Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch
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“Did she not pay all your debts?”
“Yes; but that was foolish. She reproached me for owing people, which was one of my pet recreations. So she paid the bills, bought me a ranch out here, shipped me into exile and washed her hands of me, declaring that the ranch was my sole inheritance and I must never expect another cent of her fortune. She proposes, I believe, to invest her surplus in charity. Nice idea, wasn’t it?”
“It was very generous in her,” declared Mildred.
“Was it? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. But I regard her gift of this ranch as the first step to perpetual pauperdom. She tossed the land at me, shuffled me off, and then expected me to make a living.”
“Can’t you do that?” asked Mildred wonderingly.
“Make a living on a California ranch!” he said, as if astonished.
“Others do,” she asserted.
“There is no other just like your humble servant,” he assured her, again struggling with the cork. “I can’t grow enough lemons – it’s a lemon ranch she handed me – to pay expenses. The first year I decorated my estate with a mortgage; had to have an automobile, you know. The second year I put another plaster on to pay the interest of the first mortgage and a few scattering debts. Third year, the third patch; fourth year, the usual thing. Fifth year – that’s this one – the money sharks balked. They said the ranch is loaded to its full capacity. So, I’ll have to sell some lemons.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” cried Mildred.
“So am I, thank you. Stupid thing, selling lemons. But the wolf’s at the door and all I can do is shoot lemons at the brute. Lemons! Wasn’t it tart of the dear mother to load me with such an acidulous estate? Perhaps she imagined it would make me assiduous – eh?”
“Your mother hoped you would turn over a new leaf and – and redeem your past,” said the girl.
“Well, it’s too late to do that now. I can’t redeem the past without redeeming the ranch, and that’s impossible,” he declared with a grin. “But tell me, please, how you happen to be so deep in my mother’s confidence.”
Mildred hesitated, but reflected that she really owed him an explanation.
“She protected me when I was in trouble,” she said softly.
“Ah; that’s like the dear old girl. Do you know, I’ve an idea that when I’m down and out she’ll relent and come to my assistance with a fatted calf? It would be just like her. I’ve known of others she befriended. Her hobby is to help poor girls. There was that Leighton girl, for instance, whose smuggling, murderous father was imprisoned for life. The poor little thing hadn’t a friend in the world till mother took her in hand and put her in a training school for nurses. The mother wrote me how interested she was in that case. Her protege did her credit, it seems, for the child turned out a very good nurse, who – who – ”
He suddenly paused, flushed red and stared at the girl uncertainly.
“You say your name is – Travers?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied, casting down her eyes.
“Not – Leighton?”
“Cannot you pull the cork, Se?or Runyon? I am so thirsty!” cried Inez quickly, to save her friend from disclosing her secret.But big Runyon was bright enough, in spite of his peculiarities. He read Mildred’s confusion and suspected the truth, but was too considerate to press the question.
“The cork is obstinate,” said he; “so we won’t argue with the thing,” and he struck the neck of the bottle against a corner of the seat and broke it so neatly that not a drop of the contents was spilled. Then he took a cup from the shelf and poured out some of the wine.
“It’s a native vintage,” said he, “but it ought to be mellow and mild after all the years it has lain here.”
Inez drank. The California Mexicans are accustomed to the native wines and consume them as freely as water. But Mildred, although again pressed to quench her thirst, steadfastly refused.
Runyon took a little of the wine, for he also was thirsty, and then he made an examination of the other seats. Some contained more wine; others were quite empty; but no water was discovered anywhere.
“Now I shall go below,” said Runyon, “and see if I can unearth anything of importance there. Do you hear those dull sounds on the other side of the wall? They tell us that our friends are busy drilling the holes. It’s wonderful how tough that adobe is.”
Little Jane had awakened again and Inez took baby Jane in her arms and, with Mildred, followed Runyon down the stairs into the lower chamber. Here they watched his careful inspection of the room but did not hope for any favorable result.
“Here is food,” he announced, as, having given up the idea of finding egress, he came upon the cans of tomatoes and corn.
“Yes; but we have no can-opener,” replied Mildred; “and, unless the contents were cooked, they would not be eatable.”
“I’m not thinking of the eatables,” said Runyon, taking out a small pen-knife, for he had already ruined the larger one he always carried. “Tomatoes usually have a lot of liquid in the cans, a sort of watery juice which I am sure would help to relieve your thirst.”
He began prying at the tin with a knife blade, but it was a heavy quality of plate, such as is rarely used nowadays, and resisted his attempt. Soon the blade of the frail tool snapped at the handle, and he tried the other blade. That, too, soon broke and Runyon regarded the can with a sort of wonder.
“It beats me,” he said, shaking his head. “But I don’t like to give up, and that tomato-juice would be of service if we could only get at it.”
Looking around for another implement his eye spied the revolver hanging upon its peg.
“Ah! if that weapon is loaded I’ll use a bullet as a can-opener,” he exclaimed, and reaching up he removed the revolver from its place.
“Good; six cartridges, 32 caliber,” said he. “Now, young ladies, if you can stand the noise, and the powder hasn’t spoiled, I believe I can make a hole in that can which will allow the juice to run out.”
“I don’t care,” said Inez, “but I will take Mees Jane upstairs, first.”
“The sound will echo like a regular battle,” said Mildred; “but as I am really thirsty and your suggestion of relief tempts me, I am willing to have you shoot the pistol.”
Runyon placed the can upon the edge of the low hinged table, where it stood about waist high. When Inez had gone above with little Jane, the man took a position whereby he faced obliquely the outer wall and aiming at the tomatoes said:
“Better stop up your ears, Miss – Mildred.”
She obeyed and he fired.
Even their anticipations could not prepare them for the wild riot of sound that followed the explosion. The bullet found its mark, for the can toppled and fell from the shelf and lay spilling its contents upon the floor. The bullet went farther and struck a crevice of the outer wall. A cloud of smoke for a moment obscured their view and Mildred, regarding the tomato-can, cried out:
“Oh, pick it up! Pick it up, quick! It is spilling.”
Runyon made no reply. He was staring straight ahead, in a dazed, bewildered way, and now Mildred’s eyes followed his.
The smoke was rolling out of a large aperture in the outer wall. Three huge blocks of adobe, neatly joined together, had swung outward, moved by a secret spring which the bullet had released.
Through the grim prison wall they were looking out at the sunshine that flooded the rose garden.
Mildred sank to her knees, sobbing with joy. Big Runyon walked to the staircase.
“Hi, there, Inez!” he called. “Come down here and take Toodlums to her mother. I’ll bet a button she’ll be jolly glad to see that kid again!”
CHAPTER XVIII – LACES AND GOLD
At four o’clock in the afternoon Patsy rubbed her eyes, yawned and raised her head from her pillow.
“Dear me!” she sighed, “I’m tired yet, but this sleeping in the daytime is unnatural. I wonder if Beth is awake.”
She went to the door of the adjoining room, opened it and found her cousin dressing.
“Do you suppose anyone else is up?” she inquired.
“See there,” replied Beth, pointing through the window.
Patsy saw. Mr. Runyon was seated on a garden bench in earnest conversation with Mildred Travers.
“Didn’t he go home this morning, after the excitement was over?” she asked.
“No,” replied Beth. “Mr. and Mrs. Hahn drove their car home, but our interesting neighbor at the north, Mr. Bul Run, declared there was nothing at his own ranch half so enticing as a bed here. He’s a bachelor, it seems, and leads rather a lonely life. So Arthur gave him a room and he went to bed; but it seems he has had his sleep out and is indulging in other recreations.”
Patsy was eyeing the couple in the garden.
“Mr. Runyon seems to have struck up a friendship with your prot?g? Mildred,” she observed.
“Yes,” answered Beth. “You know he was shut up in the wall with her and Inez for awhile and the adventure must have made them feel well acquainted. Wasn’t that imprisonment a most peculiar thing, Patsy?”
“Very peculiar. I haven’t had much time to think about it, for as soon as Toodlums was safe in Louise’s arms I went to bed. But it occurs to me to wonder how Mildred Travers knew so much of the secrets of this absurd old house and why she ventured to explore the hidden rooms in our absence. Put that with the fact that she lived in these parts as a girl, and with her eagerness to come out here – don’t you remember her fervent ‘thank heaven’? – and it seems the whole mystery isn’t unraveled yet; it’s only getting more tangled.”
Beth was thoughtful for a time.
“I am sure Mildred will have some explanation to make,” she said presently. “Don’t let us judge her just yet, Patsy. And I advise you to get dressed, for there’s Louise wheeling the baby, and perhaps everyone else is downstairs but us.”
“Louise and baby both slept all through that awful night,” remarked Patsy, again yawning. “No wonder they’re up and around and looking bright and happy.” But she took her cousin’s hint and dressed so rapidly that she descended the stairs only a few moments after Beth did.
Uncle John, the major and Arthur were in the court, smoking and sipping coffee. The events of the past night were still being earnestly discussed by them and much speculation was indulged in concerning the rooms in the hollow wall and the uses to which they had been put during the pioneer days when Cristoval constructed them, and even afterward when his son, the last owner, had occupied the premises.
“The entire ranch,” said Arthur, “as well as this house, was sold by the executors appointed by the court, for it seems that Cristoval had no heirs in this country. The money was sent over to Spain and divided among a host of relations, the executors were discharged, and that ended the matter as far as the law is concerned. But I am sure the secret of the wall was at that time unknown to any, for otherwise the furniture in those narrow rooms, some of which is expensive and valuable on account of its unique carving, and the bins of wine and other truck, would have been sold with the other ‘personal possessions.’ I bought this place of a man who had purchased it at the executors’ sale but never has lived in it. All the rooms were stripped bare, which goes to prove that the hidden recesses in the walls were unknown. Now, the question is, do I legally own the contents of that wall, or don’t I?”
“I stepped into the rooms, this morning, with the others, but merely glanced around a bit,” said Mr. Merrick. “I’ve an idea you may rightfully claim whatever is there. The value of such old, odd pieces is arbitrary and they wouldn’t total enough at an auction sale to bother about. My idea, Arthur, is that you remove whatever you care to retain, stop up the rat holes, and then seal up the place forever.”
“I suppose,” remarked the major, “those hollow places in the wall were of real value in the days of wild Indians and murdering highwaymen. But, as John Merrick says, they’re of no use to anyone now, but rather a source of danger.”
“Was that door left open?” asked Patsy.
“Yes; and I put a brace against it, so it couldn’t close and shut us out,” replied Arthur.
“That doesn’t matter; Mildred knows the way in,” said Beth. “The whole trouble was that Inez closed the door behind them and they couldn’t manage to get out again.”
Mr. Merrick sipped his coffee reflectively.
“That girl,” said he, “ought to explain how she knows so much – and so little.”
“And what she was doing in the secret rooms,” added the major.
“She’ll do that,” piped a high voice, and in sauntered Mr. Runyon and sat down to pour himself some coffee. “I’ve just left Miss – er – er – Travers, and she has decided to tell you all her whole story, frankly and without reservation, and then she wants to ask your advice.”
“Whose advice?” demanded Arthur.
“Everybody’s advice. She asked mine, a little while ago, and I told her to put it up to the crowd. The poor thing has had a sad history and there’s a bit of romance and tragedy connected with it; but she has been quite blameless. I haven’t known you people long, but I’ll bank on your generosity and fairness, and that’s what I told the poor girl.”
“Where is she now?” asked Patsy.
“In the garden with Mrs. Weldon and Toodlums. They’ll all be here presently.”
The little group remained silent and thoughtful until Louise entered wheeling the baby in her cab and followed by Mildred Travers. The nurse’s face was white and troubled but she had acquired a new attractiveness for the reason that her eyes had softened and were now pleading instead of defiant.
Inez came running from the nursery to take baby, but Louise would not let little Jane go. Although she had escaped much of the past night’s misery, thanks to Dr. Knox’s quieting powders, the young mother was still unnerved and liked to have the child where she could see it. So Inez sat on a bench and held Jane, who was the least concerned of anyone over her recent peril and fortunate escape.
The court was shady, cool and quiet. Those assembled eyed Mildred curiously and expectantly, so that she was really embarrassed at first. Beth, who felt in a measure responsible for this waif of a great city, because she had been instrumental in bringing her here, gently led Mildred to a beginning of her story by asking a few questions that afforded the girl an opening.
The entire party listened gravely to the recital, for only Inez, among those present, had ever heard any part of the strange tale before.
Mildred told practically the same story she had related to the Mexican girl the night before, but went more into details and explained more fully her girlhood acquaintance with Se?or Cristoval.
“He was an unusual man,” said she; “aged and white-haired, as I remember him, and always dressed in white flannels, which threw his dark skin into sharp relief. He lived alone in the house, having but one man-servant to do all the work, cook his meals and cater to his slightest whim.”
“Miguel Zaloa,” said Inez in a low voice.
“Cristoval was not popular,” said Mildred, “for he loved money so well that he was reputed to be a miser. It was this love of money, I think, that induced him to go into partnership with my father in his illegal smuggling enterprises. Cristoval furnished the money and when my father had slipped across the border with his bales of rare laces, they were hidden in the hollow wall until they could be forwarded to San Francisco and sold.
“And this brings me to a relation of my present interest in this house,” she continued. “When we escaped from California a large lot of very valuable Mexican laces which belonged exclusively to my father was hidden in the wall. The sale of a former lot of smuggled goods had resulted in a large profit and Cristoval had received a bank draft for the amount, one half of which was due my father. When we last saw Cristoval at San Bernardino, before we left for New York, he promised my father to cash the draft and send him the proceeds. This he never did, although he advanced my father, at that time, a sum of money from other sources to pay our expenses until we could establish ourselves in the east.
“To avoid suspicion, my father always allowed Cristoval to bank the partnership money, drawing on the rich Spaniard from time to time for what he required. Father told me that altogether Cristoval owed him nine thousand dollars, besides the bale of laces, valued at ten thousand more. He wrote many times to demand this money, using a cipher they had arranged between them, but his letters were never answered. I know now that Cristoval died soon after we went to New York, so whoever got the letters, being unable to read the secret cipher, of course ignored them.
“Just as Leighton was being taken to prison, the last time I ever saw him, he told me to find some way to come here and get the money. He said that if Cristoval was dead, as he then suspected, the secret of the wall was still safe, for the old man had vowed never to disclose it. He thought I would find the laces still hidden in the wall, and perhaps the money.”
“Did you look to see, while you were there?” asked Arthur Weldon.
“Yes. There is no evidence of any property that I could rightfully claim.”
It was a strange recital, and a fascinating one to those who heard it.
“Who would think,” said Patsy, “that in this prosaic age we would get so close to a real story of smuggling, hidden treasure and secret recesses in walls? It smacks more of the romantic days of past centuries.”
“We must not forget,” replied Louise, “that of all our numerous states California has the most romantic history. It wasn’t so long ago that the Spanish don flourished in this section and even yet it is more Spanish than American except in the big cities.”
“As for smuggling,” added Runyon, “that is going on to-day – as merrily as in the days of the famous Leighton, if on a smaller scale. I’ve some choice cigars over at my ranch that have never paid duty, and I’ve an order with the smuggler for more. So, after all, there’s nothing very astonishing in Mildred Leighton’s story.”
“The wall we have practical evidence of,” said Uncle John. “I suppose it will hold its secret rooms for many years to come, for these adobe dwellings are practically fire-proof and are built to defy time.”
“But about Mildred’s fortune,” cried Patsy. “Don’t you suppose it is hidden, after all, some place in the wall?”
“From what I have heard of Cristoval,” said Arthur in a reflective tone, “he was not considered a dishonest man, but rather miserly and grasping.”
“My father,” explained Mildred, “trusted him fully until we went away and could get no answer to his letters. The old Spaniard was very fond of me, also, and he would hold me in his arms and say that one day I would be a rich lady, for my father and he were both making my fortune. I was very young, as you know, but I never forgot that statement.”
“Suppose,” suggested the major, “we make another and more thorough search of those secret rooms.”
“We will do that,” replied Arthur promptly. “It is too late to undertake the task to-night, but we will begin it right after breakfast to-morrow morning. Inez, I wish you would slip down to the quarters and ask Miguel to come and help us. Tell him to be here at nine o’clock.”
The girl nodded, gave the baby to Mildred and stole quietly out of the court.
CHAPTER XIX – INEZ AND MIGUEL
Inez found Miguel Zaloa smoking his cigarette among the orange trees. He was quite alone and looked at the girl in an expectant way as she approached.
“Oh, Miguel!” she cried. “I tell you a secret. Of course it is no secret any more, for now they all know it, up there at the house. Meeldred Travers, the girl from New York, is not Meeldred Travers. She is the child of Leighton the smuggler – she is Meeldred Leighton!”
The old ranchero stood as if turned to stone, but he bit his cigarette in two and it fell unnoticed upon the ground. While Inez regarded him with disappointment, because he had exhibited no emotion at hearing the wonderful news, Miguel turned his back and mechanically walked away through a row of trees. A dozen paces distant he halted and again stood motionless for the space of a full minute. Then he swung around and with slow, hesitating steps returned to Inez.
“You say – she – ees Meeldred Leighton?” he asked, as if he thought he had not heard aright.
“Of course. Don’t you remember, Miguel? She say, when she used to come here, a little girl, with Leighton the great smuggler, you did know her. It was then you served Se?or Cristoval, at the big house.”
He nodded, his dark eyes fixed upon her face but displaying no expression.
“Leighton is dead,” continued Inez, delighted to be able to gossip of all she had heard. “They put him in a prison an’ he died. So Meeldred was ashame of her father’s bad name an’ call herself Travers. She is poor, an’ that is why she come here as nurse, so she can find the money that belong to her.”
Miguel suddenly seized her wrist in a powerful grip.
“What money?” he demanded.
“Don’t; you hurt my arm! It is the money Se?or Cristoval owed her father. Take your hand away, Miguel Zaloa!”
Slowly he released her.
“Where will she find thees money?” he asked.
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