Evelyn Raymond.

Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranch





Take it easy, daughter. Its you and me togetherll nail this lie on the door of the man who started it. Theres a blue sky up yonder and a solid earth down here. Im 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, Ill clinch it, if I live. If I dontlaws, dearie, Im in the same poor box myself. Theres them that believe me ayou 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, shell have to know.

She must not, I tell you! What am I for but to take care of and love her? Nedbut Neds only a little boy

And you, my Jessie, are but a few years older than he.

Im 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 Id 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 dont want any. Have you?

No. But Im going to have. As a rule, breakfasts are wholesome. Keeping your stomach quiet keeps your head clear. Thingsll look more natural after weve eat. Share mine?

No, I mustnt. Mother would miss me and wonder.

You often do.

Its 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 wasnt trueto the rest of the world, I meanas we know it? Shall we?

Thats the rest of my life-job, darlin. Well begin it right away by getting a taste of Aunt Sallys good victuals. I hate her picra doses, but her cooking beats the Dutch.

Afterward?

Afterward isnt touched yet.

Whether real or affected there had come a cheerfulness into the old mans 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. Trents 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.

Jessicas 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! Im glad youve come. Step right in, Ephy. Them muffins are so light theyve 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 wouldnt take a fortune for that bird.

Aunt Sallys 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 isnt up yet, dearie. And Ive 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 theyd go to sleep again Id make em each a saucer-pie, and they went.

In spite of her heavy heart, Jessica laughed.

Aunt Sally, I dont believe theres 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. Hes 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: Its proper for a woman of my age.

Ephy, you feel real bright, dont you? You and rheumatism! Why, man, youll be getting married before you get rheumatic.

Then Ill never need the oil.

She was not to be so easily worsted. If Ephraim was minded to be facetious, shed match him at the business. Whereupon, instead of rehearsing the history of Gabriellas folks she veered round upon disease and gave them details of all the dreadful things she had ever heard till Forty-niner cried, Quits! Ill not tackle you again.

Mrs. Bentons 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 Jessicas 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 Id look after things all right, and can make butter next grade to hers, if I cant equal. Anybody thats been worrying with a Chinaman as long as she has needs a vacation, I low. So shes taking a mite of one.

Then Ill gather a bunch of roses and take to her. Im glad to have her rest, and I hopeAunt Sally, do you suppose she heard any of that dreadful mans talk? Did you tell her?

No; I didnt tell her. Id sooner never say another word as long as I live than do such a thing. You neednt 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 Sallys lips were close to Ephraims ear, and she was whispering:

She heard it, every word. She didnt say so, and I didnt ask. But the look of it in her eyes. Ephraim Marsh, Ive got a heartbroken woman on my hands, and dont you dare to tell me a word at I havent.

Oh, that tongue of yours! Last night when you were yelling at him why didnt you think about other folks hearts and be still? Youve a voice like a fog horn when youre mador pleased, either! cried this honest, ungallant frontiersman.

I know it, Ephy. Its the truth. I realize it as well as you do. And I was mad. Since she heard, anyway, I wish now at Id 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, youre quite contriving. Whats 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, Ive 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 isnt wicked to deceive her in this, for her own good. Often youve 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 shes 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? Well hunt that man who took the money; and if I cant find the deed firstthough, of course, I shallwell straighten that out, too. Isnt that good sense?

Its more; its inspiration, responded Forty-niner, enthusiastically. He had already decided to make this journey alone, for Jessicas 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 fathers name of dishonor, and to save her mothers homewhat 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:

Itll bear thinking on. Now, run along and see your mother.

Has she had her breakfast? Cant I carry it to her?

Spose Id 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. Youll not find her hungry, child, less for a sight of you.

Jessica ran to her mothers room, exclaiming:

Im so glad youre resting, dear. Were ever more perfect roses? And isnt 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 mothers 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? Andhas Mr. Hale gone? she asked, in a peculiar tone.

Yes. He has gone. He left ratherrather suddenly, but he sent his regards to you and his thanks. He said he might come back some time, butI dont 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 mothers pillow.

Mother, mother! I am so unhappy. Im keeping something back from you that I cannot tell you; that I cannot have you know, and I dont like it. Butits right, its best. So dont ask me, and, oh, mother

Ive no need to ask you, sweetheart. I know, already.

Knowwhat? 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.

Whyhow? And Id 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 Sallys tirade last night, so could easily guess at his own part in the talk. AlsoI 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 ashamedinside themselves, I know. Now, for ever so long, theyll 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 awfulawful 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. Trents.

Then do you mean that we may go?

Yes.

Oh, mother! Thank you.

But you will go armed with the fullest information we can gain. We will examine all the papers Antonio leftif 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, ifhe would give it. Well, he is not here, and we must do the best we can without him. Im 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. Trents 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:

Antonio.

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 timewhen I needed. Well 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 beit must bethat deed and maybe some other thingsI couldnt wait to pick the knots, and Ive no knife.

CHAPTER XIII
THE START

Nothing resembling a legal document was found inside the package; but, instead, were several neatly-arranged rolls of gold and silver money, with the denomination of each roll carefully marked outside; dollars, eagles, double eagles. With these was a scrap of paper, saying:

All my savings for my captain. God bless them to her. E. M.

Oh, mother! That big-hearted Ephraim! Was anybody ever so unselfish as he?

Or as unjust as I have been.

How? What can you mean?

Mrs. Trent did not answer, save by the tears in her eyes, though she was tempted to show her child all the base suspicion that had, for a brief space, dwelt in her own mind concerning Forty-niner. A suspicion which Antonio had suggested, and her trouble made her too ready to accept. Then she reflected it were wiser not, and rose, placing the precious parcel in Jessicas own hands.

Let us find that splendid old man at once. We cannot accept his sacrifice, but we must hasten to show him we appreciate it.

Ephraim was polishing his rifle in his own room when they came to him, and rose to welcome the unusual visit of the lady with more awkwardness than he commonly displayed. It was an honor she was doing him, yet he had far rather she had not come.

But he was forced back into his chair by Jessicas assault of clinging arms and raining kisses, and, catching sight of the parcel in her hand, began to understand.

Oh, you splendid, darling, generous Ephraim! I can never, never thank you enough for doing this for me, but I could not ever possibly take it. Why, there must be hundreds of dollars there, my mother says, and that would mean almost all the years youve ever lived at Sobrante. I never knew anybody with such a heart as you, dear Ephraim.

The poor old fellow was far more distressed by her rejection of his gift than she could guess. His face drooped, he worked his hands and feet uneasily, he shifted his seat, and behaved in altogether a new fashion for the man who had hitherto borne himself so simply and naturally. Then the old suspicion returned to sting his loving heart, and he glanced up to study his mistress face. To his surprise he saw it wet with tears, and that she was holding out her thin, labor-hardened hands to clasp his own.

Ephraim Marsh, you have done me more good than money could bring. You have renewed my faith in mankind. In a world where live such men as you justice will be done the memory of my dead husband. I thank you.

Dontdont mention it, Mrs. Trent. I wish it had been double, as it ought, only

Ephraim, mother says we may go. You and I, as you said, together, to make everything straight.

What? Youve told her then, Lady Jess.

Of course. Or she guessed. How could I keep anything from my mother? And shes quite willing.

Im more than willing, Ephraim. I want you to go. I believe that good will come of the journey, though I am terribly disappointed by not finding any papers or letters to help you in the search for the men with whom Mr. Trent transacted his business. Antonio must have taken away all the records or put them in some place I cannot guess.

Then well find Antonio first.

Of course. How simple of me not to think of that. Do you happen to know where he went?

No, maam, I dont. But you can always track awell some critters by their scent. Wherever that scoundrel goes hell leave a trail. Ive a keen nose for the hunt.

Dont judge him too harshly, Ephraim. Perhaps he considered that he was doing all for the best; and if Sobrante is his, hes welcome to it.

Whew! was the ranchmans astonished comment.

Dont you understand, dear Ephraim? Losing a home is nothing to losing honor, said Jessica, earnestly. We dont care half so much about Sobrante as that other thing.

You shall keep both. Your home and our masters honor, cried the old man, fiercely.

Yes, that we will! echoed Jessica, clasping his hand again.

So doing she dropped the canvas bag on the floor, and, picking it up, Mrs. Trent would have restored it to its owner, as she so considered the sharpshooter. But he would have none of it.

Ive heard the little tackers call one another Indian giver. I couldnt, maam, you know. Its Jessies, now.

The mistress face grew serious. She had not expected to find the man so obstinate. But she hated to wound him and turned the matter aside with the remark:

Let it rest so, then, for the present. I will keep it in the safe till you come backif I can. Though I begin to feel as if nothing were secure at Sobrante, nowadays.

Ephraim pondered for a moment, then looked up with a relieved expression.

Asking pardon, maam, Im sure; have you got anyI mean much money handy by you?

No. I have not. Fortunately, beyond the wages of the men, not much ready cash is needed at Sobrante, where we produce so much.

Yesm. Yet I wouldnt like to set out on a journey that might be long, or even delayed for a spell, without considerable loose change. Better let the captain pay all expenses of the trip out of that little handful, and call it square.

Square! That is even greater generosity than the first. Lying in the safe you might have found it again; but spentEphraim, I fear Ill never be able to repay such an amount. I must think out some other way.

Dont you trust me, Mrs. Trent?

Am I not trusting you with the most precious thing in lifemy daughter?

Then, mother, trust him about the money. Its good sense. We havent any and we need it. Besides, it hurts him to refuse. Yes, well use it, Ephraim dear.

So it was settled; but it was not in Jessicas nature to keep the story from the rest of her boys. Forgetting her angry feelings of the morning she called a meeting and spread the news among them. Much as she loved them, until the time of her recent appointment as captain, she had tried to give them their titles of Mr., though not always remembering. Now she no longer tried. They were just her comrades, and when she stood upon the horseblock to address them it was with the joyful announcement:

John! George! Joe! Everybody! Ephraim and I are going away!

She paused and looked around, but instead of the sympathetic pleasure she expected there were darkening looks and evident disappointment.

Oh! but we are coming back again. Hark, what he did!

Ephraim was away putting his few traps together against the mornings start, since, if they were to go at all, why delay? Else he might have silenced her then and there. But out it came, and be sure the sharpshooters generosity lost not one bit in her telling.

With this money were going to hire lawyers and pay our lodging where we have to, and hunt up the men that know about business. Finally, to find the moneythat other lot of itthat Mr. Hale said had been sent to my father by those New York folks. If they did send it they shall have it backif we can find it. If they didntthey shall tell all the world they accused him wrongfully. Were going to find the man that made that title, if we can. Were going to save Sobrante, but were going to save its honor first!





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