The Ranch Girls and Their Hearts Desire

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THE RANCH GIRLS SERIES

The Ranch Girls and Their Heart's Desire

BY MARGARET VANDERCOOK

ILLUSTRATED BY WILSON V. CHAMBERS

THE JOHN C. WINSTON COMPANY PHILADELPHIA

Copyright, 1920, by THE JOHN C. WINSTON CO.

BEFORE LEAVING, SHE EXPLAINED TO THE OLD HALF-INDIANWOMAN THAT SHE WOULD NOT RETURN UNTIL DINNER TIME]

CONTENTS

I. THE BRANCH OF THE TREE 9

II. THE YOUNGER SET 20

III. OLD PASTIMES 32

IV. A FORMER ACQUAINTANCE 47

V. JEAN, OLIVE AND FRIEDA 58

VI. JEAN AND RALPH MERRITT 75

VII. THE TEA PARTY 91

VIII. AN INTERVIEW 104

IX. A YEAR LATER 117

X. A MAIDEN SPEECH 129

XI. THE PROPOSALS 140

XII. A DECISION 152

XIII. THE CAMPAIGN 169

XIV. IN THE THICK OF THE FIGHT 178

XV. CONSEQUENCES 192

XVI. THE ELECTION 204

XVII. THE HEART'S DESIRE 217

ILLUSTRATIONS

BEFORE LEAVING SHE EXPLAINED THAT SHE WOULD NOT RETURN BEFORE DINNER TIME _Frontispiece_

WITH A SINGLE SWIFT MOTION SHE LIFTED LITTLE PEACE INTO THE SADDLE 72

JACK REINED IN HER HORSE AND SAT STILL, SILHOUETTED AGAINST THE SKY 149

NOT A BOUQUET OF FLOWERS BUT OF EVIL-SMELLING WEEDS AND TIED WITH A RAG INSTEAD OF A RIBBON 186

The Ranch Girls and Their Heart's Desire

CHAPTER I

THE BRANCH OF THE TREE

Across a wide prairie a man and woman were riding side by side at anhour approaching twilight on a September afternoon. Moving slowly theyappeared to be studying the landscape.

Toward the west the sky was banked with gold and rose and purple clouds,while the earth revealed the same colors in the yellow sand of thedesert spaces, the wide fields of purple clover, and the second bloomingof the prairie roses.

”Strange to have you living at the old Rainbow ranch again, Jack, andyet under the circumstances perhaps the most natural thing in the world!Long ago when I was a young fellow I learned that when human beings arehurt they follow the instincts of the homing birds who seek the nest.You have always loved the old ranch better than any place in the world,more than the other girls ever loved it, so with the news of yourhusband's death I knew you would return from England and bring your sonwith you, Lady Kent, once Jacqueline Ralston of the Rainbow ranch.Somehow I never have learned to think of you, Jack, by your title ofLady Kent.”

”No, Jim, and why should you?” the girl answered. ”I never learned tothink of myself in that fashion. I am going to confide something to you,Jim Colter. I always have confided my secrets to you since I was alittle girl. I never learned during the years of my married life inEngland to feel that I was anything but a stranger there. Yet for myhusband's sake I did my best to like England and try to make Englishpeople like me. I was never specially successful. I presume I amhopelessly an American and, what may be worse, hopelessly western. Atpresent I feel that I wish to spend all the rest of my life in Wyoming.But one is not often allowed to do what one wishes. This morning Ireceived letters from England, all of them asking when I intended toreturn and settle down as Dowager Lady Kent at Kent House, to bring uplittle Jimmie in a manner becoming a future British Lord. The worst ofit is I don't want to go back and I don't want to bring up my son as anaristocrat. My husband was an Englishman, but I am an American and havenever believed in titles. Frank had no title when I married him. I wantlittle Jimmie to be half an American anyhow and wholly a democrat. Whatmust I do, Jim Colter, stay here on the ranch with my own people andlead the life I love, or go to England and spend half my time amid theconventional society existence I loathe, and the other half playing LadyBountiful to the poor people of a small village?”

Jacqueline Ralston, who _was_ Lady Kent, regardless of her own protest,now reined in her horse, and rising in her saddle let her glance sweepthe wide horizon.

In the wide, gray eyes, in the low, level brow, in the full, generouslips and abundant vitality one might have recognized the pioneer spirit,infrequent in human beings, but more infrequent in women than in men.Yet this Jacqueline Ralston Kent, one of the original four ”Ranch Girlsof the Rainbow Lodge,” possessed. All her life she had loved personalfreedom, wide spaces, a simple, every-day, outdoor existence withoutformality. She felt a natural intimacy with the people who attracted herwithout consideration for their social position. Yet in so contrary afashion does fate deal with us that Jack had spent the greater part ofher married life under exactly opposite conditions.

”For my part I don't dare advise you, Jack, I so want you to stay on atthe Rainbow lodge, more than I wish anything else in the world atpresent. With Ruth gone, I don't see how I shall ever get on with myfour new little Rainbow ranch girls without you to help mother them. YetI had pretty much the same experience once before! Odd how circumstancesrepeat themselves! You must first do what you think best for Jimmie.What does the boy himself wish to do, stay here at the ranch and learnto be a ranchman under my training, or go back to Kent House?”

Laughing Jack shook her head, crowned with gold brown hair; she waswithout a hat, after her old custom.

”You know the answer to that question as well as I do, Jim. Jimmieadores the ranch. He is named for you, and you have done everything inyour power to make him love it. Then I must have implanted my ownaffection for the freedom of our western life in my little son. Jimmieinsists that he wants nothing better in the future than to stay on hereand run the ranch and the mine when you and I have grown too old to betroubled with such responsibilities. He is only eight years old atpresent and so we need not feel laid on the shelf at once.”

”No, but I am not young as I was, Jack, hair is turning pretty graythese days,” Jim Colter answered. ”I have never mentioned this to theboy, but I have wanted the same thing he does. I would like Jimmie tolive here and perhaps marry one of my four girls and keep the old ranchin the family through another generation or so. Sentiment of course, yetso far Jimmie is the only son on the horizon! Here I am with fourdaughters, Jean and Ralph Merritt with two, Olive and Captain MacDonnellwith no children, and Frieda's and Professor Russell's little girl sofrail that it is hard to count on any future for her.”

At this Jack's expression clouded. A moment later she again arose in hersaddle, this time pointing toward the eastern portion of the Rainbowranch. To the west and north lay the gold mine discovered years before,though no longer yielding a supply of gold as in its early days.

The mine had never interested either Jacqueline Ralston or Jim Colter asit had the other members of the family. They had been horse and cattleraisers before a mine was ever dreamed of, and it was the rearing of thelivestock for which Jim and Jack cared intensely to this day.

Riding through the ranch, every half hour or so they had passed a herdof cattle browsing amid the purple alfalfa grass, seen the sleek browncows standing with their young calves close beside them. Less often theyhad run across a small drove of horses and young colts, as horses wereno longer so good an investment as in the old days. Yet the presentRainbow ranch owners would prefer to have lost money than be withoutthem, the horses having always received Jack's especial affection andattention as a girl and upon her occasional visits home to the ranchafter her English marriage.

”Can that be a herd of horses or cattle stampeding there toward theeast, Jim? We are too far off to see distinctly; suppose we ride in thatdirection,” Jack said unexpectedly.

Wasting no time in words Jim Colter nodded. The following moment bothhorses, their noses pointing eastward, were galloping across the openprairie fields and away from the road.

Experienced ranchmen, he and his companion appreciated that the cloud ofdust and the grouping of dark bodies advancing toward them with unusualrapidity represented trouble of some kind. At this time of the year itseemed scarcely possible that a wolf had stolen from the pack andfrightened one of the herds. Yet there was no accounting for the tricksof nature. Moreover, frequently a number of horses or cattle sufferedfrom group fear, the one transmitting the fright to the other withoutapparent reason.

Half a mile away the drove of young horses, which Jim Colter had finallylocated with his field glasses, turned and swerved south.

Almost as swiftly the two riders moved off in the same direction,hoping they might be able to divide the frightened animals and drivethem apart.

A quarter of a mile farther along, riding at no great distance from eachother, Jim Colter heard an exclamation from his companion, so sudden, soterrified and so unexpected that he reined his own horse sharply untilfor an instant it stood trembling on its hind legs, its slender nosesnuffing the soft air.

”Tell me, Jim, is that Jimmie's pony ahead of us? The saddle is on thepony, but no one is riding. Jimmie can't have ridden over here alone? Hecan't be anywhere near-by?”

Yet even as the question was being asked, the man and woman saw and,seeing, understood.

The pony which Jack had spied with the bridle dangling over its head wasmoving from place to place nibbling at the most luxurious patches ofclover. Beyond, and closer to the trampling herd of panic-strickenanimals, lay a small figure, outstretched on the ground and probablyuntil this moment asleep.

Whether he now heard the oncoming horses or the cries of his mother andguardian, in any case, awakening, he jumped to his feet and the sameinstant turned, beheld, and understood his own danger. In a few moments,seconds perhaps, the frightened animals would be upon him, trampling,snorting, unconscious of his presence in their frenzy.

As the boy ran across the field toward his pony, he had theconsciousness that the two persons for whom he cared most in the worldwere coming toward him to save him from harm. Yet he also appreciatedthis would not be possible, as they could not reach him in time.

But Jimmie Kent was not to make the whole effort alone. As he ran hecalled his pony's name.

”Whitestar! Whitestar!” The boy's tones remained firm and commanding.

Whitestar had observed her own danger. The pony's head went up, showingthe mark upon her pretty nose which had given her the name. A singletime she pawed the earth in front of her, appearing about to rush _away_without her master, and then she cantered toward the boy.

The oncoming drove of terrified animals was now only a few yards away.

”Don't lose courage, Jack, he is your son, remember! He will win out,”Jim Colter shouted, his own horse scarcely appearing to touch the earthas it ran.

”Drive straight toward them, Jimmie, don't try to cross their path,” Jimcalled, his voice sounding unfamiliar to his own ears.

Yet either the boy heard or recognized his one chance.

Without hesitation the little figure lying close to his saddle wasriding straight toward the center of the drove of twenty or thirtyfrightened animals. The leader, a few feet in advance of the others,apparently ran in a direct line with the boy.

Her eyes never turning for an instant from the little figure, now notthirty yards away, Jack understood what must take place. Should theleader come on without swerving Jimmie would be unseated, his ponystruck down and the other horses would pass over them both. But, shouldJimmie possess the courage or, greater than courage, the strength ofwill to force the horse in advance of the drove to swerve either towardthe right or left, the others would follow.

A moment later and Jack's arms were about her son.

”You've turned the trick, Jimmie,” Jim Colter was saying roughly. ”Butit is the front yard of the Rainbow lodge for you for the next week. Howdared you ride over the ranch alone when I have told you it wasforbidden? Now you and your mother get home as soon as you can and sendwhatever men you come across in this direction. I suppose the horseswill have tired themselves out after a few more miles of running, but itis just as well to see they are quieted down.”

So Jim Colter rode away in one direction and Jimmie and his mother inthe other toward the Rainbow lodge.