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Dorothy on a Ranch By Evelyn Raymond Characters: 19634

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

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 that 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.

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