Jessica Trent: Her Life on a Ranch
ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
ďTake it easy, daughter. Itís you and me togetheríll nail this lie on the door of the man who started it. Thereís a blue sky up yonder and a solid earth down here. Iím 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, Iíll clinch it, if I live. If I donítĖlaws, dearie, Iím in the same poor box myself. Thereís them that believe me aĖyou know the word. Even your motherĖĒ
ďNo, Ephraim! She never believed you anything but the splendid man you are.Ē
ďLast night, no shooting, andĖĒ
ďIt 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 herselfĖĒ
ďI understand, darliní.Ē
ďEphraim, she must never know that dreadful thing the stranger said.Ē
ďCaptain, sheíll have to know.Ē
ďShe must not, I tell you! What am I for but to take care of and love her? NedĖbut Nedís only a little boyĖĒ
ďAnd you, my Jessie, are but a few years older than he.Ē
ďIím 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 Iíd only lived these forty-eight hours, and all that went before was a dream.Ē
Ephraim stepped aside and regarded her shrewdly.
ďOld words to come from so young a mouth, Lady Captain. Have you had any breakfast?Ē
ďNo. I donít want any. Have you?Ē
ďNo. But Iím going to have. As a rule, breakfasts are wholesome. Keeping your stomach quiet keeps your head clear. Thingsíll look more natural after weíve eat. Share mine?Ē
ďNo, I mustnít. Mother would miss me and wonder.Ē
ďYou often do.Ē
ďItís 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 wasnít trueĖto the rest of the world, I meanĖas we know it? Shall we?Ē
ďThatís the rest of my life-job, darliní. Weíll begin it right away by getting a taste of Aunt Sallyís good victuals. I hate her picra doses, but her cooking beats the Dutch.Ē
ďAfterward isnít touched yet.Ē
Whether real or affected there had come a cheerfulness into the old manís 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. Trentís 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.
Jessicaís 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.
ďBless you, Jessie! Iím glad youíve come. Step right in, Ephy. Them muffins are so light theyíve nigh flown off the porch.Made with the eggs my hen-chicken laid, cominí along from Boston. Smartest fowl in the country, and only one I ever owned would brood and lay at the same time. I wouldnít take a fortune for that bird.Ē
Aunt Sallyís 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.
ďYour mother isnít up yet, dearie. And Iíve had the tackers out and washed íem good. Then I filled them with hot milk, and some of my salt-risiní bread I fetched along in my box, and put íem to bed. I promised if theyíd go to sleep again Iíd make íem each a saucer-pie, and they went.Ē
In spite of her heavy heart, Jessica laughed.
ďAunt Sally, I donít believe thereís another person could make them go to sleep at this time of day; not even my mother.Ē
ďPooh! Her! Why, that little Edward knows he can twist her round his thumb easy as scat. Heís too much the look of his father for Gabriella ever to be sot with him. You, now, you favor her folks.Ē
Here, foreseeing that the talkative woman was off on a long track, Ephraim mildly inquired:
ďAunt Sally, did you bring that rheumatism-oil you had last time you were here?Ē
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: ďItís proper for a woman of my age.Ē
ďEphy, you feel real bright, donít you? You and rheumatism! Why, man, youíll be getting married before you get rheumatic.Ē
ďThen Iíll never need the oil.Ē
She was not to be so easily worsted. If Ephraim was minded to be facetious, sheíd match him at the business. Whereupon, instead of rehearsing the history of Gabriellaís ďfolksĒ she veered round upon disease and gave them details of all the dreadful things she had ever heard till ďForty-ninerĒ cried, ďQuits! Iíll not tackle you again.Ē
Mrs. Bentonís 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 Jessicaís 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:
ďWhy, I just coaxed her to lie and rest a spell. She knew that Iíd look after things all right, and can make butter next grade to hers, if I canít equal. Anybody thatís been worrying with a Chinaman as long as she has needs a vacation, I ílow. So sheís taking a mite of one.Ē
ďThen Iíll gather a bunch of roses and take to her. Iím glad to have her rest, and I hopeĖAunt Sally, do you suppose she heard any of that dreadful manís talk? Did you tell her?Ē
ďNo; I didnít tell her. Iíd sooner never say another word as long as I live than do such a thing. You neednít be afraid to trust your old auntie, child. There, run along and make her a posy.Ē
But no sooner had Jessica gone into the garden than Aunt Sallyís lips were close to Ephraimís ear, and she was whispering:
ďShe heard it, every word. She didnít say so, and I didnít ask. But the look of it in her eyes. Ephraim Marsh, Iíve got a heartbroken woman on my hands, and donít you dare to tell me a word íat I havenít.Ē
ďOh, that tongue of yours! Last night when you were yelling at him why didnít you think about other folksí hearts and be still? Youíve a voice like a fog horn when youíre madĖor pleased, either!Ē cried this honest, ungallant frontiersman.
ďI know it, Ephy. Itís the truth. I realize it as well as you do. And I was mad. Since she heard, anyway, I wish now íat Iíd 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,Ē she ended, grimly.
ďSally Benton, youíre quite contriving. Whatís to be done?Ē
Before she could reply Jessica came back, her arms full of great rose-branches and her face bright with confidence.
ďEphraim, Aunt Sally, Iíve 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 isnít wicked to deceive her in this, for her own good. Often youíve 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 sheís promised I should Ďsome time.í I think the Ďsome timeí 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? Weíll hunt that man who took the money; and if I canít find the deed firstĖthough, of course, I shallĖweíll straighten that out, too. Isnít that good sense?Ē
ďItís more; itís inspiration,Ē responded ďForty-niner,Ē enthusiastically. He had already decided to make this journey alone, for Jessicaís 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 fatherís name of dishonor, and to save her motherís homeĖwhat 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:
ďItíll bear thinking on. Now, run along and see your mother.Ē
ďHas she had her breakfast? Canít I carry it to her?Ē
ďSípose Iíd 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. Youíll not find her hungry, child, íless for a sight of you.Ē
Jessica ran to her motherís room, exclaiming:
ďIím so glad youíre resting, dear. Were ever more perfect roses? And isnít it delightful that Aunt Sally should be here just now to look after things. BecauseĖĒ
ďWell, my darling? Why do you hesitate?Ē
ďMother, may Ephraim and I go on that trip to Los Angeles?Ē
Lady Jess had intended to be very careful and cautious, for once, and to test her motherís 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.
ďWhy just now, daughter? AndĖhas Mr. Hale gone?Ē she asked, in a peculiar tone.
ďYes. He has gone. He left ratherĖrather suddenly, but he sent his regards to you and his thanks. He said he might come back some time, butĖI donít think he will. He said something to offend the Ďboys,í and they let him take old Dandy. Samson went with him to show him the way.Ē
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 motherís pillow.
ďMother, mother! I am so unhappy. Iím keeping something back from you that I cannot tell you; that I cannot have you know, and I donít like it. ButĖitís right, itís best. So donít ask me, and, oh, motherĖĒ
ďIíve no need to ask you, sweetheart. I know, already.Ē
ďKnowĖwhat?Ē cried Jessica alarmed, and sitting straight again.
ďAll 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.Ē
ďWhyĖhow? And Iíd only just thought it out, yonder in the garden!Ē
ďI 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 Sallyís tirade last night, so could easily guess at his own part in the talk. AlsoĖI 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 Ďboys,í captain.Ē
ďAnd so am I. And I told them so, quick enough. Oh! they pretended not to mind my anger, but they were ashamedĖinside themselves, I know. Now, for ever so long, theyíll be so good Ďbutter would melt in their mouths.í You see.Ē
ďApt pupil of Aunt Sally.Ē
ďWhy, mother! How can you smile and take it so quiet? This awfulĖawful thing he said?Ē
ďTo 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.Ē
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. Trentís.
ďThen do you mean that we may go?Ē
ďOh, mother! Thank you.Ē
ďBut you will go armed with the fullest information we can gain. We will examine all the papers Antonio leftĖif 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, ifĖhe would give it. Well, he is not here, and we must do the best we can without him. Iím going to get up now and begin to look.Ē
ďAunt Sally thought you ought to rest.Ē
ďThis talk will rest me most of all.Ē
The mother was now as eager as the child, and together they were soon engaged in opening Mr. Trentís 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:
ďYet, 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,Ē said the widow, trembling for the first time.
ďLet 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 timeĖwhen I needed. Weíll look now.Ē
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 ďJessica Trent.Ē
The mother passed it to her.
ďYou open it, please, mother. It may beĖit must beĖthat deed and maybe some other thingsĖI couldnít wait to pick the knots, and Iíve no knife.Ē