Lyman Baum.

Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch





She does not know. Perhaps it is not here at all. But there was a great heap of laces, worth much money, which Se?or Cristoval hid in the wall to keep for Leighton.

Miguel laughed. He seemed suddenly to have regained his equanimity. He began rolling another cigarette.

They will be old, by now, thees lace, said he.

A lace is better when it is old, asserted the girl.

The man paused, looked at the half-made cigarette and tossed it away. Then he glanced around to see if they were observed and taking Inez arm gently, this time he led her away from the path and into a thicket of orange trees.

Thees Meeldred, he said in soft tones, you hate.

No, no! I do not hate her now. I love Meeldred.

So! he said, drawing in his breath and regarding the girl with surprise. You tell me once she is witch-woman.

I am wrong, declared Inez earnestly. She is good. She have been poor an friendless, all because of her father, the noble smuggler Leighton. But see, Miguel; I have been all night shut up in the wall with her. We talk, an I learn to know her better. I do not hate Meeldred any more I love her!

Sit down, said the old man, pointing to a hillock beside a tree. Inez obeyed, and he squatted on the ground facing her and coolly rolled another cigarette. Tell me more about thees girl Leightons girl, he said.

Inez related Mildreds story as well as she was able, exaggerating such romantic details as appealed to her fancy, but showing unbounded sympathy for her new friend. The aged ranchero listened intently, nodding his white head now and then to show his interest. When the girl had finished he smoked for a time in silence.

What Meeldred do now? he inquired.

They will hunt in the wall, to-morrow, to find the lace, she replied. Meest Weldon say for you to come to the house at nine oclock, in morning, to help them.

Meest Weld say that?

Yes. But we have search already Meeldred an me an Meest Bul-Run have search, an no lace is there. I am sure of that. I am sure no money is there, too. So Meeldred mus stay as nurse all her life an help me take care of Mees Jane.

Miguel pondered this.

Bmby Mees Jane grow up, said he. What can Leightons daughter do then?

How can I tell that? answered Inez, shaking her head. Always poor people mus work, Miguel. Is it not so?

Rich people mus work, too, continued the Mexican girl dreamily, as she embraced her drawn-up legs and rested her chin upon her knees. Was old Se?or Cristoval more happy than we, with all the money he loved? No! Meest Weldon works; Meest Hahn works; even Meest Bul-Run works sometime. If one does not work, one is not happy, Miguel; an if one mus work, money makes not any difference. So, when Meeldred find she is still poor, an has no money an no laces, like she hope for, she will work jus the same as ever, an be happy.

I, too, work, remarked the old man.

I have always work.

If you had much money, Miguel, you would still work.

Yes.

You would not care for money; not you. It would not do you any good. It would not change your life.

No.

Again they sat in silence, as if reflecting on this primitive philosophy. Finally Inez said:

You remember Leighton, Miguel?

Yes. He was good man. He make much money for Se?or Cristoval an for heemself. Sometime I see them count gold ten pieces to Se?or Cristoval, ten pieces to Leighton to divide even. Then Leighton will throw me a gold-piece an say: That for you, Miguel, because you are faithful an true.

An Se?or Cristoval, did he throw the gold-piece to you, also?

No.

What did you do with the gold Leighton give you, Miguel?

The old man shrugged his shoulders. Tobacco. Some wine. A game of card.

An were you faithful an true, as Leighton say?

He looked at her long and steadily.

What you theenk about that, Inez?

When people talk about Miguel Zaloa, they always say he is good man. I hear Meest Weldon say: Miguel is honest. I would trust Miguel with all I have.

Meest Weld say that?

Yes.

Well?

I think you are sometime honest, sometime not; like I am myself, replied the girl.

The old man rose and led the way back to the path.

To be always honest is to be sometime foolish, he muttered on the way. Tell Meest Weld I will be there, like he say, at nine oclock.

CHAPTER XX MR. RUNYONS DISCOVERY

Sing Fing excelled himself at the dinner that evening, which was a merry meal because all dangers and worries seemed to belong to the past. Also it was, as Uncle John feelingly remarked, the first square meal they had enjoyed since the one at Castros restaurant. Of course Runyon stayed, because he was to help search the wall the next day, and as the telephone had been repaired Louise called up Rudolph and Helen Hahn and begged them to drive over and help them celebrate at the festive board.

So the Hahns came although they returned home again in the late evening and it was really a joyous and happy occasion. Inez brought in the baby, which crowed jubilantly and submitted to so many kisses that Patsy declared she was afraid they would wear the skin off Toodlums chubby cheeks unless they desisted.

Mildred had gone to her room immediately after her confession in the court and Louise had respected her desire for privacy and had ordered her dinner sent in to her.

As they all sat in the library, after dining, in a cosy circle around the grate fire, they conversed seriously on Mildred Leighton and canvassed her past history and future prospects.

I cannot see, said Beth, always the nurses champion, that we are called upon to condemn poor Mildred because her father was a criminal.

Of course not, agreed Patsy, the poor child wasnt to blame.

These criminal tendencies, remarked the major gravely, are sometimes hereditary.

Oh, but thats nonsense! declared Uncle John. We cant imagine Mildreds becoming a smuggler or smuggleress, or whatever you call it. That hard, cold look in her eyes, which we all so thoughtlessly condemned, was merely an indication of suffering, of hurt pride and shame for the disgrace that had been thrust upon her. I liked the girl better to-day, as with blazing cheeks she told of all her grief and struggles, than ever before since I knew her.

The expression of the eye, said Arthur, is usually considered an infallible indication of character.

Thats a foolish prejudice, asserted Patsy, whose own frank and brilliant eyes were her chief attraction.

I do not think so, dear, objected Louise. The eyes may not truly indicate character, but they surely indicate ones state of mind. We did not read the hard look in Mildreds eyes correctly, I admit, but it showed her to be on guard against the worlds criticism, resentful of her hard fate and hopeless in her longing for a respectable social position. She realized that were her story known she would meet with sneers and jeers on every side, and therefore she proudly held herself aloof.

But now, said Patsy, circumstances have changed Mildreds viewpoint. She found that our knowledge of her story only brought her sympathy and consideration, and when she left us I noticed that her eyes were soft and grateful and full of tears.

Big Runyon had listened to this conversation rather uneasily and with evident disapproval. Now he said, in as positive a tone as his unfortunate voice would permit:

That girls a corker, and Im proud of her. In the first place, my mother is a shrewd judge of character. You cant fool her about a persons worth; just see how accurately she judged mycharacter! When the dear old lady whose only fault is being so close-fisted picked up Mildred Leighton and defended her, that act vouched for the girls worth beyond dispute. Mrs. Runyon bless her stingy old heart! never makes a mistake. Just think of it: she actually spent money in giving Mildred an education as a trained nurse. To my mind that settled the girls character for all time. Now, I dont care a continental whether she finds any smuggled laces or not; she needs a friend, and now that she is away from my mothers care Imgoing to be that friend.

Oh, Bul! cried Louise with lively interest, are you in love?

Me? At my age? Cer-tain-ly not!

How old are you?

Thirty.

Old enough to know better, said Uncle John.

Old enough to need a wife to care for him, suggested Helen Hahn.

Honest Injun, Run; arent you a little soft on Mildred? asked Rudolph.

Well, perhaps a little; but its nothing like that currant-jelly, chocolate bonbon, glucose-like feeling which Ive observed is the outward demonstration of love.

Oh, well; marry the girl and be done with it, then, laughed Arthur.

And rob me of my nurse? protested Louise.

Runyon needs a nurse as much as Jane. In fact, hes a much bigger baby.

Mr. Runyon accepted all this jollying with calm indifference.

The days of chivalry are over, he sighed. If a fellow tries to protect a maiden in distress, they think he wants to marry her.

Dont you? asked Patsy, in a sympathetic tone.

Why, I hadnt thought of it before; but it wouldnt be a half-bad idea, he confessed. Ranch life is a bit lonely without women around to bother one.

You are all talking foolishly, observed Beth, who was not romantic. Mildred might object to washing Mr. Runyons dishes.

Why, yes; I believe she would, said Mr. Runyon. Im sure she disapproves of my character; thats why I respect her judgment, so highly. She didnt seem at all interested in those various mortgages, when I mentioned them; and what else have I to offer a wife?

Even the cosy library could not hold them very late, for none had been fully restored by the sleep obtained during the day. Bed seemed more alluring than a grate fire and when the Hahns went home the party broke up, to meet again at an eight oclock breakfast.

As soon as the meal was over Arthur Weldon announced that the first business of the day would be an examination of the secret rooms in the wall of the old East Wing.

And this must be a thorough and final inspection of the place, he added. We must satisfy ourselves and Mildred Travers, without the shadow of a doubt, that we have inventoried every blessed thing in those rooms even to the rats and beetles.

Thats right, approved Mr. Merrick. Let us do the job once and for all. Weve plenty of time at our disposal and there are enough of us with sharp eyes to ferret out every mystery of the place. In Mildreds interest we must be thorough.

In the court they found old Miguel, sitting motionless and patient. He was carefully dressed in his best clothes and wore a red necktie, just as if, said Patsy, he was going to a party instead of delving in dusty places.

The ranchero arose and made his master and mistress one of his best bows. Then he waited silently for instructions.

Beth went to Mildreds room and brought the girl to join the searchers, for this undertaking had been planned on her account. Her face wore an anxious look, for although she was not very hopeful of results it was the last chance of her securing any of her fathers personal possessions. Otherwise she greeted the party with modesty and with gentle dignity and had never seemed to them more womanly or agreeable.

Together they left the court and proceeded to the nursery. There were no laggards and everyone except the servants was determined to have a part in the fascinating investigation.

Mildred explained to them the manner in which she had first entered the wall, putting in action the secret method taught her as a girl by Cristoval and demonstrating the mechanism before their very eyes. They entered the lower chamber, one by one, and this time the adobe door was not closed behind them, although the light of broad day now flooded the place through the opening discovered by Runyon. This opening led into the garden and was half choked with rose vines. The series of swinging blocks had been propped back against the outer wall to insure a ready exit in case of accident.

And now they eagerly set to work to pry into every crack and corner of the place. The main idea was to find some secret cavity or cupboard in the wall which might contain the missing laces or other valuables. With this in view they had brought levers and pries and all sorts of tools that might be of service.

The girls were mainly useful in taking up and turning the matting, now somewhat decayed by age, and investigating those nooks and shelves already discovered. But they found little more than Mildred had done during her first exploration, and the men who were testing the wall met with no encouragement at all. Aside from the two cleverly constructed openings one into the nursery and one into the garden the blocks which composed the wall seemed every one solid and immovable and resisted every attempt to wrest them from their places.

After more than two hours of industry, during which every man believed he had examined every block, they were forced to abandon the lower chamber and ascend the steep stairs to the upper one.

This, said Arthur, looking around him, seems far more promising. Let us give the floor our first attention, for it is not over the lower room but to one side of it. It strikes me that the builder would be quite likely to make a secret pocket in the floor.

Following this advice they attacked the blocks of the floor with pry and crowbar, but found nothing to reward them. Old Miguel worked steadily and did whatever he was told, but displayed no particle of enthusiasm, or even of interest.

After the floor, the walls were examined, one by one, from floor to ceiling. The panel on the inner wall, which had baffled both Mildred and Runyon on that eventful night of their imprisonment, suddenly disclosed its secret when accidentally pressed on opposite corners at the same time. It slipped down and discovered a similar panel beyond it, which was operated by a spring placed in plain sight. Releasing this, they found they were looking into the vacant second story room which they had once before unsuccessfully searched.

So this was one way from the house into the upper chamber of the wall. Of course there was another way that through which Runyon had been so abruptly precipitated. In order to find this the more readily, they sent the big rancher into the blue room and asked him to take the same position in the window he had on the night of his disappearance. This he did, pushing against the planking that boxed the window, with both elbows and with his back and shoulders, but without result. Finally, in his attempts, he inadvertently struck the opposite panel with his heel, and the response was startling. The panel, at his back, being released, fell backward without warning and for the second time Runyon tumbled unawares into the chamber of the wall. As soon as his body had fallen through, the panel slammed into place again, urged by a very powerful steel spring, but the major, who had been in the blue room to watch Runyon, had caught the trick and the mystery was solved.

As for Mr. Runyon, he again fell upon the bed and rebounded, knocking over both Mr. Merrick and Miguel as he alighted in the narrow chamber, but fortunately not injuring either of them.

A little dazed by his second precipitation, the big rancher stared a moment and then slapped his thigh a mighty stroke.

I have it I have it! he cried.

It occurs to me, said Uncle John, a little resentfully, that you deserve all youve got, and more. Its a wonder you didnt break your neck.

What have you, Run? asked Arthur.

Ive found the laces.

What? where? they exclaimed.

In the blue room, or on the way down? added Beth sarcastically.

After I got down, he answered. What fools we have all been!

Will you kindly explain, Mr. Runyon? asked Mildred, very earnestly.

I will. Its simple enough. Just look at that bed.

The bed! And now every eye was turned upon the couch.

Of course, said Runyon. Theres something more than a mere mattress and springs. Ive tumbled onto the thing twice, and I ought to know.

CHAPTER XXI A FORTUNE IN TATTERS

Already Arthur was pulling off the bedding and piling it upon the floor. They stood back of him in an excited group, every head craned forward to watch his movements.

Off came the pillows blankets sheets finally the mattress. This last, a thin cotton affair, left a trail of fuzzy, lint-like debris behind it and disclosed on removal a canvas cover that had been spread underneath. The canvas, which was about on a level with the boxed-in bed frame, was as full of holes as a Swiss cheese and especially toward the center the weave had become disintegrated and given away to a dusty pulp.

Rats! exclaimed Uncle John, whose head was thrust between the shoulders of the major and Runyon.

As if his cry had been a summons, out sprang a huge gray rodent and the girls pushed back with loud screams as the dreaded beast struck the floor and scurried away down the passage. Another and another followed it, and now Louise, Patsy, Beth, Mildred and Inez were all dancing on top the seats, wrapping their skirts about their ankles and whooping like a tribe of Indians.

Amid this wild hullabaloo, which struck terror to the hearts of the brave men assembled, because at the instant they were too bewildered to realize what caused it, some six or eight monstrous rats leaped from the tattered canvas which covered the bed and vanished down the stairs.

Arthur put his hand down to raise the canvas and jumped back as he unearthed a nest of smaller vermin, squirming here and there in blind endeavors to escape their disturbers. Runyon brought a deep brass bowl from a shelf and dumped the small rats into it, standing by to capture others as they appeared.

Gradually Weldon drew back the cover and as he did so the truth of Runyons prophecy was apparent. The entire space boxed in by the carved bed-frame, from the floor to its upper edge, was packed solidly with valuable laces. That is, it had once been solidly packed, but now the rats had eaten tunnels and nests and boulevards through the costly laces in every direction. It was a scene of absolute ruin. However precious this collection might once have been, in its present state it was not worth a copper cent.

The party gazed upon the sight with mingled awe and astonishment. Regret for the destruction of the beautiful fabrics at first rendered them oblivious to the fact that the inheritance of Mildred Leighton was at last recovered only to be proved worthless.

Arthur dragged out a few scraps and spread them upon the floor, thereby exhibiting portions of the beautiful patterns of the various pieces. Then, hoping to find some that had escaped the ruthless teeth of the rats, he and Runyon began pulling at the heap and working downward toward the floor. Just a few small pieces were found intact, but these were of slight value. Practically the entire lot was irretrievably ruined.

Scarcely a word was spoken as the investigation proceeded. Beth had clasped one of Mildreds hands and Patsy the other, but neither dared look in the poor girls face, for they dreaded the poignant disappointment sure to reign there.

But after the first shock, Mildred bore up bravely. She had not expected, in the beginning, any tangible result; still it was very bitter to find her long sought fortune and realize that it amounted to nothing.

They sat around upon the benches, or leaning against the wall, and stared at the ruined laces with various emotions, the keenest being regret for the loss of so much beautiful handwork and sympathy for Mildred Leighton.

Suddenly Runyon broke the silence.

This discovery is too thundering bad for mere words, he said with feeling; but Miss Travers Mildred must know were all as sorry as she is. She was right about the laces, but the laces are all wrong. This sad exhibit reminds me of my own perverse mortgages, and my mortgages remind me of something else. Mildred, he added, turning to the girl in a dogged and rather shamefaced way, Im going to hold a private conversation with you right here before our good friends, for I know every one of them will back me up. Eh? he questioned, glancing around the group.

There were some smiles, but many nods. As if encouraged, Runyon proceeded:

This settles the question of your fortune. Its gone vanished into scraps. Youre a poor girl, now, with no glittering prospects, so what Im going to say wont seem quite so selfish as it would otherwise. In fact, had these laces been perfect, they would have rendered me dumb. As it is, here stand two impecunious ones you and I. Between us we havent much more than enough to fry a fish, in solid cash, but among my encumbrances are a delightful little bungalow, nicely furnished, and a lot of lemon trees that can be coaxed to buy us groceries and ordinary comforts. Im a lonely fellow, Mildred, and I need a companion. Will you marry me, and look after that bungalow?





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