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Dorothy on a Ranch By Evelyn Raymond Characters: 21339

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

San Leon ranch was a large one. The dwelling house and many outbuildings were upon a rich plateau topping a spur from the great mountain beyond. On one side, the land sloped to the valley of the Mismit, utilized for the sheep farming; and across the river, or run, rose grassy fields, climbing one above another till they ended in rocky, verdureless soil. Here were the cattle ranges, and here the herds of horses lived their free life. The extent of the property amazed the newcomers, even Lady Gray herself.

She was exploring the premises escorted by Leslie and her young guests, and piloted by the talkative Lem Hunt. For once he had attentive listeners. There was no fellow ranchmen to ridicule his oft-told tales, but eager ears to which they were new; and eyes as eager to behold the scenes of these same marvellous stories.

All began and ended with "The Boss, he." Evidently, for old Lem, there existed but one man worth knowing and that was the "Boss, he."

"I s'pose, Ma'am, you know how the Boss, he come to buy S' Leon. No? You don't? By the Great Horned Spoon! Ain't that great? Just like him. The Boss, he never brags of his doin's, that's why I have to do it for him. Well, Ma'am, I can't help sayin' 'twas a deed o' charity. Just a clean, simon-pure piece of charity. Yes, Ma'am, that's what it was, and you can bite that off an' chew it."

Mrs. Ford smiled. She was always delighted to hear of her husband's generous deeds but rarely heard of them from himself. Also, she had supposed that the purchase of San Leon had been a recent one and was amazed now to learn it had been owned by Mr. Ford for several years. Not as it then was, for no improvements had been made to the home-piece till after he had found her that last winter in San Diego. Then, at once, preparations had been made for this home-coming, with the result of all the beauty that now greeted her eyes.

"Tell us, Lemuel. I'm anxious to hear."

Lem switched some hay from a wagon seat, that stood upon the ground, and motioned the lady to be seated. The youngsters grouped about her, Lem cut off a fresh "chaw," rubbed his hands and began. He stood with legs far apart, arms folded, an old sombrero pushed back on his head, a riding crop in hand, and an air of a king. Was he not a free-born American citizen, as good as could be found in all the country? Lemuel adored his "Boss" but he had not learned the manners which that "Boss" would have approved in the presence of the Gray Lady; who, by the way, was never more truly the "Lady" than in her intercourse then, and always, with the toilers at San Leon.

"Well, sir, Ma'am, I mean-'twas really a deed o' gift. There was another railroader, rich once, done somethin' he hadn't ought to. I don't rightly know what that was. The Boss never told, course, and it never leaked out otherwise. That's no more here nor there. But he, the other feller, had his bottom dollar into S' Leon, and some dollars 't wasn't his 'n. He was countin' on this range bein' chock full o' silver an' he'd wheedled the rest to takin' his word for it. Silver? Not on your life. The sheriffs got after him. He hadn't a friend in the world. He lit out a-foot and got as far as Denver city an' aboard a train. Leastwise, under a baggage car, stealin' a ride. Course he got hurt. Happened the Boss, he was on hand. He's a way of bein' when other folks is in trouble. Heard the feller's story. Had knowed him out east and 'lowed he was more fool than knave. Long-short was-S' Leon swopped owners. The first named had had to take his medicine an' I've been told he took it like a little man. The Boss paid in full, on condition 't all hands round got their level dues. Atterwards, the Boss made this a dumpin'-ground for all the down-in-the-world unfortunates he knew.

"The doctor's one. He was just dyin' back yonder, same as Miss Melton. Doc, he took the place o' book-keeper, sort o' manager-I claim to be that myself-but to do anything needed. The's always somebody gettin' broke, legs, an' arms, and such. But as for gineral sickness, why there ain't never been none o' that to San Leon. No wonder that Dan Ford's a prosperous man! He lives his religion-he ain't no preachin'-no-practice-sky-pilot, the Boss, he ain't.

"Ma'am? Like to see where the boys hang out? Well, come along. If things ain't the way I'd like to have 'em, you c'n allow 't I'm the only one's been in the ranks. Yes, Ma'am. I have that. Used to belong to a crack comp'ny out home and was one the picked men to shoot at Seagirt, New Jarsey. The National Rifle Range, Ma'am, as maybe you know. I've scored highest, more 'n once. That's how I come to sort o' set up in business out here. Shootin' an' hosses; them's my business; and every tenderfoot strikes S' Leon comes under my teachin' first or last."

With that remark he cast a critical eye upon the assembled young folks and noted the kindling gleam of seven pairs of eyes. Only Jim Barlow's blue orbs were missing; but, of course, that nurse or doctor had made him stay in bed, which was a shame, the others thought, and Dorothy loyally expressed:

"Course! That's one the things we're all wild to do-learn to handle a rifle. But don't let's begin till Jim gets well."

A curious expression passed over Mrs. Ford's face. She was the only one present who knew of Jim's midnight escape. The knowledge had almost miraculously been kept from Lemuel and by the master's express orders. Whatever that talkative ranchman knew, all the world knew, as fast as his tongue could tell it.

All had been so quiet in the sick room that the nurse had supposed her patient fallen asleep; and it was not till daybreak that she discovered his absence. She had immediately informed Dr. Jones, and he, in turn, the "Boss," who understanding the shy nature of the truant and knowing how he would dislike to be talked about, had instituted a quiet but thorough search. Only the trustiest men had been set upon this search, Mr. Ford taking the most active part in it. By his request the matter had been kept from his young guests, also; and they were to be made as happy as possible in their ignorance. As he said to Lady Gray, before leaving her:

"Of course, we shall find him in a very little while. He can't have gone far afield, and we'll have him back in bed before any of those youngsters get wind of his performance. Nurse says he was flighty and feverish and I don't wonder. Doctor claims he'd rather have had a clean, sharp break to mend than all those bruised and torn ligaments. However, don't you worry. This party is going to be a success-don't doubt. Sorry to leave you with seven young folks on your hands-a little world in themselves, of varying ideas and wills. They can easily spend this first half-day in inspecting the ranch and, if they're as healthy and happy as they seem, will be too interested to give much thought to Master James. Good-by, don't worry."

However, although they felt it would be well to wait for the injured Jim before beginning their lessons in shooting, Lemuel himself took the matter out of their hands, explaining:

"I've lived long enough to know there ain't never but one time to do one thing, an' that if a feller don't snatch it then, afore it gets out o' reach, he'll be sorry forever atterwards. We'll go inspect the boys' quarters first hand. That's a part o' my business, anyway. Makes 'em mad, sometimes, but it's for their good. Nothin' like the army for trainin' folks right, an' so I tell 'em. Get jawed for it a pretty consid'able, but Lemuel G. W. Hunt-I'm named for the Father of my Country, Ma'am-Lemuel G. W. Hunt always does his duty, let come what follers atterwards. Right this way, Ma'am. Hep, hep, hep, right face!"

The odd fellow led off with a military step and catching his humor the boys did likewise. Then, the girls laughed and marched, Herbert gallantly escorting Mrs. Ford, as the eighth of the little "Company A," as Leslie immediately named the new "awkward squad."

"And I say, Lem, it'll be just rippin' if you'll drill us in regular 'tactics.' Once a day, anyhow. I'll get Dad to furnish the uniforms and it'll be a help because, you know, I'm bound for West Point sometime," cried Leslie.

Lady Gray's face resumed its look of anxiety that had passed for a moment, listening to Lemuel's talk. This West Point ambition of her son's was a sore subject with her, though his great desire for a military life had never been hidden from her.

"If I can pass the physical exam., and the book one-either," he added, with a grimace.

"Well, you'll have to know a power more 'n you do now, if you get into that place," said truthful Alfy. "I've heard Mis' Judge Satterlee, up-mounting, tell 't her boy near studied his head off, an' then got shut out. It's a terrible fine thing, though, if a body could. Why, up-mounting, we can hear the bands playin', guns firin', and Dolly there, she's seen 'em drill. Seen the battery-drill, she called it, and didn't guess how in the world them gray-coated boys could hop on-an'-off their gun wagons like they did. When I get home, I mean to go over to the Point myself and see 'em. If you should be there I'd take you something to eat."

Leslie was now much more interested in hearing about the place of his dreams than in the present inspection of San Leon; and encouraged by this Alfaretta made Dolly tell how she and Molly had once visited the Academy and Molly's cadet cousin, Tom Hungerford.

Molly interrupted the narrative with frequent comments and they all paused at the entrance to the Barracks, as Lemuel had named the long building of the workmen, while the story was told. Lemuel and Leslie were the most eager listeners, both faces alight with enthusiasm, as the two girls described their day at the military school.

"Tom got leave off, to show us around, and Aunt Betty with Mrs. Hungerford-"

"That's Aunt Lucretia, Tom's mother," explained Molly.

"You tell it, Molly. You can do it better," urged Dorothy.

"All right. I'd rather. Well, we went down in the morning early, on the boat, to be in time for early drill. It was summer time and the darling cadets were all in their white uniforms, fresh as daisies. Do you know those poor lambs have to change their white suits every day? Some oftener, if they get a single speck of dirt on them. Their laundry bills are something terrible. Terrible! poor dears!"

Lady Gray laughed at the girl's sympathy with the afflicted young soldiers, and Dolly took up the tale again:

"Well, they needn't worry. The Government pays for it, really. They just get a little salary each month and their expenses come out of that. W

hatever else they have their own people give them. But, anyway, it was just lovely. If I were a boy and didn't want to be a great scientist, like Jim does, or a banker like Monty, or-or anything else, I'd be an army man."

"Bother what you'd be, Dolly. You're only a girl. Go on with the story," said impatient Leslie, while Lemuel nodded his head in satisfaction. Talk of soldiering touched the warmest spot in the old sharpshooter's heart. "Do hurry up."

"Why, after all, there isn't much to tell-"

"But there is," cried Molly. "About the luncheon in the church. Listen. We went everywhere about the grounds, saw the riding-school, the mess-room, the dancing-hall and all, a lot of places. Oh! yes, the library, too. Then it got noon and hungry-time and we'd brought an elegant lunch. Cold chicken and sardines and sandwiches and early peaches-the nicest we could get, and Tom's 'leave' gave him a chance to eat it with us. We asked him where we could and he thought a minute, then said in the church. Aunty Lu thought that was dreadful, to eat in a church! But Tom said it was the only place on the Point where we wouldn't be stared at by others. Folks were everywhere else; cadets and visitors-and oh! It was so pretty. All the white tents on the campus and the darling boys walking about in their white-"

"Nighties?" suggested Monty, maliciously. It had been an ambition of his own to enter the Academy; but his being under age, his size-and several other good reasons, including his utter want of fitness in the matter of book learning-had prevented the realization of this fine dream. His failure had rendered him skeptical of the charms of the famous institution, and he now always mentioned it as a place quite beneath his own notice.

The story promised to be a long one and Lemuel thoughtfully produced a chair and placed it for Mrs. Ford's use. Her eyes were on Leslie's interested face and she would gladly have postponed the recital; for, even more than the disgruntled Monty, she disliked the very name of West Point. However, in this matter, as in many future ones, her own fancy was to be set aside by the eagerness of her young guests. So Dorothy went on:

"There wasn't anybody else in the church except ourselves. A few visitors came to the door and peeped in, to see a famous painting over the chancel, but finding us there went away again. That old church is so interesting! Tablets to famous generals everywhere-"

"This isn't a history lesson! Go on with the story!" cried Herbert, who was so familiar with West Point that he desired no fresh description.

Molly made him a little mocking face and herself took up the tale:

"Well, we had our dinners there, sitting in some of the front pews, and the way Tom walked into that fried chicken and things would make you open your eyes. We were all hungry, course, after so early a breakfast, and the sail down, and all; but Tom was simply ravenous. He was so hungry he took away our own appetites, just watching. When he'd eaten all he could there was still a lot of stuff left; and Mrs. Calvert asked him if he knew any place where we could dispose of it; a garbage can, she meant, or some waste-box.

"Tom said yes he did, and if she'd excuse him he'd show her. It was what he called 'slumgudgeon day.' 'Slumgudgeon' is a kind of stew made up of the leavings of lots of other meals and the poor, darling cadets just hate it. He said 'cold victuals' never came in as handy as ours did then. So he unbuttoned his jacket, that fitted him as if he'd been melted into it, and began to pad himself out with the leavings. Cake and chickens, pickles and sardines, boiled eggs and fruit-you never saw such a mess! And the way he packed it in, so as to keep an even sort of front, was a caution. You know the poor dears have no pockets in their uniforms. Not allowed. So that was the only way he could take it. He wanted to share it with his cronies after we'd gone and told Aunty Lu that it would have been a perfectly wicked shame to have thrown it away, when it would do him so much good. Oh! we had a glorious time. I do just love West Point-"

"The cadets, you mean! I never saw a girl that liked the boys so well as you do, Molly Breckenridge. But I s'pose you can't help it. If 't wasn't for that you'd be just splendid, and they don't seem to mind-much-anyway," remarked Alfaretta, beaming upon pretty Molly with loving smiles. Molly's liking for "boys" seemed to honest, sensible Alfy the one flaw in an otherwise lovely character.

But Molly tossed her sunny head and laughed. Also, she flashed a mischievous glance into all the boyish faces turned toward her and on every one she saw a similar liking and admiration of herself. She was quite satisfied, was Jolly Molly.

"Now, if we are to 'inspect' the 'Barracks,' isn't it time? So that we can get back to the house by the time James Barlow is ready to see us. I suppose the doctor won't keep him in bed all day; do you, Mrs. Ford?" said Helena Montaigne.

She had already learned that the Gray Lady was bitterly opposed to Leslie's plans for the future and wanted to put aside the unfortunate subject of West Point. To her surprise, instead of lightening, the lady's face grew still more troubled, as she turned to scan the landscape behind her with a piercing gaze.

"That story was just rippin'! When I get to the Point the first place I shall go to see will be that church! Hear me, Dorothy Doodles?" demanded Leslie, catching her hand and swinging it lightly as he led her forward into the first room Lemuel had opened. "Will you come over there and bring me just another such a luncheon, girlie?"

"Well, yes. I don't like to promise things but I guess this is safe enough. When you get there-when you get there-I'll come, and you shall have the finest dinner Alfy and I can cook. We'll do it all by ourselves-when you get there to eat it!"

"Oh! I'll be there, never fear. My! isn't this rippin'? How does the old soldier make the men keep such order, I wonder! Lem Hunt must be as great a martinet as he is talker. Look at him."

The ranchman was in his element. He had long before marshalled the entire working force of San Leon into a "regiment." Any newcomer who declined to join it was promptly "left out in the cold." The "soldiers" were jolly company for themselves and none at all for any outsider who refused to obey the unwritten laws which honest old Lem had laid down for their benefit. "Captain Lem" was the neatest man of all, but he required the rest to come as near his standard as the disadvantages of previous bad training permitted.

Now, in imitation of that West Point discipline he admired, he had pulled from his pocket a white linen handkerchief and was passing it gently but firmly over the few simple furnishings of this first apartment in the long row. It belonged to Silent Pete, just then engaged breaking to harness a spirited colt, exercising it around and around the smooth driveways of the "home piece." He was not so far away that he could not perfectly see what was going on at the "Barracks," and even at that distance his grizzled cheek flushed. He had risen late and been remiss in his room-cleaning. He hoped old Lem would forget to mention who was the occupant of that cell-like place, and, for once, he did.

There was dust on the chest of drawers which held Peter's belongings, the cot was just as he had crawled out of it at daybreak, a horsewhip and blankets littered the floor, and the "Martinet" was so ashamed of the whole appearance of things that, after one hasty test with the handkerchief, he withdrew carrying the company with him. Yet, before leaving, he had drawn a piece of chalk from the band of his sombrero and made a big cross upon the dusty chest. Silent Pete would know what that meant: mounting guard for three nights to come! and a grim smile twisted Lemuel's lips, reflecting what that meant to one of his "Squad."

The visitors had smiled, too, but with amusement at this odd old ranchman's discipline; and Monty had whispered:

"What makes 'em put up with it? What right has he to order them around?"

But Leslie, the young master of San Leon, was as much in the dark as any other stranger, and could only answer:

"Suppose it's because he's a leader. Born that way, just as my father was, though it's a different way, of course. Otherwise, I can't guess. But I'm wild to get at the shooting lessons. I hope the rest of you are, too. The first step to becoming a real 'wild westerner' is to know how to handle the 'irons.' He's rippin', Lem is. But come on. He's getting away from us. I wish poor old Jim was here. It's a pity anybody has to be sick in such a place as this. I tell you, boys, I was never so proud of Dad as I am now, when I look around and see what a ranch he's got-earned-right out of his own head-piece! I don't see where he is! I wish he was here. I'd ask him about those uniforms and I'd get him to let old Lem off every other duty, just to teach us. Dad's a sort of sharpshooter himself. Once he-No matter. That story'll keep. Lady Gray is calling us."

They had lingered to inspect some of the ranchmen's belongings, as they passed from room to room, Lady Gray and the girls going forward in Lemuel's company. She was beckoning her son and asked, as he came running up:

"Please go across the lawn and ask Miss Milliken to join us. She went to her room to write letters, immediately after breakfast, but I see she's come out now and I don't want her to feel lonely nor neglected."

Leslie darted away, but returned again to say:

"She doesn't want to come, just now. She wants Jim Barlow. Says she went to his room but the nurse said he wasn't in. Jim knows about some books she wants to send for, when the mail-bag is sent out. Do you know where he is? Or father? 'Tisn't half-fun, this inspection of San Leon without Dad here to tell us things. I haven't seen him this morning, any more than I have Jim. Do you know where they are?"

Poor Lady Gray was not much better at keeping secrets than old Lemuel was. She had had to put a great constraint upon herself not to reveal the anxiety which consumed her. Hours had now passed since Mr. Ford had ridden away, with a couple of men attending him. All the other men not absolutely required to look after the place had been despatched to search on foot. Their long-delayed return seemed to prove the matter of the sick boy's disappearance a more serious one than at first imagined. Her answer was a sudden wringing of her white hands and the tremulous cry:

"No, no, I don't. Pray God, no tragedy marks the opening of our home!"

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