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Jean of the Lazy A by B. M. Bower

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Jean of the Lazy A








Without going into a deep, psychological discussion
of the elements in men's souls that breed
events, we may say with truth that the Lazy A ranch
was as other ranches in the smooth tenor of its life
until one day in June, when the finger of fate wrote
bold and black across the face of it the word that blotted
out prosperity, content, warm family ties,--all those
things that go to make life worth while.

Jean, sixteen and a range girl to the last fiber of her
being, had gotten up early that morning and had washed
the dishes and swept, and had shaken the rugs of the
little living-room most vigorously. On her knees, with
stiff brush and much soapy water, she had scrubbed the
kitchen floor until the boards dried white as kitchen
floors may be. She had baked a loaf of gingerbread,
that came from the oven with a most delectable odor,
and had wrapped it in a clean cloth to cool on the
kitchen table. Her dad and Lite Avery would show
cause for the baking of it when they sat down, fresh
washed and ravenous, to their supper that evening. I
mention Jean and her scrubbed kitchen and the gingerbread
by way of proving how the Lazy A went unwarned
and unsuspecting to the very brink of its disaster.

Lite Avery, long and lean and silently content with
life, had ridden away with a package of sandwiches,
after a full breakfast and a smile from the slim girl
who cooked it, upon the business of the day; which
happened to be a long ride with one of the Bar Nothing
riders, down in the breaks along the river. Jean's
father, big Aleck Douglas, had saddled and ridden away
alone upon business of his own. And presently, in mid-
forenoon, Jean closed the kitchen door upon an
immaculately clean house filled with the warm, fragrant
odor of her baking, and in fresh shirt waist and her
best riding-skirt and Stetson, went whistling away down
the path to the stable, and saddled Pard, the brown colt
that Lite had broken to the saddle for her that spring.
In ten minutes or so she went galloping down the coulee
and out upon the trail to town, which was fifteen miles
away and held a chum of hers.

So Lazy A coulee was left at peace, with scratching
hens busy with the feeding of half-feathered chicks,
and a rooster that crowed from the corral fence seven
times without stopping to take breath. In the big
corral a sorrel mare nosed her colt and nibbled
abstractedly at the pile of hay in one corner, while the
colt wabbled aimlessly up and sniffed curiously and then
turned to inspect the rails that felt so queer and hard
when he rubbed his nose against them. The sun was
warm, and cloud-shadows drifted lazily across the coulee
with the breeze that blew from the west. You never
would dream that this was the last day,--the last few
hours even,--when the Lazy A would be the untroubled
home of three persons of whose lives it formed so
great a part.

At noon the hens were hovering their chickens in the
shade of the mower which Lite was overhauling during
his spare time, getting it ready for the hay that was
growing apace out there in the broad mouth of the
coulee. The rooster was wallowing luxuriously in a
dusty spot in the corral. The young colt lay stretched
out on the fat of its side in the sun, sound asleep. The
sorrel mare lay beside it, asleep also, with her head
thrown up against her shoulder. Somewhere in a shed
a calf was bawling in bored lonesomeness away from its
mother feeding down the pasture. And over all the
coulee and the buildings nestled against the bluff at
its upper end was spread that atmosphere of homey
comfort and sheltered calm which surrounds always a
home that is happy.

Lite Avery, riding toward home just when the shadows
were beginning to grow long behind him, wondered
if Jean would be back by the time he reached the
ranch. He hoped so, with a vague distaste at finding
the place empty of her cheerful presence. Be looked
at his watch; it was nearly four o'clock. She ought to
be home by half-past four or five, anyway. He glanced
sidelong at Jim and quietly slackened his pace a little.
Jim was telling one of those long, rambling tales of
the little happenings of a narrow life, and Lite was
supposed to be listening instead of thinking about when
Jean would return home. Jim believed he was listening,
and drove home the point of his story.

"Yes, sir, them's his very words. Art Osgood heard
him. He'll do it, too, take it from me, Crofty is shore
riled up this time."

"Always is," Lite observed, without paying much
attention. "I'll turn off here, Jim, and cut across.
Got some work I want to get done yet to-night. So

He swung away from his companion, whose trail to
the Bar Nothing led him straight west, passing the Lazy
A coulee well out from its mouth, toward the river.
Lite could save a half mile by bearing off to the north
and entering the coulee at the eastern side and riding
up through the pasture. He wanted to see how the
grass was coming on, anyway. The last rain should
have given it a fresh start.

He was in no great hurry, after all; he had merely
been bored with Jim's company and wanted to go on
alone. And then he could get the fire started for
Jean. Lite's life was running very smoothly indeed;
so smoothly that his thoughts occupied themselves
largely with little things, save when they concerned
themselves with Jean, who had been away to school for
a year and had graduated from "high," as she called it,
just a couple of weeks ago, and had come home to keep
house for dad and Lite. The novelty of her presence
on the ranch was still fresh enough to fill his thoughts
with her slim attractiveness. Town hadn't spoiled her,
he thought glowingly. She was the same good little
pal,--only she was growing up pretty fast, now. She
was a young lady already.

So, thinking of her with the brightening of spirits
which is the first symptom of the world-old emotion
called love, Lite rounded the eastern arm of the bluff
and came within sight of the coulee spread before him,
shaped like the half of a huge platter with a high rim of
bluff on three sides.

His first involuntary glance was towards the house,
and there was unacknowledged expectancy in his eyes.
But he did not see Jean, nor any sign that she had
returned. Instead, he saw her father just mounting in
haste at the corral. He saw him swing his quirt down
along the side of his horse and go tearing down the
trail, leaving the wire gate flat upon the ground behind
him,--which was against all precedent.

Lite quickened his own pace. He did not know why
big Aleck Douglas should be hitting that pace out of
the coulee, but since Aleck's pace was habitually
unhurried, the inference was plain enough that there was
some urgent need for haste. Lite let down the rails of
the barred gate from the meadow into the pasture,
mounted, and went galloping across the uneven sod.
His first anxious thought was for the girl. Had something
happened to her?

At the stable he looked and saw that Jean's saddle did
not hang on its accustomed peg inside the door, and he
breathed freer. She could not have returned, then. He
turned his own horse inside without taking off the saddle,
and looked around him puzzled. Nothing seemed
wrong about the place. The sorrel mare stood placidly
switching at the flies and suckling her gangling colt in
the shady corner of the corral, and the chickens were
pecking desultorily about their feeding-ground in
expectation of the wheat that Jean or Lite would fling
to them later on. Not a thing seemed unusual.

Yet Lite stood just outside the stable, and the
sensation that something was wrong grew keener. He was
not a nervous person,--you would have laughed at the
idea of nerves in connection with Lite Avery. He felt
that something was wrong, just the same. It was not
altogether the hurried departure of Aleck Douglas,
either, that made him feel so. He looked at the house
setting back there close to the bluff just where it began
to curve rudely out from the narrowest part of the
coulee. It was still and quiet, with closed windows and
doors to tell there was no one at home. And yet, to
Lite its very silence seemed sinister.

Wolves were many, down in the breaks along the
river that spring; and the coyotes were an ever-present
evil among the calves, so that Lite never rode abroad
without his six-shooter. He reached back and loosened
it in the holster before he started up the sandy path
to the house; and if you knew the Lazy A ranch as
well as Lite knew it, from six years of calling it home,
you would wonder at that action of his, which was
instinctive and wholly unconscious.

So he went up through the sunshine of late afternoon
that sent his shadow a full rod before him, and he
stepped upon the narrow platform before the kitchen
door, and stood there a minute listening. He heard
the mantel clock in the living-room ticking with the
resonance given by a room empty of all other sound.
Because his ears were keen, he heard also the little
alarm clock in the kitchen tick-tick-tick on the shelf
behind the stove where Jean kept it daytimes.

Peaceful enough, for all the silence; yet Lite reached
back and laid his fingers upon the smooth butt of his
six-shooter and opened the door with his left hand,
which was more or less awkward. He pushed the door
open and stepped inside. Then for a full minute he
did not move.

On the floor that Jean had scrubbed till it was so
white, a man lay dead, stretched upon his back. His
eyes stared vacantly straight up at the ceiling, where a
single cobweb which Jean had not noticed swayed in
the air-current Lite set in motion with the opening of
the door. On the floor, where it had dropped from his
hand perhaps when he fell, a small square piece of
gingerbread lay, crumbled around the edges. Tragic
halo around his head, a pool of blood was turning brown
and clotted. Lite shivered a little while he stared down
at him.

In a minute he lifted his eyes from the figure
and looked around the small room. The stove shone
black in the sunlight which the open door let in. On
the table, covered with white oilcloth, the loaf of gingerbread
lay uncovered, and beside it lay a knife used to
cut off the piece which the man on the floor had not
eaten before he died. Nothing else was disturbed.
Nothing else seemed in the least to bear any evidence
of what had taken place.

Lite's thoughts turned in spite of him to the man
who had ridden from the coulee as though fiends had
pursued. The conclusion was obvious, yet Lite loyally
rejected it in the face of reason. Reason told him
that there went the slayer. For this dead man was
what was left of Johnny Croft, the Crofty of whom
Jim had gossiped not more than half an hour before.
And the gossip had been of threats which Johnny Croft
had made against the two Douglas brothers,--big
Aleck, of the Lazy A, and Carl, of the Bar Nothing
ranch adjoining.

Suicide it could scarcely be, for Crofty was the type
of man who would cling to life; besides, his gun was
in its holster, and a man would hardly have the strength
or the desire to put away his gun after he has shot
himself under one eye. Death had undoubtedly been
immediate. Lite thought of these things while he stood
there just inside the door. Then he turned slowly and
went outside, and stood hesitating upon the porch. He
did not quite know what he ought to do about it, and
so he did not mean to be in too great a hurry to do
anything; that was Lite's habit, and he had always
found that it served him well.

If the rider had been fleeing from his crime, as was
likely, Lite had no mind to raise at once the hue and
cry. An hour or two could make no difference to the
dead man,--and you must remember that Lite had for
six years called this place his home, and big Aleck
Douglas his friend as well as the man who paid him
wages for the work he did. He was half tempted to
ride away and say nothing for a while. He could let
it appear that he had not been at the house at all and so
had not discovered the crime when he did. That would
give Aleck Douglas more time to get away. But there
was Jean, due at any moment now. He could not go
away and let Jean discover that gruesome thing on the
kitchen floor. He could not take it up and hide it away
somewhere; he could not do anything, it seemed to him,
but just wait.

He went slowly down the path to the stable, his chin
on his chest, his mind grappling with the tragedy and
with the problem of how best he might lighten the blow
that had fallen upon the ranch. It was unreal,--it
was unthinkable,--that Aleck Douglas, the man who
met but friendly glances, ride where he might, had
done this thing. And yet there was nothing else to believe.
Johnny Croft had worked here on the ranch for
a couple of months, off and on. He had not been steadily
employed, and he had been paid by the day instead
of by the month as was the custom. He had worked
also for Carl Douglas at the Bar Nothing; back and
forth, for one or the other as work pressed. He was
too erratic to be depended upon except from day to
day; too prone to saddle his horse and ride to town and
forget to return for a day or two days or a week, as
the mood seized him or his money held out.

Lite knew that there had been some dispute when he
had left; he had claimed payment for more days than
he had worked. Aleck was a just man who paid honestly
what he owed; he was also known to be "close-
fisted." He would pay what he owed and not a nickel
more,--hence the dispute. Johnny had gone away
seeming satisfied that his own figures were wrong, but
later on he had quarreled with Carl over wages and
other things. Carl had a bad temper that sometimes
got beyond his control, and he had ordered Johnny off
the ranch. This was part of the long, full-detailed
story Jim had been telling. Johnny had left, and he
had talked about the Douglas brothers to any one who
would listen. He had said they were crooked, both of
them, and would cheat a working-man out of his pay.
He had come back, evidently, to renew the argument
with Aleck. With the easy ways of ranch people, he
had gone inside when he found no one at home,--
hungry, probably, and not at all backward about helping
himself to whatever appealed to his appetite. That
was Johnny's way,--a way that went unquestioned,
since he had lived there long enough to feel at home.
Lite remembered with an odd feeling of pity how
Johnny had praised the first gingerbread which Jean
had baked, the day after her arrival; and how he had
eaten three pieces and had made Jean's cheeks burn
with confusion at his bold flattery.

He had come back, and he had helped himself to the
gingerbread. And then he had been shot down. He
was lying in there now, just as he had fallen, and his
blood was staining deep the fresh-scrubbed floor. And
Jean would be coming home soon. Lite thought it would
be better if he rode out to meet her, and told her what
had happened, so that she need not come upon it
unprepared. There was nothing else that he could bring
himself to do, and his mood demanded action of some
sort; one could not sit down at peace with a fresh
tragedy like that hanging over the place.

He had reached the stable when a horse walked out
from behind the hay corral and stopped, eyeing him
curiously. It was Johnny's horse. Even as improvident
a cowpuncher as Johnny Croft had been likes to
own a "private" horse,--one that is his own and can
be ridden when and where the owner chooses. Lite
turned and went over to it, caught it by the dragging
bridle-reins, and led it into an empty stall. He did
not know whether he ought to unsaddle it or leave it as
it was; but on second thought, he loosened the cinch in
kindness to the animal, and took off its bridle, so that
it could eat without being hampered by the bit. Lite
was too thorough a horseman not to be thoughtful of
an animal's comfort.

He led his own horse out, and then he stopped
abruptly. For Pard stood in front of the kitchen door,
and Jean was untying a package or two from the saddle.
He opened his mouth to call to her; he started forward;
but he was too late to prevent what happened. Before
his throat had made a sound, Jean turned with the
packages in the hollow of her arm and stepped upon the
platform with that springy haste of movement which
belongs to health and youth and happiness; and before
he had taken more than the first step away from his
horse, she had opened the kitchen door.

Lite ran, then. He did not call to her. What was
the use? She had seen. She had dropped her packages,
and turned and ran to meet him, and caught him
by the arm in a panic of horror. Lite patted her hand
awkwardly, not knowing what he ought to say.

"What made you go in there?" came of its own
accord from his lips. "That's no place for a girl."

"It's Johnny Croft!" she gasped just above her
breath. "How--did it happen, Lite?"

"I don't know," said Lite slowly, looking down and
still patting her hand. "Your father and I have both
been gone all day. I just got back a few minutes ago
and found out about it." His tone, his manner and
his words impressed upon Jean the point he wanted her
to get,--that her father had not yet returned, and so
knew nothing of the crime.

He led her back to where Pard stood, and told her to
get on. Without asking him why, Jean obeyed him,
with a shudder when her wide eyes strayed fascinated
to the open door and to what lay just within. Lite
went up and pulled the door shut, and then, walking beside
her with an arm over Pard's neck, he led the way
down to the stable, and mounted Ranger.

"You can't stay here," he explained, when she looked
at him inquiringly. "Do you want to go over and stay
at Carl's, or would you rather go back to town?" He
rode down toward the gate, and Jean kept beside him.

"I'm going to stay with dad," she told him shakily.
"If he stays, I'll--I'll stay."

"You'll not stay," he contradicted her bluntly.
"You can't. It wouldn't be right." And he added
self-reproachfully: "I never thought of your cutting
across the bench and riding down the trail back of the
house. I meant to head you off--"

"It's shorter," said Jean briefly. "I--if I can't
stay, I'd rather go to town, Lite. I don't like to stay
over at Uncle Carl's."

Therefore, when they reached the mouth of the
coulee, Lite turned into the trail that led to town.
All down the coulee the trail had been dug deep with
the hoofprints of a galloping horse; and now, on the
town trail, they were as plain as a primer to one
schooled in the open. But Jean was too upset to
notice them, and for that Lite was thankful. They
did not talk much, beyond the commonplace speculations
which tragedy always brings to the lips of the
bystanders. Comments that were perfectly obvious
they made, it is true. Jean said it was perfectly awful,
and Lite agreed with her. Jean wondered how it
could have happened, and Lite said he didn't know.
Neither of them said anything about the effect it would
have upon their future; I don't suppose that Jean, at
least, could remotely guess at the effect. It is certain
that Lite preferred not to do so.

They were no more than half way to town when they
met a group of galloping horsemen, their coming heralded
for a mile by the dust they kicked out of the trail.

In the midst rode Jean's father. Alongside him
rode the coroner, and behind him rode the sheriff.
The rest of the company was made up of men who had
heard the news and were coming to look upon the
tragedy. Lite drew a long breath of relief. Aleck
Douglas, then, had not been running away.



"Lucky you was with me all day, up to four
o'clock, Lite," Jim said. "That lets you out
slick and clean, seeing the doctor claims he'd been dead
six hours when he seen him last night. Crofty--why,
Crofty was laying in there dead when I was talking
about him to you! Kinda gives a man the creeps to
think of it. Who do you reckon done it, Lite?"

"How'n hell do _I_ know?" Lite retorted irritably.
"I didn't see it done."

Jim studied awhile, an ear cocked for the signal that
the coroner was ready to begin the inquest. "Say,"
he leaned over and whispered in Lite's ear, "where
was Aleck at, all day yesterday?"

"Riding over in the bend, looking for black-leg
signs," said Lite promptly. "Packed a lunch, same as
I did."

The answer seemed to satisfy Jim and to eliminate
from his mind any slight suspicion he may have held,
but Lite had a sudden impulse to improve upon his

"I saw Aleck ride into the ranch as I was coming
home," he said. As he spoke, his face lightened as
with a weight lifted from his mind.

Later, when the coroner questioned him about his
movements and the movements of Aleck, Lite repeated
the lie as casually as possible. It might have carried
more weight with the jury if Aleck Douglas himself had
not testified, just before then, that he had returned
about three o'clock to the ranch and pottered around the
corral with the mare and colt, and unsaddled his horse
before going into the house at all. It was only when
he had discovered Johnny Croft's horse at the haystack,
he said, that he began to wonder where the rider could
be. He had gone to the house--and found him on
the kitchen floor.

Lite had not heard this statement, for the simple
reason that, being a closely interested person, he had
been invited to remain outside while Aleck Douglas
testified. He wondered why the jury,--men whom
he knew and had known for years, most of them,--
looked at one another so queerly when he declared that
he had seen Aleck ride home. The coroner also had
given him a queer look, but he had not made any comment.
Aleck, too, had turned his head and stared at
Lite in a way which Lite preferred to think he had not

Beyond that one statement which had produced such
a curious effect, Lite did not have anything to say that
shed the faintest light upon the matter. He told where
he had been, and that he had discovered the body just
before Jean arrived, and that he had immediately
started with her to town. The coroner did not cross-
question him. Counting from four o'clock, which Jim
had already named as the time of their separation, Lite
would have had just about time to do the things he
testified to doing. The only thing he claimed to have
done and could not possibly have done, was to see Aleck
Douglas riding into the coulee. Aleck himself had
branded that a lie before Lite had ever uttered it.

The result was just what was to be expected. Aleck
Douglas was placed under arrest, and as a prisoner he
rode back to town alongside the sheriff,--an old friend
of his, by the way,--to where Jean waited impatiently
for news.

It was Lite who told her. "It'll come out all right,"
he said, in his calm way that might hide a good deal of
emotion beneath it. "It's just to have something to
work from,--don't mean anything in particular. It's
a funny way the law has got," he explained, "of
arresting the last man that saw a fellow alive, or the first
one that sees him dead."

Jean studied this explanation dolefully. "They
ought to find out the last one that saw him alive," she
said resentfully, "and arrest him, then,--and leave
dad out of it. There's no sense in the law, if that's
the way it works."

"Well, I didn't make the law," Lite observed, in
a tone that made Jean look up curiously into his

"Why don't they find out who saw him last?" she
repeated. "Somebody did. Somebody must have
gone there with him. Lite, do you know that Art Osgood
came into town with his horse all in a lather of
sweat, and took the afternoon train yesterday? I saw
him. I met him square in the middle of the street, and
he didn't even look at me. He was in a frightful hurry,
and he looked all upset. If I was the law, I'd leave
dad alone and get after Art Osgood. He acted to me,"
she added viciously, "exactly as if he were running

"He wasn't, though. Jim told me Art was going to
leave yesterday; that was in the forenoon. He's going
to Alaska,--been planning it all spring. And Carl
said he was with Art till Art left to catch the train.
Somebody else from town here had seen him take the
train, and asked about him. No, it wasn't Art."

"Well, who was it, then?"

Never before had Lite failed to tell Jean just what
she wanted to know. He failed now, and he went away
as though he was glad to put distance between them.
He did not know what to think. He did not want to
think. Certainly he did not want to talk, to Jean
especially. For lies never came easily to the tongue of
Lite Avery. It was all very well to tell Jean that he
didn't know who it was; he did tell her so, and made
his escape before she could read in his face the fear that
he did know. It was not so easy to guard his fear from
the keen eyes of his fellows, with whom he must mingle
and discuss the murder, or else pay the penalty of having
them suspect that he knew a great deal more about
it than he admitted.

Several men tried to stop him and talk about it, but
he put them off. He was due at the ranch, he said, to
look after the stock. He didn't know a thing about it,

Lazy A coulee, when he rode into it, seemed to wear
already an air of depression, foretaste of what was to
come. The trail was filled with hoofprints, and cut
deep with the wagon that had borne the dead man to
town and to an unwept burial. At the gate he met
Carl Douglas, riding with his head sunk deep on his
chest. Lite would have avoided that meeting if he
could have done so unobtrusively, but as it was, he
pulled up and waited while Carl opened the wire gate
and dragged it to one side. From the look of his face,
Carl also would have avoided the meeting, if he
could have done so. He glanced up as Lite passed

"Hell of a verdict," Lite made brief comment when
he met Carl's eyes.

Carl stopped, leaning against his horse with one
hand thrown up to the saddle-horn. He was a small
man, not at all like Aleck in size or in features. He
looked haggard now and white.

"What do you make of it?" he asked Lite. "Do
you believe--?"

"Of course I don't! Great question for a brother
to ask," Lite retorted sharply. "It's not in Aleck to
do a thing like that."

"What made you say you saw him ride home? You
didn't, did you?"

"You heard what I said; take it or leave it." Lite
scowled down at Carl. "What was there queer about
it? Why--"

"If you'd been inside ten minutes before then,"
Carl told him bluntly, "you'd have heard Aleck say he
came home a full hour or more before you say you saw
him ride in. That's what's queer. What made you
do that? It won't help Aleck none."

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Lite
slouched miserably in the saddle, and eyed the other
without really seeing him at all. "They can't prove
anything on Aleck," he added with faint hope.

"I don't see myself how they can." Carl brightened
perceptibly. "His being alone all day is bad; he can't
furnish the alibi you can furnish. But they can't prove
anything. They'll turn him loose, the grand jury will;
they'll have to. They can't indict him on the evidence.
They haven't got any evidence,--not any more than
just the fact that he rode in with the news. No need
to worry; he'll be turned loose in a few days." He
picked up the gate, dragged it after him as he went
through, and fumbled the wire loop into place over the
post. "I wish," he said when he had mounted with
the gate between them, "you hadn't been so particular
to say you saw him ride home about the same time you
did. That looks bad, Lite."

"Bad for who?" Lite turned in the saddle aggressively.

"Looks bad all around. I don't see what made you
do that;--not when you knew Jim and Aleck had both
testified before you did."

Lite rode slowly down the road to the stable, and
cursed the impulse that had made him blunder so. He
had no compunctions for the lie, if only it had done any
good. It had done harm; he could see now that it had.
But he could not believe that it would make any material
difference in Aleck's case. As the story had been
repeated to Lite by half a dozen men, who had heard
him tell it, Aleck's own testimony had been responsible
for the verdict.

Men had told Lite plainly that Aleck was a fool
not to plead self-defense, even in face of the fact that
Johnny Croft had not drawn any weapon. Jim had
declared that Aleck could have sworn that Johnny
reached for his gun. Others admitted voluntarily that
while it would be a pretty weak defense, it would beat
the story Aleck had told.

Lite turned the mare and colt into a shed for the
night. He milked the two cows without giving any
thought to what he was doing, and carried the milk to
the kitchen door before he realized that it would be
wasted, sitting in pans when the house would be empty.
Still, it occurred to him that he might as well go on
with the routine of the place until they knew to a
certainty what the grand jury would do. So he went in
and put away the milk.

After that, Lite let other work wait while he cleaned
the kitchen and tried to wash out that brown stain on
the floor. His face was moody, his eyes dull with
trouble. Like a treadmill, his mind went over and over
the meager knowledge he had of the tragedy. He could
not bring himself to believe Aleck Douglas guilty of the
murder; yet he could not believe anything else.

Johnny Croft, it had been proven at the inquest,
rode out from town alone, bent on mischief, if vague,
half-drunken threats meant anything. He had told
more than one that he was going to the Lazy A, but it
was certain that no one had followed him from town.
His threats had been for the most part directed against
Carl, it is true; but if he had meant to quarrel with
Carl, he would have gone to the Bar Nothing instead of
the Lazy A. Probably he had meant to see both Carl
and Aleck, and had come here first, since it was the
nearest to town.

As to enemies, no one had particularly liked Johnny.
He was not a likeable sort; he was too "mouthy"
according to his associates. He had quarreled with a
good many for slight cause, but since he was so notoriously
blatant and argumentative, no one had taken him
seriously enough to nurse any grudge that would be
likely to breed assassination. It was inconceivable to
Lite that any man had trailed Johnny Croft to the
Lazy A and shot him down in the kitchen while he was
calmly helping himself to Jean's gingerbread. Still,
he must take that for granted or else believe what he
steadfastly refused to confess even to himself that he

It was nearly dark when he threw out the last pail
of water and stood looking down dissatisfied at the
result of his labor, while he dried his hands. The stain
was still there, in spite of him, just as the memory of
the murder would cling always to the place. He went
out and watered Jean's poppies and sweet peas and
pansies, still going over and over the evidence and trying
to fill in the gaps.

He had blundered with his lie that had meant to
help. The lie had proven to every man who heard him
utter it that his faith in Aleck's innocence was not
strong; it had proven that he did not trust the facts.
That hurt Lite, and made it seem more than ever his
task to clear up the matter, if he could. If he could
not, then he would make amends in whatever way he

Almost as if he were guarding that gruesome room
which was empty now and silent,--since the clock had
not been wound and had run down,--he sat long upon
the narrow platform before the kitchen door and smoked
and stared straight before him. Once he thought he
saw a man move cautiously from the corner of the
shed where the youngest calf slept beside its mother,
He had been thinking so deeply of other things that
he was not sure, but he went down there, his cigarette
glowing in the gloom, and stood looking and listening.

He neither saw nor heard anything, and presently
he went back to the house; but his abstraction was
broken by the fancy, so that he did not sit down again
to smoke and think. He had thought until his brain
felt heavy and stupid; and the last cigarette he lighted;
he threw away, for he had smoked until his tongue was
sore. He went in and went to bed.

For a long time he lay awake. Finally he dropped
into a sleep so heavy that it was nearer to a torpor, and
it was the sunlight that awoke him; sunlight that was
warm in the room and proved how late the morning was.
He swore in his astonishment and got up hastily, a
great deal more optimistic than when he had lain down,
and hurried out to feed the stock before he boiled coffee
and fried eggs for himself.

It was when he went in to cook his belated breakfast
that Lite noticed something which had no logical
explanation. There were footprints on the kitchen floor
that he had scrubbed so diligently. He stood looking
at them, much as he had looked at the stain that would
not come out, no matter how hard he scrubbed. He had
not gone in the room after he had pulled the door shut
and gone off to water Jean's dowers. He was positive
upon that point; and even if he had gone in, his tracks
would scarcely have led straight across the room to the
cupboard where the table dishes were kept.

The tracks led to the cupboard, and were muddled
confusedly there, as though the maker had stood there
for some minutes. Lite could not see any sense in
that. They were very distinct, just as footprints always
show plainly on clean boards. The floor had evidently
been moist still,--Lite had scrubbed man-fashion,
with a broom, and had not been very particular
about drying the floor afterwards. Also he had thrown
the water straight out from the door, and the fellow
must have stepped on the moist sand that clung to his
boots. In the dark he could not notice that, or see that
he had left tracks on the floor.

Lite went to the cupboard and looked inside it,
wondering what the man could have wanted there. It was
one of those old-fashioned "safes" such as our
grandmothers considered indispensable in the furnishing of
a kitchen. It held the table dishes neatly piled: dinner
plates at the end of the middle shelf, smaller plates
next, then a stack of saucers,--the arrangement stereotyped,
unvarying since first Lite Avery had taken dishtowel
in hand to dry the dishes for Jean when she was
ten and stood upon a footstool so that her elbows would
be higher than the rim of the dishpan. The cherry-
blossom dinner set that had come from the mail-order
house long ago was chipped now and incomplete, but
the familiar rows gave Lite an odd sense of the
unreality of the tragedy that had so lately taken place
in that room.

Clearly there was nothing there to tempt a thief, and
there was nothing disturbed. Lite straightened up and
looked down thoughtfully upon the top of the cupboard,
where Jean had stacked out-of-date newspapers
and magazines, and where Aleck had laid a pair of
extra gloves. He pulled out the two small drawers just
under the cupboard top and looked within them. The
first held pipes and sacks of tobacco and books of
cigarette papers; Lite knew well enough the contents of
that drawer. He appraised the supply of tobacco,
remembered how much had been there on the morning of
the murder, and decided that none had been taken.
He helped himself to a fresh ten-cent sack of tobacco
and inspected the other drawer.

Here were merchants' bills, a few letters of no
consequence, a couple of writing tablets, two lead pencils,
and a steel pen and a squat bottle of ink. This was
called the writing-drawer, and had been since Lite first
came to the ranch. Here Lite believed the confusion
was recent. Jean had been very domestic since her
return from school, and all disorder had been frowned
upon. Lately the letters had been stacked in a corner,
whereas now they were scattered. But they were
of no consequence, once they had been read, and there
was nothing else to merit attention from any one.

Lite looked down at the tracks and saw that they led
into another room, which was Aleck's bedroom. He
went in there, but he could not find any reason for a
night-prowler's visit. Aleck's desk was always open.
There was never anything there which he wanted to
hide away. His account books and his business
correspondence, such as it was, lay accessible to the
curious. There was nothing intricate or secret about the
running of the Lazy A ranch; nothing that should
interest any one save the owner.

It occurred to Lite that incriminating evidence is
sometimes placed surreptitiously in a suspected man's
desk. He had heard of such things being done. He
could not imagine what evidence might be placed here
by any one, but he made a thorough search. He did
not find anything that remotely concerned the murder.

He looked through the living-room, and even opened
the door which led from the kitchen into Jean's room,
which had been built on to the rest of the house a few
years before. He could not find any excuse for those

He cooked and ate his breakfast absent-mindedly,
glancing often down at the footprints on the floor, and
occasionally at the brown stain in the center. He decided
that he would not say anything about those tracks.
He would keep his eyes open and his mouth shut, and
see what came of it.



You would think that the bare word of a man who
has lived uprightly in a community for fifteen
years or so would be believed under oath, even if his
whole future did depend upon it. You would think
that Aleck Douglas could not be convicted of murder
just because he had reported that a man was shot down
in Aleck's house.

The report of Aleck Douglas' trial is not the main
feature of this story; it is merely the commencement,
one might say. Therefore, I am going to be brief as
I can and still give you a clear idea of the situation,
and then I am going to skip the next three years and
begin where the real story begins.

Aleck's position was dishearteningly simple, and there
was nothing much that one could do to soften the facts
or throw a new light on the murder. Lite watched,
wide awake and eager, many a night for the return of
that prowler, but he never saw or heard a thing that
gave him any clue whatever. So the footprints seemed
likely to remain the mystery they had seemed on the
morning when he discovered them. He laid traps,
pretending to ride away from the ranch to town before
dark, and returning cautiously by way of the trail
down the bluff behind the house. But nothing came of
it. Lazy A ranch was keeping its secret well, and by
the time the trial was begun, Lite had given up hope.
Once he believed the house had been visited in the
daytime, during his absence in town, but he could not be
sure of that.

Jean went to Chinook and stayed there, so that Lite
saw her seldom. Carl also was away much of the time,
trying by every means he could think of to swing public
opinion and the evidence in Aleck's favor. He
prevailed upon Rossman, who was Montana's best-known
lawyer, to defend the case, for one thing. He seemed
to pin his faith almost wholly upon Rossman, and
declared to every one that Aleck would never be convicted.
It would be, he maintained, impossible to convict him,
with Rossman handling the case; and he always added
the statement that you can't send an innocent man to
jail, if things are handled right.

Perhaps he did not, after all, handle things right. For
in spite of Rossman, and Aleck's splendid reputation,
and the meager evidence against him, he was found
guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in
Deer Lodge penitentiary.

Rossman had made a great speech, and had made
men in the jury blink back unshed tears. But he could
not shake from them the belief that Aleck Douglas had
ridden home and met Johnny Croft, calmly making
himself at home in the Lazy A kitchen. He could not
convince them that there had not been a quarrel, and
that Aleck had not fired the shot in the grip of a
sudden, overwhelming rage against Croft. By Aleck's
own statement he had been at the ranch some time before
he had started for town to report the murder. By
the word of several witnesses, it had been proven that
Croft had left town meaning to collect wages which he
claimed were due him or else he would "get even."
His last words to a group out by the hitching pole in
front of the saloon which was Johnny's hangout, were:
"I'm going to get what's coming to me, or there'll be
one fine, large bunch of trouble!" He had not
mentioned Aleck Douglas by name, it is true; but the fact
that he had been found at the Lazy A was proof enough
that he had referred to Aleck when he spoke.

There is no means of knowing just how far-reaching
was the effect of that impulsive lie which Lite had told
at the inquest. He did not repeat the blunder at the
trial. When the district attorney reminded Lite of
the statement he had made, Lite had calmly explained
that he had made a mistake; he should have said that
he had seen Aleck ride away from the ranch instead
of to it. Beyond that he would not go, question him as
they might.

The judge sentenced Aleck to eight years, and
publicly regretted the fact that Aleck had persisted in
asserting his innocence; had he pleaded guilty instead,
the judge more than hinted, the sentence would have
been made as light as the law would permit. It was
the stubborn denial of the deed in the face of all
reason, he said, that went far toward weaning from the
prisoner what sympathy he would otherwise have commanded
from the public and the court of justice.

You know how those things go. There was nothing
particularly out of the ordinary in the case; we read
of such things in the paper, and a paragraph or two is
considered sufficient space to give so commonplace a

But there was Lite, loyal to his last breath in the
face of his secret belief that Aleck was probably guilty;
loyal and blaming himself bitterly for hurting Aleck's
cause when he had meant only to help. There was
Jean, dazed by the magnitude of the catastrophe that
had overtaken them all; clinging to Lite as to the only
part of her home that was left to her, steadfastly
refusing to believe that they would actually take her dad
away to prison, until the very last minute when she
stood on the crowded depot platform and watched in
dry-eyed misery while the train slid away and bore
him out of her life. These things are not put in the

"Come on, Jean." Lite took her by the arm and
swung her away from the curious crowd which she did
not see. "You're my girl now, and I'm going to start
right in using my authority. I've got Pard here in
the stable. You go climb into your riding-clothes, and
we'll hit it outa this darned burg where every man and
his dog has all gone to eyes and tongues. They make
me sick. Come on."

"Where?" Jean held back a little with vague
stubbornness against the thought of taking up life again
without her dad. "This--this is the jumping-off
place, Lite. There's nothing beyond."

Lite gripped her arm a little tighter if anything,
and led her across the street and down the high sidewalk
that bridged a swampy tract at the edge of town
beyond the depot.

"We're taking the long way round," he observed
"because I'm going to talk to you like a Dutch uncle
for saying things like that. I--had a talk with your
dad last night, Jean. He's turned you over to me to
look after till he gets back. I wish he coulda turned
the ranch over, along with you, but he couldn't. That's
been signed over to Carl, somehow; I didn't go into
that with your dad; we didn't have much time. Seems
Carl put up the money to pay Rossman,--and other
things,--and took over the ranch to square it. Anyway,
I haven't got anything to say about the business
end of the deal. I've got permission to boss you,
though, and I'm sure going to do it to a fare-you-well."
He cast a sidelong glance down at her. He could not
see anything of her face except the droop of her mouth,
a bit of her cheek, and her chin that promised firmness.
Her mouth did not change expression in the slightest
degree until she moved her lips in speech.

"I don't care. What is there to boss me about?
The world has stopped." Her voice was steady, and
it was also sullen.

"Right there is where the need of bossing begins.
You can't stay in town any longer. There's nothing
here to keep you from going crazy; and the Allens are
altogether too sympathetic; nice folks, and they mean
well,--but you don't want a bunch like that slopping
around, crying all over you and keeping you in mind
of things. I'm going to work for Carl, from now on.
You're going out there to the Bar Nothing--" He
felt a stiffening of the muscles under his fingers, and
answered calmly the signal of rebellion.

"Sure, that's the place for you. Your dad and Carl
fixed that up between them, anyway. That's to be
your home; so my saying so is just an extra rope to
bring you along peaceable. You're going to stay at
the Bar Nothing. And I'm going to make a top hand
outa you, Jean. I'm going to teach you to shoot and
rope and punch cows and ride, till there won't be a
girl in the United States to equal you."

"What for?" Jean still had an air of sullen
apathy. "That won't help dad any."

"It'll start the world moving again." Lite forced
himself to cheerfulness in the face of his own
despondency. "You say it's stopped. It's us that have
stopped. We've come to a blind pocket, you might
say, in the trail we've been taking through life. We've
got to start in a new place, that's all. Now, I know
you're dead game, Jean; at least I know you used to
be, and I'm gambling on school not taking that outa
you. You're maybe thinking about going away off
somewhere among strangers; but that wouldn't do at
all. Your dad always counted on keeping you away
from town life. I'm just going to ride herd on you,
Jean, and see to it that you go on the way your dad
wanted you to go. He can't be on the job, and so I'm
what you might call his foreman. I know how he
wants you to grow up; I'm going to make it my business
to grow you according to directions."

He saw a little quirk of her lips, at that, and was
vastly encouraged thereby.

"Has it struck you that you're liable to have your
hands full?" she asked him with a certain drawl that
Jean had possessed since she first learned to express
herself in words.

"Sure! I'll likely have both hand and my hat full
of trouble. But she's going to be done according to
contract. I reckon I'll wish you was a bronk before
I'm through--"

"What maddens me so that I could run amuck down
this street, shooting everybody I saw," Jean flared out
suddenly, "is the sickening injustice of it. Dad never
did that; you know he never did it." She turned upon
him fiercely. "Do you think he did?" she demanded,
her eyes boring into his.

"Now, that's a bright question to be asking me, ain't
it?" Lite rebuked. "That's a real bright, sensible
question, I must say! I reckon you ought to be stood
in the corner for that,--but I'll let it go this time.
Only don't never spring anything like that again."

Jean looked ashamed. "I could doubt God Himself,
right now," she gritted through her teeth.

"Well, don't doubt me, unless you want a scrap on
your hands," Lite warned. "I'm sure ashamed of
you. We'll stop here at the stable and get the horses.
You can ride sideways as far as the Allens', and get
your riding-skirt and come on. The sooner you are
on top of a horse, the quicker you're going to come outa
that state of mind."

It was pitifully amusing to see Lite Avery attempt
to bully any one,--especially Jean,--who might almost
be called Lite's religion. The idea of that long,
lank cowpuncher whose shyness was so ingrained that
it had every outward appearance of being a phlegmatic
coldness, assuming the duties of Jean's dad and undertaking
to see that she grew up according to directions,
would have been funny, if he had not been so absolutely
in earnest.

His method of comforting her and easing her
through the first stage of black despair was unorthodox,
but it was effective. Because she was too absorbed in
her own misery to combat him openly, he got her started
toward the Bar Nothing and away from the friends
whose enervating pity was at that time the worst influence
possible. He set the pace, and he set it for
speed. The first mile they went at a sharp gallop that
was not far from a run, and the horses were breathing
heavily when he pulled up, well out of sight of the
town, and turned to the girl.

There was color in her cheeks, and the dullness was
gone from her eyes when she returned his glance
inquiringly. The droop of her lips was no longer the
droop of a weak yielding to sorrow, but rather the
beginning of a brave facing of the future. Lite managed
a grin that did not look forced.

"I'll make a real range hand outa you yet," he
announced confidently. "You remember the roping and
shooting science I taught you before you went off to
school? You're going to start right in where you left
off and learn all I know and some besides. I'll make
a lady of you yet,--darned if I don't."

At that Jean laughed unexpectedly. Lite drew a
long breath of relief.



The still loneliness of desertion held fast the clutter
of sheds and old stables roofed with dirt and
rotting hay. The melancholy of emptiness hung like
an invisible curtain before the sprawling house with
warped, weather-blackened shingles, and sagging
window-frames. You felt the silence when first you
sighted the ranch buildings from the broad mouth of
the Lazy A coulee,--the broad mouth that yawned
always at the narrow valley and the undulations of the
open range, and the purple line of mountains beyond.
You felt it more strongly when you rode up to the gate
of barbed-wire, spliced here and there, and having an
unexpected stubbornness to harry the patience of men
who would pass through it in haste. You grew unaccountably
depressed if you rode on past the stables and
corrals to the house, where the door was closed but
never locked, and opened with a squeal of rusty hinges,
if you turned the brown earthenware knob and at the
same instant pressed sharply with your knee against
the paintless panel.

You might notice the brown spot on the kitchen
door where a man had died; you might notice the brown
spot, but unless you had been told the grim story of
the Lazy A, you would never guess the spot was a
bloodstain. Even though you guessed and shuddered,
you would forget it presently in the amazement with
which you opened the door beyond and looked in upon
a room where the chill atmosphere of the whole place
could find no lodgment.

This was Jean's room, held sacred to her own needs
and uses, in defiance of the dreariness that compassed
it close. A square of old rag carpet covered the center
of the floor, and beyond its border the warped boards
were painted a dull, pale green. The walls were ugly
with a cheap, flowered paper that had done its best to
fade into inoffensive neutral tints. Jean had helped,
where she could, by covering the intricate rose pattern
with old prints cut from magazines and with cheap,
pretty souvenirs gleaned here and there and hoarded
jealously. And there were books, which caught the
eyes and held them even to forgetfulness of the paper.

You would laugh at Jean's room. Just at first you
would laugh; after that you would want to cry, or pat
Jean on her hard-muscled, capable shoulder; but if you
knew Jean at all, you would not do either. First you
would notice an old wooden cradle, painted blue, that
stood in a corner. A button-eyed, blank-faced rag doll,
the size of a baby at the fist-sucking age, was tucked
neatly under the red-and-white patchwork quilt made to
fit the cradle. Hanging directly over the cradle by a
stirrup was Jean's first saddle,--a cheap pigskin affair
with harsh straps and buckles, that her father had sent
East for. Jean never had liked that saddle, even when
it was new. She used to stand perfectly still while her
father buckled it on the little buckskin pony she rode;
and she would laugh when he picked her up and tossed her
into the seat. She would throw her dad a kiss and go
galloping off down the trail,--but when she was quite
out of sight around the bend of the bench-land, she would
stop and take the saddle off, and hide it in a certain
clump of wild currant bushes, and continue her journey
bareback. A kit-fox found it one day; that is how the
edge of the cantle came to have that queer, chewed look.

There was an old, black wooden rocker with an oval
picture of a ship under full sail, just where Jean's
brown head rested when she leaned back and stared
big-eyed down the coulee to the hills beyond. There
was an old-fashioned work-basket always full of stockings
that never were mended, and a crumpled dresser
scarf which Jean had begun to hemstitch more than a
year ago in a brief spasm of domesticity. There were
magazines everywhere; and you may be sure that Jean
had read them all, even to the soap advertisements and
the sanitary kitchens and the vacuum cleaners. There
was an old couch with a coarse, Navajo rug thrown over
it, and three or four bright cushions that looked much
used. And there were hair macartas and hackamores,
and two pairs of her father's old spurs, and her father's
stock saddle and chaps and slicker and hat; and a jelly
glass half full of rattlesnake rattles, and her mother's
old checked sunbonnet,--the kind with pasteboard
"slats." Half the "slats" were broken. There was
a guitar and an old, old sewing machine with a reloading
shotgun outfit spread out upon it. There was
a desk made of boxes, and on the desk lay a shot-loaded
quirt that more than one rebellious cow-horse knew to
its sorrow. There was a rawhide lariat that had parted
its strands in a tussle with a stubborn cow. Jean meant
to fix the broken end of the longest piece and use it
for a tie-rope, some day when she had time, and
thought of it.

Somewhere in the desk were verses which Jean had
written,--dozens of them, and not nearly as bad as
you might think. Jean laughed at them after they
were written; but she never burned them, and she
never spoke of them to any one but Lite, who listened
with fixed attention and a solemn appreciation when
she read them to him.

On the whole, the room was contradictory. But Jean
herself was somewhat contradictory, and the place fitted
her. Here was where she spent those hours when her
absence from the Bar Nothing was left unexplained to
any one save Lite. Here was where she drew into her
shell, when her Uncle Carl made her feel more than
usually an interloper; or when her Aunt Ella's burden
of complaints and worry and headaches grew just a
little too much for Jean.

She never opened the door into the kitchen. There
was another just beyond the sewing-machine, that gave
an intimate look into the face of the bluff which formed
that side of the coulee wall. There were hollyhocks
along the path that led to this door, and stunted
rosebushes which were kept alive with much mysterious
assistance in the way of water and cultivation. There
was a little spring just under the foot of the bluff,
where the trail began to climb; and some young alders
made a shady nook there which Jean found pleasant
on a hot day.

The rest of the house might be rat-ridden and
desolate. The coulee might wear always the look of
emptiness; but here, under the bluff by the spring, and in
the room Jean called hers, one felt the air of occupancy
that gave the lie to all around it.

When she rode around the bold, out-thrust shoulder
of the hill which formed the western rim of the coulee,
and went loping up the trail to where the barbed-wire
gate stopped her, you would have said that Jean had
not a trouble to call her own. She wore her old gray
Stetson pretty well over one eye because of the sun-
glare, and she was riding on one stirrup and letting the
other foot swing free, and she was whirling her quirt
round and round, cartwheel fashion, and whistling an
air that every one knows,--and putting in certain
complicated variations of her own.

At the gate she dismounted without ever missing a
note, gave the warped stake a certain twist and jerk
which loosened the wire loop so that she could slip it
easily over the post, passed through and dragged the
gate with her, dropping it flat upon the ground beside
the trail. There was no stock anywhere in the coulee,
and she would save a little trouble by leaving the gate
open until she came out on her way home. She
stepped aside to inspect the meadow lark's nest
cunningly hidden under a wild rosebush, and then mounted
and went on to the stable, still whistling carelessly.

She turned Pard into the shed where she invariably
left him when she came to the Lazy A, and went on up
the grass-grown path to the house. She had the
preoccupied air of one who meditates deeply upon things
apart; as a matter of fact, she had glanced down the
coulee to its wide-open mouth, and had thrilled briefly
at the wordless beauty of the green spread of the plain
and the hazy blue sweep of the mountains, and had
come suddenly into the poetic mood. She had even
caught a phrase,--"The lazy line of the watchful hills,"
it was,--and she was trying to fit it into a verse, and
to find something beside "rills" that would rhyme with

She followed the path absent-mindedly to where she
would have to turn at the corner of the kitchen and go
around to the door of her own room; and until she
came to the turn she did not realize what was jarring
vaguely and yet insistently upon her mood. Then she
knew; and she stopped full and stared down at the loose
sand just before the warped kitchen steps. There were
footprints in the path,--alien footprints; and they
pointed toward that forbidden door into the kitchen of
gruesome memory. Jean looked up frowning, and saw
that the door had been opened and closed again carelessly.
And upon the top step, strange feet had pressed
a little caked earth carried from the trail where she
stood. There were the small-heeled, pointed prints of
a woman's foot, and there were the larger tracks of a
man,--a man of the town.

Jean stood with her quirt dangling loosely from her
wrist and glanced back toward the stables and down
the coulee. She completely forgot that she wanted a
rhyme for "hills." What were towns people doing
here? And how did they get here? They had not
ridden up the coulee; there were no tracks through the
gate; and besides, these were not the prints of riding-boots.

She twitched her shoulders and went around to the
door leading into her own room. The door stood wide
open when it should have been closed. Inside there
were evidences of curious inspection. She went hot
with an unreasoning anger when she saw the wide-open
door into the kitchen; first of all she went over and
closed that door, her lips pressed tightly together. To
her it was as though some wanton hand had forced up
the lid of a coffin where slept her dead. She stood with
her back against the door and looked around the room,
breathing quickly. She felt the woman's foolish amusement
at the old cradle with the rag doll tucked under
the patchwork quilt, and at her pitiful attempts at
adorning the tawdry walls. Without having seen more
than the prints of her shoes in the path, Jean hated the
woman who had blundered in here and had looked and
laughed. She hated the man who had come with the

She went over to her desk and stood staring at the
litter. A couple of sheets of cheap tablet paper,
whereon Jean had scribbled some verses of the range,
lay across the quirt she had forgotten on her last trip.
They had prowled among the papers, even! They had
respected nothing of hers, had considered nothing
sacred from their inquisitiveness. Jean picked up the
paper and read the verses through, and her cheeks reddened

Then she discovered something else that turned them
white with fresh anger. Jean had an old ledger
wherein she kept a sporadic kind of a diary which she
had entitled "More or Less the Record of my Sins."
She did not write anything in it unless she felt like
doing so; when she did, she wrote just exactly what
she happened to think and feel at the time, and she had
never gone back and read what was written there.
Some one else had read, however; at least the book had
been pulled out of its place and inspected, along with
her other personal belongings. Jean had pressed the
first wind-flowers of the season between the pages where
she had done her last scribbling, and these were crumpled
and two petals broken, so she knew that the book
had been opened carelessly and perhaps read with that
same brainless laughter.

She did not say anything. She straightened the
wind-flowers as best she could, put the book back where
it belonged, and went outside, and down to a lop-sided
shack which might pass anywhere as a junk-shop. She
found some nails and a hammer, and after a good deal
of rummaging and some sneezing because of the dust
she raised whenever she moved a pile of rubbish, she
found a padlock with a key in it. More dusty search
produced a hasp and some staples, and then she went
back and nailed two planks across the door which opened
into the kitchen. After that she fastened the windows
shut with nails driven into the casing just above the
lower sashes, and cracked the outer door with twelve-
penny nails which she clinched on the inside with vicious
blows of the hammer, so that the hasp could not be taken
off without a good deal of trouble. She had pulled a
great staple off the door of a useless box-stall, and when
she had driven it in so deep that she could scarcely force
the padlock into place over the hasp, and had put the
key in her pocket, she felt in a measure protected from
future prowlers. As a final hint, however, she went
back to the shop and mixed some paint with lampblack
and oil, and lettered a thin board which she afterwards
carried up and nailed firmly across the outside kitchen
door. Hammer in hand she backed away and read
the words judicially, her head tilted sidewise:


The hint was plain enough. She took the hammer
back to the shop and led Pard out of the stable and down
to the gate, her eyes watching suspiciously the trail for
tracks of trespassers. She closed the gate so thoroughly
with baling wire twisted about a stake that the
next comer would have troubles of his own in getting
it open again. She mounted and went away down the
trail, sitting straight in the saddle, both feet in the
stirrups, head up, and hat pulled firmly down to her
very eyebrows, glances going here and there, alert,
antagonistic. No whistling this time of rag-time tunes
with queer little variations of her own; no twirling of
the quirt; instead Pard got the feel of it in a tender
part of the flank, and went clean over a narrow washout
that could have been avoided quite easily. No
groping for rhythmic phrasings to fit the beauty of the
land she lived in; Jean was in the mood to combat
anything that came in her way.



At the mouth of the coulee, she turned to the left
instead of to the right, and so galloped directly
away from the Bar Nothing ranch, down the narrow
valley known locally as the Flat, and on to the hills that
invited her with their untroubled lights and shadows
and the deep scars she knew for canyons.

There were no ranches out this way. The land was
too broken and too barren for anything but grazing,
so that she felt fairly sure of having her solitude
unspoiled by anything human. Solitude was what she
wanted. Solitude was what she had counted upon having
in that little room at the Lazy A; robbed of it
there, she rode straight to the hills, where she was most
certain of finding it.

And then she came up out of a hollow upon a little
ridge and saw three horsemen down in the next coulee.
They were not close enough so that she could distinguish
their features, but by the horses they rode, by the
swing of their bodies in the saddles, by all those little,
indefinable marks by which we recognize acquaintances
at a distance, Jean knew them for strangers. She
pulled up and watched them, puzzled for a minute at
their presence and behavior.

When first she discovered them, they were driving
a small bunch of cattle, mostly cows and calves, down
out of a little "draw" to the level bottom of the narrow
coulee. While she watched, herself screened effectually
by a clump of bushes, she saw one rider leave
the cattle and gallop out into the open, stand there
looking toward the mouth of the coulee, and wave his
hand in a signal for the others to advance. This looked
queer to Jean, accustomed all her life to seeing men
go calmly about their business upon the range, careless
of observation because they had nothing to conceal.
She urged Pard a little nearer, keeping well behind
the bushes still, and leaned forward over the saddle
horn, watching the men closely.

Their next performance was enlightening, but
incredibly bold for the business they were engaged in.
One of the three got off his horse and started a little
fire of dry sticks under a convenient ledge. Another
untied the rope from his saddle, widened the loop,
swung it twice over his head and flipped it neatly over
the head of a calf.

Jean did not wait to see any more than that; she did
not need to see any more to know them for "rustlers."
Brazen rustlers, indeed, to go about their work in broad
daylight like that. She was not sure as to the ownership
of the calf, but down here was where the Bar Nothing
cattle, and what few were left of the Lazy A,
ranged while the feed was good in the spring, so that
the probabilities were that this theft would strike rather
close home. Whether it did or not, Jean was not one
to ride away and leave range thieves calmly at work.

She turned back behind the bushy screen, rode hastily
along the ridge to the head of the little coulee and
dismounted, leading Pard down a steep bank that was
treacherous with loose shale. The coulee was more or
less open, but it had convenient twists and windings;
and if you think that Jean failed to go down it quietly
and unseen, that merely proves how little you know

She hurried as much as she dared. She knew that
the rustlers would be in something of a hurry themselves,
and she very much desired to ride on them unawares
and catch them at that branding, so that there
would be no shadow of a doubt of their guilt. What
she would do after she had ridden upon them, she did
not quite know.

So she came presently around the turn that revealed
them to her. They were still fussing with the calf,--
or it may have been another one,--and did not see her
until she was close upon them. When they did see her,
she had them covered with her 38-caliber six-shooter,
that she usually carried with her on the chance of getting
a shot at a coyote or a fox or something like that.

The three stood up and stared at her, their jaws
sagging a little at the suddenness of her appearance,
and their eyes upon the gun. Jean held it steady, and
she had all the look of a person who knew exactly what
she meant, and who meant business. She eyed them
curiously, noting the fact that they were strangers, and
cowboys,--though of a type that she had never seen on
the range. She glanced sharply at the beaded, buckskin
jacket of one of them, and the high, wide-brimmed
sombrero of another.

"Well," she said at length, "turn your backs, you've
had a good look at me. Turn--your--backs, I said.
Now, drop those guns on the ground. Walk straight
ahead of you till you come to that bank. You needn't
look around; I'm still here."

She leaned a little, sending Pard slowly forward
until he was close to the six-shooters lying on the
ground. She glanced down at them quickly, and again
at the men who stood, an uneasy trio, with their faces
toward the wall, except when they ventured a glance
sidewise or back at her over one shoulder. She glanced
at the cattle huddled in the narrow mouth of the
"draw" behind them, and saw that they were indeed
Bar Nothing and Lazy A stock. The horses the three
had been riding she did not remember to have seen

Jean hesitated, not quite knowing what she ought to
do next. So far she had acted merely upon instincts
born of her range life and training; the rest would not
be so easy. She knew she ought to have those guns, at
any rate, so she dismounted, still keeping the three in
line with her own weapon, and went to where the
revolvers lay on the ground. With her boot toe she
kicked them close together, and stooped and picked one
up. The last man in the line turned toward her
protestingly, and Jean fired so close to his head that he

"Believe me, I could kill the three of you if I
wanted to, before you could turn around," she informed
them calmly, "so you had better stand still till
I tell you to move." She frowned down at the rustler's
gun in her hand. There was something queer about
that gun.

"Hey, Burns," called the man in the middle, without
venturing to turn his head, "come out of there and
explain to the lady. This ain't in the scene!"

"Oh, yes, it is!" a voice retorted chucklingly.
"You bet your life this is in the scene! Lowry's
been pamming it all in; don't you worry about that!"
Jean was startled, but she did not lower her gun
from its steady aiming at the three of them. It was
just some trick, very likely, meant to throw her off her
guard. There were more than the three, and the fourth
man probably had her covered with a gun. But she
would not turn her head toward his voice, for all that.

"The gentleman called Burns may walk out into the
open and explain, if he can," she announced sharply,
her eyes upon the three whom she had captured so

She heard the throaty chuckle again, from somewhere
to the left of her. She saw the three men in front of
her look at each other with sickly grins. She felt that
the whole situation was swinging against her,--that
she had somehow blundered and made herself ridiculous.
It never occurred to her that she was in any
particular danger; men did not shoot down women in
that country, unless they were drunk or crazy, and the
man called Burns had sounded extremely sane, humorous
even. She heard a rattle of bushes and the soft
crunching of footsteps coming toward her. Still she
would not turn her head, nor would she lower the gun;
if it was a trick, they should not say that it had been

"It's all right, sister," said the chuckling voice presently,
almost at her elbow. "This isn't any real,
honest-to-John bandit party. We're just movie people, and
we're making pictures. That's all." He stopped, but
Jean did not move or make any reply whatever, so he
went on. "I must say I appreciate the compliment you
paid us in taking it for the real dope, sister--"

"Don't call me sister again." Jean flashed him a
sidelong glance of resentment. "You've already done
it twice too often. Come around in front where I can
see you, if you're what you claim to be."

"Well, don't shoot, and I will," soothed the chuckling
voice. "My, my, it certainly is a treat to see a
real, live Prairie Queen once. Beats making them to

"We'll omit the superfluous chatter, please." Jean
looked him over and tagged him mentally with one
glance. He did not look like a rustler,--with his fat
good-nature and his town-bred personality, and his gray
tweed suit and pigskin puttees, and the big cameo ring
on his manicured little finger, and his fresh-shaven
face as round as the sun above his head and almost as
cheerful. Perfectly harmless, but Jean would not
yield to the extent of softening her glance or her
manner one hundredth of a degree. The more harmless
these people, the more ridiculous she had made herself

The chuckly one grinned and removed his soft gray
hat, held it against his generous equator, and bowed so
low as to set him puffing a little afterward. His eyes,
however, appraised her shrewdly.

"Omitting all superfluous chatter, as you suggest,
I am Robert Grant Burns, of the Great Western Film
Company. These men are also members of that company.
We are here for the purpose of making Western
pictures, and this little bit of unlawful branding
of stock which you were flattering enough to mistake
for the real thing, is merely a scene which we were
making." He was about to indulge in what he would
have termed a little "kidding" of the girl, but wisely
refrained after another shrewd reading of her face.

Jean looked at the three men, who had taken it for
granted that they might leave their intimate study of
the clay bank and were coming toward her. She looked
at the gun she had picked up from the ground,--being
loaded with blank cartridges was what had made it look
so queer!--and at Robert Grant Burns of the Great
Western Film Company, who had put on his hat again
and was studying her the way he was wont to study
applicants for a position in his company.

"Did you get permission to haze our cattle around
like this?" she asked abruptly, to hide how humiliated
she really felt.

"Why--no. Just for a few scenes, I did not consider
it necessary." Plainly, the chuckly Mr. Burns
was taken at a disadvantage.

"But it is necessary. Don't make the mistake, Mr.
Burns, of thinking this country and all it contains is
at the disposal of any chance stranger, just because we
do not keep it under lock and key. You are making
rather free with another man's personal property, when
you use my uncle's cattle for your rustling scenes."

"Your uncle? Well, I shall be very glad to make
some arrangement with your uncle, if that is customary."

"Why the doubt? Are you in the habit of walking
into a man's house, for instance, and using his kitchen
to make pictures without permission? Has it been
your custom to lead a man's horses out of his stable
whenever you chose, and use them for race pictures?"

"No, no--nothing like that. Sorry to have
infringed upon your property-rights, I am sure." Mr.
Burns did not sound so chuckly now; but that may have
been because the three picture-rustlers were quite
openly pleased at the predicament of their director.
"It never occurred to me that--"

"That the cattle were not as free as the hills?" The
quiet voice of Jean searched out the tenderest places
in the self-esteem of Robert Grant Burns. She tossed
the blank-loaded gun back upon the ground and turned
to her horse. "It does seem hard to impress it upon
city people that we savages do have a few rights in this
country. We should have policemen stationed on every
hilltop, I suppose, and `No Trespassing' signs planted
along every cow-trail. Even then I doubt whether we
could convince some people that we are perfectly human
and that we actually do own property here."

While she drawled the last biting sentences, she stuck
her toe in the stirrup and went up into the saddle as
easily as any cowpuncher in the country could have
done. Robert Grant Burns stood with his hands at his
hips and watched her with the critical eye of the expert
who sees in every gesture a picture, effective or
ineffective, good, bad, or merely so--so. Robert Grant
Burns had never, in all his experience in directing
Western pictures, seen a girl mount a horse with such
unconscious ease of every movement.

Jean twitched the reins and turned towards him,
looking down at the little group with unfriendly eyes.
"I don't want to seem inhospitable or unaccommodating,
Mr. Burns," she told him, "but I fear that I must
take these cattle back home with me. You probably
will not want to use them any longer."

Mr. Burns did not say whether she was right or
wrong in her conjecture. As a matter of fact, he did
want to use them for several more scenes; but he stood
silent while Jean, with a chilly bow to the four of them,
sent Pard up the rough bank of the little gulley.
Rather, he made no reply to Jean, but he waved his
three rustlers back, retreating himself to where the
bank stopped them. And he turned toward the bushes
that had at first hidden him from Jean, waved his hand
in an imperative gesture, and called guardedly through
cupped palms. "Take that! All you can get of it!"
Which goes far to show why he was considered one of
the best directors the Great Western Film Company
had in its employ.

So Jean unconsciously made a picture which caused
the eyes of Robert Grant Burns to glisten while he
watched. She ignored the men who had so fooled her,
and took down her rope that she might swing the loop
of it toward the cattle and drive them back across the
gulley and up the coulee toward home. Cattle are
stubborn things at best, and this little bunch seemed
determined to seek the higher slopes. Put upon her
mettle because of that little audience down below,--
a mildly jeering audience at that, she imagined,--Jean
had need of her skill and her fifteen years or so of
experience in handling stock.

She swung her rope and shouted, weaving back and
forth across the gulley, with little lunging rushes now
and then to head off an animal that tried to bolt past
her up the hill. She would not have glanced toward
Robert Grant Burns to save her life, and she did not
hear him saying:

"Great! Great stuff! Get it all, Pete. By
George, you can't beat the real thing, can you? 'J get
that up-hill dash? Good! Now panoram the drive
up the gulley--get it ALL, Pete--turn as long as you
can see the top of her hat. My Lord! You wouldn't
get stuff like that in ten years. I wish Gay could
handle herself like that in the saddle, but there ain't a
leading woman in the business to-day that could put that
over the way she's doing it. By George! Say, Gil,
you get on your horse and ride after her, and find out
where she lives. We can't work any more now, anyway;
she's gone off with the cattle. And, say! You
don't want to let her get a sight of you, or she might
take a shot at you. And if she can shoot the way she
rides--good night!"



The young man called Gil,--to avoid wasting
time in saying Gilbert James Huntley,--
mounted in haste and rode warily up the coulee some
distance behind Jean. At that time and in that
locality he was quite anxious that she should not discover
him. Gil was not such a bad fellow, even though he
did play "heavies" in all the pictures which Robert
Grant Burns directed. A villain he was on the screen,
and a bad one. Many's the man he had killed as cold-
bloodedly as the Board of Censorship would permit.
Many's the girlish, Western heart he had broken, and
many's the time he had paid the penalty to brother,
father, or sweetheart as the scenario of the play might
decree. Many's the time he had followed girls and
men warily through brush-fringed gullies and over
picturesque ridges, for the entertainment of shop girls
and their escorts sitting in darkened theaters and
watching breathlessly the wicked deeds of Gilbert James

But in his everyday life, Gil Huntley was very good-
looking, very good-natured, and very harmless. His
position and his salary as "heavy" in the Great Western
Company he owed chiefly to his good acting and his
thick eyebrows and his facility for making himself look
treacherous and mean. He followed Jean because the
boss told him to do so, in the first place. In the
second place, he followed her because he was even more
interested in her than his director had been, and he
hoped to have a chance to talk with her. In his work-
aday life, Gil Huntley was quite accustomed to being
discovered in some villainy, and to having some man or
woman point a gun at him with more or less antagonism
in voice and manner. But he had never in his
life had a girl ride up and "throw down on him"
with a gun, actually believing him to be a thief and a
scoundrel whom she would shoot if she thought it
necessary. There was a difference. Gil did not take the
time or trouble to analyze the difference, but he knew
that he was glad the boss had not sent Johnny or Bill
in his place. He did not believe that either of them
would have enough sense to see the difference, and they
might offend her in some way,--though Gil Huntley
need not have worried in the least over any man's
treatment of Jean, who was eminently qualified to attend to
that for herself.

He grinned when he saw her turn the cattle loose
down the very next coulee and with a final flip of her
rope loop toward the hindermost cow, ride on without
them. He should have ridden in haste then to tell
Robert Grant Burns that the cattle could be brought
back in twenty minutes or so and the picture-making
go on as planned. It was not likely that the girl would
come back; they could go on with their work and get
permission from the girl's uncle afterward. But he
did not turn and hurry back. Instead, he waited
behind a rock-huddle until Jean was well out of sight,--
and while he waited, he took his handkerchief and
rubbed hard at the make-up on his face, which had
made him look sinister and boldly bad. Without mirror
or cold cream, he was not very successful, so that
he rode on somewhat spotted in appearance and looking
even more sinister than before. But he was much
more comfortable in his mind, which meant a good deal
in the interview which he hoped by some means to bring

With Jean a couple of hundred yards in advance,
they crossed a little flat so bare of concealment that
Gil Huntley was worried for fear she might look back
and discover him. But she did not turn her head, and
he rode on more confidently. At the mouth of Lazy
A coulee, just where stood the cluster of huge rocks
that had at one time come hurtling down from the
higher slopes, and the clump of currant bushes beneath
which Jean used to hide her much-despised saddle
when she was a child, she disappeared from view. Gil,
knowing very little of the ways of the range folk, and
less of the country, kicked his horse into a swifter pace
and galloped after her.

Fifty yards beyond the currant bushes he heard a
sound and looked back; and there was Jean, riding out
from her hiding-place, and coming after him almost at
a run. While he was trying to decide what to do about
it, she overtook him; rather, the wide loop of her rope
overtook him. He ducked, but the loop settled over
his head and shoulders and pulled tight about the chest.
Jean took two turns of the rope around the saddle horn
and then looked him over critically. In spite of herself,
she smiled a little at his face, streaked still with
grease paint, and at his eyes staring at her from between
heavily penciled lids.

"That's what you get for following," she said, after
a minute of staring at each other. "Did you think
I didn't know you were trailing along behind me? I
saw you before I turned the cattle loose, but I just let
you think you were being real sly and cunning about
it. You did it in real moving-picture style; did your
fat Mr. Robert Grant Burns teach you how? What is
the idea, anyway? Were you going to abduct me and
lead me to the swarthy chief of your gang, or band, or
whatever you call it?"

Having scored a point against him and so put herself
into a good humor again, Jean laughed at him and
twitched the rope, just to remind him that he was at
her mercy. To be haughtily indignant with this honest-
eyed, embarrassed young fellow with the streaky
face and heavily-penciled eyelids was out of the
question. The wind caught his high, peaked-crowned
sombrero and sent it sailing like a great, flapping bird to
the ground, and he could not catch it because Jean had
his arms pinioned with the loop.

She laughed again and rode over to where the hat
had lodged. Gil Huntley, to save himself from being
dragged ignominiously from the saddle, kicked his horse
and kept pace with her. Jean leaned far over and picked
up the hat, and examined it with amusement.

"If you could just live up to your hat, my, wouldn't
you be a villain, though!" she commented, in a soft,
drawling voice. "You don't look so terribly blood-
thirsty without it; I just guess I'd better keep it for
a while. It would make a dandy waste-basket. Do
you know, if your face were clean, I think you'd look
almost human,--for an outlaw."

She started on up the trail, nonchalantly leading her
captive by the rope. Gil Huntley could have wriggled
an arm loose and freed himself, but he did not. He
wanted to see what she was going to do with him. He
grinned when she had her back turned toward him, but
he did not say anything for fear of spoiling the joke
or offending her in some way. So presently Jean began
to feel silly, and the joke lost its point and seemed inane
and weak.

She turned back, threw off the loop that bound
his arms to his sides, and coiled the rope. "I wish
you play-acting people would keep out of the country,"
she said impatiently. "Twice you've made me act
ridiculous. I don't know what in the world you wanted
to follow me for,--and I don't care. Whatever it was,
it isn't going to do you one particle of good, so you
needn't go on doing it."

She looked at him full, refused to meet half-way the
friendliness of his eyes, tossed the hat toward him, and
wheeled her horse away. "Good-by," she said shortly,
and touched Pard with the spurs. She was out of
hearing before Gil Huntley could think of the right
thing to say, and she increased the distance between
them so rapidly that before he had quite recovered from
his surprise at her sudden change of mood, she was so
far away that he could not have overtaken her if he had

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