"I know I proposed it and thought I'd like it, but I've changed my mind and now think it would get to be a confounded nuisance. I've never done anything, regularly, as you talk about, and I don't see any use in beginning at this late day when—"
"When you're getting so old and infirm, poor dear!" said Molly, interrupting. In reality she cared little what they did at San Leon, so long as they were all together and having a good time. But she saw on Dorothy's expressive face a keener disappointment than the affair seemed to warrant and loyally placed herself in support of her chum.
Leslie went on as if she hadn't spoken, though he glanced her way with a promise in his eyes to "get even" with her for that mockery:
"We're up here on the mountains for a summer holiday. What's the use of making it a work day, then? It would be work—sure enough. There'd be lots of mornings when every one of us would hate it. Oh! you needn't look that way. You all would, sure. What's fun when you feel like it is quite the other thing when you don't. And nine o'clock comes pretty early in the morning. Doesn't it, Miss Dorothy?"
The laugh was upon her and she joined in it. Yet she hadn't one whit abandoned her plan of helping Leslie against himself. But there was no use in arguing, and, small woman that she was, she tried strategy instead.
"Well, Leslie, you make me think of Mr. Seth Winter's story about the eleven contrary jurymen. All 'contrary' except the one who couldn't get his own way. No matter, nobody wants to force you into hard work. Though I suppose you'll be willing, we, your guests, shall do as we please?"
"Certainly," he replied with an absurdly profound bow, to which Dorothy merrily returned a sweeping courtesy.
"Then the rest of us who have given our word will keep it. We will be on hand every morning, Captain, to be drilled in the noble tactics of the soldier. Aunt Betty says everybody always finds use for all the knowledge he possesses. Aunt Betty knows. She's lived almost as long as all our ages put together, and she's the very happiest person I ever saw. I don't know anything about soldiering yet but I'm going to learn what I can with this splendid teacher to instruct me—" here she made another profound obeisance to Captain Lem, who returned the courtesy by his finest military salute, mentally appraising the earnest little girl as the best of them all.
"So that I shall have one more thing to put in my knowledge-box, ready to use if I ever need it. And while we are drilling you can amuse yourself otherwise, Leslie dear. Now, Captain, can't we go on and find out what wonderful thing is hidden in that corral behind these Barracks?"
"Sure. Forward, march!"
He faced forward again and even Leslie fell into step behind the others, willing to join in such "foolishness" as a temporary amusement.
In fine order they reached the further end of the long building, marched around its rear, and came upon what Dorothy thought was a most beautiful sight. Within the wide paddock, or corral, as these westerners called it, was a small herd of young, thoroughbred horses. From a little stand outside the paling, Mr. and Mrs. Ford were watching the handsome creatures and talking with the grooms that attended them, concerning their good, and possibly, bad qualities.
But at the sound of the approaching "squad" Lady Gray turned an eager face and called out, reprovingly:
"Oh! my dears, how slow you have been! If I were your age and had been promised a horse for my very own, I shouldn't have tarried on the way!"
"Our very own? What do you mean, dear Mrs. Ford?" asked Dorothy, hastening to bid her tardy "Good morning," before she more than glanced across the fence.
"Just what I say, dear. Mr. Ford has had eight horses brought in for you young folks to use. Each is to make a choice for herself or himself, subject to change if any necessity for it. Your choice is to be your own property and I hope will give you lots of pleasure. Captain Lem and some of the other good horsemen will teach you anything you need to know. Why, my dears! How astonished you look! Didn't you understand? Didn't Leslie tell you?"
For, indeed, surprise had kept them silent. None had guessed of having a horse of her "own," supposing from Leslie's words that they were only to have the loan of an animal during their stay at San Leon. Alfaretta broke the silence, explaining:
"No, he didn't say any such thing. He said we was to come choose horses to ride, and when he said one was white I picked that out at once. I—can't really believe you mean it, Mrs. Ford, though—course—Ma Babcock—I never heard o' such folks—never—never—in my life. It certainly does beat the Dutch. I—Alfy Babcock—Dolly Doodles—Jolly Molly—Helena—to have horses of our own—it makes me cry! I, Alfy Babcock, ownin' a whole horse! Oh! My!"
"Then I shall be very, very sorry the idea ever entered my husband's mind, of making such a gift. We don't want tears—we just want happiness, perfect happiness, up here at San Leon!" said beautiful Gray Lady, smiling, and looking fairer than ever in this new delight of making gifts, as freely as she wished. Her own life had grown so much happier, these last months, that she longed only to "pass on" happiness to all whom she knew. Alfy's tears really hurt her, for a moment, till Dolly explained, with an arm about the weeper's waist:
"I reckon these must be what I've heard of as 'happy tears,' dear Lady Gray. Alfy is too pleased to do anything else—even to say 'thank you'—yet."
Queer little Alfy had dropped her head on Dorothy's shoulder and was repeating in a low tone:
"A whole horse of my own! Mine, Alfy Babcock's! A whole horse—a whole—livin'—horse—A—whole—horse!"
"Well, you wouldn't want a half one, would you, Miss Babcock? Nor one that wasn't living?" demanded Monty, laughing. "Quit crying and let's choose, for that's what Leslie said we were to do. Is that correct, Mr. Ford?"
"Entirely. But—see to it that your choice falls each on a different animal! Suppose you begin, alphabetically. Alfaretta first."
Such a group of radiant faces as now peered over the paling! while without a second's hesitation, Alfaretta announced:
"I choose that pure white one for mine!"
"All right. Captain Lem, lead out Blanca and put on her side saddle," directed Mr. Ford.
A passage was opened in the paling and the beautiful Blanca was led forth, amid a murmur of admiration from everybody, except the girl herself. She could only stand, clasping and unclasping her hands, and gazing with dim eyes at this wonderful possession. The handsome saddle cloth was marked Blanca, and Mr. Ford explained that each animal was registered and its name had been chosen by its breeder. Most of these names were Spanish and suited well; as that Blanca meant "white," which the gentle little mare certainly was. To another corner of the saddle cloth, Captain Lem slowly attached the initial "A," as mark of ownership, then beckoned to Alfy that she should mount.
All her mates watched her curiously, expecting to see her timid and reluctant. She treated them to a fine surprise; first by running to Lady Gray and rapturously kissing her hand, then returning to Lemuel, and letting him swing her up to the saddle, without an instant's hesitation. Dorothy stared, amazed; but she needn't have done so: Alfy was "her mother's daughter" as the saying goes, and inherited that good woman's love of horseflesh and fearlessness; and as she settled herself and received the bridle reins she kept murmuring the marvellous fact:
"A whole horse—mine! And Ma Babcock's only got Barnaby!"
"Who is 'Barnaby,' Alfy?" asked Leslie, going round to her side and critically inspecting her treasure.
"Oh—he—Why, he's a mule!"
A shout of laughter greeted this announcement and Lemuel moved away. He was disappointed that the beautiful Blanca had not fallen to Dorothy's share, for he believed the white filly to be the best as well as the handsomest creature in the corral. However, her turn was next, and he listened anxiously to hear what it might be. He wished she wouldn't be so over-generous in offering the choice to her mates, and in saying that if she disappointed them she wanted to change.
"All are so fine. It can't make a bit of difference to me."
"Choose! Choose! You dear old slow-poke, for I'm just dying to do so, too. I can't wait—do choose!" cried impatient Molly, skipping about and trying to cut short Dorothy's hesitation.
"All right, then. I choose the 'calico'. She's so like another Portia that I used to ride 'back home.'"
"Zaraza, for Dolly. A Spanish title, too, dear, and means 'chintz'—a 'calico', if you please. Lead her out, Lem!"
The pretty creature was brought out, arching her graceful neck and lifting her dainty hoofs as if she were dancing to music, as she was now to the clapping of hands and lusty cheers of healthy young throats. Then she was saddled, a decorative "D" attached to her saddle-cloth, Dorothy put upon her back, to take her stand beside Alfaretta on Blanca, while the others chose and were mounted.
"It has been a real ceremony and a delightful one! Here's to the health and happiness of our young equestrians! Hip, hip, hurra!" cried the master of the ranch, with a boyish heartiness that sent the hats of the ranchmen from their heads and their voices echoing the gay "Hip, hip, hurra!"
But, despite her happiness, Dorothy's face was thoughtful. There had been eight horses in the corral, as there had been, at first, eight young guests at San Leon. To Helena had been allotted a fine bay, big and powerful as well as comely, by name Benito; to Herbert a black, chosen by him for its resemblance to his own "Bucephalus," "back home" where Portia was, and from a sentiment similar to Dolly's. Then Lady Gray was asked to choose for the absent James Barlow, and did so as calmly as if he had but stepped around the corner and had deputed her to act for him.
But it was noticeable that of all the splendid thoroughbreds within the paddock one was by far the finest. That was a dappled gray, perfect in every, point, and looking as if he were king of that four-footed company.
"For Jim, I choose Azul, the Gray! You all know I love gray in color and I love the 'blue,' as his Spanish owners named him. Captain Lemuel, please saddle Azul for Jim Barlow, and, Daniel, will you use him, please, till Jim comes back?"
Dorothy flashed a grateful look upon her hostess, then glanced at Alfaretta, sure of finding sympathy in that girl's honest eyes. But Alfy nodded, well pleased, and Mr. Ford rode to the head of the little cavalcade and took his place at Dorothy's side, while the others followed, two by two, to make a circuit of the grounds and test their mounts.
The men cheered again and again as the procession started, Mr. Ford and Dorothy leading; then Leslie on the sorrel, Caesar, with Alfy on Blanca; Helena on Benito, with Monty on the chestnut, Juan—a mount well suited to his stature and requirements. Last rode Molly on Juana, another chestnut, and a perfect match for her brother—Monty's Juan; while Herbert's Blackamoor finished the caravan, last but by no means least in the creature's own proud estimation.
They paced and they cantered, they trotted and they galloped, even the most inexperienced without fear, because of the vigilant attendants who raced beside them, as well as the high spirits of the others. Around and around the spacious grounds they rode, Captain Lem pointing out several fences and hedges he would have them leap, later on, and finally bringing up before the stately front of the house to dismount.
As they did so Dorothy noticed a queerly dressed little boy sitting beside the fountain holding a basket in his hand and eagerly watching the cavalcade. Nobody else seemed to observe him, amid all the clatter and laughter. He looked to the sympathetic girl as if he were very tired and, leaving the rest, she crossed to him and asked:
"Who are you, little boy? Do you want something?"
Instantly, he offered her the basket, and as instantly vanished.
AN UNEXPECTED DEPARTURE
Dorothy looked after the fleeing little figure as it disappeared behind a clump of shrubbery in the direction of the laundry.
"A child of one of the workmen, I suppose, but such an odd, quaint looking child," she thought, and rejoined her mates. They were still standing beside the cloistered walk, talking, planning the wonderful trips which would be open to them now that they owned horses; comparing notes upon the points of each that they fancied they had already learned, while Mr. Ford declared:
"This really is the most wonderful affair! Not that you have the horses, but that you show no jealousy about them. So far as I can see each of you is perfectly satisfied with his own choice and sure it was the wisest. I only hope our good James Barlow will like his Azul as well. Heigho, Dolly Doodles! What a quaint little basket! An Indian one and fine. Where did you get that?"
"A little boy gave it to me. I suppose it is for Lady Gray, and here she comes."
The lady had walked across from the Barracks, slowly, sauntering over the beautiful grounds, so fully in accord with them and the glorious day hat she was humming an aria from pure lightness of heart. She had not forgotten the missing lad for whom she had chosen the best horse in the herd, but it did not seem now that anything could be really amiss. He would surely soon be back, safe and well, and oh! how good life was! How dear the world, and how gracious that tender Providence which had crowned her life with joy! In this mood she came up to the group awaiting her and Dorothy put the basket into her hands.
She hadn't expected anything of weight and nearly dropped it.
"Why, dearie, what an exquisite basket! But how heavy it is! What—here—why? See how oddly it's fastened with rushes or something like them. I'll sit right here while one of you open it."
She seated herself upon a carved bench beside a sun-dial and Leslie cut the rushes which were bound tightly about the basket. As he did so a plaintive little wail issued from it, and Lady Gray and he both jumped.
"A baby! A foundling!" laughed Mr. Ford, pretending to be greatly frightened.
"Open it, open it quick, please! I can't wait!" cried Molly.
At the slightest touch now the lid fell off and there, lying on a mat of softest grass, was a tiny, new-born lamb. Ohs! and Ahs! and laughter greeted it, to which the small creature answered by another feeble "Ma-a-a!" then curled itself to sleep.
"What a pretty present! Who could have sent it?" wondered Lady Gray.
"One of the shepherds, likely; sheep herders they call them here. And it's the first time I ever saw a lamb 'snow white.' The comparison, 'white as a lamb' is generally wrong, for they're a dirty gray. This one has been washed within an inch of its life—literally. Some of you girls better take it to the dairy and give it some milk," said Mr. Ford.
"Maybe there somebody will know about it or we'll find the little boy again. He was so cute! Like a small Indian, he looked."
"He might easily be one, Dorothy. There are still many bands of them roaming the mountains. Quite often, the 'boys' say, some come to San Leon. A peaceable lot, though, mostly, unless they get hold of liquor. But liquor turns even cultivated white men into brutes. Not likely we shall see any of them at this time of year, when life in the forest is pleasant."
"Oh! Daniel, don't talk of Indians at all! I don't like them," protested Mrs. Ford, with a little shudder. "I hope that child wasn't one."
"Well, we don't know that he was. There are many people belonging to San Leon and other neighboring ranches and a child more or less isn't enough to set us worrying. Hmm. Here comes the operator with a telegram. I was in hopes that I might escape them for a few weeks. News, Mr. Robson?"
The clerk's face was grave and the young folks walked away; Dorothy carrying the basket with the lamb, the others following—with mischievous Molly prodding the little creature with her forefinger "to make it talk."
But the boys were not interested in "young mutton" as Monty called it, and sought the ranchmen at their quarters to learn when they could go fishing, or what was better, hunting.
"I don't see what you want to kill things for!" pouted Molly, while Helena answered:
"Because they are—just boys! I only hope they won't be allowed to handle firearms, except for rifle practice under the trainer's care. So this is the dairy! What a fine one and away up here, where Milliken said there was 'no civilization!' Do you know, Papa is getting quite anxious for a stock farm? We think it's so queer for a man who knows nothing but banking, but some doctor told him it would be fine for his health. If he has cattle, I suppose we'll have a dairy. I mean now to find out all I can about such things because I know whatever Mr. Ford does will be the best possible. Odd! up here the dairymaids are dairymen! How spotlessly clean that one yonder looks, in his white uniform! I'm going to ask what he is doing now."
She left the other girls to do so and from another worker in this up-to-date, sweet-smelling place, Dorothy begged a basin of milk for their new pet. It still remained in the basket, which was so soft and of such exquisite fineness that it could be folded like a cloth.
Alfaretta still held the soft cover, which had slipped off when Leslie cut the rushes binding it on, turning it idly in her hands. Suddenly she stopped and stared at its inner side, then excitedly stooped where Dorothy was feeding the lamb and pointed, exclaiming:
"For the land sakes, Dolly Doodles, look at that!"
"Take care, Alfy! You're scaring this timid little thing so it won't drink. It hardly knows how, anyway. What? What do you say?"
"I say look a there! Jim! Jim!"
Dorothy snatched the cover from Alfy's hand and there, surely enough, was the letter D done in the curious handwriting which James Barlow had acquired; quite different both girls knew from that of any other they had ever seen. Then they stared at one another, not knowing whether to be glad or sorry.
"What does it mean?" cried Dorothy at last, while Molly drew near to learn what had happened to surprise them. For answer Alfaretta handed her the cover and fairly gasped out:
"Jim—our Jim—wrote that—or painted it—or—or—It's Jim, true as preachin'!"
"Huh! then all I can say is that this paragon of a Jim has a mighty poor style of writing. Looks more as if that lamb had bumped its itsy—witsy—heady—and made it bleed. That's some Indian 'mark' that the maker of the basket put on it. Don't try to get up any excitement over that."
Alfy shook her head but Dorothy did not look up. She was searching the soft, wilted grass that lined the basket; and, in the bottom, tied to a bunch of faded flowers was a little glistening stone. The pebble was marked by another D, traced in the red juice of some plant.
The basket went one way, the lamb another as Dorothy sprang to her feet and danced for very joy.
"Yes, it's from Jim—it's from Jim! And he's alive—somewhere he is alive! Oh! I am so glad, so glad!"
Alfy was glad, too, of this reminder of the lad's existence, but she was also ashamed of him.
"Huh! I don't see what there's to be so tickled over, for my part! Jim Barlow's actin' like a regular simpleton. And he's mean, too. He's meaner 'n pussley, makin' everybody such a lot of trouble. Folks riding night and day to hunt for him—some out scourin' round this very minute—and him just stayin' away 'cause—'cause—"
"'Cause what, Alfaretta Babcock?" demanded Molly sternly. As always she was loyal to her beloved Dorothy whose joy Alfy was rapidly spoiling by her contempt for the truant.
"'Cause, I s'pose he hasn't any decent clothes to come home in. He didn't take his with him and clothes don't grow on trees, even in Colorado. But—if I knew where he was I'd take 'em to him and give him a piece o' my mind along with 'em."
"Give it to me, instead, missy. I'm kind of sort of hungry for it!" said a familiar voice behind them, and there was Captain Lem leaning on the sill of the dairy window and looking at them with that amused expression of his. He seemed to find a lot of young folks the most entertaining company in the world. He had hated their coming and had instantly veered around to be thankful for it. Already his mates were teasing him about it and prophesying that Lem had done his last job on the ranch. Hereafter, if he was missed, all the "boys" would have to do would be to hunt up Dorothy, or her chums, and find him.
"What's a doin', younkers? Hope your ridin' round didn't tire ye none. Hello! Gone to raisin' sheep, have ye? Mighty pretty little creatur', that one is. Where'd you find it?"
Even Helena left off learning dairy work and hurried with the others to the window to learn his opinion.
He took the cover and the stone and carefully studied the inscriptions on them. Cocked his head sidewise, put on his spectacles, screwed up his eyebrows and his lips, and ejaculated:
"That's a poor fist—whoever done it!"
"Maybe it is; but both Alfaretta and I recognized it at once. You see poor Jim almost taught himself to write. He'd begun that even before I first saw him and it's hard to unlearn things, you know. Else, Jim's so smart he'd have written better than any of us by this time. Yes, indeed! Poor Jim is very, very clever!" said Dolly warmly.
Captain Lemuel shook his head, and remarked:
"I 'low you call him that by way o' compliment. But back home when we called a feller 'clever' it meant he hadn't much sense. I've seen that sort, 'clever' souls 't scurcely knew enough to come in out the rain. This here one 'peared the same to me. Course, I hadn't been acquainted with him longer 'n next to no time but if he was so smart, as I s'pose you're meanin' to state, he hid it amazin' well. Hmm. But—but—if this is a handwrite o' his 'n, our business is to take it straight to the 'Boss.' What you goin' to name your lamb, Little One?"
Dorothy lifted the little animal and gave it to him through the window. He caressed it tenderly enough in his strong hands, for he loved all animals, though horses best.
"Why, I hadn't thought. I mean we hadn't. And it isn't ours, anyway, if it was sent to the Gray Lady."
"Your Gray Lady's name don't begin with a D. It's plain as the nose on your face who it's meant for," he answered, promptly.
"Then if it is really mine—how lovely!—I'll just call it Snowball."
"Pshaw, Dolly Doodles! If I had a lamb sent to me by a poor lost feller like Jim, I'd name it after him and not so silly like that. Do call it Jim, junior," argued Alfy.
"Yes, sissy, but—but it ain't that kind of a lamb," observed the Captain, siding with his favorite at once.
Molly giggled and even Helena smiled, but Alfy simply pouted.
"Huh! Well, then if Jim won't do, call her Jiminetta—that'd be after me and him, too, same's I'm Alfaretta."
Dorothy laughed, too, now, and stopped studying the rude letters traced on the cover and the stone. They but deepened the mystery of Jim's disappearance and present whereabouts. She remarked:
"We don't often enough take time to say your whole name, child. It's generally 'Alfy.' Let's compromise and call our lamb Netty."
"Good enough! And if the little creatur' takes after most Colorady folks or flocks, she won't care a mite what name she has so she ain't called late to dinner. Haw, haw, haw!"
Laughing at his own ancient witticism, Captain Lem started houseward with "Netty" in his arms, the little thing nestling down in them as if it knew it had found a friend. But his face was troubled. He didn't like this secret signal from the missing James and he liked less the fact that the lad's messenger had been a small Indian. However, this seemed a small matter to what was awaiting him, as Mr. Ford came toward him, walking rapidly, and, apparently, in deep thought.
"Lem, do you think you can run San Leon without me for a few days?"
Captain saluted his "chief" and replied, a trifle testily: "That's what I have been doin' for a purty consid'able spell, ain't it, Boss?"
"Yes, but you hadn't eight youngsters on your hands then, to keep happy and out of mischief. Boys you know, Lem—"
"I know. I've been one. Wish 't I was again. What's up, Boss?"
The girls had followed the Captain, slowly, and eagerly discussing Jim's message—if it was such—and its probable meaning; but they paused at a little distance, not wishing to interrupt the men's interview which, from the expression of their faces, was a serious one.
But Mr. Ford saw them and beckoned them to come up; and then explained to them as well as to the old ranchman:
"We have had telegrams that call us east. Away east, as far as New York. I feel that we must leave you young folks—for a few days—as few as we can possibly make them. It isn't business or I'd depute somebody else to act for me. It's this: A wireless dispatch has been received that a very old lady, an aunt of Erminie's, will arrive in that city on the steamer which is due in just three days. She has lived abroad for many years and is now very feeble, helpless, in fact, from paralysis or something of that nature. She brought Erminie up and has been the best and truest friend my wife ever had. We owe her everything, and feel that we cannot leave her to land in a strange city, broken in mind and body, without her 'daughter' to care for her. We must go, for I don't want Lady Gray to take the trip and responsibility without me. If all goes well, we should be back in less than a fortnight—could be much sooner except that Lady Gray wants to bring Aunt Rachel to San Leon; and we will have to make the return journey by very easy stages, as her strength will allow. It is trying, too, that, having learned of our trip east, Miss Milliken insists upon returning with us. She hasn't been happy here and I find she's worrying about her heart. The altitude of San Leon is bad for her, she thinks, and since she puts it on that ground neither Erminie nor I can urge her to remain. But—"
"'But,' don't you worry a minute, dear Uncle Dan!" cried Dorothy, clasping her hands around his arm and using the title he had asked for many times, though she had rarely done so before. All along, despite his great generosity and kindness, she had stood just a little in awe of the "Railroad Boss," and he had been simply "Mr. Ford" to her as well as to all his other young guests. But it needed only one look of anxiety on his noble face to rouse all her loving sympathy. She repeated: "Don't you, nor sweet Lady Gray, worry one single minute about us or things up here at San Leon. We'll be as good as good! Helena, here, is a better caretaker than poor Miss Milly. Between ourselves, we're glad she's going. She's been a burden to Nell, all the time, instead of a help. I'm sorry about her heart but—I'm glad she's going. Now—when do you start? Isn't there something I—we—can do to help you off? Do let us help!"
The gentleman's face had lightened. His girl guests had accepted the situation beautifully, and he could but hope as much for the lads. In any case he must go; and, indeed, at once. He was so pressed for time that they disliked to trouble him with the message the lamb had brought, and watched him walk swiftly away without a further word.
"Huh! He needn't be afraid we'll do anything we oughtn't! And I don't see as we're going to be so much alone, after all. There's the trained nurse, and though the doctor's gone to Denver he'll come back."
"She's sick herself, this last day or so, Alfy. We mustn't count on her nor on Dr. Jones. But there's Mr. Robson, Captain Lem, Anita, Wun Sing—and lots of ranchmen left. Oh! we'll be all right!" said Dorothy. "But the Captain has walked off with 'Netty'—forgotten all about her, I guess."
"Well, I must go to poor Milly. She never can keep her head when anything happens suddenly, like this. She has complained, incessantly, that she could hardly breathe up here and I'm glad she has the chance to go now. But I can fancy my dear mother's face, when Milly walks into the Towers without me!" said Helena, hurrying away.
A half-hour of activity followed, the girls taking Lady Gray's simple packing out of her hands, although that much-travelled prima donna was never disturbed by sudden changes from place to place. Indeed, she was happy over this coming trip, under her husband's escort, and to meet her dearly loved Aunt Rachel.
Jedediah had his master's suit-case ready in even shorter time and it was only Miss Milliken who delayed matters by her fussiness.
However, the buckboard came around, Silent Pete holding the reins over the four-in-hand, and Captain Lem rather jealously regarding him; until his eye fell upon his "awkward squad" and he remembered the greater responsibility placed upon himself. Then he was reconciled to see another man drive his horses, reflecting:
"Well, I needn't grumble, I'm the one Boss trusted most. Seven youngsters in hand and one in the bush—land knows where!—is a bigger job 'n just drivin' a four-footed team. I ain't no call to feel lonesome but just to feel sot up. Funny, ain't it, Lem! You a regular, dyed-in-the-wool old bach to find yourself suddenly playin' daddy to seven strappin' boys an' gals! Seven an' there'd ought to be eight. Ought to be—must be—that's what it spells to Captain Lemuel Hunt. For if—if—as I reasonably suspicion—that there Jim Barlow, poor writer, has fell into the hands of a passel of Injuns, his cake's dough, lessen I can rake it out their oven into mine."
The departure of the buckboard, with solemn Silent Pete in charge, had a depressing effect upon the group left watching it. Everything would go on just as usual, of course. Why should there be any difference? But—how lonesome it was! How they would miss Lady Gray's sweet voice and presence, and the "Boss's" jokes and laughter!
The thought was too much for tender-hearted Alfy, and after a spluttering, and sniffling to stem her own grief, she burst into an audible boo-hoo, that promptly started Molly's tears, though she shed them silently. All, indeed, were very sober and Leslie's face was pale. He hadn't realized till now how necessary his mother had become to his happiness, and he felt sorely inclined to follow the example of the weeping girls though rather indignant against them. It wasn't their Lady Gray who had left, nor their beloved Dad. He exclaimed, testily:
"Girls, quit that! I'm your host now and I say—no crying! What I propose is—do something. Let's ride to Bald Eagle Peak—or Rock. You'll need clear eyes to follow that trail, but there'll be just time enough to do it before bedtime. Hurray for 'Boots and Saddles!'"
Captain Lem answered quickly:
"Lad, you can't do that! You mustn't take that road till you know more about ridin' 'n you do now, nor unless you start by daybreak. I wouldn't try it myself, old mountaineer as I am, at this hour, lessen it was a case of life and death. No, you can't go."
Leslie's temper rose and he retorted:
"I'm 'Boss' here now and don't you dare say 'mustn't' to me!"
The sharpshooter laughed ironically; and this enraged the boy still further. His riding whip was in his hand and, with a furious look at the Captain, he lifted it and brought it down upon the old man's head—who staggered backward, then fell to the ground as if he were dead.
"Leslie! Leslie!" shrieked the onlookers, "what have you done?"
"Killed him—I—guess!" he gasped and threw himself beside the prostrate ranchman.
THE SHEEP HERDER'S CABIN
When, in the delirium of fever, Jim Barlow strayed from his room at San Leon, the one idea in his mind was that the mountains called him. One distant peak, in especial, seemed imbued with life, using human speech and gesture—warning him to come, and come at once, lest some terrible thing befall him. He must obey! He must—he must!
He set off at a run, his bare feet unconsciously seeking the smooth driveway of the home-piece, and following it at breakneck speed till it ended in the road below the mesa. There the rougher going hindered him somewhat, but not greatly, and he kept to the highway till it reached a river and a bridge.
Beyond the bridge the road divided into three forks, the northern one ascending steadily toward the peak to which his fancy still fixed itself and he struck off upon this. How long he travelled he did not know, though his unnatural strength due to his fever must have lasted for hours. Gradually, that fierce, inward excitement that drove him on gave place to a sudden weariness, and he dropped like a stone on the spot where it overcame him.
As the morning rose, clear and bright, a company of horsemen, riding in single file toward a distant pass, came upon a prostrate, nearly naked figure lying in their path. The horsemen were Ute Indians, and like many of their white brothers, were prospecting for gold. All sorts of precious metals were to be found in these Rocky mountains, and were their own rightful inheritance. They were peaceably inclined to share and share alike with the pale faces. For years there had been friendship between them and the red men had learned many things from the white. Not the least had been this craving for gold; and where once they would have toiled only in the chase, to shoot and kill the game with which the mountains abounded, they now longed for the glittering stones hidden within them.
But they were in no haste. The gold was hidden—it would keep, and they had ridden all night long. So, at sight of poor Jim, lying motionless, they dismounted and discussed him.
"He is dead," said the foremost, in his own tongue which, of course, the lad would not have understood, even if he had heard.
Another stooped down and turned the boy's face upward. It was scratched with the underbrush through which he had made his way and the light garments he wore were in shreds. His feet were swollen and bruised and the bandages had been torn from his arm.
"Not dead. Might as well be. Heap bad," said another Indian, gravely shaking his head.
There were four in the party and one of them filled a cup at a nearby spring and dashed the water over the lad's face. His fit of exhaustion was about over, anyway, and the shock of the ice-cold water revived him, so that he opened his eyes and looked into the dark face bent above him.
But there was no intelligence in this look and presently his lids drooped and he was once more oblivious to all about him.
The Indians held a consultation. Three were for going on, after they had breakfasted, and leaving the vagrant to his fate. One was for giving help and, being the leader of the party as well as a red-skinned "Good Samaritan," his counsel prevailed.
When they resumed the trail, Jim Barlow was carried with them, very much like a sack of meal across a saddle bow. But carried—not left to die.
When he again opened his eyes, and this time with consciousness in them, he was in a small shanty, rude in the extreme; and his bed a pile of hemlock boughs spread with a woollen blanket. He lay for some time trying to think where he was and what had happened to him, and idly watching the bent figure of a man sitting just outside the doorway of the hut. The man was smoking and a little boy was playing in the sand at his feet.
Jim couldn't see anything interesting in these two strangers nor in the cabin itself and, with a feeling of great weakness, closed his eyes once more, and for many hours of sound, refreshing sleep. When for the third time he awoke his senses had returned and only the weakness remained. He tried to speak and after several efforts succeeded in asking, audibly:
"Where am I?"
At sound of his voice the man outside rose and came to the boy, nodding his head in satisfaction but in silence.
"Where—am—I?" asked Jim, again.
The man shook his head. By his appearance he was Mexican, but he wore an Indian costume of buckskin, once gaily decorated and fringed but now worn and very dirty. His straight black hair hung low over his forehead and his hands looked as if they had never seen water. His face was not ugly, neither was it kind; and he seemed more stolid than stupid.
"Where—am—I? Who are you?" again demanded Jim, trying to get up, but instantly sinking back from utter weakness.
There was no answer; but, after a long contemplation of his guest, the Mexican crossed to a little stove, wherein a few sticks were burning. From a rusty coffee pot which stood upon it, he poured some liquid into a tin cup and brought it to the lad.
Jim tried to sit up and take the cup into his own hand but he could not; so, with unexpected gentleness, the man slipped his arm under his patient's shoulders and raised him to a half-sitting posture. Then he held the cup to Jim's lips, who drank eagerly, the muddy coffee seeming like nectar to his dry, parched throat.
The drink refreshed him but he was still too weak to rise, or even care to do so. Dozing and waking, wondering a little over his situation yet mostly indifferent to everything, the hours passed.
Jim's interest was next aroused by the man's dressing of his arm. He did this with real skill, removing the big leaves of some healing plant, with which it had been bound, and replacing these with fresh ones, confining them in place by long strips of split reeds.
The soft, cool leaves were wonderfully comforting and with the easing of the pain serious thoughts came. To the injured lad everything now seemed a blank from the evening meal at San Leon, after his arrival there, until now. Why he had left that ranch and why he had come to this queer place he could not imagine; but the picture of the beautiful, mission-like house was distinct, and of Dorothy walking across its lawn beside him.
Dorothy! It seemed a long time since he had seen her or heard her sweet voice chide him for his misdoings. Why—now he remembered—he hadn't said good-night to Dorothy, his first faithful friend. But it is needless to follow the gropings of Jim's mind back to the realization of his present situation. Yet the first and strongest feeling which possessed him was that he must tell Dorothy where he was. Dolly was such a hand to worry, silly Dolly! And she was his best, earliest friend.
The Mexican brought him his breakfast of bacon and corn bread, with another cup of that coffee which always stood upon the stove. A child came with the man and gazed at Jim with solemn, wondering eyes.
Jim returned the stare with interest. This was the first small Indian he had ever seen and to judge by the little fellow's face he might have been an old, old man—he was so grave and dignified.
"How are you, sonny?" said Jim.
The midget simply blinked.
"Can't you talk, kid?" again questioned the stranger, holding out his hand.
The little boy did not answer, save by placing his own chubby, extremely dirty hand on Jim's extended palm.
"Good. You're friendly, if you are dumb. Sort of needs washin', don't it? Water. Can you bring me some water? I'm thirsty."
The child walked to a big tank, or half-barrel, outside the door and dipped the tin coffee cup within it. But he was too short to reach the low supply and giving himself an extra hitch upwards, over the edge, the better to obtain the draught, he lost his balance and fell in head first.
Jim's low bed commanded a view of this and he started to rescue the youngster, but the man was before him. He treated the accident as if it were an ordinary occurrence, pulling the child out by the seat of his leather breeches, shaking him as one might a wet puppy, and setting him on his feet without a word. Indeed, words seemed the most precious commodity in that queer shanty, so rarely were they used. But the father, if such he were, himself filled the cup with the stale water and gave it to the child, who carried it to Jim as calmly as if no trouble had attended his getting it.
"Thank you, boy. What's your name?"
"Name—Jose," said the man answering for him. He pronounced it "Ho-say," and Jim was pleased. Knowing that he might meet people who spoke Spanish, in this trip west, the studious lad had brought a Spanish grammar along with him on the train and had glanced into it whenever he had a chance. Of course, he could not speak it himself, nor understand it well, nor was the dialect here in use very much like the correct language of the grammar.
"Jose, where is this place?"
The child stared. Then suddenly went out of doors and returned with a baby lamb in his arms. He plumped this down upon Jim's breast and smiled for the first time. The lamb was his latest, greatest treasure and, in his childish sympathy, he offered it to the "hurted man." With his good arm, Jim made the little animal more comfortable, while Jose vanished without again. This time he returned with a fine basket of Indian workmanship, and this was filled in part by glittering stones and in part by flowers. All these he deposited on the bed beside the lamb, and folded his arms behind him in profound satisfaction. He had done his very best. He had given the sick one all his things. If that didn't cure him it would be no further business of Jose's.
The man of the house had now seated himself beside the stove. He placed an earthen pan beside him on the clay floor and laid a bundle of rushes beside it. Also, he took down from a peg in the wall an unfinished basket, and reseating himself, proceeded to weave upon it. He used only the finest of splits, torn from the reeds, almost like thread in their delicacy and he worked very slowly. From time to time he held the basket from him, studying its appearance with half-closed eyes, as an artist studies a picture. Frequently, he lifted the coffee pot to his lips and drank from its spout.
Jim watched him in silent admiration of his deftness with the weaving and in disgust at his use of the coffee pot—thinking he would want no more draughts from it himself. All the time his mind grew clearer and he began to form plans for telling Dorothy where he was—though he didn't know that, himself; but, at least, of letting her know he was alive. She would have to guess at the rest and she would surely trust him to come back when he could.
When the weaver looked up again Jim beckoned him to approach. Rather reluctantly, he did so. For his own part he was getting tired of this helpless lad, left in his hut by White Feather, his Ute brother-in-law. If Moon Face were living, the Ute maiden who had been his wife and little Jose's mother, it wouldn't have mattered. To her would have fallen the care. Nothing had gone right with him, Alaric, the sheep herder, since Moon Face fell ill and died, though he went often to that far place in the forest where her body had been secretly buried in the crevice of a great rock. Moon Face had left him for a few days' visit to a camp of her relatives and there had taken the small-pox and died, despite the fact that she had been treated by the wisest medicine men and immersed in the sweat-box, the Indian cure for all ills. If he had been near enough to such a thing, or had had energy enough to prepare it up here at his home, Alaric would promptly have subjected poor Jim to similar treatment.
As it was, the isolation of Alaric's hut and his laziness saved the wanderer from this. Now, as he obeyed the boy's summons, he was brooding over his misfortunes and was more grim even than usual.
"Well, young man?"
Jim was surprised. The man had been so silent, hitherto, that he imagined they two had no language in common.
"So you speak English! That makes it easy. I want to send a message to the place I—I left. Will you take it?"
Alaric shook his head, firmly declining.
"Don't get ugly. If you won't go, will you send somebody?"
The Mexican pretended that his English did not go so far as this. He obstinately would not understand.
Then followed a long argument which greatly wearied Jim and simply failed of its object. At last, he named "San Leon" and Alaric's expression brightened. That was the place where there was plenty of money and the sheep herder loved money. He had been there. It was not far away, by a road he knew, yet he did not care to go there again, himself. There had been a transaction of horses that wasn't pleasant to remember. Old Lem Hunt had accused him of being a thief, once on a time, when some thoroughbreds had been missing from the San Leon corrals, and Alaric had had hard work to prove his innocence. He had been obliged to prove it because, in Colorado, men were still sometimes inclined to take justice in their own hands and not wait for the law to do it for them.
The truth was that the sheep herder had not, personally, taken a single steed from San Leon. He had merely "assisted" some of his Indian friends to do so. He had even carefully kept all knowledge of the affair from the ears of his brother-in-law, White Feather; a man who indeed loved fine horseflesh, as all the Utes did, but preferred to increase his herds by legitimate trading.
The other Indians, whom Alaric had "assisted," had paid their assistant in honest gold—he wouldn't take any other sort of payment—and there had been more gold changing hands in order to secure the real thieves. And because he loved the gold Alaric had thus assisted both sides and received double pay. Also, he had left an unsavory memory of himself at San Leon as well as offended his Ute relatives; and White Feather not only prevented harm being done to his Mexican brother-in-law, but also used the occasion to make Alaric subject to himself. Thus it was that he had made the sheep herder take in the sick lad he had found on the trail and swear to be kind to him.
"San Lean? Si.... En verdad. Well, senor?"
If this injured, half-naked youth had hailed from that rich man's ranch it might be worth while to hearken to what he wished.
"I want to tell a girl there that I am not dead. I want to send just that message, till I can go there myself. Do this for me and I will—will pay you—when I can."
Alaric considered. From present appearances there seemed small chance of Jim's ever paying anybody for any service. Yet—there was White Feather to please and there was possible payment at San Leon. He nodded acquiescence.
"Then get me somethin' to write on!" begged Jim, vastly excited by this chance to set himself right with his friends.
He might as well have asked for the moon. Writing was not an accomplishment of Alaric's and he had never owned a scrap of paper fit for such use. Yet the longer he pondered the matter the more willing the man became. Finally, he took Jose upon his knee, and, emphasizing each word of instruction by a stern forefinger and a threat of fearful punishment for disobedience, he instilled into the little fellow's mind the fact that he was to go to San Leon ranch; to find there a pretty girl in a white dress; a girl with big brown eyes and dark curly hair. A girl who was always laughing and who always wore a red bow on her head. He, Alaric, would go with his son as far as the cypress hedge, bordering the west side of the lake. There he would wait for the child to do his errand and return, and would himself be out of sight of that old sharpshooter, whom he feared.
He had another inspiration—of generosity and greed commingled. That lamb of Jose's. He could afford to give that away because it wasn't his own, nor even really the little one's. It belonged to the rich ranch owner whose sheep he herded, up here on the lonely mountain. The girl for whom this sick boy wished a message might like the lamb and give the papoose money for it. Money would be far better for Jose than any pet.
After this course of silent reasoning, Alaric bestirred himself to action. He had often had to make his "mark" upon some paper of agreement, the nearest to writing that he could come. He understood that Jim wished to make his own now. So, selecting a bit of glittering stone that was fairly smooth, he handed it to the lad, and afterward crushed the stem of a plant which exuded a red juice. With this other sharp pointed bit of stone dipped in this juice, anybody might make as many "marks" as he chose upon the flat stone.
Jim was quick to understand the suggestion but real writing was out of the question. The best he could accomplish was that D which was in his peculiar hand. By signs, more than words, Alaric expressed the whole matter; and Jim eagerly caught at the suggestion. The lamb would be a pretty gift for Dorothy and would tell her better than words that he remembered her and was safe. Only—the little animal was like everything else seen in this cabin—so dirty! He couldn't send it to dainty Dorothy in such condition. In a few words he explained to the shepherd his ideas about it and was amused by the infinite contempt shown on Alaric's face.
However, he made short work of that matter. He was now impatient to be off, the sooner to get that possible payment of gold; and remembered that White Feather had commanded him to serve the sick stranger to the best of his ability. With a flippant gesture he seized the lamb and carried it to the tank outside the door; and sousing it up and down till its dusty fleece was white and itself nearly drowned, he threw it on Jim's bed to dry.
Jose found his voice and jabbered in a mixture of Spanish and Indian, expressing his pity for his pet; then brought handfuls of grass and leaves to rub it with. This vigorous attention, in which Jim used his own sound arm, soon restored the lambkin to a beauty that surprised them all. More grass and flowers were put in the bottom of the basket with the marked stone, the lamb upon this cushion, and the cover fastened on.
Alaric informed Jim that such a basket was worth a great deal of money. He had learned the art of making such from Moon Face, who had travelled sometimes to the distant railway line and sold them to tourists. It was so tightly woven it would hold water; and in his pride over his handiwork the weaver would have poured a dipper of it into the basket to prove his statement.
"No, no! The poor little thing has had more than its share of water! Best save the rest for yourself!" protested Jim, with a feeble attempt at a joke.
Alaric desisted then, hung the dipper back on the tank, seized the basket in one hand and Jose in the other and strode away. The last glimpse Jim had of them showed poor little Jose's fat legs being swung along, touching the ground only now and then, as they utterly failed to keep up with his father's pace.
Left alone, Jim lay still a long time, idly fingering some bits of rock which the child had scattered upon his blanket. He felt very cold; and again, in another moment, he seemed to be burning up. He thought of the water in the tank. He was desperately thirsty, his throat growing dry, his lips swelling; and alternately he longed to dip his head in that barrel and drink—drink—drink! then shivered with disgust remembering the various uses the stale fluid had been put to. Finally, sleep, or unconsciousness, overcame him and for many days he knew no more.
PLAY THAT WAS WORK AND WORK THAT WAS PLAY
The silence that followed Leslie's frightened cry, as he hurled himself to the ground beside the old man he had struck, lasted but an instant. Then, recovering their scattered wits, Herbert and Monty stooped and lifted the Captain's head.
The movement roused him and he opened his eyes, drawing a long breath as he did so and trying to speak. But he couldn't do that yet; nor, indeed, till Dorothy had come back with a glass of water, for which she had instantly run to the house as Captain Lemuel fell.
Dipping her fingers in the water she moistened his lips, and when he parted them as if demanding more, she gently dropped some between them. He swallowed with an effort but, presently, his strength returned and he tried to rise. The lads helped him and were overjoyed when he said, quite clearly and with a touch of his native humor:
"Ain't so tough as I thought. Eh, what? Lessen a little tenderfoot like—Why, what's he down for? Tried it on himself?"
At the sound of his victim's voice an infinite relief surged through Leslie's heart and he lifted a very white face to look at the ranchman.
"Oh, Captain Lem! I—I was wild to do that! I beg your pardon—please forgive me—if you can!"
The petition ended with a sob, that was really a gasp for breath, due to the excitement of his rage, and the anger of his mates changed to pity for him.
"His weak heart! How ill he has made himself!" thought Helena, compassionately putting her hand under his arm and helping him to his feet, where he stood trembling and still breathing with much difficulty.
Dorothy had told her of this weakness of the lad's and that his parents had been somewhat doubtful if he could endure the rarefied air of that high region. If he could it would cure that other weakness of his lungs and they hoped for the best. She was frightened by his appearance and inwardly resolved to oppose any sort of fun which might bring on a return of this attack. She had already heard her brother and Monty proposing a bear hunt on the more distant peaks of the mountains and decided that it should never take place.
But Captain Lem was answering the boy and she listened to his words:
"Course, sonny, I shan't lay it up again' you. An' I allow 't there's one thing decent about you: if you're quick to get r'iled you're just as quick to own yourself in fault. I'm willin' to wash the slate all clean now, an' start over again with any little problems we may meet, same's when I was a little shaver, an' 'tended deestrict school an' got my sums wrong, the teacher made me do. I'm no hand to lay up malice just 'cause a feller's got more 'n his share o' temper, specially not again' your father's son. Anybody 't spells his name Ford can do most as he's a mind to with Lemuel Hunt. Only—don't you dast to do it again; 'cause I'm some on the temper myself, an' I ain't much used to bein' struck. So—so—just don't show off any more o' that there little playfulness again. That's all."
Too proud to show how really shaken and miserable he felt, the sharpshooter retired to his own quarters at the Barracks and was seen no more that night: but he sent word to Dorothy, the "Little One," that Netty, the lamb, had been given a soft bed close to his own and would be carefully attended.
The hours passed quietly till bedtime, which all the young strangers at San Leon felt inclined to make early that night. Seven young people, with all the means of enjoyment at hand which these had, should have been very merry, but these were not. The absence of their hosts made the great house seem very empty. Nobody had heart for any music, though Dorothy bravely brought out her violin and Helena took her place at the piano, ready to accompany. But, unfortunately, the first melody which came to Dolly's mind was one that Father John, Aunt Betty, and poor Jim had each loved best—"Auld Lang Syne."
She mastered a few strains and the tears rose to her eyes. She suddenly felt lonely and helpless, so far from all who had hitherto made her happy world. So, rather than break down completely and let the tears fall, she nodded to Helena and put her beloved Cremona "to bed," as she called its placing in its case.
"Let's play 'Authors,'" suggested Molly.
"'Authors' is the dullest game going," objected Monty.
"That's because you're not well read. If you knew as much about books as Jim Barlow—" she retorted, teasing, then stopped abruptly. That was an unfortunate reference, for who, alas! could tell if that too studious youth were alive or dead?
Alfaretta hurried to cover this mention by demanding:
"Let's sing 'rounds,' 'Scotland's burning,' or 'Three Blind Mice.' Now don't stop to object or say nothin' but just begin. I will, and Nell, you follow. Then the boys, if any of 'em can sing a note. Sometimes their voices go 'way up in Q and sometimes 'way down suller. But they can try. Now—here she goes: 'Three Blind Mice—Three Blind Mice—For mercy's sake, Helena Montaigne, why don't you take it up? I sing one line, you know, then you sing the same one over—and we each do it three times then change to 'They—all—run—after—the—butcher's—wife—who— cut—off—their—tails—with—a—carving—kni-i-ife!—You—never—see— such—a—sight—in—your—life—as—Three—Blind Mice!' By that time Dolly'll be ready, over cryin'. She can sing real nice if she's a mind to. Listen! Everybody do it real solemn, no giggling, no forgettin' your parts, where you go in and come out at and doin' that part about the butcher's wife and the tails just as fast as you can speak it and the end—as—s-l-o-w—a-s—s-l-o-w. Begin!"
Alfy's rich, though untrained voice, started the song and Helena followed on time, singing very sweetly, indeed, until she came to that tragic part about the tails, when she burst out in a giggle and a vain effort to race along as rapidly as Alfy had done.
Herbert could sing well. He helped Alfaretta carry the thing through to a triumphant finale, they two alone; for all the others had laughed themselves out of place and tune, with Monty interspersing the melody by outrageous cat calls and screechings of "Maria Maouw, come and catch these Three Blind Mice!"
"Maria! Maria! Pussy, pussy cat Maria—Come to supper!" echoed Leslie, laughing as he rarely laughed. To him this company of young people was wholly delightful—except when he felt it his duty to entertain them. When they were thus willing to entertain him everything was all right. He had had so few young intimates in his life that each of these youngsters seemed wonderful to him. Their nonsense and good natured chaffing of one another kept him amused at all times and was doubly pleasant to him that night.
For, like Dorothy, he felt oddly forlorn and deserted in this great beautiful home that was practically his own; and he wished as he had done before that he might step into that cottage of the Babcock's, "up-mounting" where Alfaretta belonged and where she said everyone was as jolly as the day was long. He hadn't liked Alfy at first and he still rather looked down upon her. She wasn't of his station in life, she would not see that money made such a great difference, whether one had it or had not. She was greatly lacking in delicacy of speech, but she was honest to a fault. Not honester than Dolly, perhaps, but in another way. She hadn't hesitated to give him one of those generous "pieces of her mind" with which she regaled anyone she considered at fault; and the "piece" she had cut for him that day had been:
"Well, Leslie Ford, if bein' rich as Croesus—whoever he was—or havin' all creation to wait on you can't make you no better 'n a coward—I pity you. Yes, I do. That was the lowest-down, orneriest trick to hit an old man like Captain Lem, without givin' him a chance to help himself. Why, a boy that hadn't a cent, an' never looked to have, couldn't ha' been no meaner. An' just sayin' 'Forgive me' don't undo that job. Worst is, you raised a bigger welt on your own insides, on that thing Mr. Winters calls your conscience, 'n you did on his old head, an' it won't heal so quick, neither. I sure was ashamed of you, I sure was."
This lecture had been in response to his appeal, as they chanced to stand together in the cloistered walk, waiting for supper:
"You don't think very badly of me, do you, Alfaretta, for getting so angry?"
The lad was very unhappy and very ashamed. He hoped to recover his own self-respect by hearing his mates declare the recent affair had been "nothing." Herbert had gone so far, indeed, as to say that he, too, would have resented being told "must" and "mustn't" by a mere hired man, but Leslie knew that Herbert would never have struck anybody under any provocation; and Monty had simply remarked: "Well, if you really liked to soil your hands that way, all right."
Alfy was the first of the girls he had interviewed, though he had gratefully recognized Helena's compassion and Dorothy's distress—for himself. Molly—he guessed he wouldn't question Molly. That young person had a flippant tongue and she was always inclined to "call a spade a spade." He couldn't imagine her calling a coward a hero—and his own heart told him he had not been that. But Alfy was poor and intensely grateful for all his parents were doing for her. She would be the one to soothe his self-esteem and overlook the episode, he thought, and so he appealed to her.
Alfy's opening remark had been:
"I can't say I think very well. You might ha' done worse, course, you might have used that pistol I saw you cocking round, this morning, if you'd had it handy; and that you've got no more use for than a cat for two tails. You beat the Dutch, Leslie Ford. You're feelin' mean as pussley and you're coaxin' me to contradict you."
Then had followed that larger "slice" of the girl's opinion, recorded above. It hadn't left a very pleasant "taste" in the lad's "mouth."
Summons to supper was an agreeable sound, just then, and nobody referred to the event again. Yet, as has been told, the evening was a dull one for most of the party, the singing of the "rounds" its greatest amusement. Just as this ended, Dr. Jones appeared to read family prayers.
Mrs. Ford had instituted this on her arrival at San Leon, and Mr. Ford had conducted the little service with a dignified sincerity which could not fail to impress his young guests. On leaving, he had requested the doctor to take his place, saying:
"No ceremony that will help to bring a blessing on our home must be omitted just because I am away."
But, to-night, they missed the master's earnest voice and Gray Lady's wonderful singing of just the familiar, common hymn which everybody knew. The house-servants, and such of the ranchmen as would, filed into the spacious music-room and took their seats in reverent quiet. This was new business to most of those rough westerners and they came partly from curiosity, partly from admiration of "Dan Ford, Railroad Boss"; so great a man in their opinion that whatever he did they felt must have some merit in it.
Helena took her place at the piano and the other girls stood beside her; and Herbert, obeying a nod from Dorothy also came forward. Monty and Leslie reluctantly followed. They had grouped themselves thus when the master was present but had hesitated now from a foolish shame before these untutored workmen.
Dorothy's face lighted with gratitude and between the lines of the hymn Molly murmured, "Good boys," while Alfy sang with even greater vim than her beloved "rounds."
Then swift good nights and rest. It had been a busy, an exciting day; and Dorothy was soon asleep, though again her mind had been full of wonder concerning absent Jim and she had meant to lie awake and, as Alfy expressed it: "Cipher out where he could be."
But still she could not worry greatly. The arrival of the lamb with his message assured her that he was alive and, she argued, must be well since he had not forgotten her.
But in one room there was no desire for sleep. Leslie was still restless and excited. His heart bothered him. He missed his parents more than he would acknowledge even to himself. He was fractious and tried Mateo's patience sorely.
"No, Mateo, I shan't go to bed till I get ready. No matter if my mother did say ten o'clock, it was because she didn't understand. You can't go, either. I want you to talk."
But when silence followed Leslie impatiently inquired:
"Well, why don't you?"
Poor Mateo sighed. Commonly his tongue would run so fast that his young master would order him to be quiet. Now, when requested, the valet could find no word to say. He stood behind his master's chair, idly turning with his foot the corners of a mighty bear skin which lay upon the floor. It was the skin of an enormous grizzly, that had been shot by Captain Lem and another caballero, or horse trainer and had been mounted by themselves with infinite care, as a gift to their employer. The head was stuffed to the contour of life, and the paws outspread and perfect. It was, indeed, a most valuable skin and Leslie had admired it so greatly that it had been spread as a rug upon his floor. It annoyed him now to see Mateo toying with it and he bade him stop.
The Mexican flushed and sighed:
"It is that el senor is not well, si?" he suggested, suavely.
"Yes, I am well, too," retorted the boy, who felt wretched, with a curious oppression on his chest.
"Imagine, Senor Leslie, what it must be to kill, to slaughter such a monster!"
"Ah! a monster, indeed! But I shall kill just such another, you'll see. What's the use of a ranch on the Rockies and not go bear hunting? They can't keep me done up in cotton wool just because I used to cough a little."
"Certainly not, senor."
"Oh! shut up with your everlasting 'certainly nots!' You're as tiresome as an old woman. I wish you'd stayed in San Diego, where you belong."
Mateo was amazed. He was really devoted to Leslie and they had rarely disagreed. He scarcely knew the lad in such a mood as this and realized that something must be done to give a pleasanter turn to things. A bear hunt? Was that what the young senor had set his heart upon and been denied? An inspiration came to him.
"Caramba! Behold! I have a fine thought, me. Will it please el senor to listen?"
"Of course. That's what I said to do—to talk."
Then Mateo did talk. For five, ten minutes, with many a gesture and mixture of Spanish and English, till his listener's face grew radiant and he sprang from his chair with a hip, hip, hurra! All his crossness was over and he now allowed Manuel to settle him for the night with a good nature not to be exceeded by anybody.
The morning found all the young folks happier than they had been on the night before; and, nobody was late for breakfast. It had been explained to them that each one should attend the grooming of his or her own horse. There would be men to wait upon them, of course, and for the girls but little labor. Yet Mr. Ford believed that they would all be benefited in health by this pleasant task and that the intimacy which should exist between horse and rider would be thus furthered.
Breakfast was scarcely over when Captain Lem appeared on the porch. He looked older than usual and uncommonly pale under his weather toughened skin, and he had put on his "specs," which he disliked. However, his manner was as gay as ever and he began:
"You cert'nly are the laziest set o' youngsters I've met sence I was knee-high to a hop-toad. Reckon if anybody'd give me a horse when I was your ages I'd ha' beat the sun a-risin' to see if 't had lived over night. The boys is waiting in the stables, and gettin' pretty cross. Some on 'em sort-of-kind-of feel 's if they was playin' nurse to you kids, and the notion don't go down none too good even to oblige Dan Ford, Boss. They've lived in the open, most of the boys has, and are better used to roundin' up stock than to tendin' tenderfeet youngsters. Eh, Little One? Ain't you nowise curious to hear how Netty passed the night?"
One thing was evident to them all—the sharpshooter's ready tongue had suffered no hurt from the unhappy incident of the day before.
Dorothy ran to put her hand in his, exclaiming:
"How dreadful of me! I had forgotten that darling thing. Actually forgotten. How could I when she came from Jim?"
Away she sped toward the Barracks, her white frock and scarlet ribbons making a pretty spot of color on the wide shaven lawn; but practical Alfaretta remarked:
"If that ain't just like Dolly Doodles! Make her think she's neglected somebody and off she flies, forgettin' things better worth rememberin'! The idea! She'll go right to cleanin' that calico filly, Zaraza, an' never think a mite about her clean clothes. Not till she gets 'em dirty—then nothing'll do but she must put on fresh. White frocks ain't so easy did up, either, so I'll go get our high aprons, that Mrs. Calvert had made for us to dust the house in, at Paradise. We've got quite a lot of 'em and, girls, if you'd like, I'll bring a couple for you, too."
"You dear, thoughtful little caretaker! I'll be ever so obliged for the loan till I can make one for myself," answered Helena gratefully, giving her mate a smile that made Alfy happy.
Eager to see their horses but not so pleased with the idea of grooming them, the lads sauntered toward the stables and corral, Leslie intimating that he thought "a quarter judiciously applied would be better than soiling himself by stable-work."
Neither Herbert nor Monty knew Leslie well enough yet to understand this shirking of what they anticipated as a delightful task. Herbert had always been used to horses, and to fine ones. He loved his own Bucephalus, "back home," as a dear friend, and looked forward to equal enjoyment in his new Blackamoor. With a little laugh he glanced at his young host and remarked:
"If I could help it I would never let another hand than mine touch that superb animal your father gave me. I hardly realize it yet, that it is truly my own. Why, I mean to train him to hurdles and high jumps, and when I go back east, this autumn, I'll get myself proposed for the Highland Valley Hunt and—elected, if I can. I say, this is just a glorious chance to learn what I couldn't at home, where houses are thick and farmers so stubborn they will object to one's riding to hounds across their property. Howev—"
Monty interrupted, rather jealously:
"Oh! Quit that riding-to-hounds talk! I don't know a thing about horses—except a saw-horse, that my mother insisted I should work on to reduce my—"
"'Too, too solid flesh!'" broke in Leslie, laughing now and eager to watch the inexperienced "fat boy" make his first attempt at grooming a spirited beast.
But they were apt to break in thus upon each other's remarks and no offence taken, and they were soon at the stables, where the girls were already assembled. One glance at his sister, covered from neck to foot by a brown gingham apron, reminded the fastidious Herbert that he was not fixed for dirty work, and he promptly begged a set of overalls from the nearest workman. The other lads followed his example, discarding jackets and vests, and beginning on their new tasks with a zeal that was almost too eager.
Even Leslie had done the same, willing for once to try this new game and see if there was any fun in it, as Herbert seemed to think. But his fingers shrank from handling the curry comb and brushes, absolutely new and clean though they were, and the best he accomplished was a roughening of Caesar's coat which disgusted him as well as the horse. At last, with a remark that "looking on was good enough for him," he tossed his brushes aside and signalled an attendant to finish the task so badly begun. To his amazement, the hostler declined:
"Sorry, Master Leslie, but the Boss's express orders was—have you do it yourself."
Leslie's eyes flashed. This was insubordination, indeed! Wasn't he master at San Leon, now? Then Captain Lem drew near, to pick up the brush and explain in a matter-of-fact way:
"Best never rub anything—nor anybody—the wrong way, lad! This sorrel, here, 'd be sp'iled in next to no time if his hair ain't smoothed the way natur' meant it should lie. There. That's how. See how it shines? And just look at Herbert and his black! By the great horned spoon! Them two is cronies a'ready—hand-in-glove, pals! And let me say right here an' now; there ain't no comfortabler love nowhere in this world than that 'twixt a horse and his owner—if the last has got sense. Now pitch in, sonny, and don't let nobody get ahead of you on that line. No, siree! What'd the Boss say?" Then turning toward Monty, valiantly struggling with this new business, he inquired in real kindness: "Want me to lend a hand, youngster?"
Poor Monty would have given many "quarters" to say "yes." But he was too plucky. His face was streaming with perspiration, he had worried the chestnut, Juan, till the creature threatened to kick, and he ached from head to foot. But he had glanced across to that open space where four girls were making a frolic of this "horrible mess" and manliness held him to his duty. But he couldn't refrain from a snappy:
"No, I don't! And how long at a time does a fellow keep at it? How tell whether a horse is groomed or isn't?"
"Ginger! Do you know when your shirt's buttoned or when it ain't? Just look at Herbert's piece o' work an' do accordin'. But keep cool, Monty. Don't get r'iled an' don't rile your nag. You'll do all right—you've got the makin' of a horseman in ye!"
Thus encouraged, Montmorency Vavasour-Stark renewed his efforts, though with less force and better judgment. There is always a right and a wrong way to everything and the worried lad had, at last, fallen upon the right. He "would be a horseman!" Hurray! That opinion from such a source was worth lots!
Well, that first lesson was over at last. Seven tired youngsters stripped off aprons and overalls and proceeded to mount the horses they had groomed and most of them were happy. It had been worth while, after all, to get thus familiar with the animals; and the girls, at least, remembered that their hosts had spoken of how beneficial it would be for their beloved son to be with such creatures as much as possible. Like the rifle practice, it was all for Leslie and Leslie's health; and they would have been willing enough to help this good work along, even if they had not got all the fun out of it for themselves, which they did.
They rode "off bounds," that morning; following Captain Lem, with a couple of trained horsemen riding at their rear. Perhaps of all the company, Herbert and Molly were happiest. They were as much at home in the saddle as any cowboy of them all, and their high spirits spread to their mates, so that even they regretted the order that the leader gave:
"Right about, face! Rifle practice—nine o'clock, sharp!"
They hadn't a minute to lose; yet when the "awkward squad" repaired to the Barracks only the four girls answered to roll call. The lads came straggling up, later, their heads close together, an air of profound mischief and mystery about them, and Dorothy heard the words "Bear Hunt" escape from one of them.
Her heart sank. Leslie was, indeed, coming to take the place he had declined in the "ranks," rather going with the crowd than be left out alone; but there was something in his manner that Dolly did not like. Were the three boys planning to steal off by themselves, despite Captain Lemuel's warnings?
THE HEN OF WUN SING
But whatever wild schemes were hatching in the heads of the three lads nothing seemed to come of them.
Days followed one another in such peaceful routine that Dorothy felt ashamed of her fears, as well as ashamed of her composure regarding Jim Barlow. The longer he was absent the less they spoke of him. That he was alive, somewhere, all were sure, and that he would return sometime or "when he gets good and ready," as Alfaretta coolly observed.
"He seemed like a very odd chap, the little I saw of him," said Leslie, and did not regret the stranger's absence.
Herbert was loyal and insisted that "Jim was a royal chap—once he shook off his awkward shyness a bit. Why, the yarns Jim Barlow could spin about woodsy things and habits of wild creatures would make you sit right up and take notice. Oh, Jim's all right—only bashful."
"That's so. Why, that fellow, don't you know, that fellow really plans to go sometime, to Africa, or some other place and live with monkeys just to hear them talk. He—"
"He might have stayed right here with us—or you, Monty dear," said Molly, sweetly.
Monty merely frowned at her but continued:
"There is a man did that. True. Went into the woods and lived in a cage—"
"All that trouble and expense for nothing," again remarked Molly; and this time Monty changed the subject, asking:
"Have you heard about Wun Sing and his hen?"
"Oh! never mind hens. What do you say, folks? Suppose we get old Lem to go with us into the mountains yonder and look for Jim?" said Herbert.
"You needn't do that. You'd not find him. He's hidden himself on purpose, I believe, and only sent back Netty to let us know he was alive and well. Even Molly thinks that," said Helena; "and I, for one don't care to hunt up boys who don't want to be found. I think Jim's shyness is at the bottom of the matter. It's kindness to let him alone and—"
Dolly looked serious and shook her head while Monty again demanded:
"Have you heard about Wun Sing's hen?"
"I wonder what he's going to give us for supper! I'm nearly starved. There never was such a place for appetites—eating doesn't stop that hollow, all-gone feeling a bit!" calmly stated Alfy, with a tragic air.
"Alfy, you little pig! It isn't more than an hour since we finished dinner," reproved Molly, laughing.
"Well, I can't help that. I wish 'twas supper-time. Let's go in the kitchen and ask for a piece—like the children home do, bless 'em!"
"I say, you better not! Wun Sing's hen—"
"Monty—quit! Let's all go ask for a 'piece'!" cried Leslie, throwing his arm around the "fat boy's" shoulder and forcing him along with the others.
Herbert pulled out a jew's-harp—procured nobody knew where—and headed the procession with a vain attempt to render "Yankee Doodle" so that it could be recognized for itself. Then all fell into line, with the laughter and nonsense natural to a company of care free "youngsters" as they were now known all over the premises.
But as they passed a room just beyond Leslie's own, he poked his head through the window, to demand of Mateo, lying within:
"Any better, boy?"
"Gracias, Senor Leslie. Much better. Only, the hen of Wun Sing; the omelette—Ah! I suffer, si. I groan—I am on fire. The heathen creature and his foul fowl!"
"What's the matter, Les? Is that your pert valet laid up in yon? What's up?"
"Rather—what's down? The boy hasn't been well, or says he hasn't these three days. That's why I had to put off the bear—"
"Mum! Dorothy's just behind us and she has ears all round her head! But we'll do it, yet; either with or without him. It'll be rippin' fun, but if that girl gets wind of it she'll stop it, sure."
"I wonder if we'll see Wun Sing's hen!" said Monty again.
"Stark! I tell you if you mention that fowl again I'll stuff her down your throat!" cried Herbert, dropping his jew's-harp and engaging with Monty. But the latter was round and easily slipped through Bert's fingers, and the scrimmage was playful, anyway.
Resuming their march they entered the great kitchen, now wholly deserted save by the Chinaman, who cowered in a corner, praying lustily to his honorable forefathers and burning some sort of stuff before a little image on the floor beside him. Like a good many others of his race, Wun Sing was "good Chlistian" when it suited him to be, but a much better devotee of his ancient gods when real trouble overtook him.
Wun Sing was in trouble now. Bottomless trouble, he feared, and so wholly engaged in his devotions that he didn't take any notice of the noisy youngsters foraging his stores. Until, from the corner of his eye, he saw Alfy poking into a little wall-cupboard that was his own property and used to shelter his dearest treasures.
"No, no, Missee Alfaletta! No, no. Wun Sing's chalm no wolkee if lill gels meddle!"
He rose from his prostration on the floor and fairly flew to the girl's side, pushing her hand aside from the key she had almost turned, his whole manner expressing great agitation.
Of course, she desisted at once, even apologized for her action, but her old co-worker in Mrs. Calvert's kitchen begged pardon in his own turn and after his foreign fashion. In his broken English he eagerly explained that he and his belongings had been bewitched.
His hen—the so beloved hen of Wun Sing, that he had brought from far away California, along with some garden seeds and roots, the hen had been entered by an evil spirit and the days of Wun Sing were numbered. Already he felt the dread sickness stealing over him, as it had already stolen upon his old neighbor of San Diego—the so afflicted Mateo. He had been praying and offering gifts to his little clay god but so far no good had come. Within the cupboard on the wall he had placed a "charm"—a terrible charm, in his opinion and if that failed not only he but all at San Leon were doomed. Would that he had never heard of the place, even for the extra big wages the rich owner had offered. He—
When he had reached this point, Alfy shook him demanding:
"What makes you such a fool, Wunny? That little old image on the floor is enough to make you sick, course, it's so filthy dirty. I hope you'll scrub your hands good with soap before you touch any food for other folks to eat. What's the matter with the hen, anyway?"
Having put this question, Alfaretta walked to the sink and turned the spigot over her own hand, which suddenly felt soiled by contact with the Chinaman's shoulder. Then she remarked:
"We're all hungry. Tell us where we can find something to eat."
The cook shook his head and Alfy foraged for herself: presently securing from the pantry a box of crackers and a jar of cheese. Armed with these refreshments she felt she would be sustained until the regular supper time, and invited her mates to accompany her on a visit to this wonderful hen whose name was in everybody's mouth.
Wun Sing protested; but when they were determined, he tremblingly presented each of the youngsters with a bit of red paper, inscribed in black with a few Chinese characters. Laughingly, they pinned these on and so protected from "evil chalms" sought the little wire enclosure which the Chinaman had made for his petted fowl, upon his first coming to San Leon.
The hen had been the gift of his opulent kinsman, Der Doo, and was far too precious to its new owner to be allowed with the other poultry. It had lived in state within its little wire-covered yard, supplied with fresh grass each day and fattening upon the best of food. For its night accommodation, Wun Sing had constructed a tiny pagoda-like house imitating a temple of his native land. Here the pampered fowl slept luxuriously, and for a time had been the delight of its owner's eyes.
"Let's sit down on the grass and watch it awhile. We can eat our crackers here, first rate, 'cause if we get thirsty we can drink out of the spigot o' running water that cooky has fixed for the hen," suggested Alfy.
So they ranged themselves in a semi-circle, with the crackers and cheese in the centre and awaited developments.
"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" crowed Herbert, in excellent imitation of a rooster.
"Oh! hush! Hens don't do that; they just say—cut-cut-cut-cut—cut-tarket!" corrected Molly.
Immediately the rest took up the mocking cries, to the evident distress of poor Wun Sing, who stood in the background, his face yellower than common and his hands clasping and unclasping nervously.
But neither cat-calls, crowings, nor cacklings, coaxed the invisible fowl from her palace-like retreat. So, soon tiring of this, they fell to talking of other things and forgot the creature; till, suddenly, from within the temple came a crow that beat even Herbert's noisy ones. It was so loud and so sudden, and was so closely followed by a jubilant cackle, that all of them were a trifle startled while Wun Sing threw himself down in real terror.
The cackling continued a longer time than is usual and ended in another masculine crow. Then there solemnly stalked into the little yard a very handsome fowl, of the Plymouth Rock species, who strutted about as if she were the queen of all hens.
"Huh! Nothing the matter with that biddy, Wun Sing! I wish 't Ma Babcock had her in our hennery, up-mounting. What's wrong with her, you think, Wunny?"
"Well, what's a hen's business in life but to lay eggs?" demanded Herbert, laughing at the Chinaman's curious expression.
Then it came out. That hen did lay eggs—such eggs! She was a big hen and her eggs so small, and so many! Ah! she was bewitched. She was bewitching Wun Sing. She had already bewitched Mateo, yes. It began the very day the master left. On that sorrowful, august occasion that pent up, solitary fowl deposited two eggs in her softly lined nest.
"That might be. Ma's hens do that, sometimes, good breeds," said Alfy, in answer to the Chinaman's impressive statement.
With all this company of doubters around him Wun Sing felt secure enough to go on and state that on the day following there had been four eggs! Then one—then again seven—the mystic number. Latterly there had been eight, nine, as high as ten! All in one twenty-four hours! Could a fowl, free from an evil spirit, so conduct itself? No. No, indeed. Wun Sing knew what he knew. Disaster was coming. There was trouble on the wing. It would light upon San Leon. They were doomed—doomed—doomed!
"I don't believe it!" declared Leslie. "But a hen of that character ought to crow as well as cackle. How much'll you take for her, cooky? I'll buy and start a hennery to stump the world. Anybody want to go in with me on this deal? San Leon Chinese Poultry—Warranted to Make Possessors Rich! The Egg Trust of San Leon! I say, boys, the thing's just rippin'!"
"Undo that little gate, Wunny. I'm going in to collect the eggs. Come on, Alfy, or anybody," cried Dorothy, laughing. "That empty cracker box to hold them in. By the way, Wunny, when did you empty the nest?"
He assured her that he had done so the last thing before retiring on the night before. He had already taken two from it this day. Now by the cackle—there must be—Ah! he finished his speech with a wild flourish of his hands, then put them before his eyes to shield them from an uncanny sight.
Those outside the little poultry yard waited in curiosity for the others to come back. The two girls within it had their heads close together peering into the hen-temple, while Monty had squeezed his plump body through its little door with the cracker box in hand.
"Oh! I say, come out of there! How many have you found?" called Herbert. "Hurry up! Nell and Molly are getting scared. Fact!"
"I'm not," denied Molly, but Helena said nothing. It was absurd, but she was actually catching some of the Chinaman's nervousness over this most uncanny fowl. And a moment later, she was relieved to see the egg-hunters turn around and Monty emerge from that "heathen temple," the cracker box held tightly in his hand. He carried it as if it were heavy and his face was almost as solemn as the Chinaman's. The box contained eleven eggs!
Wun Sing gave one glance and fled, and trying to take the box into his own hands, Leslie dropped it—with the natural result.
"Well, they may be bewitched eggs but they can break 'allee samee!' I'm sorry, Wun Sing, but I'll pay for them! And say, did anybody ever hear of such a thing before?" asked Leslie, astonished.
Nobody had; and seeing Dr. Jones crossing the grounds at a little distance they ran to him with the marvellous tale. He listened attentively and even walked back with them to see the hen for himself. His decision put bewitchment out of the question.
"The bird is a freak of nature. I have read of such before, but they are rare. Either that—or—are you quite sure that no practical joke has been played by any of the boys—or by yourselves?"
His keen study of their faces revealed nothing mischievous on any. They were all as honestly surprised as himself, and he then made a close inspection of the little place. The pagoda stood exactly in the centre of the yard, so far from the wire-netting on every side that no arm would be long enough to reach it and drop eggs into the nest at the back. Wun Sing always kept the key of the Chinese padlock on the wire gate and entrance through it without his consent could not be made.
"It doesn't look like a hoax, and it's not to be wondered at that the Chinaman was scared. We all are—at the unusual and unexplainable. But this is simple. It is a freak of nature and the hen will probably die soon, of exhaustion."
The Doctor walked away and Molly made a funny little face behind his back.
"I call that real mean, to take the mystery out of it in that way! I've been getting delightfully goose-fleshy and creepy, just to find the spook is nothing but a silly old hen that's outdone herself. I hate to be disappointed like that. I wish something would happen, real hair-raising, as Indians, or bears, or even a few catamounts!"
"If they did, I'd like to be on the spot. I bet you, Molly Breckenridge, you'd run faster than anybody if those things did happen," teased Monty.
Saying that, he exchanged an odd glance with Leslie, who nodded and said:
"Come along, boys, let's visit Mateo in a body. Force of numbers you know. He lays it to eggs—Wunny's bewitched eggs, but I lay it to cowardice. There's nothing the matter with my valiant valet but downright scare. After proposing the thing, too, and being the best figure of all to do it. Ta, ta, ladies! We shall meet again—at feeding time. Eh, Alfy? I mean Miss Babcock!"
"Huh! Don't you think I didn't notice 't you ate more 'n anybody else of the crackers and cheese. Good-by!"
They separated, the girls to their own rooms to freshen themselves for the evening and for a long talk over the delights of this wonderful summer; yet in all their happiness, a deep regret was in their warm hearts for Jim Barlow's absence and the wish that they might know where he was and that he was well.
The lads sought Mateo in his room, and though the valet pretended slumber he was promptly roused by the energetic attentions of his visitors.
"Look here, Mateo, we know you're shamming. The fact is that after getting us all wrought up to this bear business and agreeing to take the chief part, you're afraid. Either you think the 'boys'll' get lively with their shooting-irons and hunt the bear too well, or else—I don't know what else. Only this, you can't pretend to be hoodooed or 'bewitched' with any of Wun Sing's omelettes. That's all up. The doctor's taken a hand in that and I know it isn't indigestion you're bewitched with—it's plain sneak. Now, boy, get up!"
After Leslie's long speech, that ended in the terse command, Mateo raised himself on elbow and protested:
"But it is of the illness, I, senor, en verdad. The omelette of Wun Sing—"
"May have been a little too rich for you, Matty lad, but don't worry. That wonderful fowl has shortened her life by her own ambition. I suppose she had a certain number of eggs to lay during her earthly career and she concluded to get the job over with. She's an all right Chinee hen, but she's the one that'll die, not you nor Wunny Sing. Doctor Jones said so. We've interviewed him on the subject. Doctors know a lot. So, be decent! Get up and practise a bit."
Thus adjured by Herbert, for whom the valet had a great admiration, Mateo threw off the light covers and rose to his feet—fully dressed. He had only lain down, professing himself ill, whenever there was danger of his young master appearing.