For three weeks we had advertised for a cook—in vain! And ranch life, in consequence, began to lose colour and coherence. Even the animals suffered: the dogs, the chickens, and in particular the tame piglet, who hung disconsolate about the kitchen door watching, and perchance praying, for the hired girl that was not.
“This,” said Ajax, “spells demoralisation.”
He alluded to the plates which lay face downward upon the dining-room table. We had agreed to wash up every other meal, saving time at the expense of decency. One plate did double duty, for we used the top for breakfast and the bottom for dinner. Before supper we scrubbed it thoroughly and began again.
“And this bread of yours,” I retorted warmly—the plate labour-saving scheme was a happy thought of my own—“spells dyspepsia.”
“True,” he admitted forlornly. “I can make, but not bake bread. In a domestic crisis like this many things must be left underdone. We must find a cook. I propose that we ride to the village, and rope some aged virgin.”
We discussed the propriety of such a raid with spirit. I contended that we might have reason to regret, at the end of another rope, so high-handed a proceeding.
“You are right,” said Ajax. “That is the worst of this confounded ranch. Here, we enjoy neither the amenities of civilisation nor the freedom of the desert. However, it’s always darkest before dawn, and I’ve a feeling in my bones that the present state of affairs cannot last. Something will turn up.”
That afternoon Gloriana turned up.
We were sitting upon the verandah oppressed with the weight of beans, bacon, and soggy biscuit. As we smoked in silence our eyes rested gloomily upon the landscape—our domain. Before us lay an amber-coloured, sun-scorched plain; beyond were the foot-hills, bristling with chaparral, scrub-oaks, pines and cedars; beyond these again rose the grey peaks of the Santa Lucia range, pricking the eastern horizon. Over all hung the palpitating skies, eternally and exasperatingly blue, a-quiver with light and heat.
“Somebody’s coming,” said Ajax.
The country road, white with alkaline dust, crossed the ranch at right angles. Far away, to the left, was a faint blur upon the pink hills.
“It’s no wagon,” said Ajax idly, “and a vaquero would never ride in the dust. It must be a buggy.”
Five minutes later we could distinguish a quaint figure sitting upright in an ancient buckboard whose wheels wobbled and creaked with almost human infirmity. A mule furnished the motive power.
“Is it a man or a woman?” said Ajax.
“Possibly,” I replied, “a cook.”
“She is about to pay us a visit. Yes, it’s a woman, a bundle of bones, dust and alpaca crowned with a sombrero. A book-agent, I swear. Go and tell her we have never learned to read.”