Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


A Rifle Practice








From: Dorothy On A Ranch

"Mother, what do you mean? Don't turn so white and do speak! What
'tragedy' could have happened up here in this lovely place?" demanded
Leslie, putting his arm around the lady's shoulders and wondering if she
had suddenly become ill. She was slender but had never complained of any
weakness, nor shown the least fatigue during her long care of him at San
Diego. Since then, she had been like a happy girl with him and his
father but something was amiss with her now.

In a moment she had calmed herself and was already blaming herself for
her disobedience to her husband's request for silence. However, this
last matter was a small one; for, if the missing lad was not soon found,
all would have to know it. Indeed, it might be better that they did so
now. They knew him better than his hosts did and possibly might give a
clue to his whereabouts. So she told them all she knew, and the surmise
that he had wandered away in a fit of delirium. The very telling
restored her own courage, and, as yet, there was little fear showing
upon the faces of her young guests.

Except on Dorothy's. Her brown eyes were staring wide and all the pretty
color of her cheeks had faded. As if she saw a vision the others could
not she stood clasping and unclasping her hands, and utterly sick at
heart for the loss of her early friend. Longer than she had known any of
these here about her she had known poor Jim. He had saved her life, or
she believed so, in her childhood that now seemed far away. But for Jim,
the poorhouse boy, she had never escaped from Mrs. Stott's truck-farm
when she had been kidnapped and hidden there. He had stood by her in all
her little troubles, had praised and scolded her, and known her through
and through. It was her talk about him which had made Mr. Ford invite
him to San Leon--to his death, maybe.

That thought was too much. Clinching her small hands and stamping her
little foot she defied even death to hurt poor Jim, good Jim, brainy
Jim, who was to astonish the world some day by his wisdom!

"Oh! If you'd only have told me before! I would have had him found long,
long ago! To think of that poor fellow wandering around alone, sick,
crazy, suffering--not knowing where he was or what he was doing! And we
strolling around, looking at old 'Barracks' and things, and telling
silly stories of silly picnics! It was cruel, cruel! Come, Alfy. You
like him, too. You don't look down on my poor boy--you come and help me
find him!"

She seized her old friend's hand and ran toward the house, which now
looked anything save beautiful in her sight; and, turning, she saw the
lake, gleaming in the noonday sun as it gleamed in the red rays of
sunset with Jim there to admire it.

"The lake! He's drowned! That's where he is, our Jim! In the bottom of
that horrible lake!"

Catching Alfaretta's hand more firmly she drew that frightened girl
along with her to the edge of the pond and to a little boat that was
moored there. Both lake and boat were merely toylike in proportion and
the bottom of the pond was pebble-strewn and plainly visible through the
clear, shallow water.

"He ain't--he--ain't--he can't--you could see--him--He isn't--Oh! Dolly,
Dolly Doodles! I'm sick! It makes me feel terrible queer!" wailed
Alfaretta. "But Jim can't--Jim can't be drowned! He can't!"

"Yes he can, too. Shut up. Help me untie that rope. Get in. Take an oar.
Row--row, I tell you," snapped Dorothy, distraught.

"I can't. I dassent! I never touched to row an oar in my life. Not in my
whole life long, and--I--I shan't do it now!" retorted the mountaineer
with equal crispness.

But she had no need to try. The whole party had followed Dorothy to the
water's edge and had divined her intent. Not one believed that Jim was
drowned, though they could have given no good reason for this disbelief.
Only that was too horrible. Such a thing would not have been permitted!
Yet Herbert, as the best oarsman there and also as the loyal friend of
the missing lad, assumed the place Alfy would not take. Without a word
he did what Dorothy desired. He slipped the painter from its post,
helped the girl to take her seat in the little "Dorothy," even smiling
as he observed that it had been named for her, and quietly pushed out
from shore.

It was just as Alfy had said: the bottom of the lake was clearly visible
everywhere, and no frightful object marred its beauty. Dorothy was
utterly quiet now but her searching gaze never lifted from the water, as
Herbert patiently rowed around and around. The group on the bank waited
also in silence, though certain after that first circuit of the pond
that Jim was not there.

When they had gone around several times, and had crossed and
criss-crossed in obedience to Dorothy's nod, Herbert brought the boat
back to the little landing and helped Dorothy out.

"He isn't there, Gray Lady. May I go to the doctor?"

"Surely. I'll go with you. And don't look so tragic, darling. The boy
will certainly be found. There will nothing else be done at San Leon
until he is. Both my husband and myself agree on that point--that Jim
Barlow's safety is our first consideration. He will probably be found
near at hand, although--"

"Hasn't he been looked for 'near at hand,' then, dear Gray Lady?"

"Certainly. At the beginning. We didn't think he could have wandered
far, yet when they failed to find him on the home-grounds, the searchers
spread out in all directions. Here is the doctor coming now, if you wish
to speak with him."

"Thank you, I do."

The gentleman came toward them and Dorothy ran to meet him.

"Oh! sir, have you found him?"

A negative shake of the head answered her. Then she plied him with all
sorts of questions: how long could a sick boy live exposed to the night
air, as Jim had been; without food or medicine; and couldn't he think of
some place that nobody else had searched, so she might go and try it?

He laid his hand upon her head and gently asked:

"Was he your brother, little girl?"

"No. I haven't any brother. I haven't anybody but Jim, that has known me
always, seems if, and--and dear Doctor, won't you please, please find
him?"

Clasping her hands about his arm she looked up piteously into his face,
and his own grew pitiful as he answered:

"I will do my utmost. What I hope is that he will wander back, of his
own will, just as he wandered away. Be sure I shall keep a sharp
lookout, but it is Mr. Ford's wish that I do not leave the home-place
till--at present. If he is found, I mean when he is found, he will
need my care and it wouldn't do for me to be away then. Else I should
have gone out with one of the searching parties."

That "when he is found" was reassuring. Evidently, the doctor expected
the speedy return of the lad and all were relieved, even Dorothy.
Alfaretta expressed her own feeling by saying:

"Out here in this Colorado, seems if there wasn't anything but folks
gettin' lost and other folks searching for 'em. I never heard anything
like it," she finished with a sigh.

The sigh was echoed by all the rest; then Mrs. Ford suggested:

"Let us have luncheon now, then call on Lemuel to give us our first
lesson in rifle-firing." She assumed a cheerfulness she did not really
feel, but felt that the happiness of so many should not be spoiled by
the absence of one.

"Oh! Lady Gray, will you practice with us?" asked Leslie, eagerly.

"To be sure. I'm going to 'play pretend,' as children say, that I'm
just as young as any of you. In my busy life I've not had much time for
'playing' but I mean to make up for lost time. Come, I'm sure that Wun
Sing has made something nice for us. He--"

"Wun Sing! Wun Sing? Why that was the name of Aunt Betty's cook at El
Paraiso! How odd that yours should have the same name!" exclaimed
Dorothy, forgetting her troubles for the moment.

"Not so odd, dearie, because it is the same man. He came to Mr. Ford one
day while we were still in San Diego and confessed his regret for his
behavior at Mrs. Calvert's home. And my good Daniel can never turn his
back upon any penitent; so the result is the Chinaman reigns in our
kitchen here. Doubtless he'll be pleased to see Alfaretta who taught him
so many fine dishes."

"Oh! good! May we go see him, Mrs. Ford?" demanded that young person,
eager not only to see Wun Sing because he was one more familiar
acquaintance but because she wished to settle a few old scores. "I'm so
glad! I'll make him toe the mark here, see if I don't. Come on, Dolly
Doodles, he's an old friend of yours, too."

Alfy's eagerness infected even anxious Dorothy and gave an agreeable
turn to the thoughts of all. So, at a nod of consent, the girls sped
along the cloister, seeking the great kitchen and the salaaming
grinning Chinaman within it.

"Oh! how good you look, Wunny! Same old purple sack! same old shoes;
same old twisted cue around your same old shiny black head! Same old
nasty messes cooking! and same old Alfaretta to get after you with a
sharp stick!" cried Leslie bursting in with all the others.

Even Dorothy was laughing now, Jim quite forgot, while the cook held
such a reception as had never been his before. Leslie went through some
formal introductions, beginning with the lady of the mansion and ending
with Miss Milliken, who had followed unseen till now.

Wun Sing's back must have ached, so often and so low he bowed, while his
tongue mumbled compliments to the most gracious and honorable visitors;
but a look of real delight was on his swarthy face and one of great
affection for smiling Alfaretta.

"My heart! Ain't it just grand to find an old friend up here on the
mountains! I declare, it does beat the Dutch!" and to this, her
expression of greatest wonderment, Leslie added his own:

"Just downright rippin'! He's worth all he costs just to make our Dolly
forget that horrid Jim Barlow. I can't forgive him for running away and
stirring up all this mess, sending Dad off on a tiresome ride and
spoiling sport this way. He was good enough, I'd have treated him
decent, all right, but I wish now he'd never been heard of."

But the most of this was whispered in his mother's ear, as he stood
beside her, his hand upon her shoulder, in that familiar, loving
attitude which always made her so happy.

Then she demanded of the proud chef how soon he could have lunch
ready, and he replied with another gesture of profound respect:

"Light away, this instlant! By my honorable forefathers it is fittee for
the most bleautiful!"

Then he bowed them out of the place and they wandered to the pretty room
where the meal would be served, and which because of its simple,
cloister-like effect, Helena at once named "The Refectory."

It had been a trifling incident, but it had had a happy effect. All
tongues were talking now, planning, anticipating, wondering over the
things they meant to do and to learn; while a man was sent across to the
"Barracks" to tell Lemuel that they would like to begin their rifle
lessons that afternoon.

Mrs. Ford suggested naps for everybody, on account of their previous
long journeys but none wished to sleep just then.

"How can anybody be tired in this glorious air?" asked Helena, burying
her nose in a beautiful bunch of wild flowers somebody had placed beside
her plate.

Even Miss Milliken was wide awake now and as happy as she ever could be
anywhere. Her one complaint was that it was "so far from civilization."

"But you knew that, Milly, before you came. Mamma stated everything to
you as plainly as could be. You knew you were going to an isolated ranch
on a mountain, so how could you expect daily papers, visitors, and such
things? You've always said you loved quiet and, now you've got it, do be
satisfied," begged Helena. She was really fond of the nervous little
governess but sometimes lost patience with her.

"Yes, dear, but suppose--suppose something happened? Illness at home, or
something serious."

Lady Gray gently interposed, and made, also, her little speech. It was
her first and last advice, or request, to her guests and most of them
were impressed by it.

"Dear Miss Milliken, don't be troubled by 'being so far from
civilization.' You aren't that, at all. My husband has brought
civilization with him. I am amazed at all he has accomplished. We have a
telegraph line--that he found necessary for his business, but that can
be used by any of us. Bad news travels fast. Be sure if 'anything
happens' we shall hear of it all too soon. And now I have but one
suggestion to make for our life together, and I mean to apply it to
myself first of all. It is: Let us put everything unpleasant under our
feet, as far as possible, and each do his and her share to make this a
wholly joyous summer. I'm inclined to 'worry' and it's a most
unfortunate inclination. This is the first time I have had a chance to
make a 'home' for Daniel and Leslie and I want it to be perfect. Will
you all help me? Will you all take my dear husband's words for a summer
text and make life at this dear San Leon a synonym of 'Peace and Good
Will'?"

Lady Gray's beautiful face was very earnest, there was even a suspicion
of tears in her long-lashed eyes, but they did not fall, and, after a
moment's silence, Leslie sprang to his feet with a:

"Hip, hip, hurra, for the Gray Lady and her maiden speech! All in favor
of following her lead, say 'Aye'!"

All the company rose and the deafening "Ayes" which those young throats
emitted were as flattering as confusing to the "speech" maker. Then she
waved them back to their chairs and Wun Sing's perfection lunch was
served.

Of course they all missed their jolly host, and their hearts were still
troubled because of the missing Jim; but each strove with the other to
keep these feelings out of sight. This was hardest for Dorothy, who
guessed that the lady's suggestion was meant for her most of all; yet
she bravely tried to smile at every witticism made by her mates and to
respond in sort as far as she could. They had been a little company of
eight and because one was away should the seven be made to suffer? She
would try not, and contented herself with one final question, as the
hostess rose from the table and, the others hurrying "Barracks"-ward,
she could whisper:

"Even if they don't find my poor boy right away, you won't let them give
up looking, will you, dearest Gray Lady?"

Mrs. Ford drew the child close into her arms and kissed her tenderly:

"Don't fear that, for a moment, darling. As if James Barlow were our own
Leslie, the search for him would never be given up till he were found.
Scouts will be looking for him everywhere; though, of course he's sure
to be found near home and soon. Now, my dear little girl, shorten up
that long face and trust to older heads to do the right thing. Your
business now, as it has always seemed to be, is to make your playmates
happy. Jim shall be found; and soon--I do believe. You've heard the men
say that whatever 'Dan Ford, Railroad Boss' undertook he accomplished.
Now let's put that matter aside and learn how to handle a rifle."

"Captain Lem" had made great preparations for his "shooting school." He
had called upon his own company, as far as he could find it, to help
him. Most of the "boys" had gone searching, but the few who were left
soon had a row of benches set out, a target placed, and the finest guns
available stacked in readiness. It was really a very business like
arrangement and the would-be students soon found Lemuel's rule was
business only. For the boys he had placed arm-rests and they were to
fire from the ground, aided by these slight supports.

"The females can stand and shoot, on account o' their petticoats
worryin' 'em, lyin'. An' as I can't do nothin' unless it's by rule an'
rod, I lay it this way: Mrs. Ford, bein' she's the eldest--though she
don't look it, Ma'am!--she'll begin. Nobody can have more 'n two tries
to a round. Then Number Two takes it. The schoolma'am next, an' mebbe I
mistook in that matter of age. But that's not here nor there. Mrs. Ford,
Number One; the schoolma'am, Two; the rest the females follerin' in
order. Then the boys. One, two, three--attention! Step right here, lady,
and I'll show you the first position--how to hold your rifle."

Captain Lem had put on a rusty uniform, a relic of former grandeur "back
home," and carried his bent shoulders with a military precision that
quite transformed him. He gave Gray Lady a salute, moved forward and
placed her "in position" and handed her the rifle.

"Hold it just this way, scholar, and sight your bull's-eye. Keep your
eye on that, allowin' for a little play in the carryin', and now--pull
your trigger--let her go!"

Mrs. Ford obeyed, or thought she did. The result was that the gun
kicked, she screamed, and threw it as far from her as she could. What
became of the bullet she never knew, but she firmly declined any further
lessons in the fine art of sharpshooting.

"Look at Lem's face!" whispered Herbert to Molly who giggled and
returned:

"Wait till it comes my turn, I'll show him something!"

The Captain, as they henceforth called him tried to hide his look of
disgust by turning his back upon the group, and asking in a sarcastic
tone:

"Any more females want to take a try? The schoolma'am lady, for
instance?"

She ignored his question and sat down by her hostess to soothe that now
abashed person for her failure. Captain Lem had withered even the lady
of the ranch by his contempt.

"Helena next!" cried Molly, fairly dancing about in her impatience.

So Helena tried and made out fairly well. That is she succeeded in
keeping the rifle in hand, she did not scream at the discharge, and she
came within a hundred feet of the target. The lads applauded, noisily,
and she mocked back at their pretended admiration, though she made one
effort only and subsided on the bench beside the ladies.

"All the same it's wonderfully exciting! And I mean to try again,
to-morrow, if they'll let me," she remarked.

"Let some of the boys try before we do, so we can see how it's done. Or
you, Captain Hunt, you show us!" begged Molly.

This was what he had waited for. With a strut he marched across the
space between them and the target and carried that much further back. He
longed for a target bearing an arrangement of letters that he could hit
and cause to disappear, as at his boasted Seagirt, instead of a plain
affair such as this he had to use.

Strutting back to them he lay down, wriggled himself into position,
muttered something about the sun in his eyes, hemmed and hawed, took
final aim and--let her go!

But she didn't go--not in the least. All unconsciously, he had taken an
unloaded piece!

There was no strut left in him as he rose to his feet, rather slowly,
and faced his laughing audience; but he rallied after a moment and
good-naturedly joined in the laugh against himself.

However, discipline was over for that lesson. Without regard to any
rules the youngsters rushed to the stack and took whatever gun was
fancied. Then began an indiscriminate firing till Mrs. Ford grew
frightened and implored them to stop. They did so, all but Alfaretta and
Molly, who had both been fascinated by the sport and felt sure that
they could hit the bull's-eye--which nobody else had done.

"Come on, Alfy! Let's get down on our tummy, same's all marksmen do,
let's!"

Down they flung themselves and now, as eager for their success as they
were, old Lem handed each a fresh rifle and sang out:

"Let her go! A silver dollar to the gal that wins!"

They fired--and the unexpected happened. Alfaretta's untaught hands
succeeded where greater skill had failed. Her bullet went straight into
the bull's-eye, into its very centre.

"By the Great Horned Spoon! What an eye you've got, child of mortality!
Why I couldn't ha' done better myself! Glory be!" shouted the excited
ranchman, fairly dancing in his pride and glee. Then he helped Alfy up
from the ground, where she still lay, wondering at the excitement about
her, and peered critically into her blue orbs.

"However could you see it? That fur away?"

"Why--why, I didn't see it at all. I got scared and shut my eyes when I
pulled that thing on it!"

Captain Lem staggered as if he had been hit instead of the target and
softly marvelled:

"Such--dum--luck! She done it--with her eyes--shut!
She--done--it--with--her--eyes--shut! Somebody take me out and lay me
down. I'm beat."

His ludicrous manner amused the others but frightened the too successful
Alfaretta. Also, her attention was claimed by Molly's expression. That
ambitious young person was looking very white about the lips, and was
clasping and unclasping her hands in evident distress.

"Molly, what's the matter?" cried Alfy, shaking her partner in the
affair.

Molly lifted one shaking finger and pointed into the distance:

"I--I hit something, too!"

Other eyes than Alfy's followed the pointing finger and a groan of
horror burst from more than one throat.

Indeed, and all too surely, Molly had "hit something, too!"





Next: A Concert In The Moonlight

Previous: A Martinet Of The Rockies



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 445