim! She never believed you anything but the splendid man you are.”
“Last night, no shooting, and–”
“It was nothing. She was tired. Aunt Sally always tires her, at first, good as she is and much as we love her. Mother is so quiet and gentle herself–”
“I understand, darlin’.”
“Ephraim, she must never know that dreadful thing the stranger said.”
“Captain, she’ll have to know.”
“She must not, I tell you! What am I for but to take care of and love her? Ned–but Ned’s only a little boy–”
“And you, my Jessie, are but a few years older than he.”
“I’m older than you, I believe! Is it only two days since I met that man in the canyon and things began to happen? It seems forever. As if I’d only lived these forty-eight hours, and all that went before was a dream.”
Ephraim stepped aside and regarded her shrewdly.
“Old words to come from so young a mouth, Lady Captain. Have you had any breakfast?”
“No. I don’t want any. Have you?”
“No. But I’m going to have. As a rule, breakfasts are wholesome. Keeping your stomach quiet keeps your head clear. Things’ll look more natural after we’ve eat. Share mine?”
“No, I mustn’t. Mother would miss me and wonder.”
“You often do.”
“It’s better you share mine to-day. Then we must plan. I heard you say that about you and me together. Will you help me? Shall we prove it wasn’t true–to the rest of the world, I mean–as we know it? Shall we?”
“That’s the rest of my life-job, darlin’. We’ll begin it right away by getting a taste of Aunt Sally’s good victuals. I hate her picra doses, but her cooking beats the Dutch.”
“Afterward isn’t touched yet.”
Whether real or affected there had come a cheerfulness into the old man’s tone which it had lacked a few moments earlier. After all he was not useless. Who knew his California as he did? If it were true that money had been sent to Mr. Trent’s hands and was missing, then somewhere was a man who had appropriated it. Whoever and wherever he was, he should be found, and Ephraim Marsh was self-appointed so to find.
Jessica’s hand slipped under his arm, and her own face grew somewhat lighter as she walked beside him toward her own home, where Aunt Sally was keeping an anxious lookout and a most tempting breakfast.
“Bless you, Jessie! I’m glad you’ve come. Step right in, Ephy. Them muffins are so light they’ve nigh flown off the porch.Made with the eggs my hen-chicken laid, comin’ along from Boston. Smartest fowl in the country, and only one I ever owned would brood and lay at the same time. I wouldn’t take a fortune for that bird.”
Aunt Sally’s own cheerfulness was fully restored. With her to be busy helping somebody was, after all, her happiness. And she saw that she had never come to Sobrante more opportunely.
“Your mother isn’t up yet, dearie. And I’ve had the tackers out and washed ’em good. Then I filled them with hot milk, and some of my salt-risin’ bread I fetched along in my box, and put ’em to bed. I promised if they’d go to sleep again I’d make ’em each a saucer-pie, and they went.”
In spite of her heavy heart, Jessica laughed.
“Aunt Sally, I don’t believe there’s another person could make them go to sleep at this time of day; not even my mother.”
“Pooh! Her! Why, that little Edward knows he can twist her round his thumb easy as scat. He’s too much the look of his father for Gabriella ever to be sot with him. You, now, you favor her folks.”
Here, foreseeing that the talkative woman was off on a long track, Ephraim mildly inquired:
“Aunt Sally, did you bring that rheumatism-oil you had last time you were here?”
She put on her spectacles and looked at him over them, as was her habit. Never, by any chance, had she been known to look through them, and her explanation of wearing them at all was simply: “It’s proper for a woman of my age.”
“Ephy, you feel real bright, don’t you? You and rheumatism! Why, man, you’ll be getting married before you get rheumatic.”
“Then I’ll never need the oil.”
She was not to be so easily worsted. If Ephraim was minded to be facetious, she’d match him at the business. Whereupon, instead of rehearsing the history of Gabriella’s “folks” she veered round upon disease and gave them details of all the dreadful things she had ever heard till “Forty-niner” cried, “Quits! I’ll not tackle you again.”
Mrs. Benton’s eyes twinkled over her cup, for she had joined them at table. She knew, as he did, that this was but foolish sport, yet that it had served their mutual purpose; which was to divert Jessica’s thoughts from trouble and her lips from asking why her mother did not appear.
But the meal over, the question came, and the answer was ready:
“Why, I just coaxed her to lie and rest a spell. She knew that I’d look after things all right, and can make butter next grade to hers, if I can’t equal. Anybody that’s been worrying with a Chinaman as long as she has needs a vacation, I ’low. So she’s taking a mite of one.”
“Then I’ll gather a bunch of roses and take to her. I’m glad to have her rest, and I hope–Aunt Sally, do you suppose she heard any of that dreadful man’s talk? Did you tell her?”
“No; I didn’t tell her. I’d sooner never say another word as long as I live than do such a thing. You needn’t be afraid to trust your old auntie, child. There, run along and make her a posy.”
But no sooner had Jessica gone into the garden than Aunt Sally’s lips were close to Ephraim’s ear, and she was whispering:
“She heard it, every word. She didn’t say so, and I didn’t ask. But the look of it in her eyes. Ephraim Marsh, I’ve got a heartbroken woman on my hands, and don’t you dare to tell me a word ’at I haven’t.”
“Oh, that tongue of yours! Last night when you were yelling at him why didn’t you think about other folks’ hearts and be still? You’ve a voice like a fog horn when you’re mad–or pleased, either!” cried this honest, ungallant frontiersman.
“I know it, Ephy. It’s the truth. I realize it as well as you do. And I was mad. Since she heard, anyway, I wish now ’at I’d up and thrashed him good. I had laid out to put a little bitter dose in his coffee this morning, but he went away without taking any,” she ended, grimly.
“Sally Benton, you’re quite contriving. What’s to be done?”
Before she could reply Jessica came back, her arms full of great rose-branches and her face bright with confidence.
“Ephraim, Aunt Sally, I’ve thought of something. It came to me out there among the roses, like a voice speaking; my mother must not and need not be told what Mr. Hale said. It isn’t wicked to deceive her in this, for her own good. Often you’ve asked her to let you take me horseback trip to Los Angeles, stopping nights at houses on the way, with people who knew my father; and she’s promised I should ‘some time.’ I think the ‘some time’ has come. She will be glad to have us go, for one thing, to find out about the feather markets and others that Antonio used to take care of, but has left. Aunt Sally does two things at once; why not we? We’ll hunt that man who took the money; and if I can’t find the deed first–though, of course, I shall–we’ll straighten that out, too. Isn’t that good sense?”
“It’s more; it’s inspiration,” responded “Forty-niner,” enthusiastically. He had already decided to make this journey alone, for Jessica’s sake; but with her as companion he felt that it would be as sure of success as full of pleasure. A little child working to clear her father’s name of dishonor, and to save her mother’s home–what evil could prevail against this noble effort?
It was like his simplicity and hers that neither thought of providing for difficulties by the way, or for any delay in finding the men and proofs they sought, when once they reached the distant city.
Aunt Sally was not so sanguine; yet it was not her part to discourage any attempt to set wrong matters right, and she merely nodded her head and remarked:
“It’ll bear thinking on. Now, run along and see your mother.”
“Has she had her breakfast? Can’t I carry it to her?”
“S’pose I’d let that poor lamb go without her dawn-meal late as this? I heard her stirring the minute I got back into the house, so I fixed her some broma and poached her an egg, and made her go lie down again. You’ll not find her hungry, child, ’less for a sight of you.”
Jessica ran to her mother’s room, exclaiming:
“I’m so glad you’re resting, dear. Were ever more perfect roses? And isn’t it delightful that Aunt Sally should be here just now to look after things. Because–”
“Well, my darling? Why do you hesitate?”
“Mother, may Ephraim and I go on that trip to Los Angeles?”
Lady Jess had intended to be very careful and cautious, for once, and to test her mother’s feelings on the subject she made her request. But frankness was her habit, and the question was out of itself, it seemed, and she waiting the answer with a beating heart.
“Why just now, daughter? And–has Mr. Hale gone?” she asked, in a peculiar tone.
“Yes. He has gone. He left rather–rather suddenly, but he sent his regards to you and his thanks. He said he might come back some time, but–I don’t think he will. He said something to offend the ‘boys,’ and they let him take old Dandy. Samson went with him to show him the way.”
Poor little captain, who had never in her short life had one secret thought from her idolized mother. This first experience did not come easy to her, and after one glance into the sad, yet amused, eyes watching her, she tossed secrecy aside and buried her face on her mother’s pillow.
“Mother, mother! I am so unhappy. I’m keeping something back from you that I cannot tell you; that I cannot have you know, and I don’t like it. But–it’s right, it’s best. So don’t ask me, and, oh, mother–”
“I’ve no need to ask you, sweetheart. I know, already.”
“Know–what?” cried Jessica alarmed, and sitting straight again.
“All that is in your brave heart. All that Mr. Hale had heard against your father. All that you and Ephraim hope from this suddenly decided journey to a distant city.”
“Why–how? And I’d only just thought it out, yonder in the garden!”
“I had begun to suspect, I hardly know why, that our late guest had come here as our enemy, or, rather, as an agent against us. Something held me back from confiding in him, as I at first wished to do. He is a gentleman, and doubtless honest, but he is not on our side. Besides, how and why he went away just as he did is plain enough. I have ears and I have eyes, and I heard all Aunt Sally’s tirade last night, so could easily guess at his own part in the talk. Also–I saw him ride out of the courtyard. My little girl, for the first time in my life I blushed for Sobrante. Even if he had been a wicked man, which he was not, that was a dastardly insult. I am ashamed of your ‘boys,’ captain.”
“And so am I. And I told them so, quick enough. Oh! they pretended not to mind my anger, but they were ashamed–inside themselves, I know. Now, for ever so long, they’ll be so good ‘butter would melt in their mouths.’ You see.”
“Apt pupil of Aunt Sally.”
“Why, mother! How can you smile and take it so quiet? This awful–awful thing he said?”
“To say a thing is not to prove it. The charge is so monstrous that it becomes absurd. Nothing hurts us but what we do, and your father never did a dishonorable deed, from the hour of his birth till his death. I am sorry for those mistaken people who think that he did, and I am thankful that he left a brave little daughter to set them right.”
Jessica stared. For a long time past she had seen her mother anxious and troubled over matters which now seemed trivial in the extreme; yet this blow which had almost crushed her own courage but restored Mrs. Trent’s.
“Then do you mean that we may go?”
“Oh, mother! Thank you.”
“But you will go armed with the fullest information we can gain. We will examine all the papers Antonio left–if he left any. We will make a thorough search everywhere for that title deed. We shall probably find letters from this New York company to your father, and these will have the name, or names, of those with whom he did business at Los Angeles. I wish now that Senor Bernal were here. His knowledge would be worth everything in this emergency, if–he would give it. Well, he is not here, and we must do the best we can without him. I’m going to get up now and begin to look.”
“Aunt Sally thought you ought to rest.”
“This talk will rest me most of all.”
The mother was now as eager as the child, and together they were soon engaged in opening Mr. Trent’s desk and secretary, which his wife had not before touched since he himself closed them.
Alas! the search was an easy matter, and came swiftly to an end. Beyond a few personal letters from relatives and friends, there was not a scrap of writing anywhere. Even the ledgers and account books had been removed, and at this discovery the same thought came to both:
“Yet, why? and so secretly. He was really the master here, and if, as he now claims, Sobrante is his, he has but to prove it, and we will go away,” said the widow, trembling for the first time.
“Let us try the safe. That night before he went off in such grief, Ephraim gave me the key. He thought he was going forever, and I was to look in it some time–when I needed. We’ll look now.”
Mrs. Trent herself unlocked the clumsy iron box and found it empty, save for one small parcel. This, wrapped in a bit of canvas, was securely tied and addressed to “Jessica Trent.”
The mother passed it to her.
“You open it, please, mother. It may be–it must be–that deed and maybe some other things–I couldn’t wait to pick the knots, and I’ve no knife.”