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'Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs,
To the silent wilderness.'
Whatever the distance was in reality, the steamer had consumed more time than usual, and it was quite two o'clock, instead of half-past twelve, as they had expected, before they were landed on the old and almost forgotten pier, and saw the smoke of the Orizaba as she steamed away.
After counting over their bags and packages to see if anything had been forgotten, they looked about them.
There was a dirty little settlement, a mile or two to the south, consisting of a collection of tumble-down adobe houses which looked like a blotch on the brown hillside; a few cattle were browsing near by, and the locality seemed to be well supplied with lizards, which darted over the dusty ground in all directions. But the startling point of the landscape was that it showed no sign of human life, and Pancho's orders had been to have Senor Don Manuel Felipe Hilario Noriega and his wood-cart on hand promptly at half-past twelve.
'Can Pancho have forgotten?'
'Can he have lost his way and never arrived here at all?'
'Can Senor Don Manuel Felipe Hilario Noriega have grown tired of waiting and gone off?'
'Has Senor Don Manuel Felipe Hilario Noriega been drinking too much aguardiente and so forgotten to come?'
'Has Pancho been murdered by highway robbers, and served up into stew for their evening meal?'
'With Hop Yet for dessert! Oh, horrible!' These were some of the questions and exclamations that greeted the ears of the lizards, and caused them to fly over the ground in a more excited fashion than ever.
'One thing is certain. If Pancho has been stupid enough to lose his way coming fifty miles down the coast, I'll discharge him,' said Dr. Winship, with decision.
'When you find him,' added Aunt Truth, prudently.
'Of course. But really, mamma, this looks discouraging; I am afraid we can't get into camp this evening. Shall we go up to the nearest ranch house for the night, and see what can be done to-morrow?'
'Never!' exclaimed the young people, with one deafening shout.
'Never,' echoed Philip separately. 'I have vowed that a bed shall not know me for three months, and I'll keep my vow.'
'What do you say to this, Uncle Doc?' said Geoffrey. 'Suppose you go up to the storehouse and office,--it's about a mile,--and see if the goods are there all right, and whether the men saw Pancho on his way up to the canyon. Meanwhile, Phil and I will ride over here somewhere to get a team, or look up Senor Don Manuel Felipe Hilario Noriega. Jack can stay with Aunt Truth and the girls, to watch developments.'
'But, papa, can't we pitch the camp to-night, somehow?' asked Bell, piteously.
'I don't see how. We are behindhand already; and if we get started within an hour we can't reach the ground I selected before dark and we can't choose any nearer one, because if Pancho is anywhere in creation he is on the identical spot I sent him to.'
'But, Dr. Paul, I'll tell you what we could do,' suggested Jack. 'If we get any kind of a start, we can't fail to reach camp by seven or eight o'clock at latest. Now it's bright moonlight, and if we find Pancho, he'll have the baggage unloaded, and Hop Yet will have a fire lighted. What's to prevent our swinging the hammocks for the ladies? And we'll just roll up in our blankets by the fire, for to-night. Then we'll get to housekeeping in the morning.'
This plan received a most enthusiastic reception.
'Very well,' replied the Doctor. 'If you are all agreed, I suppose we may as well begin roughing it now as at any time.'
You may have noticed sometimes, after having fortified yourself against a terrible misfortune which seemed in store for you, that it didn't come, after all. Well, it was so in this case; for just as Dr. Winship and the boys started out over the hillside at a brisk pace, an immense cloud of dust, some distance up the road, attracted their attention, and they came to a sudden standstill.
The girls held their breath in anxious expectation, and at length gave an irrepressible shout of joy and relief when there issued from the dense grey cloud the familiar four-horse team, with Daisy, Tule Molly, Villikins, and Dinah, looking as fresh as if they had not been driven a mile, tough little mustangs that they were.
A long conversation in Spanish ensued, which, being translated by Dr. Winship, furnished all necessary information concerning the delay.
S. D. M. F. H. N. stated that Pancho was neither faithless nor stupid, but was waiting for them on the camping-ground, and that as the goods were already packed in his wood-cart he would follow them immediately. So the whole party started without more delay; Dr. and Mrs. Winship, Master Paul, Jack Howard, and the three girls riding in the wagon, while Geoffrey and Philip galloped ahead on horseback.
It was a long, dusty, tiresome ride; and Dicky, who had been as good all day as any saint ever carved in marble and set in a niche, grew rather warm, cross, and hungry, although he had been consuming ginger-snaps and apricots since early morning. After asking plaintively for the fiftieth time how long it would be before dinner, he finally succumbed to his weariness, and dropping his yellow head, that was like a cowslip ball, in his mother's lap, he fell asleep.
But the young people, whose eyes were not blinded by hunger and sleep, found more than enough to interest them on this dusty California road, winding as it did through grand old growths of trees, acres and acres of waving grain, and endless stretches of gorgeous yellow mustard, the stalks of which were five or six feet high, almost hiding from view the boys who dashed into the golden forest from time to time.
At the foot of the hill they passed an old adobe hut, with a crowd of pretty, swarthy, frowzy Mexican children playing in the sunshine, while their mother, black-haired and ample of figure, occupied herself in hanging great quantities of jerked beef on a sort of clothes-line running between the eucalyptus-trees.
The father, a wild-looking individual in a red shirt and enormous hat, came from behind the hut, unhitched the stout little broncho tied to the fence, gave the poor animal a desperately tight 'cinch,' threw himself into the saddle without touching his foot to the lumbering wooden stirrups, and, digging his spurs well into the horse's sides, was out of sight in an instant, leaving only a huge cloud of dust to cover his disappearance.
'How those fellows do ride!' exclaimed Dr. Winship, savagely. 'I wish they were all obliged to walk until they knew how to treat a horse.'
'Then they'd walk straight into the millennium,' said Jack, sagely, 'for their cruelty seems to be an instinct.'
'But how beautifully they ride, too!' said Polly. 'Mamma and I were sitting on the hotel piazza the other day, watching two young Spaniards who were performing feats of horsemanship. They dropped four-bit pieces on the dusty road, and riding up to them at full speed clutched them from the ground in some mysterious way that was perfectly wonderful. Then Nick Gutierrez mounted a bucking horse, and actually rolled and lighted a cigarette while the animal bucked with all his might.'
'See that cunning, cunning muchachita, mamma!' cried Bell; for, as they stopped at the top of the hill to let the horses breathe, one of the little Mexican children ran after them, holding out a handful of glowing yellow poppies.
She was distractingly pretty, with a beauty that is short-lived with the people of her race. The afternoon sun shone down fiercely on her waving coal-black locks, and brought a rich colour to her nut-brown cheek; she had one little flimsy, ragged garment, neither long, broad, nor thick, which hung about her picturesquely; and, with her soft, dark, sleepy eyes, the rows of little white teeth behind her laughing red mouth, and the vivid yellow blossoms in her tiny outstretched hand, she was a very charming vision.
'Como te llamas, muchachita?' (What is your name, little one?) asked Bell, airing her Spanish, which was rather good.
'Teresita,' she answered, with a pretty accent, as she scratched a set of five grimy little toes to and fro in the dusty ground.
'Throw her a bit, papa,' whispered Bell; and, as he did so, Teresita caught the piece of silver very deftly, and ran excitedly back to the centre of the chattering group in front of the house.
'How intense everything is in California! Do you know what I mean, mamma?' said Bell. 'The fruit is so immense, the canyons so deep, the trees so big, the hills so high, the rain so wet, and the drought so dry.'
'The fleas so many, the fleas so spry,' chanted Jack, who had perceived that Bell was talking in rhyme without knowing it. 'California is just the place for you, Bell; it gives you a chance for innumerable adjectives heaped one on the other.'
'I don't always heap up adjectives,' replied Bell, with dignity. 'When I wish to describe you, for instance, I simply say "that hateful boy," and let it go at that.'
Jack retired to private life for a season.
'I'd like to paint a picture of Teresita,' said Margery, who had a pretty talent for sketching, 'and call it The Summer Child, or some such thing. I should think the famous old colour artists might have loved to paint this gorgeous flame-tinted poppy.'
'Not poppy,--eschscholtzia,' corrected Jack, coming rapidly to the surface again, after Bell's rebuke, and delivering himself of the tongue-confusing word with a terrible grimace.
'I'm not writing a botany,' retorted Margery; 'and I can never remember that word, much less spell it. I don't see how it grows under such an abominable Russian name. It's worse than ichthyosaurus. Do you remember that funny nonsense verse? -
"I is for ichthyosaurus,
Who lived when the world was all porous;
But he fainted with shame
When he first heard his name,
And departed a long while before us."'
'The Spaniards are more poetic,' said Aunt Truth, 'for they call it la copa de oro, the golden cup. Oh, see them yonder! It is like the Field of the Cloth of Gold.'
The sight would have driven a royal florist mad with joy: a hillside that was a swaying mass of radiant bloom, a joyous carnival of vivid colour, in which the thousand golden goblets, turned upward to the sun, were dancing, and glowing, and shaming out of countenance the purple and blue and pink masses which surrounded them on every side.
'You know Professor Pinnie told us that every well-informed young girl should know at least the flora of her own State,' said Jack, after the excitement had subsided.
'Well, one thing is certain: Professor Pinnie never knew the STATE of his own flora, or at least he kept his wife sorting and arranging his specimens all the time; and I think he's a regular old frump,' said Polly, irreverently, but meeting Aunt Truth's reproving glance, which brought a blush and a whispered 'Excuse me,' she went on, 'Well, what I mean is, he doesn't know any more than other people, after all; for he cares for nothing but bushes and herbs and seeds and shrubs and roots and stamens and pistils; and he can't tell whether a flower is lovely or not, he is so crazy to find out where it belongs and tie a tag round it.'
'I must agree with Polly,' laughed Jack. 'Why, I went to ride with him one day in the Cathedral Oaks, and he made me get off my horse every five minutes to dig up roots and tie them to the pommel of his old saddle, so that we came into town looking like moving herbariums. The stable-man lifted him on to his horse when he started, I suppose, and he would have been there yet if he hadn't been helped off. Bah!' For Jack had a supreme contempt for any man who was less than a centaur.
By this time they had turned off the main thoroughfare, and were travelling over a bit of old stage road which was anything but easy riding. There they met some men who were driving an enormous band of sheep to a distant ranch for pasture, which gave saucy Polly the chance to ask Dr. Winship, innocently, why white sheep ate so much more than black ones.
He fell into the trap at once, and answered unsuspectingly, in a surprised tone, 'Why, do they?' giving her the longed-for opportunity to respond, 'Yes, of course, because there are so many more of 'em; don't you see?'
'You are behind the times, Dr. Paul,' said Jack. 'That's an ancient joke. Just look at those sheep, sir. How many are there? Eight hundred, say?'
'Even more, I should think,--a thousand, certainly; and rather thin they look, too.'
'I should imagine they might,' said Bell, sympathetically. 'When I first came to California I never could see how the poor creatures found anything to eat on these bare, brown hillsides, until the farmers showed me the prickly little burr clover balls that cover the ground. But see, mamma! there are some tiny lambs, poor, tired, weak-legged little things; I wonder if they will live through the journey.'
'Which reminds me,' said Jack, giving Villikins a touch of the whip, 'that nothing is so calculated to disturb your faith in and love for lambs as life on a sheep ranch. Innocent! Good gracious! I never saw such--such--'
'Gasping, staggering, stuttering, stammering tom-fools,' interposed Bell. 'That's what Carlyle called ONE Lamb,--dear Mr. "Roast Pig" Charles; and a mean old thing he was, too, for doing it.'
'Well, it is just strong enough to apply to the actual lamb; not the lamb of romance, but the lamb of reality. You can't get him anywhere; he doesn't know enough. He won't drive, he can't follow; he's too stupid. Why, I went out for a couple of 'em once, that were lost in the canyon. I found them,--that was comparatively easy; but when I tried to get them home, I couldn't. At last, after infinite trouble, I managed to drive them up on to the trail, which was so narrow there was but one thing for a rational creature to do, and that was to go ahead. Then, if you'll believe me, those idiots kept bleating and getting under the horse's fore-feet; finally, one of them, the champion simpleton, tumbled over into the canyon, and I tied the legs of the other one together, and carried him home on the front of my saddle.'
'They are innocent, any way,' insisted Margery. 'I won't believe they're not. I can't bear these people who interfere with all your cherished ideas, and say that Columbus didn't discover America, and Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare, and William Tell didn't shoot the apple.'
'Nevertheless, I claim that the lamb is not half so much an emblem of innocence as he is of utter and profound stupidity. There is that charming old lyric about Mary's little lamb; I can explain that. After he came to school (which was an error of judgment at the very beginning), he made the rumpus, you know -
"And then the teacher turned him out,
But still he lingered nee-ar,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appee-ar."
Of course he did. He didn't know enough to go home alone.
"And then he ran to her and laid
His head upon her arr-um,
As if to say, 'I'm not afraid;
You'll keep me from all harr-um.'"
As if a lamb could be capable of that amount of reasoning! And then
"'What makes the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
'Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,'
The teacher did reply."
And might have added that as Mary fed the lamb three times a day and twice on Sundays, he probably not only knew on which side his daily bread was buttered, but also who buttered it.'
'Dreadful boy!' laughed Bell. 'Polly, pray lower the umbrella; we are going to meet some respectable people, and we actually are too dirty to be seen. I have really been eating dust.'
'They must be equally dusty,' said Polly, sagely. 'Why, it is the Burtons, from Tacitas ranch!'
The Burton ranch wagon was drawn up, as its driver recognised Dr. Winship, and he proceeded to cheer the spirits of the party by telling them that he had passed Pancho two hours before, and that he was busily clearing rubbish from the camping-ground. This was six o'clock, and by a little after eight the weary, happy party were seated on saddle-blankets and carriage-cushions round a cheery camp- fire, eating a frugal meal, which tasted sweeter than nectar and ambrosia to their keen appetites.
The boys expressed their intention of spending the night in unpacking their baggage and getting to rights generally, but Dr. Winship placed a prompt and decisive veto on this proposition, and they submitted cheerfully to his better judgment.
Getting to bed was an exciting occupation for everybody. Dicky was first tucked up in a warm nest of rugs and blankets, under a tree, and sank into a profound slumber at once, with the happy unconsciousness of childhood. His father completed the preparations for his comfort by opening a huge umbrella and arranging it firmly over his head, so that no falling leaf might frighten him and no sudden gust of air blow upon his face.
Bell stood before her hammock, and meditated. 'Well,' she said, 'going to bed is a simple matter after all, when you have shorn it of all useless formalities. Let me see: I generally walk to and fro in the room, eating a bunch of grapes or an orange, look out of the window five or ten minutes, brush my hair, read my chapter in the Bible, take my book and study Spanish five minutes, on the principle of that abnormal woman who learned ninety-six languages while she was waiting for the kettle to boil in the morning--'
'Must have been a slow boiler,' interrupted Polly, wickedly. 'Seems to me it would have been economy to sell it and buy a new one.'
'Oh, Polly! you are so wilfully stupid! The kettle isn't the point-- but the languages. Besides, she didn't learn all the ninety-six while the kettle was boiling once, you know.
'Oh, didn't she? That alters the case. Thank you,' said Polly, sarcastically.
'Now observe me,' said Bell. 'I have made the getting into a hammock a study. I first open it very wide at the top with both hands; then, holding it in that position, I gracefully revolve my body from left to right as upon an imaginary swivel; meantime I raise my right foot considerably from mother earth, with a view to passing it over the hammock's edge. Every move is calculated, you perceive, and produces its own share of the perfect result; the method is the same that Rachel used in rehearsing her wonderful tragic poses. I am now seated in the hammock, you observe, with both hands extending the net from side to side and the right foot well in position; I now raise the left foot with a swift but admirably steady movement, and I am-- Help! Help!! Murder!!!'
'In short, you are not in, but out,' cried Polly, in a burst of laughter; for Bell had leaned too far to the right, and on bringing the other foot in, with its 'swift but admirably steady' motion, she gave a sudden lurch, pulled the hammock entirely over herself and fell out head first on the other side, leaving her feet tangled in its meshes. 'Shall we help her out, Meg? She doesn't deserve it, after that pompous oration and attempt to show off her superior abilities. Nevertheless, she always accepts mercy more gracefully than justice. Heave ahoy, my hearties!'
Bell was extricated, and looked sufficiently ashamed.
'We are much obliged for the lesson,' said Margery, 'but the method is open to criticism; so I think we'll manage in our ordinary savage way. We may not be graceful or scientific, but we get in, which is the main point.'
The hammocks did not prove the easiest of nests, as the girls had imagined. In fact, to be perfectly candid about the matter, the wicked flea of California, which man pursueth but seldom catcheth, is apt, on many a summer night, to interfere shamelessly with slumber. On this particular night he was fairly rampant, perhaps because sweet humanity on which to feed was very scarce in that canyon.
'Good-night, girls!' called Jack, when matters seemed to be finally settled for sleep. 'Bell, you must keep one eye open, for the coyotes will be stealing down the mountain in a jiffy, and yours is the first hammock in the path.'
'Of course,' moaned Bell,--'that's why the girls gave me this one; they knew very well that one victim always slakes the animals' thirst for blood. Well, let them come on. I shiver with terror, but my only hope is that I may be eaten in my sleep, if at all.'
'There was a young party named Bell,
Who slept out of doors for a spell;
When asked how she fared,
She said she was scared,
But otherwise doing quite well.
'How's that?' asked Jack. 'I shall be able to drive Bell off her own field, with a little practice.'
'Go to sleep!' roared Dr. Paul. 'In your present condition of mind and body you are not fit for poetry!'
'That's just the point, sir,' retorted Jack, slyly, 'for, you remember, poets are not FIT, but nascitur,--don't you know?' and he retired under his blanket for protection.
But quiet seemed to be impossible: there were all sorts of strange sounds; and the moon, too, was so splendid that they almost felt as if they were lying beneath the radiance of a calcium light; while in the dark places, midst the branches of thick foliage, the owls hooted gloomily. If you had happened to be an owl in that vicinity, you might have heard not only the feverish tossing to and fro of the girls in the hammocks, but many dismal sighs and groans from Dr. Winship and the boys; for the bare ground is, after all, more rheumatic than romantic, and they too tumbled from side to side, seeking comfort.
But at midnight quiet slumber had descended upon them, and they presented a funny spectacle enough to one open-eyed watcher. A long slender sycamore log was extended before the fire, and constituted their pillow; on this their heads reposed, each decorated with a tightly fitting silk handkerchief; then came a compact, papoose-like roll of grey blanket, terminated by a pair of erect feet, whose generous proportions soared to different heights. There was a little snoring, too; perhaps the log was hollow.
At midnight you might have seen a quaintly despondent little figure, whose curly head issued from a hooded cloak, staggering hopelessly from a hammock, and seating herself on a mossy stump. From the limpness of her attitude and the pathetic expression of her eyes, I fear Polly was reviewing former happy nights spent on spring-beds; and at this particular moment the realities of camping-out hardly equalled her anticipations. Whatever may have been her feelings, however, they were promptly stifled when a certain insolent head reared itself from its blanket-roll, and a hoarse voice cackled, 'Pretty Polly! Polly want a canyon?' At this insult Miss Oliver wrapped her drapery about her and strode to her hammock with the air of a tragedy queen.
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