Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch
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This extraordinary proposal was heard in breathless silence. The men were astounded, the girls delighted. Every eye turned curiously upon Mildred Travers, who regarded the big rancher with frank wonder, a wan smile upon her pallid features.
“You do not say you love me,” she suggested, striving through mild banter to cover her confusion.
“Well, isn’t that implied?” he answered. “No one would propose to a girl he didn’t love, would he?”
“You have only known me two days.”
“Two days and seven hours. But mother endorsed you and I’ll bank on her judgment.”
“When the mortgages come due, there won’t be any bungalow,” she continued.
“Don’t you believe it,” cried Runyon, earnestly. “With you to work for, I’ll make those tart old lemons pay the interest and a good income besides. In fact, if we live long enough, we may even manage to reduce the mortgages. You see, I’ve been extravagant and foolish, but it was because I had no aim in life. The minute you say ‘yes,’ I’m a reformed character.”
She shook her head and the smile faded from her face.
“Don’t think me ungrateful, Mr. Runyon,” she said quietly. “Unusual and – and – peculiar – as this proposal is, I believe you are sincere in what you say. But you are influenced just now by pity for me and I assure you I am quite capable of earning my own living.”
“But – oh, Mildred – he’s so lonely,” cried Patsy, impulsively.
“I’m sorry for that,” she said, “but it is not my fault.”
“It will be, though, if you refuse,” declared Runyon.
“I fear I must.”
“I see,” he said with a sigh. “Mother endorsed you, but she didn’t endorse me. You’ve heard some tough yarns about me – all true as gospel – and you’re prejudiced. I don’t know as I blame you. If I were a girl I’d hesitate to reform such a desperate character, I’m sure. But I’ve the notion there’s the making of a decent fellow in me, if the right workman undertakes the job.”
She looked at him earnestly, now – very earnestly. In spite of the squeaky voice and the inopportune time he had chosen for such a serious proposal, there was an innate manliness and ingenuousness in his attitude, as he stood there unabashed and towering above the other men, that seemed to her admirable and impressive. Both Beth and Patsy were reflecting that a girl might do much worse than to accept Bulwer Runyon as a mate.
Said Mildred, still speaking in the same quiet and composed voice:
“I will give you a positive answer in three days, Mr. Runyon. That delay is mere justice to us both.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Shall we fuss with these tattered laces any longer? It hardly seems worth while.”
Now that the strain of the situation was removed they all began chattering volubly in order to give countenance to Mildred. Runyon seemed not to need such consideration.
Old Miguel had witnessed and overheard this scene from the background and his bright black eyes had roamed restlessly from the girl’s face to Runyon’s as if trying to read their true feelings.The discovery of the laces had not drawn any exclamation from the ancient ranchero, whose stolid expression nothing seemed able to disturb. As the others filed down the stairs and out of the recess in the wall, into the roomy nursery, old Miguel followed imperturbable and serene as ever. In the court he touched his hat to his master.
“I go now, Meest Weld?” he asked.
“Yes. Thank you, Miguel, for your help.”
“I thank you, too,” said Mildred, stepping forward to take the Mexican’s hand. “I remember you well, Miguel. In the old days you often took care of me while my father and Se?or Cristoval talked. Don’t you remember?”
He nodded, his eyes fixed full upon her face.
“Once a friend, always a friend, Miguel,” she continued brightly. “Even to-day you have been trying to help me, and I am grateful. Some time we will have a good talk together about the old days.”
Then he went away, and if one who knew old Miguel Zaloa could have followed him, his actions would have caused surprise.
First he wandered deep into the orange groves, where – when absolutely alone – he began muttering excitedly. At times he would kick his booted foot viciously against a tree-trunk, regardless of the impact that numbed his toes and sent a tingle up his legs. After a time this remarkable exhibit of passion subsided and for the period of half an hour he stood quite motionless, staring straight before him and seeing nothing. Then he started off through the groves, climbed the fence into the lane and marched away through miles and miles of the surrounding country.
It was growing dark when Miguel at last appeared at the quarters, growling at the men and ordering them to get into the groves and work. They marked his ill temper and took care not to arouse his further anger. In the morning he was up at daybreak and in more gentle mood directed the beginning of the day’s labors.
CHAPTER XXII – FAITHFUL AND TRUE
Late that afternoon Arthur and Louise sat in the court, chatting with their guests, who were occupied in coddling and amusing baby Jane, when Inez approached Mr. Weldon and said that Miguel wished to speak with him.
“Send him here,” said Arthur, and presently the old Mexican appeared, again arrayed in his best clothes and with the red necktie carefully arranged. He held his hat in his hand and looked uncertainly around the circle. Then his eyes wandered to the nursery and through the open door he saw Mildred sitting in a rocker, engaged in reading a book. Runyon had gone home that morning, “to see if the ranch is still there,” he said.
“I have – some – private talks to make, Meest Weld,” began the old ranchero.
“Speak out, Miguel,” said his master encouragingly.
“Oh; but he said ‘private,’” Patsy reminded him.
“I know. Miguel understands that he may speak before my friends.”
“It ees – about – Se?or Cristoval, Meest Weld.”
“Yes? Well, what about him, Miguel?”
“I am once servant for Se?or Cristoval. I stay here in house with him, long time. When he get sick, before he die, I care for him. Doctor say to me that Se?or Cristoval can not get well; I say so to Se?or Cristoval. He say never mind, he have live long enough.”
This was interesting to them all in view of the recent happenings, and the girls bent nearer to hear the old man’s story. Arthur, the major and Uncle John were equally intent.
“Se?or Cristoval, he say, when he get very bad, there ees one thing he hate to leave, an’ that ees – his money,” continued Miguel. “He say, money ees his bes’ friend, all time. But he no can take money where he will go. He ees mad that many poor fools will spend the money he have love an’ cared for. So he make me take three big bag of gold an’ drive to bank an’ put away so the poor fools will find it. Much more money ees in bank, too. Then, when doctor come, he ask me when he will die, an’ doctor say when sun next shine Se?or Cristoval will not see it. Doctor want to stay all night, but Se?or Cristoval pay an’ tell him go. He want to die alone.
“But I am there. Some time in night Se?or Cristoval he call an’ say: ‘Miguel, I mus’ not die till I have give to Leighton what belong to him. I have keep Leighton’s money for him. I will show you where it ees hid, so you can give it to Leighton.’”
Ah, they were intent enough now. Intuitively each listener seemed to know that a secret was about to be revealed and many glances were cast toward the unconscious Mildred, who continued to read placidly. But no one interrupted the old Mexican.
“I help Senor Cristoval to stand up. He ees not strong, so I hold him. He walk from blue room to back room an’ there he show me how to take block from wall. Behind block ees big place for money. Se?or Cristoval he say all money what belong to Leighton ees there. He tell me count it. So I put Se?or Cristoval in chair an’ he watch while I take out money an’ count. There ees four bag. I count three bag an’ he say good, it ees right. He say count last bag. So I empty bag on floor an’ count gold an’ put in bag again. When thees ees done I say: ‘Is eet right?’ But Se?or Cristoval say nothing. I look up, an’ Se?or Cristoval ees dead.”
The old man spoke simply and quietly, but they found his relation intensely dramatic. Patsy was trembling with excitement. Beth clasped Louise’s hand and found it cold from nervousness.
“And then, Miguel?” said Arthur.
“Then, Meest Weld, I put gold in wall an’ fix block so no one know an’ carry Se?or Cristoval to his bed. That ees all, Meest Weld.”
“And you told no one of Leighton’s gold?”
“I tell no one. It ees belong to Leighton.”
“Where is it now, Miguel?”
“In wall, Meest Weld.”
“All of it?”
There was a moment’s pause.
“You know now that it belongs to Mildred – to Leighton’s daughter, – do you not?” he asked, an accent of sternness in his voice.
“I know, Meest Weld.”
“Then why did you not tell us of this before?”
Old Miguel stood silent, shifting from one foot to another, his eyes cast down, his slender brown fingers spasmodically pressing the rim of his sombrero. But when he spoke it was in his former quiet manner.
“I am a bad man, Meest Weld. I theenk I keep gold for myself. Why not, when no one know? Long time after Se?or Cristoval die no one come here. Some time I go to room an’ count gold. When I see it I have bad thought. I theenk it ees nice if I keep all myself. But when I go away an’ work in the grove, I tell Miguel many time that gold ees not his; it ees Leighton’s gold. I say when Leighton come for it he mus’ have it. But Leighton do not come. Many year the gold ees mine, an’ no one know. Then come Leighton’s girl, an’ I know I am bad man if I keep gold. But I say nothing. I theenk no one ever know.”
“But tell me,” said Arthur curiously, “what good is the money to you when it is hidden in a wall?”
“Not much, Meest Weld; but I know I am rich. I say I can buy ranch an’ be big man, an’ no one know I have steal Leighton’s gold.”
“Then why have you told us the secret?”
Miguel glanced toward the nursery.
“I am man for work,” said he. “Always I work; always I mus’ work. I am old. When I can no work, I mus’ die. Se?or Cristoval mus’ leave gold when he die; it ees same with Miguel. Now I have good job. I can work an’ be happy. But – ”
“Leighton’s daughter, she ees a girl. A girl can not work like a man. It ees her gold, not mine. When you say it, I will show you where Leighton’s gold ees hid.”
Uncle John sprang up and grasped the man’s hand.
“You are an honest fellow, Miguel!” he cried.
“No, Meest Mereek,” was the reply. “I have wish to steal, so I am not honest.”
“But you have given up the gold.”
“Yes, Meest Mereek; because I am afraid.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Patsy. “You were tempted to do wrong, Miguel, and if you had kept silent no one would ever have known; but you told us of the gold, and so you are faithful and true.”
“Ah, that ees what Meest Leighton tell me, some time,” said he. “An’ that ees what spoil me from being bad. Because Leighton say I am faithful an’ true, I have theenk I mus’ be that way. That ees it.”
Mildred’s gold proved to be a small fortune. Perhaps Cristoval had added to his partner’s earnings, for the child’s sake, for the total amounted to more than she had ever expected.
It was all in hard cash and Arthur drove over to the bank and deposited it to the credit of Mildred Travers, as she preferred to retain that name.
Patsy and Beth were curious to know what the girl would do with her windfall, but Mildred proved noncommittal.
“How about Bul Run?” asked Patsy.
Mildred smiled but blushed deeply at the question.
“Would my money be enough to pay his mortgages?” she inquired.
“Perhaps,” said Beth, “but that would be foolish. He would soon be in debt again.”
“No, no!” protested Patsy. “I’m sure he will reform if – ”
“If Mildred marries him?”
Mildred seemed troubled.
“The best way,” declared Beth, “would be to have Mildred keep her money in her own name, and help out in case of emergency.”
Mildred approved that, and being pressed by the two girls she frankly confided to them that she would accept Mr. Runyon when he came for his answer.
Runyon appeared on the third day and Arthur met him and told him the good news of the finding of Mildred’s inheritance. But the effect of this discovery on the big rancher was to overwhelm him with despair.
“She will never marry me now,” he asserted in doleful tones, “and I’d rather die than ask her. It would be beastly to take such an advantage of the poor child. When she was poor, I could offer her a home with good grace, but now that she’s rolling in gold the jig is up! If you’ll tell me, where I can find old Miguel, I’ll strangle the villain. Why in thunder couldn’t he hold his tongue?”
Arthur laughingly replied that money wouldn’t make a particle of difference with a girl like Mildred, but Runyon would not listen and remained disconsolate. He stayed at the ranch, but moped around with a woe-begone countenance and refused to speak with anyone.
Patsy and Beth skillfully contrived several opportunities for Runyon to approach Mildred, but he ignored all chances and preferred to remain miserable. The day passed without his demanding his answer. Mildred had been bright and expectant and the girls read her disappointment when her unaccountable wooer delayed putting his fortune to the test.
The next day he was no more cheerful, but rather seemed to have accumulated an added gloom. He sought a garden bench and smoked innumerable cigars in solitary grief. If anyone approached, Runyon would retreat to the shrubbery. At mealtime he was likewise silent but consumed enormous quantities of food, which made Patsy accuse him of being an impostor.
“No regulation lover,” she said to him, “ever had an appetite. The novels all say so. Therefore you can’t love Mildred a bit.”
Runyon groaned, cast her a reproachful glance and went on eating.
Several days passed without his asking Mildred for her answer, and now the absurd situation began to get on all their nerves. Mildred herself grew impatient and watched from the nursery window the garden bench on which Runyon sat gloomily in his perpetual cloud of smoke.
“He’ll make himself sick, with those black cigars, I’m sure,” observed Patsy, on one occasion.
“And he can’t afford to smoke so many,” added Beth. “Unless this thing stops, he’ll soon have to take out a new mortgage.”
“Or sell some lemons,” added Patsy.
“I believe,” said Mildred slowly, as if summoning her courage, “I will speak to him myself. Don’t you think that would be best?”
“Of course,” approved Patsy. “Runyon is a big baby, and needs a nurse more than little Jane. I’ll hold Toodlums, Mildred, while you sally forth and take the bull by the horns.”
Mildred looked at Beth for counsel.
“Unless you speak to him,” said that young lady, “you will never get together. Moreover, the rest of us will grow mad or idiotic. So, for all our sakes, you’d better take Mr. Runyon in hand. You’ll have to manage him afterward, anyhow, so the sooner you begin the better.”
Mildred handed little Jane to Patsy and left the nursery. Through the window the other girls watched her approach Mr. Runyon and stand before him. At once he stood up and threw away his cigar, but his face was toward them and they could see that he did not speak.
Mildred, however, was talking very earnestly. Runyon shook his head. He turned half away. Then he swung sharply around and caught the girl in his arms.
“Come, Beth,” said Patsy; “let’s go and tell Louise.”
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