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Jean of the Lazy A
By B. M. BOWER
I HOW TROUBLE CAME TO THE LAZY A II CONCERNING LITE AND A FEW FOOTPRINTS III WHAT A MAN’S GOOD NAME IS WORTH
V JEAN RIDES INTO A SMALL ADVENTURE VI AND THE VILLAIN PURSUED LITE
VII ROBERT GRANT BURNS GETS HELP VIII JEAN SPOILS SOMETHING
IX A MAN-SIZED JOB FOR JEAN
X JEAN LEARNS WHAT FEAR IS LIKE XI LITE’S PUPIL DEMONSTRATES
XII TO “DOUBLE” FOR MURIEL GAY
XIII PICTURES AND PLANS AND MYSTERIOUS FOOTSTEPS XIV PUNCH VERSUS PRESTIGE
XV A LEADING LADY THEY WOULD MAKE OF JEAN XVI FOR ONCE AT LEAST LITE HAD HIS WAY XVII “WHY DON’T YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING REAL?” XVIII A NEW KIND OF PICTURE
XIX IN LOS ANGELES
XX CHANCE TAKES A HAND
XXI JEAN BELIEVES THAT SHE TAKES MATTERS INTO HER OWN HANDS XXII JEAN MEETS ONE CRISIS AND CONFRONTS ANOTHER XXIII A LITTLE ENLIGHTENMENT
XXIV THE LETTER IN THE CHAPS
XXV LITE COMES OUT OF THE BACKGROUND XXVI HOW HAPPINESS RETURNED TO THE LAZY A
JEAN OF THE LAZY A
HOW TROUBLE CAME TO 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 long.”
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.
CONCERNING LITE AND A FEW FOOTPRINTS
“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 statement.
“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 understood.
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 face.
“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 away!”
“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, anyway.
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 through.
“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 believed.
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 might.
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 footprints.
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.
WHAT A MAN’S GOOD NAME IS WORTH
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 happening.
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 papers.
“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 “hills.”
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 woman.
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 slowly.
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:
ONLY SNEAKS GO WHERE THEY ARE NOT WANTED. ARE YOU A SNEAK?
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.
JEAN RIDES INTO A SMALL ADVENTURE
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 Jean.
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 before.
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 ducked.
“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 easily.
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 successful.
“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 order–“
“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 appear.
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!”
AND THE VILLAIN PURSUED HER
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 Huntley.
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 about.
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 tried.