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and backing away from the bit. She knew how to deal with that habit, however; but in her haste she forgot to look as worried as Muriel had looked, and so appeared to her audience as being merely determined. She got the bridle on, and then she saddled the sorrel. And for good measure she picked up the reins, caught the stirrup and went up, pivoting the horse upon his hind feet as though she meant to dash madly off into the distance. But she only went a couple of rods before she pulled him up sharply and dismounted.

“That didn’t take me long, did it?” she asked. “I could have hurried a lot more if I had known the horse.” Then she stopped dead still and looked at Robert Grant Burns.

“Oh, my goodness, I forgot to sob!” she gasped. And she caught her hat brim and pulling her Stetson more firmly down upon her head, turned and ran up the path to the house, and shut herself into her room.

CHAPTER XII

TO “DOUBLE” FOR MURIEL GAY

While she breakfasted unsatisfactorily upon soda crackers and a bottle of olives which happened to have been left over from a previous luncheon, Jean meditated deeply upon the proper beginning of a book. The memory of last night came to her vividly, and she smiled while she fished with a pair of scissors for an olive. She would start the book off weirdly with mysterious sounds in an empty room. That, she argued, should fix firmly the interest of the reader right at the start.

By the time she had fished the olive from the bottle, however, her thoughts swung from the artistic to the material aspect of those mysterious footsteps. What had the man wanted or expected to find? She set down the olive bottle impulsively and went out and around to the kitchen door and opened it. In spite of herself, she shuddered as she went in, and she walked close to the wall until she was well past the brown stain on the floor. She went to the old-fashioned cupboard and examined the contents of the drawers and looked into a cigar-box which stood open upon the top. She went into her father’s bedroom and looked through everything, which did not take long, since the room had little left in it. She went into the living-room, also depressingly dusty and forlorn, but try as she would to think of some article that might have been left there and was now wanted by some one, she could imagine no reason whatever for that nocturnal visit. At the same time, there must have been a reason. Men of that country did not ride abroad during the still hours of the night just for the love of riding. Most of them went to bed at dark and slept until dawn.

She went out, intending to go back to her literary endeavors; if she never started that book, certainly it would never make her rich, and she would never be able to make war upon circumstances. She thought of her father with a twinge of remorse because she had wasted so much time this morning, and she scarcely glanced toward the picture-people down by the corrals, so she did not see that Robert Grant Burns turned to look at her and then started hurriedly up the path to the house.

“Say,” he called, just before she disappeared around the corner. “Wait a minute. I want to talk to you.”

Jean waited, and the fat man came up breathing hard because of his haste in the growing heat of the forenoon.

“Say, I’d like to use you in a few scenes,” he began abruptly when he reached her. “Gay can’t put over the stuff I want; and I’d like to have you double for her in some riding and roping scenes. You’re about the same size and build, and I’ll get you a blond wig for close-ups, like that saddling scene. I believe you’ve got it in you to make good on the screen; anyway, the practice you’ll get doubling for Gay won’t do you any harm.”

Jean looked at him, tempted to consent for the fun there would be in it. “I’d like to,” she told him after a little silence. “I really would love it. But I’ve got some work that I must do.”

“Let the work wait,” urged Burns, relieved because she showed no resentment against the proposal. “I want to get this picture made. It’s going to be a hummer. There’s punch to it, or there will be, if–“

“But you see,” Jean’s drawl slipped across his eager, domineering voice, “I have to earn some money, lots of it. There’s something I need it for. It’s– important.”

“You’ll earn money at this,” he told her bluntly. “You didn’t think I’d ask you to work for nothing, I hope. I ain’t that cheap. It’s like this: If you’ll work in this picture and put over what I want, it’ll be feature stuff. I’ll pay accordingly. Of course, I can’t say just how much,–this is just a try-out; you understand that. But if you can deliver the goods, I’ll see that you get treated right. Some producers might play the cheap game just because you’re green; but I ain’t that kind, and my company ain’t that kind. I’m out after results.” Involuntarily his eyes turned toward the bluff. “There’s a ride down the bluff that I want, and a roping–say, can you throw a rope?”

Jean laughed. “Lite Avery says I can,” she told him, “and Lite Avery can almost write his name in the air with a rope.”

“If you can make that dash down the bluff, and do the roping I want, why–Lord! You’ll have to be working a gold mine to beat what I’d be willing to pay for the stuff.”

“There’s no place here in the coulee where you can ride down the bluff,” Jean informed him, “except back of the house, and that’s out of sight. Farther over there’s a kind of trail that a good horse can handle. I came down it on a run, once, with Pard. A man was drowning, over here in the creek, and I was up on the bluff and happened to see him and his horse turn over, –it was during the high water. So I made a run down off the point, and got to him in time to rope him out. You might use that trail.”

Robert Grant Burns stood and stared at her as though he did not see her at all. In truth, he was seeing with his professional eyes a picture of that dash down the bluff. He was seeing a “close-up” of Jean whirling her loop and lassoing the drowning man just as he had given up hope and was going under for the third time. Lee Milligan was the drowning man! and the agony of his eyes, and the tenseness of Jean’s face, made Robert Grant Burns draw a long breath.

“Lord, what feature-stuff that would make!” he said under his breath. “I’ll write a scenario around that rescue scene.” Whereupon he caught himself. It is not well for a director to permit his enthusiasm to carry him into injudicious speech. He chuckled to hide his eagerness. “Well, you can show me that location,” he said, “and we’ll get to work. You’ll have to use the sorrel, of course; but I guess he’ll be all right. This saddling scene will have to wait till I send for a wig. You can change clothes with Miss Gay and get by all right at a distance, just as you are. A little make-up, maybe; she’ll fix that. Come on, let’s get to work. And don’t worry about the salary; I’ll tell you to-night what it’ll be, after I see you work.”

When he was in that mood, Robert Grant Burns swept everything before him. He swept Jean into his plans before she had really made up her mind whether to accept his offer or stick to her literary efforts. He had Muriel Gay up at the house and preparing to change clothes with Jean, and he had Lee Milligan started for town in the machine with the key to Burns’ emergency wardrobe trunk, before Jean realized that she was actually going to do things for the camera to make into a picture.

“I’m glad you are going to double in that ride down the bluff, anyway,” Muriel declared, while she blacked Jean’s brows and put shadows around her eyes. “I could have done it, of course; but mamma is so nervous about my getting hurt that I hate to do anything risky like that. It upsets her for days.”

“There isn’t much risk in riding down the bluff,” said Jean carelessly. “Not if you’ve got a good horse. I wonder if that sorrel is rope broke. Have you ever roped off him?”

“No,” said Muriel, “I haven’t.” She might have added that she never roped off any horse, but she did not.

“I’ll have to try him out and see what he’s like, before I try to rope for a picture. I wonder if there’ll be time now?” Jean was pleasantly excited over this new turn of events. She had dreamed of doing many things, but never of helping to make moving pictures. She was eager and full of curiosity, like a child invited to play a new and fascinating game, and she kept wondering what Lite would have to say about her posing for moving pictures. Try to stop her, probably,–and fail, as usual!

When she went out to where the others were grouped in the shade, she gave no sign of any inner excitement or perturbation. She went straight up to Burns and waited for his verdict.

“Do I look like Miss Gay?” she drawled.

The keen eyes of Burns half closed while he studied her.

“No, I can’t say that you do,” he said after a moment. “Walk off toward the corrals,–and, say! Mount the sorrel and start off like you were in a deuce of a hurry. That’ll be one scene, and I’d like to see how you do it when you can have your own way about it, and how close up we can make it and have you pass for Gay.”

“How far shall I ride?” Jean’s eyes had a betraying light of interest.

“Oh–to the gate, maybe. Can you get a long shot down the trail to the gate, Pete, and keep skyline in the scene?”

Pete moved the camera, fussed and squinted, and then nodded his head. “Sure, I can. But you’ll have to make it right away, or else wait till to-morrow. The sun’s getting around pretty well in front.”

“We’ll take it right after this rehearsal, if the girl can put the stuff over right,” Burns muttered. “And she can, or I’m badly mistaken. Pete, that girl’s–” He stopped short, because the shadow of Lee Milligan was moving up to them. “All right, Miss–say, what’s your name, anyway?” He was told, and went on briskly. “Miss Douglas, just start from off that way,–about where that round rock is. You’ll come into the scene a little beyond. Hurry straight up to the sorrel and mount and ride off. Your lover is going to be trapped by the bandits, and you’ve just heard it and are hurrying to save him. Get the idea? Now let’s see you do it.”

“You don’t want me to sob, do you?” Jean looked over her shoulder to inquire. “Because if I were going to save my lover, I don’t believe I’d want to waste time weeping around all over the place.”

Burns chuckled. “You can cut out the sob,” he permitted. “Just go ahead like it was real stuff.”

Jean was standing by the rock, ready to start. She looked at Burns speculatively. “Oh, well, if it were real, I’d run!”

“Go ahead and run then!” Burns commanded.

Run she did, and startled the sorrel so that it took quick work to catch him.

“Camera! She might not do it like that again, ever!” cried Burns.

She was up in the saddle and gone in a flurry of dusts while Robert Grant Burns stood with his hands on his hips and watched her gloatingly.

“Lord! But that girl’s a find!” he ejaculated, and this time he did not seem to care who heard him. He cut the scene just as Jean pulled up at the gate. “See how she set that sorrel down on his haunches?” he chuckled to Pete. “Talk about feature-stuff; that girl will jump our releases up ten per cent., Pete, with the punches I can put into Gay’s parts now. How many feet was that scene, twenty-five?”

“Fifteen,” corrected Pete. “And every foot with a punch in it. Too bad she’s got to double for Gay. She’s got the face for close-up work, believe me!”

To this tentative remark Robert Grant Burns made no reply whatever. He went off down the path to meet Jean, critically watching her approach to see how nearly she resembled Muriel Gay, and how close she could come to the camera without having the substitution betrayed upon the screen. Muriel Gay was a leading woman with a certain assured following among movie audiences. Daring horsewomanship would greatly increase that following, and therefore the financial returns of these Western pictures. Burns was her director, and it was to his interest to build up her popularity. Since the idea first occurred to him, therefore, of using Jean as a substitute for Muriel in all the scenes that required nerve and skill in riding, he looked upon her as a double for Muriel rather than from the viewpoint of her own individual possibilities on the screen.

“I don’t know about your hair,” he told her, when she came up to him and stopped. “We’ll run the negative to-night and see how it shows up. The rest of the scene was all right. I had Pete make it. I’m going to take some scenes down here by the gate, now, with the boys. I won’t need you till after lunch, probably; then I’ll have you make that ride down off the bluff and some close-up rope work.”

“I suppose I ought to ride over to the ranch,” Jean said undecidedly. “And I ought to try out this sorrel if you want me to use him. Would some other day do just–“

“In the picture business,” interrupted Robert Grant Burns dictatorially, “the working-hours of an actor belong to the director he’s working for. If I use you in pictures, your time will belong to me on the days when I use you. I’ll expect you to be on hand when I want you; get that?”

“My time,” said Jean resolutely, “will belong to you if I consider it worth my while to let you have it. Otherwise it will belong to me.”

Burns chuckled. “Well, we might as well get down to brass tacks and have things thoroughly understood,” he decided. “I’ll use you as an extra to double for Miss Gay where there’s any riding stunts and so on. Miss Gay is a good actress, but she can’t ride to amount to anything. With the clothes and make-up you– impersonate her. See what I mean? And for straight riding I’ll pay you five dollars a day; five dollars for your time on the days that I want to use you. For any feature stuff, like that ride down the bluff, and the roping, and the like of that, it’ll be more. Twenty- five dollars for feature-stuff, say, and five dollars for straight riding. Get me?”

“I do, yes.” Jean’s drawl gave no hint of her inner elation at the prospect of earning so much money so easily. What, she wondered, would Lite say to that?

“Well, that part’s all right then. By feature-stuff, I mean anything I want you to do to put a punch in the story; anything from riding bucking horses and shooting–say can you shoot?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Well, I’ll have use for that, too, later on. The more stunts you can pull off, the bigger hits these pictures are going to make. You see that, of course. And what I’ve offered you is a pretty good rate; but I expect to get results. I told you I wasn’t any cheap John to work for. Now get this point, and get it right: I’ll expect you to report to me every morning here, at eight o’clock. I may need you that day and I may not, but you’re to be on hand. If I do need you, you get paid for that day, whether it’s one scene or twenty you’re to work in. If I don’t need you that day, you don’t get anything. That’s what being an extra means. You start in to-day, and if you make the ride down the bluff, it’ll be twenty-five to-day. But you can’t go riding off somewhere else, and maybe not be here when I want you. You’re under my orders, like the rest of the company. Get that?”

“I’ll try it for a week, anyway,” she said. “Obeying your orders will be the hardest part of it, Mr. Burns. I always want to stamp my foot and say `I won’t’ when any one tells me I must do something.” She laughed infectiously. “You’ll probably fire me before the week’s out,” she prophesied. “I’ll be as meek as possible, but if we quarrel,–well, you know how sweet-tempered I can be!”

Burns looked at her queerly and laughed. “I’ll take a chance on that,” he said, and went chuckling back to the camera. To have a girl absolutely ignore his position and authority, and treat him in that off-hand manner of equality was a new experience to Robert Grant Burns, terror among photo-players.

Jean went over to where Muriel and her mother were sitting in the shade, and asked Muriel if she would like to ride Pard out into the flat beyond the corrals, where she meant to try out the sorrel.

“I’d like to use you, anyway,” she added frankly, “to practice on. You can ride past, you know, and let me rope you. Oh, it won’t hurt you; and there’ll be no risk at all,” she hastened to assure the other, when she saw refusal in Muriel’s eyes. “I’ll not take any turns around the horn, you know.”

“I don’t want Muriel taking risks like that,” put in Mrs. Gay hastily. “That’s just why Burns is going to have you double for her. A leading woman can’t afford to get hurt. Muriel, you stay here and rest while you have a chance. Goodness knows it’s hard enough, at best, to work under Burns.”

Jean looked at her and turned away. So that was it –a leading woman could not afford to be hurt! Some one else, who didn’t amount to anything, must take the risks. She had received her first little lesson in this new business.

She went straight to Burns, interrupted him in coaching his chief villain for a scene, and asked him if he could spare a man for half an hour or so. “I want some one to throw a rope over on the run,” she explained naively, “to try out this sorrel.”

Burns regarded her somberly; he hated to be interrupted in his work.

“Ain’t there anybody else you can rope?” he wanted to know. “Where’s Gay?”

“`A leading woman,'” quoted Jean serenely, “`can’t afford to get hurt!'”

Burns chuckled. He knew who was the author of that sentence; he had heard it before. “Well, if you’re as fatal as all that, I can’t turn over my leading man for you to practice on, either,” he pointed out to her. “What’s the matter with a calf or something?”

“You won’t let me ride out of your sight to round one up,” Jean retorted. “There are no calves handy; that’s why I asked for a man.”

Whereupon the villains looked at one another queerly, and the chuckle of their director exploded into a full- lunged laugh.

“I’m going to use all these fellows in a couple of scenes,” he told her. “Can’t you practice on a post?”

“_I_ don’t have to practice. It’s the sorrel I want to try out.” Jean’s voice lost a little of its habitual, soft drawl. Really, these picture-people did seem very dense upon some subjects!

“Well, now look here.” Robert Grant Burns caught at the shreds of his domineering manner. “My part of this business is producing the scenes. You’ll have to attend to the getting-ready part. You–you wouldn’t expect me to help you put on your make-up, would you?”

“No, now that I recognize your limitations, I shall not ask any help which none of you are able or have the nerve to give,” she returned coolly. “I wish I had Lite here; but I guess Pard and I can handle the sorrel ourselves. Sorry to have disturbed you.”

Robert Grant Burns, his leading man and all his villains stood and watched her walk away from them to the stable. They watched her lead Pard out and turn him loose in the biggest corral. When they saw her take her coiled rope, mount the sorrel and ride in, they went, in a hurried group, to where they might look into that corral. They watched her pull the gate shut after her, lean from the saddle, and fasten the chain hook in its accustomed link. By the time she had widened her loop and turned to charge down upon unsuspecting Pard, Robert Grant Burns, his leading man and all his villains were lined up along the widest space between the corral rails, and Pete Lowry was running over so as to miss none of the show.

“Oh, I thought you were all so terribly busy!” taunted Jean, while her loop was circling over her head. Pard wheeled just then upon his hind feet, but the loop settled true over his head and drew tight against his shoulders.

The sorrel lunged and fought the rope, and snorted and reared. It took fully two minutes for Jean to force him close enough to Pard so that she might flip off the loop. Pard himself caught the excitement and snorted and galloped wildly round and round the enclosure, but Jean did not mind that; what brought her lips so tightly together was the performance of the sorrel. While she was coiling her rope, he was making half-hearted buck jumps across the corral. When she swished the rope through the air to widen her loop, he reared and whirled. She jabbed him smartly with the spurs, and he kicked forward at her feet.

“Say,” she drawled to Burns, “I don’t know what sort of a picture you’re going to make, but if you want any roping done from this horse, you’ll have to furnish meals and beds for your audiences.” With that she was off across the corral at a tearing pace that made the watchers gasp. The sorrel swung clear of the fence. He came near going down in a heap, but recovered himself after scrambling along on his knees. Jean brought him to a stand before Burns.

“I’ll have to ask you to raise your price, Mr. Burns, if you want me to run this animal down the bluff,” she stated firmly. “He’s just what I thought he was all along: a ride-around-the-block horse from some livery stable. When it comes to range work, he doesn’t know as much as–“

“Some people. I get you,” Burns cut in drily. “How about that horse of yours? Would you be willing to let me have the use of him–at so much per?”

“If I do the riding, yes. Now, since you’re here, and don’t seem as busy as you thought you were, I’ll show you the difference between this livery-stable beast and a real rope-horse.”

She dismounted and called to Pard, and Pard came to her, stepping warily because of the sorrel and the rope. “Just to save time, will one of you boys go and bring my riding outfit from the stable?” she asked the line at the fence, whereupon the leading man and all the villains started unanimously to perform that slight service, which shows pretty well how Jean stood in their estimation.

“Now, that’s a real, typical, livery-stable saddle and bridle,” she observed to Burns, pointing scornfully at the sorrel. “I was going to tell you that I’d hate to be seen in a picture riding that outfit, anyway. Now, you watch how differently Pard behaves with a rope and everything. And you watch the sorrel get what’s coming to him. Shall I `bust’ him?”

“You mean throw him?” Burns, in his eagerness, began to climb the corral fence,–until he heard a rail crack under his weight. “Yes, BUST him, if you want to. John Jimpson! if you can rope and throw that sorrel–“

Jean did not reply to that half-finished sentence. She was busy saddling Pard; now she mounted and widened her loop with a sureness of the result that flashed a thrill of expectation to her audience. Twice the loop circled over her head before she flipped it out straight and true toward the frantic sorrel as he surged by. She caught him fairly by both front feet and swung Pard half away from him. Pard’s muscles stiffened against the jerk of the rope, and the sorrel went down with a bump. Pard backed knowingly and braced himself like the trained rope-horse he was, and Jean looked at Robert Grant Burns and laughed.

“I didn’t bust him,” she disclaimed whimsically. “He done busted himself!” She touched Pard with her heel and rode up so that the rope slackened, and she could throw off the loop. “Did you see how Pard set himself?” she questioned eagerly. “I could have gotten off and gone clear away, and Pard would have kept that horse from getting on his feet. Now you see the difference, don’t you? Pard never would have gone down like that.”

“Oh, you’ll do,” chuckled Robert Grant Burns, “I’ll pay you a little more and use you and your horse together. Call that settled. Come on, boys, let’s get to work.”

CHAPTER XIII

PICTURES AND PLANS AND MYSTERIOUS FOOTSTEPS

When Lite objected to her staying altogether at the Lazy A, Jean assured him that she was being terribly practical and cautious and businesslike, and pointed out to him that staying there would save Pard and herself the trip back and forth each day, and would give her time, mornings and evenings to work on her book.

Lite, of course, knew all about that soon-to-be-famous book. He usually did know nearly everything that concerned Jean or held her interest. Whether, after three years of futile attempts, Lite still felt himself entitled to be called Jean’s boss, I cannot say for a certainty. He had grown rather silent upon that subject, and rather inclined to keep himself in the background, as Jean grew older and more determined in her ways. But certainly he was Jean’s one confidential friend,– her pal. So Lite, perforce, listened while Jean told him the plot of her story. And when she asked him in all earnestness what he thought would be best for the tragic element, ghosts or Indians, Lite meditated gravely upon the subject and then suggested that she put in both. That is why Jean lavishly indulged in mysterious footsteps all through the first chapter, and then opened the second with blood-curdling war-whoops that chilled the soul of her heroine and led her to suspect that the rocks behind the cabin concealed the forms of painted savages.

Her imagination must have been stimulated by her new work, which called for wild rides after posses and wilder flights away from the outlaws, while the flash of blank cartridges and the smoke-pots of disaster by fire added their spectacular effect to a scene now and then.

Jean, of course, was invariably the wild rider who fled in a blond wig and Muriel’s clothes from pursuing villains, or dashed up to the sheriff’s office to give the alarm. Frequently she fired the blank cartridges, until Lite warned her that blank cartridges would ruin her gun-barrel; after which she insisted upon using bullets, to the secret trepidation of the villains who must stand before her and who could never quite grasp the fact that Jean knew exactly where those bullets were going to land.

She would sit in her room at the Lazy A, when the sun and the big, black automobile and the painted workers were gone, and write feverishly of ghosts and Indians and the fair maiden who endured so much and the brave hero who dared so much and loved so well. Lee Milligan she visualized as the human wolf who looked with desire upon Lillian. Gil Huntley became the hero as the story unfolded; and while I have told you absolutely nothing about Jean’s growing acquaintance with these two, you may draw your own conclusions from the place she made for them in her book that she was writing. And you may also form some idea of what Lite Avery was living through, during those days when his work and his pride held him apart, and Jean did “stunts” to her heart’s content with these others.

A letter from the higher-ups in the Great Western Company, written just after a trial run of the first picture wherein Jean had worked, had served to stimulate Burns’ appetite for the spectacular, so that the stunts became more and more the features of his pictures. Muriel Gay was likely to become the most famous photo- play actress in the West, he believed. That is, she would if Jean continued to double for her in everything save the straight dramatic work.

Jean did not care just at that time how much glory Muriel Gay was collecting for work that Jean herself had done. Jean was experiencing the first thrills of seeing her name written upon the face of fat, weekly checks that promised the fulfillment of her hopes, and she would not listen to Lite when he ventured a remonstrance against some of the things she told him about doing. Jean was seeing the Lazy A restored to its old- time home-like prosperity. She was seeing her dad there, going tranquilly about the everyday business of the ranch, holding his head well up, and looking every man straight in the eye. She could not and she would not let even Lite persuade her to give up risking her neck for the money the risk would bring her.

If she could change these dreams to reality by dashing madly about on Pard while Pete Lowry wound yards and yards of narrow gray film around something on the inside of his camera, and watched her with that little, secret smile on his face; and while Robert Grant Burns waddled here and there with his hands on his hips, and watched her also; and while villains pursued or else fled before her, and Lee Milligan appeared furiously upon the scene in various guises to rescue her,–if she could win her dad’s freedom and the Lazy A’s possession by doing these foolish things, she was perfectly willing to risk her neck and let Muriel receive the applause.

She did not know that she was doubling the profit on these Western pictures which Robert Grant Burns was producing. She did not know that it would have hastened the attainment of her desires had her name appeared in the cast as the girl who put the “punches” in the plays. She did not know that she was being cheated of her rightful reward when her name never appeared anywhere save on the pay-roll and the weekly checks which seemed to her so magnificently generous. In her ignorance of what Gil Huntley called the movie game, she was perfectly satisfied to give the best service of which she was capable, and she never once questioned the justice of Robert Grant Burns.

Jean started a savings account in the little bank where her father had opened an account before she was born, and Lite was made to writhe inwardly with her boasting. Lite, if you please, had long ago started a savings account at that same bank, and had lately cut out poker, and even pool, from among his joys, that his account might fatten the faster. He had the same object which Jean had lately adopted so zealously, but he did not tell her these things. He listened instead while Jean read gloatingly her balance, and talked of what she would do when she had enough saved to buy back the ranch. She had stolen unwittingly the air castle which Lite had been three years building, but he did not say a word about it to Jean. Wistful eyed, but smiling with his lips, he would sit while Jean spoiled whole sheets of perfectly good story-paper, just figuring and estimating and building castles with the dollar sign. If Robert Grant Burns persisted in his mania for “feature-stuff” and “punches” in his pictures, Jean believed that she would have a fair start toward buying back the Lazy A long before her book was published and had brought her the thousands and thousands of dollars she was sure it would bring. Very soon she could go boldly to a lawyer and ask him to do something about her father’s case. Just what he should do she did not quite know; and Lite did not seem to be able to tell her, but she thought she ought to find out just how much the trial had cost. And she wished she knew how to get about setting some one on the trail of Art Osgood.

Jean was sure that Art Osgood knew something about the murder, and she frequently tried to make Lite agree with her. Sometimes she was sure that Art Osgood was the murderer, and would argue and point out her reasons to Lite. Art had been working for her uncle, and rode often to the Lazy A. He had not been friendly with Johnny Croft,–but then, nobody had been very friendly with Johnny Croft. Still, Art Osgood was less friendly with Johnny than most of the men in the country, and just after the murder he had left the country. Jean laid a good deal of stress upon the circumstance of Art Osgood’s leaving on that particular afternoon, and she seemed to resent it because no one had tried to find Art. No one had seemed to think his going at that time had any significance, or any bearing upon the murder, because he had been planning to leave, and had announced that he would go that day.

Jean’s mind, as her bank account grew steadily to something approaching dignity, worked back and forth incessantly over the circumstances surrounding the murder, in spite of Lite’s peculiar attitude toward the subject, which Jean felt but could not understand, since he invariably assured her that he believed her dad was innocent, when she asked him outright.

Sometimes, in the throes of literary composition, she could not think of the word that she wanted. Her eyes then would wander around familiar objects in the shabby little room, and frequently they would come to rest upon her father’s saddle or her father’s chaps: the chaps especially seemed potent reminders of her father, and drew her thoughts to him and held them there. The worn leather, stained with years of hard usage and wrinkled permanently where they had shaped themselves to his legs in the saddle, brought his big, bluff presence vividly before her, when she was in a certain receptive mood. She would forget all about her story, and the riding and shooting and roping she had done that day to appease the clamorous, professional appetite of Robert Grant Burns, and would sit and stare, and think and think. Always her thoughts traveled in a wide circle and came back finally to the starting point: to free her father, and to give him back his home, she must have money. To have money, she must earn it; she must work for it. So then she would give a great sigh of relaxed nervous tension and go back to her heroine and the Indians and the mysterious footsteps that marched on moonlight nights up and down a long porch just outside windows that frequently framed white, scared faces with wide, horror-stricken eyes which saw nothing of the marcher, though the steps still went up and down.

It was very creepy, in spots. It was so creepy that one evening when Lite had come to smoke a cigarette or two in her company and to listen to her account of the day’s happenings, Lite noticed that when she read the creepy passages in her story, she glanced frequently over her shoulder.

“You want to cut out this story writing,” he said abruptly, when she paused to find the next page. “It’s bad enough to work like you do in the pictures. This is going a little too strong; you’re as jumpy to-night as a guilty conscience. Cut it out.”

“I’m all right. I’m just doing that for dramatic effect. This is very weird, Lite. I ought to have a green shade on the lamp, to get the proper effect. I– don’t you think–er–those footsteps are terribly mysterious?”

Lite looked at her sharply for a minute. “I sure do,” he said drily. “Where did you get the idea, Jean?”

“Out of my head,” she told him airily, and went on reading while Lite studied her curiously.

That night Jean awoke and heard stealthy footsteps, like a man walking in his socks and no boots, going all through the house but never coming to her room. She did not get up to see who it was, but lay perfectly still and heard her heart thump. When she saw a dim, yellow ray of light under the door which opened into the kitchen, she drew the blanket over her head, and got no comfort whatever from the feel of her six-shooter close against her hand.

The next morning she told herself that she had given in to a fine case of nerves, and that the mysterious footsteps of her story had become mixed up with the midnight wanderings of a pack-rat that had somehow gotten into the house. Then she remembered the bar of light under the door, and the pack-rat theory was spoiled.

She had taken the board off the doorway into the kitchen, so that she could use the cookstove. The man could have come in if he had wanted to, and that knowledge she found extremely disquieting. She went all through the house that morning, looking and wondering. The living-room was now the dressing-room of Muriel and her mother, and the make-up scattered over the centertable was undisturbed; the wardrobe of the two women had apparently been left untouched. Yet she was sure that some one had been prowling in there in the night. She gave up the puzzle at last and went back to her breakfast, but before the company arrived in the big, black automobile, she had found a stout hasp and two staples, and had fixed the door which led from her room into the kitchen so that she could fasten it securely on the inside.

Jean did not tell Lite about the footsteps. She was afraid that he might insist upon her giving up staying at the Lazy A. Lite did not approve of it, anyway, and it would take very little encouragement in the way of extra risk to make him stubborn about it. Lite could be very obstinate indeed upon occasion, and she was afraid he might take a stubborn streak about this, and perhaps ride over every night to make sure she was all right, or do something equally unnecessary and foolish.

She did not know Lite as well as she imagined, which is frequently the case with the closest of friends. As a matter of fact, Jean had never spent one night alone on the ranch, even though she did believe she was doing so. Lite had a homestead a few miles away, upon which he was supposed to be sleeping occasionally to prove his good faith in the settlement. Instead of spending his nights there, however, he rode over and slept in the gable loft over the old granary, where no one ever went; and he left every morning just before the sky lightened with dawn. He did not know that Jean was frightened by the sound of footsteps, but he had heard the man ride up to the stable and dismount, and he had followed him to the house and watched him through the uncurtained windows, and had kept his fingers close to his gun all the while. Jean did not dream of anything like that; but Lite, going about his work with the easy calm that marked his manner always, was quite as puzzled over the errand of the night-prowler as was Jean herself.

For three years Lite had lain aside the mystery of the footprints on the kitchen floor on the night after the inquest, as a puzzle he would probably never solve. He had come to remember them as a vagrant incident that carried no especial meaning. But now they seemed to carry a new significance,–if only he could get at the key. For three years he had gone along quietly, working and saving all he could, and looking after Jean in an unobtrusive way, believing that Aleck was guilty,– and being careful to give no hint of that belief to any one. And now Jean herself seemed to be leading him unconsciously face to face with doubt and mystery. It tantalized him. He knew the prowler, and for that reason he was all the more puzzled. What had he wanted or expected to find? Lite was tempted to face the man and ask him; but on second thought he knew that would be foolish. He would say nothing to Jean. He thanked the Lord she slept soundly! and he would wait and see what happened.

Jean herself was thoughtful all that day, and was slow to lighten her mood or her manner even when Gil Huntley rode beside her to location and talked enthusiastically of the great work she was doing for a beginner, and of the greater work she would do in the future, if only she took advantage of her opportunities.

“It can’t go on like this forever,” he told her impressively for the second time, before he was sure of her attention and her interest. “Think of you, working extra under a three-day guarantee! Why, you’re what’s making the pictures! I had a letter from a friend of mine; he’s with the Universal. He’d been down to see one of our pictures,–that first one you worked in. You remember how you came down off that bluff, and how you roped me and jerked me down off the bank just as I’d got a bead on Lee? Say! that picture was a RIOT! Gloomy says he never saw a picture get the hand that scene got. And he wanted to know who was doubling for Gay, up here. You see, he got next that it was a double; he knows darned well Gay never could put over that line of stuff. The photography was dandy,–Pete’s right there when it comes to camera work, anyway,–and that run down the bluff, he said, had people standing on their hind legs even before the rope scene. You could tell it was a girl and no man doubling the part. Gloomy says everybody around the studio has begun to watch for our releases, and go just to see you ride and rope and shoot. And Gay gets all the press-notices! Say, it makes me sick!” He looked at Jean wistfully.

“The trouble is, you don’t realize what a raw deal you’re getting,” he said, with much discontent in his tone. “As an extra, you’re getting fine treatment and fine pay; I admit that. But the point is, you’ve no business being an extra. Where you belong is playing leads. You don’t know what that means, but I do. Burns is just using you to boost Muriel Gay, and I say it’s the rawest deal I ever saw handed out in the picture game; and believe me, I’ve seen some raw deals!”

“Now, now, don’t get peevish, Gil.” Jean’s drawl was soft, and her eyes were friendly and amused. So far had their friendship progressed. “It’s awfully dear of you to want to see me a real leading lady. I appreciate it, and I won’t take off that lock of hair I said I’d take when I shoot you in the foreground. Burns wants a real thrilling effect close up, and he’s told me five times to remember and keep my face turned away from the camera, so they won’t see it isn’t Gay. If I turn around, there will have to be a re-take, he says; and you won’t like that, Gil, not after you’ve heard a bullet zip past your ear so close that it will fan your hair. Are–aren’t you afraid of me, Gil?”

“Afraid of you?” Gil’s horse swung closer, and Gil’s eyes threatened the opening of a tacitly forbidden subject.

“Because if you get nervous and move the least little bit– To make it look real, as Bobby described the scene to me, I’ve got to shoot the instant you stop to gather yourself for a spring at me. It’s that lightning- draw business I have to do, Gil. I’m to stand three quarters to the camera, with my face turned away, watching you. You keep coming, and you stop just an instant when you’re almost within reach of me. In that instant I have to grab my gun and shoot; and it has to look as if I got you, Gil. I’ve got to come pretty close, in order to bring the gun in line with you for the camera. Bobby wants to show off the quick draw that Lite Avery taught me. That’s to be the `punch’ in the scene. I showed him this morning what it is like, and Bobby is just tickled to death. You see, I don’t shoot the way they usually do in pictures–“

“I should say not!” Gil interrupted admiringly.

“You haven’t seen that quick work, either. It’ll look awfully real, Gil, and you mustn’t dodge or duck, whatever you do. It will be just as if you really were a man I’m deadly afraid of, that has me cornered at last against that ledge. I’m going to do it as if I meant it. That will mean that when you stop and kind of measure the distance, meaning to grab me before I can do anything, I’ll draw and shoot from the level of my belt; no higher, Gil, or it won’t be the lightning-draw –as advertised. I won’t have time to take a fine aim, you know.”

“Listen!” said Gil, leaning toward her with his eyes very earnest. “I know all about that. I heard you and Burns talking about it. You go ahead and shoot, and put that scene over big. Don’t you worry about me; I’m going to play up to you, if I can. Listen! Pete’s just waiting for a chance to register your face on the film. Burns has planned his scenes to prevent that, but we’re just lying low till the chance comes. It’s got to be dramatic, and it’s got to seem accidental. Get me? I shouldn’t have told you, but I can’t seem to trick you, Jean. You’re the kind of a girl a fellow’s got to play fair with.”

“Bobby has told me five times already to remember and keep my face away from the camera,” Jean pointed out the second time. “Makes me feel as if I had lost my nose, or was cross-eyed or something. I do feel as if I’d lose my job, Gil.”

“No, you wouldn’t; all he’d do would be to have a re-take of the whole scene, and maybe step around like a turkey in the snow, and swear to himself. Anyway, you can forget what I’ve said, if you’ll feel more comfortable. It’s up to Pete and me, and we’ll put it over smooth, or we won’t do it at all. Bobby won’t realize it’s happened till he hears from it afterwards. Neither will you.” He turned his grease-painted face toward her hearteningly and smiled as endearingly as the sinister, painted lines would allow.

“Listen!” he repeated as a final encouragement, because he had sensed her preoccupation and had misread it for worry over the picture. “You go ahead and shoot, and don’t bother about me. Make it real. Shoot as close as you like. If you pink me a little I won’t care,–if you’ll promise to be my nurse. I want a vacation, anyway.”

CHAPTER XIV

PUNCH VERSES PRESTIGE

It seems to be a popular belief among those who are unfamiliar with the business of making motion pictures that all dangerous or difficult feats are merely tricks of the camera, and that the actors themselves take no risks whatever. The truth is that they take a good many more risks than the camera ever records; and that directors who worship what they call “punch” in their scenes are frequently as tender of the physical safety of their actors as was Napoleon or any other great warrior who measured results rather than wounds.

Robert Grant Burns had discovered that he had at least two persons in his company who were perfectly willing to do anything he asked them to do. He had set tasks before Jean Douglas that many a man would have refused without losing his self-respect, and Jean had performed those tasks with enthusiasm. She had let herself down over a nasty bit of the rim-rock whose broken line extended half around the coulee bluff, with only her rope between herself and broken bones, and with her blond wig properly tousled and her face turned always towards the rock wall, lest the camera should reveal the fact that she was not Muriel Gay. She had climbed that same rock-rim, with the aid of that same rope, and with her face hidden as usual from the camera. She had been bound and gagged and flung across Gil Huntley’s saddle and carried away at a sharp gallop, and she had afterwards freed herself from her bonds in the semi-darkness of a hut that half concealed her features, and had stolen the knife from Gil Huntley’s belt while he slept, and crept away to where the horses were picketed. In the revealing light of a very fine moon-effect, which was a triumph of Pete’s skill, she slashed a rope that held a high-strung “mustang” (so called in the scenario), and had leaped upon his bare back and gone hurtling out of that scene and into another, where she was riding furiously over dangerously rough ground, the whole outlaw band in pursuit and silhouetted against the skyline and the moon (which was another photographic triumph of Pete Lowry).

Gil Huntley had also done many things that were risky. Jean had shot at him with real bullets so many times that her nervousness on this particular day was rather unaccountable to him. Jean had lassoed him and dragged him behind Pard through brush. She had pulled him from a quicksand bed,–made of cement that showed a strong tendency to “set” about his form before she could rescue him,–and she had fought with him on the edge of a cliff and had thrown him over; and his director, anxious for the “punch” that was his fetish, had insisted on a panorama of the fall, so that there was no chance for Gil to save himself the bruises he got. Gil Huntley’s part it was always to die a violent death, or to be captured spectacularly, because he was the villain whose horrible example must bear a moral to youthful brains.

Since Jean had become one of the company, he nearly always died at her hands or was captured by her. This left Muriel Gay unruffled and unhurt, so that she could weep and accept the love of Lee Milligan in the artistic ending of which Robert Grant Burns was so fond.

Jean had never before considered it necessary to warn Gil and implore him not to be nervous, and Gil took her solicitude as an encouraging sign and was visibly cheered thereby. He knew little of guns and fine marksmanship, and he did not know that it is extremely difficult to shoot a revolver accurately and instantaneously; whereas Jean knew very well that Gil Huntley might be thrown off ledges every day in the week without taking the risk he would take that day.

The scene was to close a full reel of desperate attempts upon the part of Gil Huntley to win Muriel; such desperate attempts, indeed, that Muriel Gay spent most of the time sitting at ease in the shade, talking with Lee Milligan, who was two thirds in love with her and had half his love returned, while Jean played her part for her. Sometimes Muriel would be called upon to assume the exact pose which Jean had assumed in a previous scene, for “close-up” that would reveal to audiences Muriel’s well-known prettiness and help to carry along the deception. Each morning the two stood side by side and were carefully inspected by Robert Grant Burns, to make sure that hair and costumes were exactly alike in the smallest detail. This also helped to carry on the deception–to those who were not aware of Muriel’s limitations. Their faces were not at all alike; and that is why Jean’s face must never be seen in a picture.

This shooting scene was a fitting climax to a long and desperate chase over a difficult trail; so difficult that Pard stumbled and fell,–supposedly with a broken leg,–and Jean must run on and on afoot, and climb over rocks and spring across dangerous crevices. She was not supposed to know where her flight was taking her. Sometimes the camera caught her silhouetted against the sky (Burns was partial to skyline silhouettes), and sometimes it showed her quite close,–in which case it would be Muriel instead of Jean,–clinging desperately to the face of a ledge (ledges were also favorite scenes), and seeking with hands or feet for a hold upon the rough face of the rock. During the last two or three scenes Gil Huntley had been shown gaining upon her.

So they came to the location where the shooting scene was to be made that morning. Burns, with the camera and Pete and Muriel and her mother and Lee Milligan, drove to the place in the machine. Jean and Gil Huntley found them comfortably disposed in the shade, out of range of the camera which Pete was setting up somewhat closer than usual, under the direction of Burns.

“There won’t be any rehearsal of this,” Burns stated at last, stepping back. “When it’s done, if you don’t bungle the scene, it’ll be done. You stand here, Jean, and kind of lean against the rock as if you’re all in from that chase. You hear Gil coming, and you start forward and listen, and look,–how far can she turn, Pete; without showing too much of her face?”

Pete squinted into the finder and gave the information.

“Well, Gil, you come from behind that bush. She’ll be looking toward you then without turning too much. You grin, and come up with that eager, I-got-you-now look. Don’t hurry too much; we’ll give this scene plenty of time. This is the feature scene. Jean, you’re at the end of your rope. You couldn’t run another step if you wanted to, and you’re cornered anyway, so you can’t get away; get me? You’re scared. Did you ever get scared in your life?”

“Yes,” said Jean simply, remembering last night when she had pulled the blanket over her head.

“Well, you think of that time you were scared. And you make yourself think that you’re going to shoot the thing that scared you. You don’t put in half the punch when you shoot blanks; I’ve noticed that all along. So that’s why you shoot a bullet. See? And you come as close to Gil as you can and not hit him. Gil, when you’re shot, you go down all in a heap; you know what I mean. And Jean, when he falls, you start and lean forward, looking at him,–remember and keep your face away from the camera!–and then you start toward him kind of horrified. The scene stops right there, just as you start towards him. Then Gay takes it up and does the remorse and horror stuff because she’s killed a man. That will be a close-up.

“All right, now; take your places. Sure your gun is loose so you can pull it quick? That’s the feature of this scene, remember. You want to get it across BIG! And make it real,–the scare, and all that. Hey, you women get behind the camera! Bullets glance, sometimes, and play the very mischief.” He looked all around to make sure that everything was as it should be, faced Jean again, and raised his hand.

“All ready? Start your action! Camera!”

Jean had never before been given so much dramatic work to do, and Burns watched her anxiously, wishing that he dared cut the scene in two and give Muriel that tense interval when Gil Huntley came creeping into the scene from behind the bush. But after the first few seconds his strained expression relaxed; anxiety gave place to something like surprise.

Jean stood leaning heavily against the rock, panting from the flight of the day before,–for so must emotion be carried over into the next day when photo- players work at their profession. Her face was dropped upon her arms flung up against the rock in an attitude of complete exhaustion and despair. Burns involuntarily nodded his head approvingly; the girl had the idea, all right, even if she never had been trained to act a part.

“Come into the scene, Gil!” he commanded, when Jean made a move as though she was tempted to drop down upon the ground and sob hysterically. “Jean, register that you hear him coming.”

Jean’s head came up and she listened, every muscle stiffening with fear. She turned her face toward Gil, who stopped and looked at her most villainously. Gil, you must know, had come from “legitimate” and was a clever actor. Jean recoiled a little before the leering face of him; pressed her shoulder hard against the ledge that had trapped her, and watched him in an agony of fear. One felt that she did, though one could not see her face. Gil spoke a few words and came on with a certain tigerish assurance of his power, but Jean did not move a muscle. She had backed as far away from him as she could get. She was not the kind to weep and plead with him. She just waited; and one felt that she was keyed up to the supreme moment of her life.

Gil came closer and closer, and there was a look in his eyes that almost frightened Jean, accustomed as she had become to his acting a part; there was an intensity of purpose which she instinctively felt was real. She did not know what it was he had in mind, but whatever it was, she knew what it meant. He was almost within reach, so close that one saw Jean shrink a little from his nearness. He stopped and gathered himself for a quick, forward lunge–

The two women screamed, though they had been expecting that swift drawing of Jean’s gun and the shot that seemed to sound the instant her hand dropped. Gil stiffened, and his hand flew up to his temple. His eyes became two staring questions that bored into the soul of Jean. His hand dropped to his side, and his head sagged forward. He lurched, tried to steady himself and then went down limply.

Jean dropped her gun and darted toward him, her face like chalk, as she turned it for one horrified instant toward Burns. She went down on her knees and lifted Gil’s head, looking at the red blotch on his temple and the trickle that ran down his cheek. She laid his head down with a gentleness wholly unconscious, and looked again at Burns. “I’ve killed him,” she said in a small, dry, flat voice. She put out her hands gropingly and fell forward across Gil’s inert body. It was the first time in her life that Jean had ever fainted.

“Stop the camera!” Burns croaked tardily, and Pete stopped turning. Pete had that little, twisted grin on his face, and he was perfectly calm and self-possessed.

“You sure got the punch that time, Burns,” he remarked unfeelingly, while he held his palm over the lens and gave the crank another turn or two to divide that scene from the next.

“She’s fainted! She’s hit him!” cried Burns, and waddled over to where the two of them lay. The two women drew farther away, clinging to each other with excited exclamations.

And then Gil Huntley lifted himself carefully so as not to push Jean upon the ground, and when he was sitting up, he took her in his arms with some remorse and a good deal of tenderness.

“How was that for a punch?” he inquired of his director. “I didn’t tell her I was going to furnish the blood-sponge; I thought it might rattle her. I never thought she’d take it so hard–“

Robert Grant Burns stopped and looked at him in heavy silence. “Good Lord!” he snapped out at last. “I dunno whether to fire you off the job–or raise your salary! You got the punch, all right. And the chances are you’ve ruined her nerve for shooting, into the bargain.” He stood looking down perturbedly at Gil, who was smoothing Jean’s hair back from her forehead after the manner of men who feel tenderly toward the woman who cries or faints in their presence. “I’m after the punch every time,” Burns went on ruefully, “but there’s no use being a hog about it. Where’s that water-bag, Lee? Go get it out of the machine. Say! Can’t you women do something besides stand there and howl? Nobody’s hurt, or going to be.”

While Muriel and Gil Huntley did what they could to bring Jean back to consciousness and composure, Robert Grant Burns paced up and down and debated within himself a subject which might have been called “punch versus prestige.” Should he let that scene stand, or should he order a “re-take” because Jean had, after all, done the dramatic part, the “remorse stuff”? Of course, when Pete sent the film in, the trimmers could cut the scene; they probably would cut the scene just where Gil went down in a decidedly realistic heap. But it hurt the professional soul of Robert Grant Burns to retake a scene so compellingly dramatic, because it had been so absolutely real.

Jean was sitting up with her back against the ledge looking rather pale and feeling exceedingly foolish, while Gil Huntley explained to her about the “blood-sponge” and how he had held it concealed in his hand until the right moment, and had used it in the interest of realism and not to frighten her, as she might have reason to suspect. Gil Huntley was showing a marked tendency to repeat himself. He had three times assured her earnestly that he did not mean to scare her so, when the voice of the chief reminded him that this was merely an episode in the day’s work. He jumped up and gave his attention to Burns.

“Gil, take that same position you had when you fell. Put a little more blood on your face; you wiped most of it off. That right leg is sprawled out too far. Draw it up a little. Throw out your left arm a little more. Whoa– Enough is plenty. Now, Gay, you take Jean’s gun and hold it down by your side, where her hand dropped right after she fired. You stand right about here, where her tracks are. Get INTO her tracks! We’re picking up the scene right where Gil fell. She looked straight into the camera and spoiled the rest, or I’d let it go in. Some acting, if you ask me, seeing it wasn’t acting at all.” He sent one of his slant-eyed glances toward Jean, who bit her lips and looked away.

“Lean forward a little, and hold that gun like you knew what it was made for, anyway!” He regarded Muriel glumly. “Say! that ain’t a stick of candy you’re trying to hide in your skirt,” he pointed out, with an exasperated, rising inflection at the end of the sentence. “John Jimpson! If I could take you two girls to pieces and make one out of the two of you, I’d have an actress that could play Western leads, maybe!

“Oh, well–thunder! All you can do is put over the action so they’ll forget the gun. Say, you drop it the second the camera starts. You pick up the action where Jean dropped the gun and started for Gil. See if you can put it over the way she did. She really thought she’d killed him, remember. You saw the real, honest-to-John, horror-dope that time. Now see how close you can copy it.

“All ready? START your ACTION!” he barked. “Camera!”

Brutally absorbed in his work he might be; callous to the tragedy in Jean’s eyes at what might have happened; unfeeling in his greedy seizure of her horror as good “stuff” for Muriel Gay to mimic. Yet the man’s energy was dynamic; his callousness was born of his passion for the making of good pictures. He swept even Jean out of the emotional whirlpool and into the calm, steady current of the work they had to do.

He instructed Pete to count as spoiled those fifteen feet of film which recorded Jean’s swift horror. But Pete Lowry did not always follow slavishly his instructions. He sent the film in as it was, without comment. Then he and Gil Huntley counted on their fingers the number of days that would probably elapse before they might hope to hear the result, and exchanged knowing glances now and then when Robert Grant Burns seemed especially careful that Jean’s face should not be seen by the recording eye of the camera. And they waited; and after awhile they began to show a marked interest in the mail from the west.

CHAPTER XV

A LEADING LADY THEY WOULD MAKE OF JEAN

Sometimes events follow docilely the plans that would lead them out of the future of possibilities and into the present of actualities, and sometimes they bring with them other events which no man may foresee unless he is indeed a prophet. You would never think, for instance, that Gil Huntley and his blood sponge would pull from the future a chain of incidents that would eventually–well, never mind what. Just follow the chain of incidents and see what lies at the end.

Pete Lowry and Gil had planned cunningly for a certain readjustment of Jean’s standing in the company, for no deeper reasons than their genuine liking for the girl and a common human impulse to have a hand in the ordering of their little world. In ten days Robert Grant Burns received a letter from Dewitt, president of the Great Western Film Company, which amply fulfilled those plans, and, as I said, opened the way for other events quite unforeseen.

There were certain orders from the higher-ups which Robert Grant Burns must heed. They were, briefly, the immediate transfer of Muriel Gay to the position of leading woman in a new company which was being sent to Santa Barbara to make light comedy-dramas. Robert Grant Burns grunted when he read that, though it was a step up the ladder for Muriel which she would be glad to take. The next paragraph instructed him to place the young woman who had been doubling for Miss Gay in the position which Miss Gay would leave vacant. It was politely suggested that he adapt the leading woman’s parts to the ability of this young woman; which meant that he must write his scenarios especially with her in mind. He was informed that he should feature the young woman in her remarkable horsemanship, etc. It was pointed out that her work was being noticed in the Western features which Robert Grant Burns had been sending in, and that other film companies would no doubt make overtures shortly, in the hope of securing her services. Under separate cover they were mailing a contract which would effectually forestall such overtures, and they were relying upon him to see that she signed up with the Great Western as per contract. Finally, it was suggested, since Mr. Dewitt chose always to suggest rather than to command, that Robert Grant Burns consider the matter of writing a series of short stories having some connecting thread of plot and featuring this Miss Douglas. (This, by the way, was the beginning of the serial form of motion- picture plays which has since become so popular.)

Robert Grant Burns read that letter through slowly, and then sat down heavily in an old arm-chair in the hotel office, lighted one of his favorite fat, black cigars, and mouthed it absently, while he read the letter through again. He said “John Jimpson!” just above a whisper. He held the letter in his two hands and regarded it strangely. Then he looked up, caught the quizzical, inquiring glance of Pete Lowry, and beckoned that secret-smiling individual over to him. “Read that!” he grunted. “Read it and tell me what you think of it.”

Pete Lowry read it carefully, and grinned when he handed it back. He did not, however, tell Robert Grant Burns just exactly what he thought of it. He merely said that it had to come sometime, he guessed.

“She can’t put over the dramatic stuff,” objected Robert Grant Burns. “She’s got the face for it, all right, and when she registers real emotions, it gets over big. The bottled-up kind of people always do. But she’s never acted an emotion she didn’t feel–“

“How about that all-in stuff, and the listening-and– waiting business she put across before she took a shot at Gil that time she fainted?” Pete reminded him. “If you ask me, that little girl can act.”

“Well, whether she can or not, she’s got to try it,” said Burns with some foreboding. “She’s been going big, with Gay to do all the close-up, dramatic work. The trouble is, Pete, that girl always does as she darn pleases! If I put her opposite Lee in a scene and tell her to act like she is in love with him, and that he’s to kiss her and she’s to kiss back,–” he flung out his hands expressively. “You must know the rest, as well as I do. She’d turn around and give me a call-down, and get on her horse and ride off; and I and my picture could go to thunder, for all of her. That’s the point; she ain’t been through the mill. She don’t know anything about taking orders–from me or anybody else.” It is a pity that Lite did not hear that! He might have amended the statement a little. Jean had been taking orders enough; she knew a great deal about receiving ultimatums. The trouble was that she seldom paid any attention to them. Lite was accustomed to that, but Robert Grant Burns was not, and it irked him sore.

“Well, she’s sure got the screen personality,” Pete defended. “I’ve said it all along. That girl don’t have to act. Put her in the part, and she is the part! She’s got something better than technique, Burns. She’s got imagination. She puts herself in a character and lives it.”

“Put her on a horse and she does,” Burns conceded gloomily. “But will you tell me what kind of work she’ll make of interior scenes, and love scenes, and all that? You’ve got to have it, to pad out your story. You can’t let your leading character do a whole two– or three-reel picture on horseback. There wouldn’t be any contrast. Dewitt don’t know that girl the way I do. If he’d had to side-step and scheme and give in the way I’ve done to keep her working, he wouldn’t put her playing straight leads, not until she’d had a year or two of training–“

“Taming is a better word,” Pete suggested drily. “There’ll be fun when she gets to playing love scenes opposite Lee. You better let him take the heavies, and put Gil in for leads, Burns.”

Robert Grant Burns was so cast down by the prospect that he made no attempt to reply, beyond grunting something about preferring to drive a team of balky mules to making Jean do something she did not want to do. But, such is the mind trained to a profession, insensibly he drifted away into the world of his imagination, and began to draw therefrom the first tenuous threads of a plot wherein Jean’s peculiar accomplishments were to be featured. Robert Grant Burns had long ago learned to adjust himself to circumstances which in themselves were not to his liking. He adjusted himself now to the idea of making Jean the Western star his employers seemed to think was inevitable.

That night before he went to bed he wrote a play which had in it fifty-two scenes. Thirty-five of them were what is known technically as exteriors. In most of them Jean was to ride on horseback through wild places. The rest were dramatic close-ups. Robert Grant Burns went over it carefully when it was finished, and groaning inwardly he cut out two love scenes which were tense, and which Muriel Gay and Lee Milligan would have “eaten up,” as he mentally expressed it. The love interest, he realized bitterly, must be touched upon lightly in his scenarios from now on; which would have lightened appreciably the heart of Lite Avery, if he had only known it, and would have erased from his mind a good many depressing visions of Jean as the film sweetheart of those movie men whom he secretly hated.

Jean did not hesitate five minutes before she signed the contract which Burns presented to her the next morning. She was human, and she had learned enough about the business to see that, speaking from a purely professional point of view, she was extremely fortunate. Not every girl, surely, can hope to jump in a few weeks from the lowly position of an inexperienced “extra” to the supposedly exalted one of leading woman. And to her that hundred dollars a week which the contract insured her looked a fortune. It spelled home to her, and the vindication of her beloved dad, of whom she dared not think sometimes, it hurt her so.

Her book was not progressing as fast as she had expected when she began it. She had been working at it sporadically now for eight weeks, and she had only ten chapters done,–and some of these were terribly short. She had looked through all of the novels that she owned, and had computed the average number of chapters in each; thirty she decided would be a good, conservative number to write. She had even divided those thirty into three parts, and had impartially allotted ten to adventure, ten to mystery and horror, and ten to love- making. Such an arrangement should please everybody, surely, and need only be worked out smoothly to prove most satisfying.

But, as it happened, comedy would creep into the mystery and horror, which she mentally lumped together as agony. Adventure ran riot, and straight love- making chapters made her sleepy, they bored her so. She had tried one or two, and she had found it impossible to concentrate her mind upon them. Instead, she had sat and planned what she would do with the money that was steadily accumulating in the bank; a pitiful little sum, to be sure, to those who count by the thou- sands, but cheering enough to Jean, who had never before had any money of her own.

So she signed the contract and worked that day so light-heartedly that Robert Grant Burns forgot his pessimism. When the light began to fade and grow yellow, and the big automobile went purring down the trail to town, she rode on to the Bar Nothing to find Lite, and tell him how fortune had come and tapped her on the shoulder.

She did not see Lite anywhere about the ranch, and so she did not put her hopes and her plans and her good fortune into speech. She did see her Aunt Ella, who straightway informed her that people were talking about the way she rode here and there with those painted-up people, and let the men put their arms around her and make love to her. Her Aunt Ella made it perfectly plain to Jean that she, for one, did not consider it respectable. Her Aunt Ella said that Carl was going to do something about it, if things weren’t changed pretty quick.

Jean did not appear to regard her aunt’s disapproval as of any importance whatever, but the words stung. She had herself worried a little over the love-making scenes which she knew she would now be called upon to play. Jean, you will have observed, was not given to sentimental adventurings; and she disliked the idea of letting Lee Milligan make love to her the way he had made love to Muriel Gay through picture after picture. She would do it, she supposed, if she had to; she wanted the salary. But she would hate it intolerably. She made reply with sarcasm which she knew would particularly irritate her Aunt Ella, and left the house feeling that she never wanted to enter it again as long as she lived.

The sight of her uncle standing beside Pard in an attitude of disgusted appraisement of the new Navajo blanket and the silver-trimmed bridle and tapideros which Burns had persuaded her to add to her riding outfit,–for photographic effect,–brought a hot flush of resentment. She went up quietly enough, however. Indeed, she went up so quietly that he started when she appeared almost beside him and picked up Pard’s reins, and took the stirrup to mount and ride away. She did not speak to him at all; she had not spoken to him since that night when the little brown bird had died! Though perhaps that was because she had managed to keep out of his way.

“I see you’ve been staking yourself to a new bridle,” Carl began in a tone quite as sour as his look. “You must have bought out all the tin decorations they had in stock, didn’t you?”

Jean swung up into the saddle before she looked at him. “If I did, it’s my own affair,” she retorted. “I paid for the tin decorations with my own money.”

“Oh, you did! Well, you might have been in better business than paying for that kind of thing. You might,” he sneered up at her, “have been paying for your keep these last three years, if you’ve got more money of your own than you know what to do with.”

Jean could not ride off under the sting of that gratuitous insult. She held Pard quiet and looked down at him with hate in her eyes. “I expect,” she said in a queer, quiet wrath, “to prove before long that my own money has been paying for my `keep’ these last three years; for that and for other things that did not benefit me in the least.”

“I’d like to know what you mean by that!” Carl caught Pard by the bridle-rein and looked up at her in a white fury that startled even Jean, accustomed as she was to his sudden rages that contrasted with his sullen attitude toward the world.

“What do you think I would mean? Let go my bridle. I don’t want to quarrel with you.”

“What did you mean by proving–what do you expect to prove?” His hand was heavy on the rein, so that Pard began to fret under the restraint. “You’ve got to quit running around all over the country with them show folks, and stay at home and behave yourself. You’ve got to quit hanging out at the Lazy A. I’ve stood as much as I’m going to stand of your performances. You get down off that horse and go into the house and behave yourself; that’s what you’ll do! If you haven’t got any shame or decency–“

Jean scarcely knew what she did, just then. She must have dug Pard with her spurs, because the first thing that she realized was the lunge he gave. Carl’s hold slipped from the rein, as he was jerked sidewise. He made an ineffective grab at Jean’s skirt, and he called her a name she had never heard spoken before in her life. A rod or so away she pulled up and turned to face him, but the words she would have spoken stuck in her throat. She had never seen Carl Douglas look like that; she had seen him when he was furious, she had seen him when he sulked, but she had never seen him look like that.

He called her to come back. He made threats of what he would do if she refused to obey him. He shook his fist at her. He behaved like a man temporarily robbed of his reason; his eyes, as he came up glaring at her, were the eyes of a madman.

Jean felt a tremor of dread while she looked at him and listened to him. He was almost within reach of her again when she wheeled and went off up the trail at a run. She looked back often, half fearing that he would get a horse and follow her, but he stood just where she had left him, and he seemed to be still uttering threats and groundless accusations as long as she was in sight.

CHAPTER XVI

FOR ONCE AT LEAST LITE HAD HIS WAY

Half a mile she galloped, and met Lite coming home. She glanced over her shoulder before she pulled Pard down to a walk, and Lite’s greeting, as he turned and rode alongside her, was a question. He wanted to know what was the matter with her. He listened with his old manner of repression while she told him, and he made no comment whatever until she had finished.

“You must have made him pretty sore,” he said dispassionately. “I don’t think myself that you ought to stay over to the ranch alone. Why don’t you do as he says?”

“And go back to the Bar Nothing?” Jean shivered a little. “Nothing could make me go back there! Lite, you don’t understand. He acted like a crazy man; and I hadn’t said anything to stir him up like that. He was–Lite, he scared me! I couldn’t stay on the ranch with him. I couldn’t be in the same room with him.”

“You can’t go on staying at the Lazy A,” Lite told her flatly.

“There’s no other place where I’d stay.”

“You could,” Lite pointed out, “stay in town and go back and forth with the rest of the bunch. It would be a lot better, any way you look at it.”

“It would be a lot worse. There’s my book; I wouldn’t have any chance to write on that. And there’s the expense. I’m saving every nickel I possibly can, Lite, and you know what for. And there’s the bunch–I see enough of them during working hours. I’d go crazy if I had to live with them. Lite, they’ve put me in playing leads! I’m to get a hundred dollars a week! Just think of that! And Burns says that I’ll have to go back to Los Angeles with them when they go this fall, because the contract I signed lasts for a year.”

She sighed. “I rode over to tell you about it. It seemed to be good news, when I left home. But now, it’s just a part of the black tangle that life’s made up of. Aunt Ella started things off by telling me what a disgrace it is for me to work in these pictures. And Uncle Carl–” She shivered in spite of herself. “I just can’t understand Uncle Carl’s going into such a rage. It was–awful.”

Lite rode for some distance before he lifted his head or spoke. Then he looked at Jean, who was staring straight ahead and seeing nothing save what her thoughts pictured.

He did not say a word about her going to Los Angeles.

He was the bottled-up type; the things that hit him hardest he seldom mentioned, so by that rule it might be inferred that her going hit hard. But his voice was normally calm, and his tone was the tone of authority, which Jean knew very well, and which nearly always amused her because she firmly believed it to be utterly useless.

He said in the tone of an ultimatum: “If you’re bound to stay at the ranch, you’ve got to have somebody with you. I’ll ride in and get Hepsy Atwood in the morning. You’re getting thin. I don’t believe you take time to cook enough to eat. You can’t work on soda crackers and sardines. The old lady won’t charge much to come and stay with you. I’ll come over after I’m through work to-morrow and help her get things looking a little more like living.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort.” Jean looked at him mutinously. “I’m all right just as I am. I won’t have her, Lite. That’s settled.”

“Sure, it’s settled,” Lite agreed, with more than his usual pertinacity. “I’ll have her out here by noon, and a supply of real grub. How are you fixed for bedding?”

“I won’t have her, I tell you. You’re always trying to make me do things I won’t do. Don’t be silly.”

“Sure not.” Lite shifted in the saddle with the air of a man who rides at perfect ease with himself and with the world. “She’ll likely have plenty of bedding of her own,” he meditated, after a brief silence.

“Lite, if you haul Hepsibah out here, I’ll send her back!”

“I’ll haul her out,” said Lite in a tone of finality, “but you won’t send her back.” He paused. “She ain’t much protection, maybe,” he remarked somewhat enigmatically, “but it’ll beat staying alone nights. You–you can’t tell who might come prowling around the place.”

“What do you mean? Do you know about–” Jean caught herself on the verge of betrayal.

“You want to keep your gun handy. Just on general principles,” Lite remonstrated. “You can’t tell; it’s away off from everywhere.”

“I won’t have Hepsy Atwood. Haven’t I enough to drive me mad, without her?”

“Is there anybody else that you’d rather have?” Lite looked at her speculatively.

“No, there isn’t. I won’t have anybody. It would be a nuisance having some old lady in the house gabbling and gossiping. I’m not the least bit afraid, except,– I’m not afraid, and I like to be alone. I won’t have her, Lite.”

Lite said no more about it until they reached the house, huddled lonesomely against the barren bluff, its windows staring black into the dusk. Jean did not seem to expect Lite to dismount, but he did not wait to see what she expected him to do. In his most matter- of-fact manner he dismounted and turned his horse, still saddled, into the stable with Pard. He preceded Jean up the path, and went into the kitchen ahead of her; lighted a match and found the lamp, and set its flame to brightening the dingy room.

Jean had not done much in the way of making that part of the house more attractive. She used the kitchen to cook in, because the stove was there, and the dishes. She had spread an old braided rug over the brown stain on the floor, and she ate in her own room with the door shut.

Without being told, Lite seemed to know all about her secret aversion to the kitchen. He took up the lamp and went now on a tour of inspection through the house. Jean followed him, wondering a little, and thinking that this was the way that mysterious stranger came and prowled at night, except that he must have used matches to light the way, or a candle, since the lamp seemed never to be disturbed. Lite went into all the rooms and held the lamp so that its brightness searched out all the corners. He looked into the small, stuffy closets. He stood in the middle of her father’s room and seemed to meditate deeply, while Jean stood in the doorway and watched him inquiringly. He came back finally to the kitchen and looked into the cupboard, as though he was taking an inventory of her supply of provisions.

“You might cook me some supper, Jean,” he said, when he had put the lamp on the table. “I see you’ve got eggs and bacon. I’m pretty hungry,–for a man that had his dinner six or seven hours ago.”

Jean cooked supper, and they ate together in the kitchen. It did not seem so gruesome with Lite there, and she told him some funny things that had happened in her work, and mimicked Robert Grant Burns with an accuracy of manner and tone that would have astonished that pompous person a good deal and flattered him not at all. She almost recovered her spirits under the stimulus of Lite’s presence, and she quite forgot that he had threatened her with Hepsibah Atwood.

But when he had wiped the dishes and had taken up his hat to go, Lite proved how tenaciously his mind could hold to an idea, and how even Jean could not quite match him for stubbornness.

“That mattress in the little bedroom looks all right,” he said. “I’ll pack it outside before I go, so it will have all day to-morrow out in the sun. I’ll have Hepsy bring her own bedding. Well–so long.”

Jean would have sworn in perfect good faith that Lite led his horse out of the stable, mounted it, and rode away to the Bar Nothing. He did mount and ride away as far as the mouth of the coulee. But that night he spent in the loft over the shop, and he did not sleep five minutes during the night. Most of the time he spent leaning against his rolled bedding, smoking and gazing at the silent house where Jean slept. You may interpret that as you will.

Jean did not see or hear anything more of him, until about four o’clock the next afternoon, when he drove calmly up to the house and deposited Hepsibah Atwood upon the kitchen steps. He did not wait for Jean to order them away. He hurried the unloading, released the wagon brake, and drove off. So Jean, coming from the spring behind the house, really got her first sight of him as he went rattling down to the gate.

Jean stood and looked after him, twitched her shoulders in a mental yielding of the point for the time being, and said “How-da-do” to the old lady.

She was not so old, as years go; fifty-five or thereabouts. And she could have whispered into Lite’s ear without standing on her toes or asking him to bend his head. Lite was a tall man, at that. She had gray hair that was frizzy around her brows and at the back of her neck, and she had an Irish disposition without the brogue to go with it.

The first thing she did was to find an axe and chop a lot of fence-posts into firewood, as easily as Lite himself could have done it, and in other ways proceeded to make herself very much at home. The next day she dipped the spring almost dry, and used up all the soap in the house; and for three days went around with her skirts tucked up and her arms bare and the soles of her shoes soggy from wet floors. Jean kept out of her way, but she owned to herself that, after all, it was not unpleasant to come home tired and not have to cook a solitary supper and eat it in silent meditation.

The third night after Hepsy’s arrival, Jean awoke to hear a man’s furtive footsteps in her father’s room. This was the fifth time that the prowler had come in the night, and custom had dulled her fear a little. She had not reached the point yet of getting up to see who it was and what he wanted. It was much easier to lie perfectly still with her six-shooter gripped in her hand and wait for him to go. Beyond stealthily trying her door and finding it fastened on the inside, he had never shown any disposition to invade her room

To-night was as all other nights when he came and made that mysterious search, until he went into the little bedroom where slept Hepsibah Atwood. Jean listened to the faint creaking of old boards which told her that he was approaching Hepsy’s room, and she wondered if Hepsy would hear him. Hepsy did hear him. There was a squeak of the old bedstead that told how a hundred and seventy-two pounds of indignant womanhood was rising to do battle.

“Who’s that? Git outa here, or I’ll smash you!” There was no fear but a great deal of determination in Hepsy’s voice, and there was the sound of her bare feet spatting on the floor.

The man’s footsteps retreated hurriedly. Jean heard the kitchen door open and slam shut with a shrill squeal of its rusty hinges, and the sound of a man running down the path. She heard Hepsy muttering threats while she followed to the door and looked out, and she heard the muttering continue while Hepsy returned to bed.

It was very comforting. Jean tucked her gun under her pillow, laughed to herself for having shuddered under the blankets at the sound of a man so easily put to flight, and went to sleep feeling quite secure and for the first time really glad that Hepsibah Atwood was in the house.

She listened the next morning to Hepsy’s colorful account of the affair, but she did not tell Hepsy that the man had been there before. She did not even tell her that she had heard the disturbance, and was lying with her gun in her hand ready to shoot if he came into her room. For a girl as frank and outspoken as was Jean, she had almost as great a talent as Lite for holding her tongue.

CHAPTER XVII

“WHY DON’T YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING REAL?”