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  • 1915
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He watched her out of sight and rode back to where Burns mouthed a big, black cigar, and paced up and down the level space where he had set the interrupted scene, and waited his coming.

“Rode away from you, did she? Where’d she take the cattle to? Left ’em in the next gulch? Well, why didn’t you say so? You boys can bring ’em back, and we’ll get to work again. Where’d you say that spring was, Gil? We’ll eat before we do anything else. One thing about this blamed country is we don’t have to be afraid of the light. Got to hand it to ’em for having plenty of good, clear sunlight, anyway?”

He followed Gil to the feeble spring that seeped from under a huge boulder, and stooped uncomfortably to fill a tin cup. While he waited for the trickle to yield him a drink, he cocked his head sidewise and looked up quizzically at his “heavy.”

“You must have come within speaking distance, Gil,” he guessed shrewdly. “Got any make-up along? You look like a mild case of the measles, right now. What did she have to say, anyhow?”

“Nothing,” said Gil shortly. “I didn’t talk to her at all. I didn’t want to run my horse to death trying to say hello when she didn’t want it that way.”

“Huh!” grunted Robert Grant Burns unbelievingly, and fished a bit of grass out of the cup with his little finger. He drank and said no more.

CHAPTER VII

ROBERT GRANT BURNS GETS HELP

“You know the brand, don’t you?” the proprietor of the hotel which housed the Great Western Company asked, with the tolerant air which the sophisticated wear when confronted by ignorance. “Easy enough to locate the outfit, by the cattle brand. What was it?”

Whereupon Robert Grant Burns rolled his eyes helplessly toward Gil Huntley. “I noticed it at the time, but–what was that brand, Gil?”

And Gil, if you would believe me, did not remember, either. He had driven the cattle half a mile or more, had helped to “steal” two calves out of the little herd, and yet he could not recall the mark of their owner.

So the proprietor of the hotel, an old cowman who had sold out and gone into the hotel business when the barbed-wire came by carloads into the country, pulled a newspaper towards him, borrowed a pencil from Burns, and sketched all the cattle brands in that part of the country. While he drew one after the other, he did a little thinking.

“Must have been the Bar Nothing, or else the Lazy A cattle you got hold of,” he concluded, pointing to the pencil marks on the margin of the paper. “They range down in there, and Jean Douglas answers your description of the girl,–as far as looks go. She ain’t all that wild and dangerous, though. Swing a loop with any man in the country and ride and all that,– been raised right out there on the Lazy A. Say! Why don’t you go out and see Carl Douglas, and see if you can’t get the use of the Lazy A for your pictures? Seems to me that’s just the kinda place you want. Don’t anybody live there now. It’s been left alone ever since–the trouble out there. House and barns and corrals,–everything you want.” He leaned closer with a confidential tone creeping into his voice, for Robert Grant Burns and his company were profitable guests and should be given every inducement to remain in the country.

“It ain’t but fifteen miles out there; you could go back and forth in your machine, easy. You go out and see Carl Douglas, anyway; won’t do no harm. You offer him a little something for the use of the Lazy A; he’ll take anything that looks like money. Take it from me, that’s the place you want to take your pictures in. And, say! You want a written agreement with Carl. Have the use of his stock included, or he’ll tax you extra. Have everything included,” advised the old cowman, with a sweep of his palm and his voice lowered discreetly. “Won’t need to cost you much,– not if you don’t give him any encouragement to expect much. Carl’s that kind,–good fellow enough,–but he wants–the–big–end. I know him, you bet! And, say! Don’t let on to Carl that I steered you out there. Just claim like you was scouting around, and seen the Lazy A ranch, and took a notion to it; not too much of a notion, though, or it’s liable to come kinda high.

“And, say!” Real enthusiasm for the idea began to lighten his eyes. “If you want good range dope, right out there’s where you can sure find it. You play up to them Bar Nothing boys–Lite Avery and Joe Morris and Red. You ought to get some great pictures out there, man. Them boys can sure ride and rope and handle stock, if that’s what you want; and I reckon it is, or you wouldn’t be out here with your bunch of actors looking for the real stuff.”

They talked a long while after that. Gradually it dawned upon Burns that he had heard of the Lazy A ranch before, though not by that euphonious title. It seemed worth investigating, for he was going to need a good location for some exterior ranch scenes very soon, and the place he had half decided upon did not alto- gether please him. He inquired about roads and distances, and waddled off to the hotel parlor to ask Muriel Gay, his blond leading woman, if she would like to go out among the natives next morning. Also he wanted her to tell him more about that picturesque place she and Lee Milligan had stumbled upon the day before, –the place which he suspected was none other than the Lazy A.

That is how it came to pass that Jean, riding out with big Lite Avery the next morning on a little private scouting-trip of their own, to see if that fat moving- picture man was making free with the stock again, met the man unexpectedly half a mile from the Bar Nothing ranch-house.

Along every trail which owns certain obstacles to swift, easy passing, there are places commonly spoken of as “that” place. In his journey to the Bar Nothing, Robert Grant Burns had come unwarned upon that sandy hollow which experienced drivers approached with a mental bracing for the struggle ahead, and with tightened lines and whip held ready. Even then they stuck fast, as often as not, if the load were heavy, though Bar Nothing drivers gaged their loads with that hollow in mind. If they could pull through there without mishap, they might feel sure of having no trouble elsewhere.

Robert Grant Burns had come into the hollow unsuspectingly. He had been careening along the prairie road at a twenty-mile pace, his mind fixed upon hurrying through his interview with Carl Douglas, so that he would have time to stop at the Lazy A on the way back to town. He wanted to take a few exterior ranch- house scenes that day, for Robert Grant Burns was far more energetic than his bulk would lead one to suppose. He had Pete Lowry, his camera man, in the seat beside him. Back in the tonneau Muriel Gay and her mother, who played the character parts, clung to Lee Mulligan and a colorless individual who was Lowry’s assistant, and gave little squeals whenever the machine struck a bigger bump than usual.

At the top of the hill which guarded the deceptive hollow, Robert Grant Burns grinned over his shoulder at his character-woman. “Wait till we start back; I’ll know the road then, and we’ll do some traveling!” he promised darkly, and laid his toe lightly on the brake. It pleased him to be considered a dare-devil driver; that is why he always drove whatever machine carried him. They went lurching down the curving grade into the hollow, and struck the patch of sand that had worn out the vocabularies of more eloquent men than he. Robert Grant Burns fed more gas, and the engine kicked and groaned, and sent the wheels bur- rowing like moles to where the sand was deepest. Axles under, they stuck fast.

When Jean and Lite came loping leisurely down the hill, the two women were fraying perfectly good gloves trying to pull “rabbit” brush up by the roots to make firmer foothold for the wheels. Robert Grant Burns was head-and-shoulders under the car, digging badger-like with his paws to clear the front axle, and coming up now and then to wipe the perspiration from his eyes and puff the purple out of his complexion. Pete Lowry always ducked his head lower over the jack when he saw the heaving of flesh which heralded these resting times, so that the boss could not catch him laughing. Lee Milligan was scooping sand upon the other side and mumbling to himself, with a glance now and then at the trail, in the hope of sighting a good samaritan with six or eight mules, perhaps. Lee thought that it would take about that many mules to pull them out.

The two riders pulled up, smiling pityingly, just as well-mounted riders invariably smile upon stalled automobilists. This was not the first machine that had come to grief in that hollow, though they could not remember ever to have seen one sunk deeper in the sand.

“I guess you wouldn’t refuse a little help, about now,” Lite observed casually to Lee, who was most in evidence.

“We wouldn’t refuse a little, but a lot is what we need,” Lee amended glumly. “Any ranch within forty miles of here? We need about twelve good horses, I should say.” Lee’s experience with sand had been unhappy, and his knowledge of what one good horse could do was slight.

“Shall we snake ’em out, Jean?” Lite asked her, as if he himself were absolutely indifferent to their plight.

“Oh, I suppose we might as well. We can’t leave them blocking the trail; somebody might want to drive past,” Jean told him in much the same tone, just to tease Lee Milligan, who was looking them over disparagingly.

“We’ll be blocking the trail a good long while if we stay here till you move us,” snapped Lee, who was rather sensitive to tones.

Then Robert Grant Burns gave a heave and a wriggle, and came up for air and a look around. He had been composing a monologue upon the subject of sand, and he had not noticed that strange voices were speaking on the other side of the machine.

“Hello, sis– How-de-do, Miss,” he greeted Jean guardedly, with a hasty revision of the terms when he saw how her eyebrows pinched together. “I wonder if you could tell us where we can find teams to pull us out of this mess. I don’t believe this old junk-wagon is ever going to do it herself.”

“How do you do, Mr. Burns? Lite and I offered to take you out on solid ground, but your man seemed to think we couldn’t do it.”

“What man was that? Wasn’t me, anyway. I think you can do just about anything you start out to do, if you ask me.”

“Thank you,” chilled Jean, and permitted Pard to back away from his approach.

“Say, you’re some rider,” he praised tactlessly, and got no reply whatever. Jean merely turned and rode around to where Lite eased his long legs in the stirrups and waited her pleasure.

“Shall we help them out, Lite?” she asked distinctly. “I think perhaps we ought to; it’s a long walk to town.”

“I guess we better; won’t take but a minute to tie on,” Lite agreed, his fingers dropping to his coiled rope. “Seems queer to me that folks should want to ride in them things when there’s plenty of good horses in the country.”

“No accounting for tastes, Lite,” Jean replied cheerfully. “Listen. If that thin man will start the engine,–he doesn’t weigh more than half as much as you do, Mr. Burns,–we’ll pull you out on solid ground. And if you have occasion to cross this hollow again, I advise you to keep out there to the right. There’s a little sod to give your tires a better grip. It’s rough, but you could make it all right if you drive carefully, and the bunch of you get out and walk. Don’t try to keep around on the ridge; there’s a deep washout on each side, so you couldn’t possibly make it. We can’t with the horses, even.” Jean did not know that there was a note of superiority in her voice when she spoke the last sentence, but her listeners winced at it. Only Pete Lowry grinned while he climbed obediently into the machine to advance his spark and see that the gears were in neutral.

“Don’t crank up till we’re ready!” Lite expostulated. “These cayuses of ours are pretty sensible, and they’ll stand for a whole lot; but there’s a limit. Wait till I get the ropes fixed, before you start the engine. And the rest of you all be ready to give the wheels a lift. You’re in pretty deep.”

When Jean dismounted and hooked the stirrup over the horn so that she could tighten the cinch, the eyes of Robert Grant Burns glistened at the “picture-stuff” she made. He glanced eloquently at Pete, and Pete gave a twisted smile and a pantomime of turning the camera-crank; whereat Robert Grant Burns shook his head regretfully and groaned again.

“Say, if I had a leading woman–” he began discontentedly, and stopped short; for Muriel Gay was standing quite close, and even through her grease-paint make-up she betrayed the fact that she knew exactly what her director was thinking, had seen and understood the gesture of the camera man, and was close to tears because of it all.

Muriel Gay was a conscientious worker who tried hard to please her director. Sometimes it seemed to her that her director demanded impossibilities of her; that he was absolutely soulless where picture-effects were concerned. Her riding had all along been a subject of discord between them. She had learned to ride very well along the bridle-paths of Golden Gate Park, but Robert Grant Burns seemed to expect her to ride– well, like this girl, for instance, which was unjust.

One could not blame her for glaring jealously while Jean tightened the cinch and remounted, tying her rope to the saddle horn, all ready to pull; with her muscles tensed for the coming struggle with the sand,–and perhaps with her horse as well,–and with every line of her figure showing how absolutely at home she was in the saddle, and how sure of herself.

“I’ve tied my rope, Lite,” Jean drawled, with a little laugh at what might happen.

Lite turned his face toward her. “You better not,” be warned. “Things are liable to start a-popping when that engine wakes up.”

“Well, then I’ll want both hands for Pard. I’ve taken a couple of half-hitches, anyway.”

“You folks want to be ready at the wheels,” Lite directed, waiving the argument. “When we start, you all want to heave-ho together. Good team-work will do it.

“All set?” he called to Jean, when Pete Lowry bent his back to start the engine. “Business’ll be pickin’ up, directly!”

“All set,” replied Jean cheerfully.

It seemed then that everything began to start at once, and to start in different directions. The engine snorted and pounded so that the whole machine shook with ague. When Pete jumped in and threw in the clutch, there was a backfire that sounded like the crack of doom. The two horses went wild, as their riders had half expected them to do. They lunged away from the horror behind them, and the slack ropes tightened with a jerk. Both were good rope horses, and the strain of the ropes almost recalled them to sanity and their training; at least they held the ropes tight for a few seconds, so that the machine jumped ahead and veered toward the firmer soil beside the trail, in response to Pete’s turn of the wheel.

Then Pard looked back and saw the thing coming after him, and tried to bolt. When he found that he could not, because of the rope, he bucked as he had not done since he was a half-broken broncho. That started Lite Avery’s horse to pitching; and Pete, absorbed in watching what would have made a great picture, forgot to shut off the gas.

Robert Grant Burns picked himself out of the sand where he had sprawled at the first wild lunge of the machine, and saw Pete Lowry, humped over the wheel like any speed demon, go lurching off across the hollow in the wake of two fear-crazed animals, that threatened at any instant to bolt off at an angle that would overturn the car.

Then Lite let his rope slip from the saddle-horn and spurred his horse to one side, out of the danger zone of the other, while he felt frantically in his pockets for his knife.

“Don’t you cut my rope,” Jean warned, when she saw him come plunging toward her, knife in hand. “This is–fine training–for Pard!”

Pete came to himself, then, and killed the engine before he landed in the bottom of a yawning, water- washed hole, and Lite rode close and slashed Jean’s rope, in spite of her protest; whereupon Pard went off up the, slope as though witches were riding him hard.

At long rifle range, he circled and faced the thing that had scared him so, and after a little Jean persuaded him to go back as far as the trail. Nearer he would not stir, so she waited there for Lite.

“Never even thanked us,” Lite grumbled when he came up, his mouth stretched in a wide smile. “That girl with the kalsomine on her face made remarks about folks butting in. And the fat man talked into his double chin; dunno what all he was saying. Here’s what’s left of your rope. I’ll get you another one, Jean. I was afraid that gazabo was going to run over you, is why I cut it.”

“What’s the matter over there? Aren’t they glad they’re out of the sand?” Jean held her horse quiet while she studied the buzzing group.

“Something busted. I guess we done some damage.” Lite grinned and watched them over his shoulder.

“You needn’t go any further with me, Lite. That fat man’s the one that had the cattle. I am going over to the ranch for awhile, but don’t tell Aunt Ella.” She turned to ride on up the hill toward the Lazy A, but stopped for another look at the perturbed motorists. “Well anyway, we snaked them out of the sand, didn’t we, Lite?”

“We sure did,” Lite chuckled. “They don’t seem thankful, but I guess they ain’t any worse off than they was before. Anyway, it serves them right. They’ve no business here acting fresh.”

Lite said that because he was not given the power to peer into the future, and so could not know that Fate herself had sent Robert Grant Burns into their lives; and that, by a somewhat roundabout method, she was going to use the Great Western Film Company and Jean and himself for her servants in doing a work which Fate had set herself to do.

CHAPTER VIII

JEAN SPOILS SOMETHING

Jean found the padlock key where she had hidden it under a rock ten feet from the door, and let herself into her room. The peaceful familiarity of its four walls, and the cheerful patch of sunlight lying warm upon the faded rag carpet, gave her the feeling of security and of comfort which she seldom felt elsewhere.

She wandered aimlessly around the room, brushing the dust from her books and straightening a tiny fold in the cradle quilt. She ran an investigative forefinger along the seat of her father’s saddle, brought the finger away dusty, pulled one of the stockings from the overflowing basket and used it for a dust cloth. She wiped and polished the stamped leather with a painstaking tenderness that had in it a good deal of yearning, and finally left it with a gesture of hopelessness.

She went next to her desk and fumbled the quirt that lay there still. Then she pulled out the old ledger, picked up a pencil, and began to write, sitting on the arm of an old, cane-seated chair while she did so. As I told you before, Jean never wrote anything in that book except when her moods demanded expression of some sort; when she did write, she said exactly what she thought and felt at the time. So if you are permitted to know what she wrote at this time, you will have had a peep into Jean’s hidden, inner life that none of her world save Lite knew anything about. She wrote rapidly, and she did not always take the trouble to finish her sentences properly,–as if she never could quite keep pace with her thoughts. So this is what that page held when finally she slammed the book shut and slid it back into the desk:

I don’t know what’s the matter with me lately. I feel as if I wanted to shoot somebody, or rob a bank or run away–I guess it’s the old trouble nagging at me. I KNOW dad never did it. I don’t know why, but I know it just the same–and I know Uncle Carl knows it too. I’d like to take out his brain and put it into some scientific machine that would squeeze out his thoughts–hope it wouldn’t hurt him–I’d give him ether, maybe. What I want is money –enough to buy back this place and the stock. I don’t believe Uncle Carl spent as much defending dad as he claims he did–not enough to take the whole ranch anyway. If I had money I’d find Art Osgood if I had to hunt from Alaska to Africa–don’t believe he went to Alaska at all. Uncle Carl thinks so. . . . I’d like the price of that machine I helped drag out of the sand–some people can have anything they want but all I want is dad back, and this place the way it was before. . . .

If I had any brains I could write something wonderful and be rich and famous and do the things I want to do– but there’s no profit in just feeling wonderful things; if I could make the world see and feel what I see and feel– when I’m here, or riding alone. . . .

If I could find Art Osgood I believe I could make him tell–I know he knows something, even if he didn’t do it himself. I believe he did–But what can you do when you’re a woman and haven’t any money and must stay where you’re put and can’t even get out and do the little you might do, because somebody must have you around to lean on and tell their troubles to. . . . I don’t blame Aunt Ella so much –but thank goodness, I can do without a shoulder to weep on, anyway. What’s life for if you’ve got to spend your days hopping round and round in a cage. It wouldn’t be a cage if I could have dad back–I’d be doing things for him all the time and that would make life worth while. Poor dad–four more years is–I can’t think about it. I’ll go crazy if I do–

It was there that she stopped and slammed the book shut, and pushed it back out of sight in the desk. She picked up her hat and gloves, and went out with blurred eyes, and began to climb the bluff above the little spring, where a faint, little-used trail led to the benchland above. By following a rock ledge to where it was broken, and climbing through the crevice to where the trail marked faintly the way to the top, one could in a few minutes leave the Lazy A coulee out of sight below, and stand on a high level where the winds blew free from the mountains in the west to the mountains in the east.

Some day, it was predicted, the benchland would be cut into squares and farmed,–some day when the government brought to reality a long-talked-of irrigation project. But in the meantime, the land lay unfenced and free. One could look far away to the north, and at certain times see the smoke of passing trains through the valley off there. One could look south to the distant river bluffs, and east and west to the mountains. Jean often climbed the bluff just for the wide outlook she gained. The cage did not seem so small when she could stand up there and tire her eyes with looking. Life did not seem quite so purposeless, and she could nearly always find little whispers of hope in the winds that blew there.

She walked aimlessly and yet with a subconscious purpose for ten minutes or so, and her face was turned directly toward the eastern hills. She stopped on the edge of the bluff that broke abruptly there, and sat down and stared at the soft purple of the hills and the soft green of the nearer slopes, and at the peaceful blue of the sky arched over it all. Her eyes cleared of their troubled look and grew dreamy. Her mouth lost its tenseness and softened to a half smile. She was not looking now into the past that was so full of heartbreak, but into the future as hope pictured it for her.

She was seeing the Lazy A alive again and all astir with the business of life; and her father saddling Sioux and riding out to look after the stock. She was seeing herself riding with him,–or else cooking the things he liked best for his dinner when he came back hungry. She sat there for a long, long while and never moved.

A sparrow hawk swooped down quite close to Jean and then shot upward with a little brown bird in its claws, and startled her out of her castle building. She felt a hot anger against the hawk, which was like the sudden grasp of misfortune; and a quick sympathy with the bird, which was like herself and dad, caught unawares and held helpless. But she did not move, and the hawk circled and came back on his way to the nesting-place in the trees along the creek below. He came quite close, and Jean shot him as he lifted his wings for a higher flight. The hawk dropped head foremost to the grass and lay there crumpled and quiet.

Jean put back her gun in its holster and went over to where the hawk lay. The little brown bird fluttered terrifiedly and gave a piteous, small chirp when her hand closed over it, and then lay quite still in her cupped palms and blinked up at her.

Jean cuddled it up against her cheek, and talked to it and pitied it and promised it much in the way of fat little bugs and a warm nest and her tender regard. For the hawk she had no pity, nor a thought beyond the one investigative glance she gave its body to make sure that she had hit it where she meant to hit it. Lite had taught her to shoot like that,–straight and quick. Lite was a man who trimmed life down to the essentials, and he had long ago impressed it upon her that if she could not shoot quickly, and hit where she aimed, there was not much use in her attempting to shoot at all. Jean proved by her scant interest in the hawk how well she had learned the lesson, and how sure she was of hitting where she aimed.

The little brown bird had been gashed in the breast by a sharp talon. Jean was much concerned over the wound, even though it did not reach any vital organ. She was afraid of septic poisoning, she told the bird; but added comfortingly: “There–you needn’t worry one minute over that. I’m almost sure there’s a bottle of peroxide down at the house, that isn’t spoiled. We’ll go and put some on it right away; and then we’ll go bug-hunting. I believe I know where there’s the fattest, juiciest bugs!” She cuddled the bird against her cheek, and started back across the wide point of the benchland to where the trail led down the bluff to the house.

She was wholly absorbed in the trouble of the little brown bird; and the trail, following a crevice through the rocks and later winding along behind some scant bushes, partially concealed the buildings and the house yard from view until one was well down into the coulee. So it was not until she was at the spring, looking at the moist earth there for fat bugs for the bird, that she had any inkling of visitors. Then she heard voices and went quickly around the corner of the house toward the sound.

It seemed to her that she was lately fated to come plump into the middle of that fat Mr. Burns’ unauthorized picture-making. The first thing she saw when she rounded the corner was the camera perched high upon its tripod and staring at her with its one round eye; and the humorous-eyed Pete Lowry turning a crank at the side and counting in a whisper. Close beside her the two women were standing in animated argument which they carried on in undertones with many gestures to point their meaning.

“Hey, you’re in the scene!” called Pete Lowry, and abruptly stopped counting and turning the crank.

“You’re in the scene, sister. Step over here to one side, will you?” The fat director waved his pink- cameoed hand impatiently.

An old bench had been placed beside the house, under a window. Jean backed a step and sat down upon the bench, and looked from one to the other. The two women glanced at her wide-eyed and moved away with mutual embracings. Jean lifted her hands and looked at the soft little crest and beady eyes of the bird, to make sure that it was not disturbed by these strangers, before she gave her attention to the expostulating Mr. Burns.

“Did I spoil something?” she inquired casually, and watched curiously the pulling of many feet of narrow film from the camera.

“About fifteen feet of good scene,” Pete Lowry told her dryly, but with that queer, half smile twisting his lips.

Jean looked at him and decided that, save for the company he kept, which made of him a latent enemy, she might like that lean man in the red sweater who wore a pencil over one ear and was always smiling to himself about something. But what she did was to cross her feet and murmur a sympathetic sentence to the little brown bird. Inwardly she resented deeply this bold trespass of Robert Grant Burns; but she meant to guard against making herself ridiculous again. She meant to be sure of her ground before she ordered them off. The memory of her humiliation before the supposed rustlers was too vivid to risk a repetition of the experience.

“When you’re thoroughly rested,” said Robert Grant Burns, in the tone that would have shriveled the soul of one of his actors, “we’d like to make that scene over.”

“Thank you. I am pretty tired,” she said in that soft, drawly voice that could hide so effectually her meaning. She leaned her head against the wall and gave a luxurious sigh, and crossed her feet the other way. She believed that she knew why Robert Grant Burns was growing so red in the face and stepping about so uneasily, and why the women were looking at her like that. Very likely they expected her to prove herself crude and uncivilized, but she meant to disappoint them even while she made them all the trouble she could.

She pushed back her hat until its crown rested against the rough boards, and cuddled the little brown bird against her cheek again, and talked to it caressingly. Though she seemed unconscious of his presence, she heard every word that Robert Grant Burns was muttering to himself. Some of the words were plain, man-sized swearing, if she were any judge of language. It occurred to her that she really ought to go and find that peroxide, but she could not forego the pleasure of irritating this man.

“I always supposed that fat men were essentially; sweet-tempered,” she observed to the world in general, when the mutterings ceased for a moment.

“Gee! I’d like to make that,” Pete Lowry said in an undertone to his assistant.

Jean did not know that he referred to herself and the unstudied picture she made, sitting there with her hat pushed back, and the little bird blinking at her from between her cupped palms. But she looked at him curiously, with an impulse to ask questions about what he was doing with that queer-looking camera, and how he could inject motion into photography. While she watched, he drew out a narrow, gray strip of film and made mysterious markings upon it with the pencil, which he afterwards thrust absent-mindedly behind his ear. He closed a small door in the side of the camera, placed his palm over the lens and turned the little crank several times around. Then he looked at Jean, and from her to the director.

Robert Grant Burns gave a sweeping, downward gesture with both hands,–a gesture which his company knew well,–and came toward Jean.

“You may not know it,” he began in a repressed tone, “but we’re in a hurry. We’ve got work to do. We ain’t here on any pleasure excursion, and you’ll be doing me a favor by getting out of the scene so we can go on with our work.”

Jean sat still upon the bench and looked at him. “I suppose so; but why should I be doing you favors? You haven’t seemed to appreciate them, so far. Of course, I dislike to seem disobliging, or anything like that, but your tone and manner would not make any one very enthusiastic about pleasing you, Mr. Burns. In fact, I don’t see why you aren’t apologizing for being here, instead of ordering me about as if I worked for you. This bench–is my bench. This ranch–is where I have lived nearly all my life. I hate to seem vain, Mr. Burns, but at the same time I think it is perfectly lovely of me to explain that I have a right here; and I consider myself an angel of patience and graciousness and many other rare virtues, because I have not even hinted that you are once more taking liberties with other people’s property.” She looked at him with a smile at the corners of her eyes and just easing the firmness of her lips, as if the humor of the situation was beginning to appeal to her.

“If you would stop dancing about, and let your naturally sweet disposition have a chance, and would explain just why you are here and what you want to do, and would ask me nicely,–it might help you more than to get apoplexy over it.”

The two women exclaimed under their breaths to each other and moved farther away, as if from an impending explosion. The assistant camera man gurgled and turned his back abruptly. Lee Milligan, wandering up from the stables, stopped and stared. No one, within the knowledge of those present, had ever spoken so to Robert Grant Burns; no one had ever dreamed of speaking thus to him. They had seen him when rage had mastered him and for slighter cause; it was not an experience that one would care to repeat.

Robert Grant Burns walked up to Jean as if he meant to lift her from the bench and hurl her by sheer brute force out of his way. He stopped so close to her that his shadow covered her.

“Are you going to get out of the way so we can go on?” he asked, in the tone of one who gives a last merciful chance of escape from impending doom.

“Are you going to explain why you’re here, and apologize for your tone and manner, which are extremely rude?” Jean did not pay his rage the compliment of a glance at him. She was looking at the dainty beak of the little brown bird, and was telling herself that she could not be bullied into losing control of herself. These two women should not have the satisfaction of calling her a crude, ignorant, country girl; and Robert Grant Burns should not have the triumph of browbeating her into yielding one inch of ground. She forced herself to observe the wonderfully delicate feathers on the bird’s head. It seemed more content now in the little nest her two palms had made for it. Its heart did not flutter so much, and she fancied that the tiny, bead-like eyes were softer in their bright regard of her.

Robert Grant Burns came to a pause. Jean sensed that he was waiting for some reply, and she looked up at him. His hand was just reaching out to her shoulder, but it dropped instead to his coat pocket and fumbled for his handkerchief. Her eyes strayed to Pete Lowry. He was looking upward with that measuring glance which belongs to his profession, estimating the length of time the light would be suitable for the scene he had focussed. She followed his glance to where the shadow of the kitchen had crept closer to the bench. Jean was not stupid, and she had passed through the various stages of the kodak fever; she guessed what was in the mind of the operator, and when she met his eyes full, she smiled at him sympathetically.

“I should dearly love to watch you work,” she said to him frankly. “But you see how it is; Mr. Burns hasn’t got hold of himself yet. If he comes to his senses before he has a stroke of apoplexy, will you show me how you run that thing?”

“You bet I will,” the red-sweatered one promised her cheerfully.

“How much longer will it be before this bench is in the shade?” she asked him next.

“Half an hour,–maybe a little longer.” Pete glanced again anxiously upward.

“And–how long do these spasms usually last?” Jean’s head tilted toward Robert Grant Burns as impersonally as if she were indicating a horse with colic.

But the camera man had gone as far as was wise, if he cared to continue working for Burns, and he made no reply whatever. So Jean turned her attention to the man whose bulk shaded her from the sun, and whose remarks would have been wholly unforgivable had she not chosen to ignore them.

“If you really are anxious to go on making pictures, why don’t you stop all that ranting and be sensible about it?” she asked him. “You can’t bully me into being afraid of you, you know. And really, you are making an awful spectacle of yourself, going on like that.”

“Listen here! Are you going to get off that bench and out of the scene?” By a tremendous effort Robert Grant Burns spoke that sentence with a husky kind of calm.

“That all depends upon yourself, Mr. Burns. First, I want to know by what right you come here with your picture-making. You haven’t explained that yet, you know.”

The highest paid director of the Great Western Film Company looked at her long. With her head tilted back, Jean returned the look.

“Oh, all right–all right,” he surrendered finally. “Read that paper. That ought to satisfy you that we ain’t trespassing here or anywhere else. And if you’d kindly,”–and Mr. Burns emphasized the word “kindly,”–“remove yourself to some other spot that is just as comfortable–“

Jean did not even hear him, once she had the paper in her hands and had begun to read it. So Robert Grant Burns folded his arms across his heaving chest and watched her and studied her and measured her with his mind while she read. He saw the pulling together of her eyebrows, and the pinching of her under- lip between her teeth. He saw how she unconsciously sheltered the little brown bird under her left hand in her lap because she must hold the paper with the other, and he quite forgot his anger against her.

Sitting so, she made a picture that appealed to him. Had you asked him why, he would have said that she was the type that would photograph well, and that she had a screen personality; which would have been high praise indeed, coming from him.

Jean read the brief statement that in consideration of a certain sum paid to him that day by Robert G. Burns, her uncle, Carl Douglas, thereby gave the said Robert G. Burns permission to use the Lazy A ranch and anything upon it or in any manner pertaining to it, for the purpose of making motion pictures. It was plainly set forth that Robert G. Burns should be held responsible for any destruction of or damage to the property, and that he might, for the sum named, use any cattle bearing the Lazy A or Bar O brands for the making of pictures, so long as he did them no injury and returned them in good condition to the range from which he had gathered them.

Jean recognized her uncle’s ostentatious attempt at legal phraseology and knew, even without the evidence of his angular writing, that the document was genuine. She knew also that Robert Grant Burns was justified in ordering her off that bench; she had no right there, where he was making his pictures. She forced back the bitterness that filled her because of her own helplessness, and folded the paper carefully. The little brown bird chirped shrilly and fluttered a feeble protest when she took away her sheltering hand. Jean returned the paper hastily to its owner and took up the bird.

“I beg your pardon for delaying your work,” she said coldly, and rose from the bench. “But you might have explained your presence in the first place.” She wrapped the bird carefully in her handkerchief so that only its beak and its bright eyes were uncovered, pulled her hat forward upon her head, and walked away from them down the path to the stables.

Robert Grant Burns turned slowly on his heels and watched her go, and until she had led out her horse, mounted and ridden away, he said never a word. Pete Lowry leaned an elbow upon the camera and watched her also, until she passed out of sight around the corner of the dilapidated calf shed, and he was as silent as the director.

“Some rider,” Lee Milligan commented to the assistant camera man, and without any tangible reason regretted that he had spoken.

Robert Grant Burns turned harshly to the two women. “Now then, you two go through that scene again. And when you put out your hand to stop Muriel, don’t grab at her, Mrs. Gay. Hesitate! You want your son to get the warning, but you’ve got your doubts about letting her take the risk of going. And, Gay, when you read the letter, try and show a little emotion in your face. You saw how that girl looked –see if you can’t get that hurt, bitter look GRADUALLY, as you read. The way she got it. Put in more feeling and not so much motion. You know what I mean; you saw the girl. That’s the stuff that gets over. Ready? Camera!”

CHAPTER IX

A MAN-SIZED JOB FOR JEAN

Jean was just returning wet-lashed from burying the little brown bird under a wild-rose bush near the creek. She had known all along that it would die; everything that she took any interest in turned out badly, it seemed to her. The wonder was that the bird had lived so long after she had taken it under her protection.

All that day her Aunt Ella had worn a wet towel turban-wise upon her head, and the look of a martyr about to enter a den of lions. Add that to the habitual atmosphere of injury which she wore, and Aunt Ella was not what one might call a cheerful companion. Besides, the appearance of the wet towel was a danger signal to Jean’s conscience, and forbade any thought of saddling Pard and riding away from the Bar Nothing into her own dream world and the great outdoors. Jean’s conscience commanded her instead to hang her riding-clothes in the closet and wear striped percale and a gingham apron, which she hated; and to sweep and dust and remember not to whistle, and to look sympathetic,–which she was not, particularly; and to ask her Aunt Ella frequently if she felt any better, and if there was anything Jean could do for her. There never was anything she could do, but conscience and custom required her to observe the ceremony of asking. Aunt Ella found some languid satisfaction in replying dolorously that there was nothing that anybody could do, and that her part in life seemed to be to suffer.

You may judge what Jean’s mood was that day, when you are told that she came to the point, not an hour before the bird died, of looking at her aunt with that little smile at the corners of her eyes and just easing her lips. “Well, you certainly play your part in life with a heap of enthusiasm,” she had replied, and had gone out into the kitchen and whistled when she did not feel in the least like whistling. Her conscience knew Jean pretty well, and did not attempt to reprove her for what she had done.

Then she found the bird dead in the little nest she had made for it, and things went all wrong.

She was returning from the burial of the bird, and was trying to force herself back to her normal attitude of philosophic calm, when she saw her Uncle Carl sitting on the edge of the front porch, with his elbows resting loosely upon his knees, his head bowed, and his boot-heel digging a rude trench in the hard-packed earth.

The sight of him incensed her suddenly. Once more she wished that she might get at his brain and squeeze out his thoughts; and it never occurred to her that she would probably have found them extremely commonplace thoughts that strayed no farther than his own little personal business of life, and that they would easily be translated to the dollar sign. His attitude was one of gloomy meditation, and her own mood supplied the subject. She watched him for a minute or two, and his abstraction was so deep that he did not feel her presence.

“Uncle Carl, just how much did the Lazy A cost you?” she asked so abruptly that she herself was surprised at the question. “Or putting it another way, just how many dollars and cents did you spend in defending dad?”

Carl started, which was perfectly natural, and glared at her, which was natural also, when one considers that Jean had without warning opened a subject tacitly forbidden upon that ranch. His eyes hardened a little while he looked at her, for between these two there was scant affection.

“What do you want to know for?” he countered, when she persisted in looking at him as though she was waiting for an answer.

“Because I’ve a right to know. Some time,– within four years,–I mean to buy back the Lazy A. I want to know how much it will take.” Until that moment Jean had merely dreamed of some day buying it back. Until she spoke she would have named the idea a beautiful, impossible desire.

“Where you going to get the money?” Carl looked at her curiously, as if he almost doubted her sanity.

“Rob a bank, perhaps. How much will it take to square things with you? Of course, being a relative, I expect to be cheated a little. So I am going to adopt sly, sleuth-like methods and find out just how much dad owed you before–it happened, and just how much the lawyers charged, and what was the real market value of the outfit, and all that. Dad told me– dad told me that there was something left over for me. He didn’t explain–there wasn’t time, and I– couldn’t listen to dollar-talk then. I’ve gone along all this time, just drifting and getting used to facts, and taking it for granted that everything is all right–“

“Well, what’s wrong? Everything is all right, far as I know. I can see what you’re driving at–“

“And I’m a pretty fair driver, too,” Jean cut in calmly. “I’ll reach my destination, I think,–give me time enough.”

“Whatever fool notion you’ve got in your head, you’d better drop it,” Carl told her harshly. “There ain’t anything you can do to better matters. I came out with the worst of it, when you come right down to facts, and all the nagging-“

Jean went toward him as if she would strike him with her uplifted hand. “Don’t dare say that! How can you say that,–and think of dad? He got the worst of it. He’s the one that suffers most–and– he’s as innocent as you or I. You know it.”

Carl rose from the porch and faced her like an enemy. “What do you mean by that? I know it? If I knew anything like that, do you think I’d leave a stone unturned to prove it? Do you think–“

“I think we both know dad. And some things were not proved,–to my satisfaction, at least. And you know how long the jury was out, and what a time they had agreeing. Some points were weak. It was simply that they couldn’t point to any one else. You know that was it. If I could find Art Osgood–“

“What’s he got to do with it?” Her uncle leaned a little and peered into her face, which the dusk was veiling.

“That is what I want to find out.” Jean’s voice was quiet, but it had a quality which he had never before noticed.

“You’d better,” he advised her tritely, “let sleeping dogs lie.”

“That’s the trouble with sleeping dogs; they do lie, more often than not. These particular dogs have lied for nearly three years. I’m going to stir them up and see if I can’t get a yelp of the truth out of them.”

“Oh, you are!” Carl laughed ironically. “You’ll stir up a lot of unpleasantness for yourself and the rest of us, is what you’ll do. The thing’s over and done with. Folks are beginning to forget it. You’ve got a home–“

Jean laughed, and her laugh was extremely unpleasant.

“You get as good as the rest of us get,” her uncle reminded her sharply. “I came near going broke myself over the affair, if you want to know; and you stand there and accuse me of cheating you out of something! I don’t know what in heaven’s name you expect. The Lazy A didn’t make me rich, I can tell you that. It just barely helped to tide things over. You’ve got a home here, and you can come and go as you please. What you ain’t got,” he added bitterly, “is common gratitude.”

He turned away from her and went into the house, and Jean sat down upon the edge of the porch and stared away at the dimming outline of the hills, and wondered what had come over her.

Three years on this ranch, seeing her uncle every day almost, living under the same roof with him, talking with him upon the everyday business of life,–and to- night, for the first time, the forbidden subject had been opened. She had said things that until lately she had not realized were in her mind. She had never liked her uncle, who was so different from her father, but she had never accused him in her mind of unfairness until she had written something of the sort in her ledger. She had never thought of quarrelling,–and yet one could scarcely call this encounter less than a quarrel. And the strange part of it was that she still believed what she had said; she still intended to do the things she declared she would do. Just how she would do them she did not know, but her purpose was hardening and coming clean-cut out of the vague background of her mind.

After awhile the dim outline of the high-shouldered hills glowed under a yellowing patch of light. Jean sat with her chin in her palms and watched the glow brighten swiftly. Then some unseen force seemed to be pushing a bright yellow disk up through a gap in the hills, and the gap was almost too narrow, so that the disk touched either side as it slid slowly upward. At last it was up, launched fairly upon its leisurely, drifting journey across to the farther hills behind her. It was not quite round. That was because one edge had scraped too hard against the side of the hill, perhaps. But warped though it was, its light fell softly upon Jean’s face, and showed it set and still and stern-eyed and somber.

She sat there awhile longer, until the slopes lay softly revealed to her, their hollows filled with inky shadows. She drew a long breath then, and looked around her at the familiar details of the Bar Nothing dwelling-place, softened a little by the moonlight, but harsh with her memories of unhappy days spent there. She rose and went into the house and to her room, and changed the hated striped percale for her riding-clothes.

A tall, lank form detached itself from the black shade of the bunk-house as she went by, hesitated perceptibly, and then followed her down to the corral. When she had gone in with a rope and later led out Pard, the form stood forth in the white light of the moon.

“Where are you going, Jean?” Lite asked her in a tone that was soothing in its friendliness.

“That you, Lite? I’m going–well, just going. I’ve got to ride.” She pulled Pard’s bridle off the peg where she always hung it, and laid an arm over his neck while she held the bit against his clinched teeth. Pard never did take kindly to the feel of the cold steel in his mouth, and she spoke to him sharply before his jaws slackened.

“Want me to go along with you?” Lite asked, and reached for his saddle and blanket.

“No, I want you to go to bed.” Jean’s tone was softer than it had been for that whole day. “You’ve had all the riding you need. I’ve been shut up with Aunt Ella and her favorite form of torture.”

“Got your gun?” Lite gave the latigo a final pull which made Pard grunt.

“Of course. Why?”

“Nothing,–only it’s a good night for coyotes, and you might get a shot at one. Another thing, a gun’s no good on earth when you haven’t got it with you.”

“Yes, and you’ve told me so about once a week ever since I was big enough to pull a trigger,” Jean retorted, with something approaching her natural tone. “Maybe I won’t come back, Lite. Maybe I’ll camp over home till morning.”

Lite did not say anything in reply to that. He leaned his long person against a corral post and watched her out of sight on the trail up the hill. Then he caught his own horse, saddled it leisurely, and rode away.

Jean rode slowly, leaving the trail and striking out across the open country straight for the Lazy A. She had no direct purpose in riding this way; she had not intended to ride to the Lazy A until she named the place to Lite as her destination, but since she had told him so, she knew that was where she was going. The picture-people would not be there at night, and she felt the need of coming as close as possible to her father; at the Lazy A, where his thoughts would cling, she felt near to him,–much nearer than when she was at the Bar Nothing. And that the gruesome memory of what had happened there did not make the place seem utterly horrible merely proves how unshakable was her faith in him.

A coyote trotted up out of a hollow facing her, stiffened with astonishment, dropped nose and tail, and slid away in the shadow of the hill. A couple of minutes later Jean saw him sitting alert upon his haunches on a moon-bathed slope, watching to see what she would do. She did nothing; and the coyote pointed his nose to the moon, yap-yap-yapped a quavering defiance, and slunk out of sight over the hill crest.

Her mind now was more at ease than it had been since the day of horror when she had first stared black tragedy in the face. She was passing through that phase of calm elation which follows close upon the heels of a great resolve. She had not yet come to the actual surmounting of the obstacles that would squeeze hope from the heart of her; she had not yet looked upon the possibility of absolute failure.

She was going to buy back the Lazy A from her Uncle Carl, and she was going to tear away that atmosphere of emptiness and desolation which it had worn so long. She was going to prove to all men that her father never had killed Johnny Croft. She was going to do it! Then life would begin where it had left off three years ago. And when this deadening load of trouble was lifted, then perhaps she could do some of the glorious, great things she had all of her life dreamed of doing. Or, if she never did the glorious, great things, she would at least have done something to justify her existence. She would be content in her cage if she could go round and round doing things for dad.

A level stretch of country lay at the foot of the long bluff, which farther along held the Lazy A coulee close against its rocky side. The high ridges stood out boldly in the moonlight, so that she could see every rock and the shadow that it cast upon the ground. Little, soothing night noises fitted themselves into her thoughts and changed them to waking dreams. Crickets that hushed while she passed them by; the faint hissing of a half- wakened breeze that straightway slept upon the grasses it had stirred; the sleepy protest of some bird which Pard’s footsteps had startled.

She came into Lazy A coulee, half fancying that it was a real home-coming. But when she reached the gate and found it lying flat upon the ground away from the broad tread of the picture-people’s machine, her mind jarred from dreams back to reality. From sheer habit she dismounted, picked up the spineless thing of stakes and barbed wire, dragged it into place across the trail, and fastened it securely to the post. She remounted and went on, and a little of the hopefulness was gone from her face.

“I’ll just about have to rob a bank, I guess,” she told herself with a grim humor at the tremendous undertaking to which she had so calmly committed herself. “This is what dad would call a man-sized job, I reckon.” She pulled up in the white-lighted trail and stared along the empty, sagging-roofed sheds and stables, and at the corral with its open gate and warped rails and leaning posts. “I’ll just about have to rob a bank,–or write a book that will make me famous.”

She touched Pard with a rein end and went on slowly. “Robbing a bank would be the quickest and easiest,” she decided whimsically, as she neared the place where she always sheltered Pard. “But not so ladylike. I guess I’ll write a book. It should be something real thrilly, so the people will rush madly to all the bookstores to buy it. It should have a beautiful girl, and at least two handsome men,–one with all the human virtues, and the other with all the arts of the devil and the cruel strength of the savage. And–I think some Indians and outlaws would add several dollars’ worth of thrills; or else a ghost and a haunted house. I wonder which would sell the best? Indians could steal the girl and give her two handsome men a chance to do chapters of stunts, and the wicked one could find her first and carry her away in front of him on a horse (they do those things in books!) and the hero could follow in a mad chase for miles and miles–

“But then, ghosts can be made very creepy, with tantalizing glimpses of them now and then in about every other chapter, and mysterious hints here and there, and characters coming down to breakfast with white, drawn faces and haggard eyes. And the wicked one would look over his shoulder and then utter a sardonic laugh. Sardonic is such an effective word; I don’t believe Indians would give him any excuse for sardonic laughter.”

She swung down from the saddle and led Pard into his stall, that was very black next the manger and very light where the moon shone in at the door. “I must have lots of moonlight and several stormy sunsets, and the wind soughing in the branches. I shall have to buy a new dictionary,–a big, fat, heavy one with the flags of all nations and how to measure the contents of an empty hogshead, and the deaf and dumb alphabet, and everything but the word you want to know the meaning of and whether it begins with ph or an f.”

She took the saddle off Pard and hung it up by a stirrup on the rusty spike where she kept it, with the bridle hung over the stirrup, and the saddle blanket folded over the horn. She groped in the manger and decided that there was hay enough to last him till morning, and went out and closed the door. Her shadow fell clean cut upon the rough planks, and she stood for a minute looking at it as if it were a person. Her Stetson hat tilted a little to one side, her hair fluffed loosely at the sides, leaving her neck daintily slender where it showed above the turned-back collar of her gray sweater; her shoulders square and capable and yet not too heavy, and the slim contour of her figure reaching down to the ground. She studied it abstractedly, as she would study herself in her mirror, conscious of the individuality, its likeness to herself.

“I don’t know what kind of a mess you’ll make of it,” she said to her shadow, “but you’re going to tackle it, just the same. You can’t do a thing till you get some money.”

She turned then and went thoughtfully up to the house and into her room, which had as yet been left undisturbed behind the bars she had placed against idle invasion.

The moon shone full into the window that faced the coulee, and she sat down in the old, black wooden rocker and gazed out upon the familiar, open stretch of sand and scant grass-growth that lay between the house and the corrals. She turned her eyes to the familiar bold outline of the bluff that swung round in a crude oval to the point where the trail turned into the coulee from the southwest. Half-way between the base and the ragged skyline, the boulder that looked like an elephant’s head stood out, white of profile, hooded with black shade. Beyond was the fat shelf of ledge that had a small cave beneath, where she had once found a nest full of little, hungry birds and upon the slope beneath the telltale, scattered wing-feathers, to show what fate had fallen upon the mother. Those birds had died also, and she had wept and given them Christian burial, and had afterwards spent hours every day with her little rifle hunting the destroyer of that small home. She remembered the incident now as a small thread in the memory-pattern she was weaving.

While the shadows shortened as the moon swung high, she sat and looked out upon the coulee and the bluff that sheltered it, and she saw the things that were blended cunningly with the things that were not. After a long while her hands unclasped themselves from behind her head and dropped numbly to her lap. She sighed and moved stiffly, and knew that she was tired and that she must get some sleep, because she could not sit down in one spot and think her way through the problems she had taken it upon herself to solve. So she got up and crept under the Navajo blanket upon the couch, tucked it close about her shoulders, and shut her eyes deliberately. Presently she fell asleep.

CHAPTER X

JEAN LEARNS WHAT FEAR IS LIKE

Sometime in the still part of the night which comes after midnight, Jean woke slowly from dreaming of the old days that had been so vivid in her mind when she went to sleep. Just at first she did not know what it was that awakened her, though her eyes were open and fixed upon the lighted square of the window. She knew that she was in her room at the Lazy A, but just at first it seemed to her that she was there because she had always been sleeping in that room. She sighed and turned her face away from the moonlight, and closed her eyes again contentedly.

Half dreaming she opened them again and stared up at the low ceiling. Somewhere in the house she heard footsteps. Very slowly she wakened enough to listen. They were footsteps,–the heavy, measured tread of some man. They were in the room that had been her father’s bedroom, and at first they seemed perfectly natural and right; they seemed to be her dad’s footsteps, and she wondered mildly what he was doing, up at that time of night.

The footsteps passed from there into the kitchen and stopped in the corner where stood the old-fashioned cupboard with perforated tin panels in the doors and at the sides, and the little drawers at the top,–the kind that old people call a “safe.” She heard a drawer pulled out. Without giving any conscious thought to it, she knew which drawer it was; it was the one next the wall, –the one that did not pull out straight, and so had to be jerked out. What was her dad . . . ?

Jean thrilled then with a tremor of fear. She had wakened fully enough to remember. That was not her dad, out there in the kitchen. She did not know who it was; it was some strange man prowling through the house, hunting for something. She felt again the tremor of fear that is the heritage of womanhood alone in the dark. She pulled the Navajo blanket up to her ears with the instinct of the woman to hide, because she is not strong enough to face and fight the danger that comes in the dark. She listened to the sound of that drawer being pushed back, and the other drawer being pulled out, and she shivered under the blanket.

Then she reached out her hand and got hold of her six-shooter which she had laid down unthinkingly upon a chair near the couch. She wondered if she had locked the outside door when she came in. She could not remember having done so; probably she had not, since it is not the habit of honest ranch-dwellers to lock their doors at night. She wanted to get up and see, and fasten it somehow; but she was afraid the man out there might hear her. As it was, she reasoned nervously with herself, he probably did not suspect that there was any one in the house. It was an empty house. And unless he had seen Pard in the closed stall. . . . She wondered if he had heard Pard there, and had investigated and found him. She wondered if he would come into this room. She remembered how securely she had nailed up the door from the kitchen, and she breathed freer. She remembered also that she had her gun, there under her hand. She closed her trembling fingers on the familiar grip of it, and the feel of it comforted her and steadied her.

Yet she had no desire, no slightest impulse to get up and see who was there. She was careful not to move, except to cover the doorway to the kitchen with her gun.

After a few minutes the man came and tried the door, and Jean lifted herself cautiously upon her elbow and waited in grim desperation. If he forced that door open, if he came in, she certainly would shoot; and if she shot,–well, you remember the fate of that hawk on the wing.

The man did not force the door open, which was perhaps the luckiest thing that ever happened to him. He fussed there until he must have made sure that it was fastened firmly upon the inside, and then he left it and went into what had been the living-room. Jean did not move from her half-sitting position, nor did she change the aim of her gun. He might come back and try again.

She heard him moving about in the living-room. Surely he did not expect to find money in an empty house, or anything else of any commercial value. What was he after? Finally he came back to the kitchen, crossed it, and stood before the barred door. He pushed against it tentatively, then stood still for a minute and finally went out. Jean heard him step upon the porch and pull the kitchen door shut behind him. She knew that squeal of the bottom hinge, and she knew the final gasp and click that proved the latch was fastened. She heard him step off the porch to the path, she heard the soft crunch of his feet in the sandy gravel as he went away toward the stable. Very cautiously she got off the couch and crept to the window; and with her gun gripped tight in her hand, she looked out. But he had moved into a deep shadow of the bluff, and she could see nothing of him save the deeper shadow of his swift-moving body as he went down to the corral. Jean gave a long sigh of nervous relaxation, and crept shivering under the Navajo blanket. The gun she slid under the pillow, and her fingers rested still upon the cool comfort of the butt.

Soon she heard a horse galloping, and she went to the window again and looked out. The moon hung low over the bluff, so that the trail lay mostly in the shadow. But down by the gate it swung out in a wide curve to the rocky knoll, and there it lay moon-lighted and empty. She fixed her eyes upon that curve and waited. In a moment the horseman galloped out upon the curve, rounded it, and disappeared in the shadows beyond. At that distance and in that deceptive light, she could not tell who it was; but it was a horseman, a man riding at night in haste, and with some purpose in mind.

Jean had thought that the prowler might be some tramp who had wandered far off the beaten path of migratory humans, and who, stumbling upon the coulee and its empty dwellings, was searching at random for whatever might be worth carrying off. A horseman did not fit that theory anywhere. That particular horseman had come there deliberately, had given the house a deliberate search, and had left in haste when he had finished. Whether he had failed or succeeded in finding what he wanted, he had left. He had not searched the stables, unless he had done that before coming into the house. He had not forced his way into her room, probably because he did not want to leave behind him the evidence of his visit which the door would have given, or because he feared to disturb the contents of Jean’s room.

Jean stared up in the dark and puzzled long over the identity of that man, and his errand. And the longer she thought about it, the more completely she was at sea. All the men that she knew were aware that she kept this room habitable, and visited the ranch often. That was no secret; it never had been a secret. No one save Lite Avery had ever been in it, so far as she knew,–unless she counted those chance trespassers who had prowled boldly through her most sacred belongings. So that almost any one in the country, had he any object in searching the house, would know that this room was hers, and would act in that knowledge.

As to his errand. There could be no errand, so far as she knew. There were no missing papers such as plays and novels are accustomed to have cunningly hidden in empty houses. There was no stolen will, no hidden treasure, no money, no Rajah’s ruby, no ransom of a king; these things Jean named over mentally, and chuckled at the idea of treasure-hunting at the Lazy A. It vas very romantic, very mysterious, she told herself. And she analyzed the sensation of little wet alligators creeping up her spine (that was her own simile), and decided that her book should certainly have a ghost in it; she was sure that she could describe with extreme vividness the effect of a ghost upon her various characters.

In this wise she recovered her composure and laughed at her fear, and planned new and thrilly incidents for her novel.

She would not tell Lite anything about it, she decided. He would try to keep her from coming over here by herself, and that would precipitate one of those arguments between them that never seemed to get them anywhere, because Lite never would yield gracefully, and Jean never would yield at all,–which does not make for peace.

She wished, just the same, that Lite was there. It would be much more comfortable if he were near instead of away over to the Bar Nothing, sound asleep in the bunk-house. As a self-appointed guardian, Jean considered Lite something of a nuisance, when he wasn’t funny. But as a big, steady-nerved friend and comrade, he certainly was a comfort.

CHAPTER XI

LITE’S PUPIL DEMONSTRATES

Jean awoke to hear the businesslike buzzing of an automobile coming up from the gate. Evidently they were going to make pictures there at the house, which did not suit her plans at all. She intended to spend the early morning writing the first few chapters of that book which to her inexperience seemed a simple task, and to leave before these people arrived. As it was, she was fairly caught. There was no chance of escaping unnoticed, unless she slipped out and up the bluff afoot, and that would not have helped her in the least, since Pard was in the stable.

From behind the curtains she watched them for a few minutes. Robert Grant Burns wore a light overcoat, which made him look pudgier than ever, and he scowled a good deal over some untidy-looking papers in his hands, and conferred with Pete Lowry in a dissatisfied tone, though his words were indistinguishable. Muriel Gay watched the two covertly, it seemed to Jean, and she also looked dissatisfied over something.

Burns and the camera man walked down toward the stables, studying the bluff and the immediate surroundings, and still talking together. Lee Milligan, with his paint-shaded eyes and his rouged lips and heavily pencilled eyebrows, came up and stood close to Muriel, who was sitting now upon the bench near Jean’s window.

“Burns ought to cut out those scenes, Gay,” he began sympathetically. “You can’t do any more than you did yesterday. And believe me, you put it over in good style. I don’t see what he wants more than you did.”

“What he wants,” said Muriel Gay dispiritedly, “is for me to pull off stunts like that girl. I never saddled a horse in my life till he ordered me to do it in the scene yesterday. Why didn’t he tell me far enough ahead so I could rehearse the business? Latigo! It sounds like some Spanish dish with grated cheese on top. I don’t believe he knows himself what he meant.”

“He’s getting nutty on Western dope,” sympathized Lee Milligan. “I don’t see where this country’s got anything on Griffith Park for atmosphere, anyway. What did he want to come away up here in this God- forsaken country for? What is there TO it, more than he could get within an hour’s ride of Los Angeles?”

“I should worry about the country,” said Muriel despondently, “if somebody would kindly tell me what looping up your latigo means. Burns says that he’s got to retake that saddling scene just as soon as the horses get here. It looks just as simple,” she added spitefully, “as climbing to the top of the Berry Building tower and doing a leap to a passing airship. In fact, I’d choose the leap.”

A warm impulse of helpfulness stirred Jean. She caught up her hat, buckled her gun belt around her from pure habit, tucked a few loose strands of hair into place, and went out where they were.

“If you’ll come down to the stable with me,” she drawled, while they were staring their astonishment at her unexpected appearance before them, “I’ll show you how to saddle up. Pard’s awfully patient about being fussed with; you can practice on him. He’s mean about taking the bit, though, unless you know just how to take hold of him. Come on.”

The three of them,–Muriel Gay and her mother and Lee Milligan,–stared at Jean without speaking. To her it seemed perfectly natural that she should walk up and offer to help the girl; to them it seemed not so natural. For a minute the product of the cities and the product of the open country studied each other curiously.

“Come on,” urged Jean in her lazily friendly drawl. “It’s simple enough, once you get the hang of it.” And she smiled before she added, “A latigo is just the strap that fastens the cinch. I’ll show you.”

“I’ll bet Bobby Burns doesn’t know that,” said Muriel Gay, and got up from the bench. “It’s awfully good of you; Mr. Burns is so–“

“I noticed that,” said Jean, while Muriel was waiting for a word that would relieve her feelings without being too blunt.

Burns and Pete Lowry and the assistant had gone down the coulee, still studying the bluff closely. “I’ve got to ride down that bluff,” Muriel informed Jean, her eyes following her director gloomily. “He asked me last night if I could throw a rope. I don’t know what for; it’s an extra punch he wants to put in this picture somewhere. I wish to goodness they wouldn’t let him write his own scenarios; he just lies awake nights, lately, thinking up impossible scenes so he can bully us afterwards. He’s simply gone nutty on the subject of punches.”

“Well, it’s easy enough to learn how to saddle a horse,” Jean told Muriel cheerfully. “First you want to put on the bridle–“

“Burns told me to put on the saddle first; and then he cuts the scene just as I pick up the bridle. The trouble is to get the saddle on right, and then–that latigo dope!”

“But you ought to bridle him first,” Jean insisted. “Supposing you just got the saddle on, and your horse got startled and ran off? If you have the bridle on, even if you haven’t the reins, you can grab them when he jumps.”

“Well, that isn’t the way Burns directed the scene yesterday,” Muriel Gay contended. “The scene ends where I pick up the bridle.”

“Then Robert Grant Burns doesn’t know. I’ve seen men put on the bridle last; but it’s wrong. Lite Avery, and everybody who knows–“

Muriel Gay looked at Jean with a weary impatience. “What I have to do,” she stated, “is what Burns tells me to do. I should worry about it’s being right or wrong; I’m not the producer.”

Jean faced her, frowning a little. Then she laughed, hung the bridle back on the rusty spike, and took down the saddle blanket. “We’ll play I’m Robert Grant Burns,” she said. “I’ll tell you what to do: Lay the blanket on straight,–it’s shaped to Pard’s back, so that ought to be easy,–with the front edge coming forward to his withers; that’s not right. Maybe I had better do it first, and show you. Then you’ll get the idea.”

So Jean, with the best intention in the world, saddled Pard, and wondered what there was about so simple a process that need puzzle any one. When she had tightened the cinch and looped up the latigo, and explained to Muriel just what she was doing, she immediately unsaddled him and laid the saddle down upon its side, with the blanket folded once on top, and stepped close to the manger.

“If your saddle isn’t hanging up, that’s the way it should be put on the ground,” she said. “Now you do it. It’s easy.”

It was easy for Jean, but Muriel did not find it so simple. Jean went through the whole performance a second time, though she was beginning to feel that nature had never fitted her for a teacher of young ladies. Muriel, she began to suspect, rather resented the process of being taught. In another minute Muriel confirmed the suspicion.

“I think I’ve got it now,” she said coolly. “Thank you ever so much.”

Robert Grant Burns returned then, and close behind him rode Gil Huntley and those other desperados who had helped to brand the calf that other day. Gil was leading a little sorrel with a saddle on,–Muriel’s horse evidently. Jean had started back to the house and her own affairs, but she lingered with a very human curiosity to see what they were all going to do.

She did not know that Robert Grant Burns was perfectly conscious of her presence even when he seemed busiest, and was studying her covertly even when he seemed not to notice her at all. Of his company, Pete Lowry was the only one who did know it, but that was because Pete himself was trained in the art of observation. Pete also knew why Burns was watching Jean and studying her slightest movement and expression; and that was why Pete kept smiling that little, hidden smile of his, while he made ready for the day’s work and explained to Jean the mechanical part of making moving-pictures.

“I’d rather work with live things,” said Jean after a while. “But I can see where this must be rather fascinating, too.”

“This is working with live things, if anybody wants to know,” Pete declared. “Wait till you see Burns in action; handling bronks is easy compared to–“

“About where does the side line come, Pete?” Burns interrupted. “If Gil stands here and holds the horse for that close-up saddling–” He whirled upon Gil Huntley. “Lead that sorrel up here,” he commanded. “We’ll have to cut off his head so the halter won’t show. Now, how’s that?”

This was growing interesting. Jean backed to a convenient pile of old corral posts and sat down to watch, with her chin in her palms, and her mind weaving shuttle-wise back and forth from one person to another, fitting them all into the pattern which made the whole. She watched Robert Grant Burns walking back and forth, growling and chuckling by turns as things pleased him or did not please him. She watched Muriel Gay walk to a certain spot which Burns had previously indicated, show sudden and uncalled-for fear and haste, and go through a pantomime of throwing the saddle on the sorrel.

She watched Lee Milligan carry the saddle up and throw it down upon the ground, with skirts curled under and stirrups sprawling.

“Oh, don’t leave it that way,” she remonstrated. “Lay it on its side! You’ll have the skirts kinked so it never will set right.”

Muriel Gay gasped and looked from her to Robert Grant Burns. For betraying your country and your flag is no crime at all compared with telling your director what he must do.

“Bring that saddle over here,” commanded Burns, indicating another spot eighteen inches from the first. “And don’t slop it down like it was a bundle of old clothes. Lay it on its side. How many times have I got to tell you a thing before it soaks into your mind?” Not by tone or look or manner did he betray any knowledge that Jean had spoken, and Muriel decided that he could not have heard.

Lee Milligan moved the saddle and placed it upon its side, and Burns went to the camera and eyed the scene critically for its photographic value. He fumbled the script in his hands, cocked an eye upward at the sun, stepped back, and gave a last glance to make sure that nothing could be bettered by altering the detail.

“How’s Gil; outside the line, Pete? All right. Now, Miss Gay, remember, you’re in a hurry, and you’re worried half to death. You’ve just time enough to get there if you use every second. You were crying when the letter-scene closed, and this is about five minutes afterwards; you just had time enough to catch your horse and lead him out here to saddle him. Register a sob when you turn to pick up the saddle. You ought to do this all right without rehearsing. Get into the scene and start your action at the same time. Pete, you pick it up just as she gets to the horse’s shoulder and starts to turn. Don’t forget that sob, Gay. Ready? Camera!”

Jean was absorbed, fascinated by this glimpse into a new and very busy little world,–the world of moving- picture makers. She leaned forward and watched every moment, every little detail. “Grab the horn with your right hand, Miss Gay!” she cried involuntarily, when Muriel stooped and started to pick up the saddle.

“Don’t–oh, it looks as if you were picking up a wash-boiler! I told you–“

“Register that sob!” bawled Robert Grant Burns, shooting a glance at Jean and stepping from one foot to the other like a fat gobbler in fresh-fallen snow.

Muriel registered that sob and a couple more before she succeeded in heaving the saddle upon the back of the flinching sorrel. Because she took up the saddle by horn and cantle instead of doing it as Jean had taught her, she bungled its adjustment upon the horse’s back. Then the sorrel began to dance away from her, and Robert Grant Burns swore under his breath.

“Stop the camera!” he barked and waddled irately up to Muriel. “This,” he observed ironically, “is drama, Miss Gay. We are not making slap-stick comedy to-day; and you needn’t give an imitation of boosting a barrel over a fence.”

Tears that were real slipped down over the rouge and grease paint on Muriel’s cheeks. “Why don’t you make that girl stop butting in?” she flashed unexpectedly. “I’m not accustomed to working under two directors!”

She registered another sob which the camera never got.

This brought Jean over to where she could lay her hand contritely upon the girl’s shoulder. “I’m awfully sorry,” she drawled with perfect sincerity. “I didn’t mean to rattle you; but you know you never in the world could throw the stirrup over free, the way you had hold of the saddle. I thought–“

Burns turned heavily around and looked at Jean, as though he had something in his mind to say to her; but, whatever that something may have been, he did not say it. Jean looked at him questioningly and walked back to the pile of posts.

“I won’t butt in any more,” she called out to Muriel. “Only, it does look so simple!” She rested her elbows on her knees again, dropped her chin into her palms, and concentrated her mind upon the subject of picture-plays in the making.

Muriel recovered her composure, stood beside Gil Huntley at the horse’s head just outside the range of the camera, waited for the word of command from Burns, and rushed into the saddle scene. Burns shouted “Sob!” and Muriel sobbed with her face toward the camera. Burns commanded her to pick up the saddle, and Muriel picked up the saddle and flung it spitefully upon the back of the sorrel.

“Oh, you forgot the blanket!” exclaimed Jean, and stopped herself with her hand over her too-impulsive mouth, just as Burns stopped the camera.

The director bowed his head and shook it twice slowly and with much meaning. He did not say anything at all; no one said anything. Gil Huntley looked at Jean and tried to catch her eye, so that he might give her some greeting, or at least a glance of understanding. But Jean was wholly concerned with the problem which confronted Muriel. It was a shame, she thought, to expect a girl,–and when she had reached that far she straightway put the thought into speech, as was her habit.

“It’s a shame to expect that girl to do something she doesn’t know how to do,” she said suddenly to Robert Grant Burns. “Work at something else, why don’t you, and let me take her somewhere and show her how? It’s simple–“

“Get up and show her now,” snapped Burns, with some sarcasm and a good deal of exasperation. “You seem determined to get into the foreground somehow; get up and go through that scene and show us how a girl gets a saddle on a horse.”

Jean sat still for ten seconds and deliberated while she looked from him to the horse. Again she made a picture that drove its elusive quality of individuality straight to the professional soul of Robert Grant Burns.

“I will if you’ll let me do it the right way,” she said, just when he was thinking she would not answer him. She did not wait for his assurance, once she had decided to accept the challenge, or the invitation; she did not quite know which he had meant it to be.

“I’m going to bridle him first though,” she informed him. “And you can tell that star villain to back out of the way. I don’t need him.”

Still Burns did not say anything. He was watching her, studying her, measuring her, seeing her as she would have looked upon the screen. It was his habit to leave people alone until they betrayed their limitations or proved their talent; after that, if they remained under his direction, he drove them as far as their limitations would permit.

Jean went first and placed the saddle to her liking upon the ground. “You want me to act just as if you were going to take a picture of it, don’t you?” she asked Burns over her shoulder. She was not sure whether he nodded, but she acted upon the supposition that he did, and took the lead-rope from Gil’s hand.

“Shall I be hurried and worried–and shall I sob?” she asked, with the little smile at the corners of her eyes and just easing the line of her lips.

Robert Grant Burns seemed to make a quick decision. “Sure,” he said. “You saw the action as Miss Gay went through it. Do as she did; only we’ll let you have your own ideas of saddling the horse.” He turned his head toward Pete and made a very slight gesture, and Pete grinned. “All ready? Start the action!” After that he did not help her by a single suggestion. He tapped Pete upon the shoulder, and stood with his feet far apart and his hands on his hips, watching her very intently.

Jean was plainly startled, just at first, by the business-like tone in which he gave the signal. Then she laughed a little. “Oh, I forgot. I must be hurried and worried–and I must sob,” she corrected herself.

So she hurried, and every movement she made counted for something accomplished. She picked up the bridle and shortened her hold upon the lead rope, and discovered that the sorrel had a trick of throwing up his head