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  • 1915
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“Well–” Jean still had some trouble with her breath and to keep her quiet, smooth drawl, “let’s make it a woman’s reason. Because.”

Art’s face settled to a certain hardness that still was not hostile. “Becauses don’t go,” he said. “Not with a girl like you; they might with some. What do you want me to go back for?”

“Well, I want you to go because I want to clear things up, about Johnny Croft. It’s time–it was cleared up.”

Art regarded her fixedly. “Well, I don’t see yet what’s back of that first BECAUSE,” he sparred. “There’s nothing I can do to clear up anything.”

“Art, don’t lie to me about it. I know–“

“What do you know?” Art’s eyes never left her face, now. They seemed to be boring into her brain. Jean began to feel a certain confusion. To be sure, she had never had any experience whatever with fugitive murderers; but no one would ever expect one to act like this. A little more, she thought resentfully, and he would be making her feel as if she were the guilty person. She straightened herself and stared back at him.

“I know you left because you–you didn’t want to stay and face-things. I–I have felt as if I could kill you, almost, for what you have done. I–I don’t see how you can SIT there and–and look at me that way.” She stopped and braced herself. “I don’t want to argue about it. I came here to make you go back and face things. It’s–horrible–” She was thinking of her father then, and she could not go on.

“Jean, you’re all wrong. I don’t know what idea you’ve got, but you may as well get one or two things straight. Maybe you do feel like killing me; but I don’t know what for. I haven’t the slightest notion of going back; there’s nothing I could clear up, if I did go.”

Jean looked at him dumbly. She supposed she should have to force him to go, after all. Of course, you couldn’t expect that a man who had committed a crime will admit it to the first questioner; you couldn’t expect him to go back willingly and face the penalty. She would have to use her gun; perhaps even call on Lite, since Lite had followed her. She might have felt easier in her mind had she seen how Lite was standing just within the glass-paneled door behind the dimity curtain, listening to every word, and watching every expression on Art Osgood’s face. Lite’s hand, also, was close to his gun, to be perfectly sure of Jean’s safety. But he had no intention of spoiling her feeling of independence if he could help it. He had lots of faith in Jean.

“What has cropped up, anyway?” Art asked her curiously, as if he had been puzzling over her reasons for being there. “I thought that affair was settled long ago, when it happened. I thought it was all straight sailing–“

“To send an innocent man to prison for it? Do you call that straight sailing?” Jean’s eyes had in them now a flash of anger that steadied her.

“What innocent man?” Art threw away the stub of the splinter and sat up straight. “I never knew any innocent man–“

“Oh! You didn’t know?”

“All I know,” said Art, with a certain swiftness of speech that was a new element in his manner, “I’m dead willing to tell you. I knew Johnny had been around knocking the outfit, and making some threats, and saying things he had no business to say. I never did have any use for him, just because he was so mouthy. I wasn’t surprised to hear–how it ended up.”

“To hear! You weren’t there, when it
happened?” Jean was watching him for some betraying emotion, some sign that she had struck home. She got a quick, sharp glance from him, as if he were trying to guess just how much she knew.

“Why should I have been there? The last time I was ever at the Lazy A,” he stated distinctly, “was the day before I left. I didn’t go any farther than the gate then. I had a letter for your father, and I met him at the gate and gave it to him.”

“A letter for dad?” It was not much, but it was better than nothing. Jean thought she might lead him on to something more.

“Yes! A note, or a letter. Carl sent me over with it.”

“Carl? What was it about? I never heard–“

“I never read it. Ask your dad what it was about, why don’t you? I don’t reckon it was anything particular.”

“Maybe it was, though.” Jean was turning crafty. She would pretend to be interested in the letter, and trip Art somehow when he was off his guard. “Are you sure that it was the day before–you left?”

“Yes.” Some high talk in the street caught his attention, and Art turned and looked down. Jean caught at the chance to study his averted face, but she could not read innocence or guilt there. Art, she decided, was not as transparent as she had always believed him to be. He turned back and met her look. “I know it was the day before. Why?”

“Oh, I wondered. Dad didn’t say– What did he do with it–the letter?”

“He opened it and read it.” A smile of amused understanding of her finesse curled Art’s lips. “And he stuck it in the pocket of his chaps and went on to wherever he was going.” His eyes challenged her impishly.

“And it was from Uncle Carl, you say?”

Art hesitated, and the smile left his lips. “It–it was from Carl, yes. Why?”

“Oh, I just wondered.” Jean was wondering why he had stopped smiling, all at once, and why he hesitated. Was he afraid he was going to contradict himself about the day or the errand? Or was he afraid she would ask her Uncle Carl, and find that there was no letter?

“Why don’t you ask your dad, if you are so anxious to know all about it?” Art demanded abruptly. “Anyway, that’s the last time I was ever over there.”

“Ask dad!” Jean’s anger flamed out suddenly. “Art Osgood, when I think of dad, I wonder why I don’t shoot you! I wonder how you dare sit there and look me in the face. Ask dad! Dad, who is paying with his life and all that’s worth while in life, for that murder that you deny–“

“What’s that? Paying how?” Art leaned toward her; and now his face was hard and hostile, and so were his eyes.

“Paying! You know how he is paying! Paying in Deer Lodge penitentiary–“

“Who? YOUR FATHER?” Had Art been ready to spring at her and catch her by the throat, he would not have looked much different.

“My father!” Jean’s voice broke upon the word. “And you–” She did not attempt to finish the charge.

Art sat looking at her with a queer intensity. “Your father!” he repeated. “Aleck! I never knew that, Jean. Take my word, I never knew that!” He seemed to be thinking pretty fast. “Where’s Carl at?” he asked irrelevantly.

“Uncle Carl? He’s home, running both ranches. I –I never could make Uncle Carl see that you must have been the one.”

“Been the one that shot Crofty, you mean?” Art gave a short laugh. He got up and stood in front of her. “Thanks, awfully. Good reason why he couldn’t see it! He knows well enough I didn’t do it. He knows–who did.” He bit his lips then, as if he feared that he had said too much.

“Uncle Carl knows? Then why doesn’t he tell? It wasn’t dad!” Jean took a defiant step toward him. “Art Osgood, if you dare say it was dad, I–I’ll kill you!”

Art smiled at her with a brief lightening of his eyes. “I believe you would, at that,” he said soberly. “But it wasn’t your dad, Jean.”

“Who was it?”

“I–don’t–know.”

“You do! You do know, Art Osgood! And you ran off; and they gave dad eight years–“

Art spoke one word under his breath, and that word was profane. “I don’t see how that could be,” he said after a minute.

Jean did not answer. She was biting her lips to keep back the tears. She felt that somehow she had failed; that Art Osgood was slipping through her fingers, in spite of the fact that he did not seem to fear her or to oppose her except in the final accusation. It was the lack of opposition, that lack of fear, that baffled her so. Art, she felt dimly, must be very sure of his own position; was it because he was so close to the Mexican line? Jean glanced desperately that way. It was very close. She could see the features of the Mexican soldiers lounging before the cantina over there; through the lighted window of the customhouse she could see a dark- faced officer bending over a littered desk. The guard over there spoke to a friend, and she could hear the words he said.

Jean thought swiftly. She must not let Art Osgood go back across that street. She could cover him with her gun–Art knew how well she could use it!–and she would call for an American officer and have him arrested. Or, Lite was somewhere below; she would call for Lite, and he could go and get an officer and a warrant.

“How soon you going back?” Art asked abruptly, as though he had been pondering a problem and had reached the solution. “I’ll have to get a leave of absence, or go down on the books as a deserter; and I wouldn’t want that. I can get it, all right. I’ll go back with you and straighten this thing out, if it’s the way you say it is. I sure didn’t know they’d pulled your dad for it, Jean.”

This, coming so close upon the heels of her own decision, set Jean all at sea again. She looked at him doubtfully.

“I thought you said you didn’t know, and you wouldn’t go back.”

Art grinned sardonically. “I’ll lie any time to help a friend,” he admitted frankly. “What I do draw the line at is lying to help some cowardly cuss double-cross a man. Your father got the double-cross; I don’t stand for anything like that. Not a-tall!” He heaved a sigh of nervous relaxation, for the last half hour had been keyed rather high for them both, and pulled his hat down on his head.

“Say, Jean! Want to go across with me and meet the general? You can make my talk a whole lot stronger by telling what you came for. I’ll get leave, all right, then. And you’ll know for sure that I’m playing straight. You see that two-story ‘dobe about half-way down the block,–the one with the Mexican flag over it?” He pointed. “There’s where he is. Want to go over?”

“Any objections to taking me along with you?” This was Lite, coming nonchalantly toward them from the doorway. Lite was still perfectly willing to let Jean manage this affair in her own way, but that did not mean that he would not continue to watch over her. Lite was much like a man who lets a small boy believe he is driving a skittish team all alone. Jean believed that she was acting alone in this, as in everything else. She had yet to learn that Lite had for three years been always at hand, ready to take the lines if the team proved too fractious for her.

Art turned and put out his hand. “Why, hello, Lite! Sure, you can come along; glad to have you.” He eyed Lite questioningly. “I’ll gamble you’ve heard all we’ve been talking about,” he said. “That would be you, all right! So you don’t need any wising up. Come on; I want to catch the chief before he goes off somewhere.”

To see the three of them go down the stairs and out upon the street and across it into Mexico,–which to Jean seemed very queer,–you would never dream of the quest that had brought them together down here on the border. Even Jean was smiling, in a tired, anxious way. She walked close to Lite and never once asked him how he came to be there, or why. She was glad that he was there. She was glad to shift the whole matter to his broad shoulders now, and let him take the lead.

They had a real Mexican dinner in a queer little adobe place where Art advised them quite seriously never to come alone. They had thick soup with a strange flavor, and Art talked with the waiter in Mexican dialect that made Jean glad indeed to feel Lite’s elbow touching hers, and to know that although Lite’s hand rested idly on his knee, it was only one second from his weapon. She had no definite suspicion of Art Osgood, but all the same she was thankful that she was not there alone with him among all these dark, sharp- eyed Mexicans with their atmosphere of latent treachery.

Lite ate mostly with his left hand. Jean noticed that. It was the only sign of watchfulness that he betrayed, unless one added the fact that he had chosen a seat which brought his back against an adobe wall and his face toward Art and the room, with Jean beside him. That might have been pure chance, and it might not. But Art was evidently playing fair.

A little later they came back to the Casa del Sonora, and Jean went up to her room feeling that a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Lite and Art Osgood were out on the veranda, gossiping of the range, and in Art’s pocket was a month’s leave of absence from his duties. Once she heard Lite laugh, and she stood with one hand full of hairpins and the other holding the brush and listened, and smiled a little. It all sounded very companionable, very care-free,–not in the least as though they were about to clear up an old wrong.

She got into bed and thumped the hard pillow into a little nest for her tired head, and listened languidly to the familiar voices that came to her mingled with confused noises of the street. Lite was on guard; he would not lose his caution just because Art seemed friendly and helpfully inclined, and had meant no treachery over in that queer restaurant. Lite would not be easily tricked. So she presently fell asleep.

CHAPTER XXIII

A LITTLE ENLIGHTENMENT

Sometime in the night Jean awoke to hear footsteps in the corridor outside her room. She sat up with a start, and her right hand went groping for her gun. Just for the moment she thought that she was in her room at the Lazy A, and that the night-prowler had come and was beginning his stealthy search of the house.

Then she heard some one down in the street call out a swift sentence in Spanish, and get a laugh for an answer. She remembered that she was in Nogales, within talking distance of Mexico, and that she had found Art Osgood, and that he did not behave like a fugitive murderer, but like a friend who was anxious to help free her father.

The footsteps went on down the hall,–the footsteps of Lite, who had come and stood for a minute outside her door to make sure that all was quiet and that she slept. But Jean, now that she knew where she was, lay wide awake and thinking. Suddenly she sat up again, staring straight before her.

That letter,–the letter Art had taken to her father, the letter he had read and put in the pocket of his chaps! Was that what the man had been hunting for, those nights when he had come searching in that secret, stealthy way? She did not remember ever having looked into the pocket of her father’s chaps, though they had hung in her room all those three years since the tragedy. Pockets in chaps were not, as a general thing, much used. Men carried matches in them sometimes, or money. The flap over her dad’s chap-pocket was buttoned down, and the leather was stiff; perhaps the letter was there yet.

She got up and turned on the light, and looked at her watch. She wanted to start then, that instant, for Los Angeles. She wanted to take her dad’s chaps out of her trunk where she had packed them just for the comfort of having them with her, and she wanted to look and see if the letter was there still. There was no particular reason for believing that this was of any particular importance, or had any bearing whatever upon the crime. But the idea was there, and it nagged at her.

Her watch said that it was twenty-five minutes after two o’clock. The train, Lite had told her, would leave for Tucson at seven-forty-five in the morning. She told herself that, since it was too far to walk, and since she could not start any sooner by staying up and freezing, she might just as well get back into bed and try to sleep.

But she could not sleep. She kept thinking of the letter, and trying to imagine what clue it could possibly give if she found it still in the pocket. Carl had sent it, Art said. A thought came to Jean which she tried to ignore; and because she tried to ignore it, it returned with a dogged insistence, and took clearer shape in her mind, and formed itself into questions which she was compelled at last to face and try to answer.

Was it her Uncle Carl who had come and searched the house at night, trying to find that letter? If it were her uncle, why was he so anxious to find it, after three years had passed? What was in the letter? If it had any bearing whatever upon the death of Johnny Croft, why hadn’t her dad mentioned it? Why hadn’t her Uncle Carl said something about it? Was the letter just a note about some ranch business? Then why else should any one come at night and prowl all through the house, and never take anything? Why had he come that first night?

Jean drew in her breath sharply. All at once, like a flashlight turned upon a dark corner of her mind, she remembered something about that night. She remembered how she had told her Uncle Carl that she meant to prove that her dad was innocent; that she meant to investigate the devious process by which the Lazy A ranch and all the stock had ceased to belong to her or her father; that she meant to adopt sly, sleuth-like methods; she remembered the very words which she had used. She remembered how bitter her uncle had become. Had she frightened him, somehow, with her bold declaration that she would not “let sleeping dogs lie” any longer? Had he remembered the letter, and been uneasy because of what was in it? But what COULD be in it, if it were written at least a day before the terrible thing had happened?

She remembered her uncle’s uncontrolled fury that evening when she had ridden over to see Lite. What had she said to cause it? She tried to recall her words, and finally she did remember saying something about proving that her own money had been paying for her “keep” for three years. Then he had gone into that rage, and she had not at the time seen any connection between her words and his raving anger. But perhaps there was a connection. Perhaps–

“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed aloud. She was remembering the telegram which she had sent him just before she left Los Angeles for Nogales. “He’ll just simply go WILD when he gets that wire!” She recalled now how he had insisted all along that Art Osgood knew absolutely nothing about the murder; she recalled also, with an uncanny sort of vividness, Art’s manner when he had admitted for the second time that the letter had been from Carl. She remembered how he had changed when he found that her father was being punished for the crime.

She did not know, just yet, how all these tangled facts were going to work out. She had not yet come to the final question that she would presently be asking herself. She felt sure that her uncle knew more,– a great deal more,–about Johnny Croft’s death than he had appeared to know; but she had not yet reached the point to which her reasonings inevitably would bring her; perhaps her mind was subconsciously delaying the ultimate conclusion.

She got up and dressed; unfastening her window, she stepped out on the veranda. The street was quiet at that time in the morning. A sentry stood on guard at the corner, and here and there a light flared in some window where others were wakeful. But for the most part the town lay asleep. Over in what was really the Mexican quarter, three or four roosters were crowing as if they would never leave off. The sound of them depressed Jean, and made her feel how heavy was the weight of her great undertaking,–heavier now, when the end was almost in sight, than it had seemed on that moonlight night when she had ridden over to the Lazy A and had not the faintest idea of how she was going to accomplish any part of her task which she had set herself. She shivered, and turned back to get the gay serape which she had bought from an old Mexican woman when they were coming out of that queer restaurant last evening.

When she came out again, Lite was standing there, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a post.

“You’d better get some sleep, Jean,” he reproved her when she came and stood beside him. “You had a pretty hard day yesterday; and to-day won’t be any easier. Better go back and lie down.”

Jean merely pulled the serape snugger about her shoulders and sat down sidewise upon the railing. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “If I could, I wouldn’t be out here; I’d be asleep, wouldn’t I? Why don’t you go to bed yourself?”

“Ah-h, Art’s learned to talk Spanish,” he said drily. “I got myself all worked up trying to make out what he was trying to say in his sleep, and then I found out it wasn’t my kinda talk, anyway. So I quit. What’s the matter that you can’t sleep?”

Jean stared down at the shadowy street. A dog ran out from somewhere, sniffed at a doorstep, and trotted over into Mexico and up to the sentry. The sentry patted it on the head and muttered a friendly word or two. Jean watched him absently. It was all so peaceful! Not at all what one would expect, after seeing pictures of all those refugees and all those soldiers fighting, and the dead lying in the street in some little town whose name she could not pronounce correctly.

“Did you hear Art tell about taking a letter to dad the day before?” she asked abruptly. “He wasn’t telling the truth, not all the time. But somehow I believe that was the truth. He said dad stuck it in the pocket of his chaps. I believe it’s there yet, Lite. I don’t remember ever looking into that pocket. And I believe–Lite, I never said anything about it, but somebody kept coming to the house in the night and hunting around through all the rooms. He never came into my room, so I–I didn’t bother him; but I’ve wondered what he was after. It just occurred to me that maybe–“

“I never could figure out what he was after, either,” Lite observed quietly.

“You?” Jean turned her head, so that her eyes shone in the light of a street lamp while she looked up at him. “How in the world did you know about him?”

Lite laughed drily. “I don’t think there’s much concerns you that I don’t know,” he confessed. “I saw him, I guess, every time he came around. He couldn’t have made a crooked move,–and got away with it. But I never could figure him out exactly.”

Jean looked at him, touched by the care of her that he had betrayed in those few words. Always she had accepted him as the one friend who never failed her, but lately,–since the advent of the motion-picture people, to be exact,–a new note had crept into his friendship; a new meaning into his watching over her. She had sensed it, but she had never faced it openly. She pulled her thoughts away from it now.

“Did you know who he was?”

It was like Jean to come straight to the point. Lite smiled faintly; he knew that question would come, and he knew that he would have to answer it.

“Sure. I made it my business to know who he was.”

“Who was it, Lite?”

Lite did not say. He knew that question was coming also, but he did not know whether he ought to answer it.

“It was Uncle Carl, wasn’t it?”

Lite glanced down at her quickly. “You’re a good little guesser.”

“Then it was that letter he was after.” She was silent for a minute, and then she looked at her watch. “And I can’t get at those chaps before to-morrow!” She sighed and leaned back against the post.

“Lite, if it was worth all that hunting for, it must mean something to us. I wonder what it can be; don’t you know?”

“No,” said Lite slowly, “I don’t. And it’s something a man don’t want to do any guessing about.”

This, Jean felt, was a gentle reproof for her own speculations upon the subject. She said no more about the letter.

“I sent him a telegram,” she informed Lite irrelevantly, “saying I’d located Art and was going to take him back there. I wonder what he thought when he got that!”

Lite turned half around and stared down at her. He opened his lips to speak, hesitated, and closed them without making a sound. He turned away and stared down into the street that was so empty. After a little he glanced at his own watch, with the same impulse Jean had felt. The hours and minutes were beginning to drag their feet as they passed.

“You go in,” he ordered gently, “and lie down. You’ll be all worn out when the time comes for you to get busy. We don’t know what’s ahead of us on this trail, Jean. Right now, it’s peaceful as Sunday morning down in Maine; so you go in and get some sleep, while you have a chance, and stop thinking about things. Go on, Jean. I’ll call you plenty early; you needn’t be afraid of missing the train.”

Jean smiled a little at the tender, protective note of authority in his voice and manner. Whether she permitted it or not, Lite would go right on watching over her and taking care of her. With a sudden desire to please him, she rose obediently. When she passed him, she reached out and gave his arm a little squeeze.

“You cantankerous old tyrant,” she drawled in a whisper, “you do love to haze me around, don’t you? Just to spite you, I’ll do it!” She went in and left him standing there, smoking and leaning against the post, calm as the stars above. But under that surface calm, the heart of Lite Avery was thumping violently. His arm quivered still under the thrill of Jean’s fingers. Your bottled-up souls are quick to sense the meaning in a tone or a touch; Jean, whether she herself knew it or not, had betrayed an emotion that set Lite’s thoughts racing out into a golden future. He stood there a long while, staring out upon the darkness, his eyes shining.

CHAPTER XXIV

THE LETTER IN THE CHAPS

Though hours may drag themselves into the past so sluggishly that one is fairly maddened by the snail’s pace of them, into the past they must go eventually. Jean had sat and listened to the wheels of the Golden State Limited clank over the cryptic phrase that meant so much. “Letter-in-the-chaps! Letter-in-the chaps!” was what they had said while the train pounded across the desert and slid through arroyas and deep cuts which leveled hills for its passing. “Letter- in-the-chaps! Letter-in-the-chaps!” And then a silence while they stood by some desolate station where the people were swarthy of skin and black of hair and eyes, and moved languidly if they moved at all. Then they would go on; and when the wheels had clicked over the switches of the various side tracks, they would take up again the refrain: “Letter-in-the-chaps! Letter- in-the-chaps!” until Jean thought she would go crazy if they kept it up much longer.

Little by little they drew near to Los Angeles. And then they were there, sliding slowly through the yards in a drab drizzle of one of California’s fall rains. Then they were in a taxicab, making for the Third Street tunnel. Then Jean stared heavy-eyed at the dripping palms along the boulevard which led away from the smoke of the city and into Hollywood, snuggled against the misty hills. “Letter-in-the-chaps!” her tired brain repeated it still.

Then she was in the apartment shared with Muriel Gay and her mother. These two were over at the studio, the landlady told her when she let them in, and Jean was glad that they were gone.

She knelt, still in her hat and coat and with her gloves on, and fitted her trunk key into the lock. And there she stopped. What if the letter were not in the chaps, after all? What if it were but a trivial note, concerning a matter long since forgotten; a trivial note that had not the remotest bearing upon the murder? “Letter-in-the-chaps!” The phrase returned with a mocking note and beat insistently through her brain. She sat back on the floor and shivered with the chill of a fireless room in California, when a fall rain is at its drizzling worst.

In the next room one of the men coughed; afterwards she heard Lite’s voice, saying something in an undertone to Art Osgood. She heard Art’s voice mutter a reply. She raised herself again to her knees, turned the key in the lock, and lifted the trunk-lid with an air of determination.

Down next the bottom of her big trunk they lay, just as she had packed them away, with her dad’s six-shooter and belt carefully disposed between the leathern folds. She groped with her hands under a couple of riding- skirts and her high, laced boots, got a firm grip on the fringed leather, and dragged them out. She had forgotten all about the gun and belt until they fell with a thump on the floor. She pulled out the belt, left the gun lying there by the trunk, and hurried out with the chaps dangling over her arm.

She was pale when she stood before the two who sat there waiting with their hats in their hands and their faces full of repressed eagerness. Her fingers trembled while she pulled at the stiff, leather flap of the pocket, to free it from the button.

“Maybe it ain’t there yet,” Art hazarded nervously, while they watched her. “But that’s where he put it, all right. I saw him.”

Jean’s fingers went groping into the pocket, stayed there for a second or two, and came out holding a folded envelope.

“That’s it!” Art leaned toward her eagerly. “That’s the one, all right.”

Jean sat down suddenly because her knees seemed to bend under her weight. Three years–and that letter within her reach all the time!

“Let’s see, Jean.” Lite reached out and took it from her nerveless fingers. “Maybe it won’t amount to anything at all.”

Jean tried to hold herself calm. “Read it–out loud,” she said. “Then we’ll know.” She tried to smile, and made so great a failure of it that she came very near crying. The faint crackle of the cheap paper when Lite unfolded the letter made her start nervously. “Read it–no matter–what it is,” she repeated, when she saw Lite’s eyes go rapidly over the lines.

Lite glanced at her sharply, then leaned and took her hand and held it close. His firm clasp steadied her more than any words could have done. Without further delay or attempt to palliate its grim significance, he read the note:

Aleck:

If Johnny Croft comes to you with anything about me, kick him off the ranch. He claims he knows a whole lot about me branding too many calves. Don’t believe anything he tells you. He’s just trying to make trouble because he claims I underpaid him. He was telling Art a lot of stuff that he claimed he could prove on me, but it’s all a lie. Send him to me if he comes looking for trouble. I’ll give him all he wants.

Art found a heifer down in the breaks that looks like she might have blackleg. I’m going down there to see about it. Maybe you better ride over and see what you think about it; we don’t want to let anything like that get a start on us.

Don’t pay any attention to Johnny. I’ll fix him if he don’t keep his face shut.
CARL.

“Carl!” Jean repeated the name mechanically. “Carl.”

“I kinda thought it was something like that,” Art Osgood interrupted her to say. “Now you know that much, and I’ll tell you just what I know about it. It was Carl shot Crofty, all right. I rode over with him to the Lazy A; I was on my way to town and we went that far together. I rode that way to tell you good-by.” He looked at Jean with a certain diffidence. “I kinda wanted to see you before I went clear outa the country, but you weren’t at home.

“Johnny Croft’s horse was standing outside the house when we rode up. I guess he must have just got there ahead of us. Carl got off and went in ahead of me. Johnny was eating a snack when I went in. He said something to Carl, and Carl flared up. I saw there wasn’t anybody at home, and I didn’t want to get mixed up in the argument, so I turned and went on out. And I hadn’t more than got to my horse when I heard a shot, and Carl came running out with his gun in his hand.

“Well, Johnny was dead, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Carl told me to beat it outa the country, just like I’d been planning; he said it would be a whole lot better for him, seeing I wasn’t an eye- witness. He said Johnny started to draw his gun, and he shot in self-defense; and he said I better go while the going was good, or I might get pulled into it some way.

“Well, I thought it over for a minute, and I didn’t see where it would get me anything to stay. I couldn’t help Carl any by staying, because I wasn’t in the house when it happened. So I hit the trail for town, and never said anything to anybody.” He looked at the two contritely. “I never knew, till you folks came to Nogales looking for me, that things panned out the way they did. I thought Carl was going to give himself up, and would be cleared. I never once dreamed he was the kinda mark that would let his own brother take the blame that way.”

“I guess nobody did.” Lite folded the letter and pushed it back into the envelope. “I can look back now, though, and see how it come about. He hung back till Aleck found the body and was arrested; and after that he just simply didn’t have the nerve to step out and say that he was the one that did it. He tried hard to save Aleck, but he wouldn’t–“

“The coward! The low, mean coward!” Jean stood up and looked from one to the other, and spoke through her clinched teeth. “To let dad suffer all this while! Lite, when did you say that train left for Salt Lake? We can take the taxi back down town, and save time.” She was at the door when she turned toward the two again. “Hurry up! Don’t you know we’ve got to hurry? Dad’s in prison all this while! And Uncle Carl,–there’s no telling where Uncle Carl is! That wire I sent him was the worst thing I could have done!”

“Or the best,” suggested Lite laconically, as he led the way down the hall and out to the rain-drenched, waiting taxicab.

CHAPTER XXV

LITE COMES OUT OF THE BACKGROUND

For hours Jean had sat staring out at the drear stretches of desert dripping under the dismal rain that streaked the car windows. The clouds hung leaden and gray close over the earth; the smoke from the engine trailed a funereal plume across the grease-wood covered plain. Away in the distance a low line of hills stretched vaguely, as though they were placed there to hold up the sky that was so heavy and dank. Alongside the track every ditch ran full of clay-colored water that wrapped little, ragged wreaths of dirty foam around every obstruction, like the tawdry finery of the slums.

From the smoking-room where he had been for the past two hours with Art Osgood, Lite came unsteadily down the aisle, heralded as it were by the muffled scream of the whistle at a country crossing. Jean turned toward him a face as depressed as the desert out there under the rain. Lite, looking at her keenly, saw on her cheeks the traces of tears. He let himself down wearily into the seat beside her, reached over calmly, and took her hand from off her lap and held it snugly in his own.

“This is likely a snowstorm, up home,” he said in his quiet, matter-of-fact way. “I guess we’ll have to make our headquarters in town till I get things hauled out to the ranch. That’s it, when you can’t look ahead and see what’s coming. I could have had everything ready to go right on out, only I thought there wouldn’t be any use, before spring, anyway. But if this storm ain’t a blizzard up there, a couple of days will straighten things out.”

Jean turned her head and regarded him attentively. “Out where?” she asked him bluntly. “What are you talking about? Have you and Art been celebrating?” She knew better than that. Lite never indulged in liquid celebrations, and Jean knew it.

Lite reached into his pocket with the hand that was free, and drew forth a telegram envelope. He released her hand while he drew out the message, but he did not hand it to her immediately. “I wired Rossman from Los Angeles,” he informed her, “and told him what was up, and asked him to put me up to date on that end of the line. So he did. I got this back there at that last town.” He laid his hand over hers again, and looked down at her sidelong.

“Ever since the trouble,” he began abruptly, but still in that quiet, matter-of-fact way, “I’ve been playing a lone hand and kinda holding back and waiting for something to drop. I had that idea all along that you’ve had this summer: getting hold of the Lazy A and fixing it up so your dad would have a place to come back to. I never said anything, because talking don’t come natural to me like it does to some, and I’d rather do a thing first and then talk about it afterwards if I have to.

“So I hung on to what money I had saved up along; I was going to get me a bunch of cattle and fix up that homestead of mine some day, and maybe have a little home.” His eyes went surreptitiously to her face, and lingered there wistfully. “So after the trouble I buckled down to work and saved a little faster, if anything. It looked to me like there wasn’t much hope of doing anything for your dad till his sentence ran out, so I never said anything about it. Long as Carl didn’t try to sell it to anybody else, I just waited and got together all the money I could. I didn’t see as there was anything else to do.”

Jean was chewing a corner of her lip, and was staring out of the window. “I didn’t know I was stealing your thunder, Lite,” she said dispiritedly. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

`Wasn’t anything to tell–till there was something to tell. Now, this telegram here,–this is what I started out to talk about. It’ll be just as well if you know it before we get to Helena. I showed it to Art, and he thought the same as I did. You know,–or I reckon you don’t, because I never said anything,– away last summer, along about the time you went to work for Burns, I got to thinking things over, and I wondered if Carl didn’t have something on his mind about that killing. So I wrote to Rossman. I didn’t much like the way he handled your dad’s case, but he knew all the ins and outs, so I could talk to him without going away back at the beginning. He knew Carl, too, so that made it easier.

“I wrote and told him how Carl was prowling around through the house nights, and the like of that, and to look up the title to the Lazy A–“

“Why wouldn’t you wait and let me buy it myself?” Jean asked him with just a shade of sharpness in her voice. “You knew I wanted to.”

“So I got Rossman started, quite a while back. He thought as I did, that Carl was acting mighty funny. I was with Carl more than you was, and I could tell he had something laying heavy on his mind. But then, the rest of us had things laying pretty heavy on our minds, too, that wasn’t guilt; so there wasn’t any way to tell what was bothering Carl.” Lite made no attempt to answer the question she had asked.

“Now, here’s this wire Rossman sent me. You don’t want to get the wrong idea, Jean, and feel too bad about this. You don’t want to think you had anything to do with it. Carl was gradually building up to something of this kind,–has been for a long time. His coming over to the ranch nights, looking for that letter that he had hunted all over for at first, shows he wasn’t right in his mind on the subject. But–“

“Well, heavens and earth, Lite!” Jean’s tone was exasperated more than it was worried. “Why don’t you say what you want to say? What’s it all about? Let me read that telegram and be done with it. I–I should think you’d know I can stand things, by this time. I haven’t shown any weak knees, have I?”

“Well, I hate to pile on any more,” Lite muttered defensively. “But you’ve got to know this. I wish you didn’t, but–“

Jean did not say any more. She reached over and with her free hand took the telegram from him. She did not pull away the hand Lite was holding, however, and the heart of him gave an exultant bound because she let it lie there quiet under his own. She pinched her brows together over the message, and let it drop into her lap. Her head went back against the towel covered head-rest, and for a minute her eyes closed as if she could not look any longer upon trouble.

Lite waited a second, pulled her head over against his shoulder, and picked up the telegram and read it through slowly, though he could have repeated it word for word with his eyes shut.

L Avery,
En Route Train 23, S. L. & D. R. R.

Carl Douglas suicided yesterday, leaving letter confessing murder of Croft. Had just completed transfer of land and cattle to your name. Am taking steps placing matter before governor immediately expect him to act at once upon pardon. Bring your man my office at once deposition may be required.
J. W. ROSSMAN.

“Now, I told you not to worry about this,” Lite reminded the girl firmly. “Looks to me like it takes a load off our hands,–Carl’s doing what he done. Saves us dragging it all through court again; and, Jean, it’ll let your dad out a whole lot quicker. Sounds kinda cold-blooded, maybe, but if you could look at it as good news,–that’s the way it strikes me.”

Jean did not say a word, just then. She did what you might not expect Jean to do, after all her strong- mindedness and her independence: She made an uncertain movement toward sitting up and facing things calmly, man-fashion; then she leaned and dropped her very independent brown head back upon Lite’s shoulder, and behind her handkerchief she cried quietly while Lite held her close.

“Now, that’s long enough to cry,” he whispered to her, after a season of mental intoxication such as he had never before experienced. “I started out three years ago to be the boss. I ain’t been working at it regular, as you might say, all the time. But I’m going to wind up that way. I hate to turn you over to your dad without some little show of making good at the job.”

Jean gave a little gurgle that may have been related to laughter, and Lite’s lips quirked with humorous embarrassment as he went on.

“I don’t guess,” he said slowly, “that I’m going to turn you over at all, Jean. Not altogether. I guess I’ve just about got to keep you. It–takes two to make a home, and–I’ve got my heart set on us making a home outa the Lazy A again; you and me, making a home for us and your dad. How–how does that sound to you, Jean?”

Jean was wiping her eyes as unobtrusively as she might. She did not answer.

“How does it sound, you and me making a home together?” Lite was growing pale, and his hands trembled. “Tell me.”

“It sounds–good,” said Jean unsteadily.

For several minutes Lite did not say a word. They sat there holding hands quite foolishly, and stared out at the drenched desert.

“Soon as your dad comes,” he said at last, very simply, “we’ll be married.” He was silent another minute, and added under his breath like a prayer, “And we’ll all go–home.”

CHAPTER XXVI

HOW HAPPINESS RETURNED TO THE LAZY A

When Lite rapped with his knuckles on the door of the room where she was waiting, Jean stood with her hands pressed tightly over her face, every muscle rigid with the restraint she was putting upon herself. For Lite this three-day interval had been too full of going here and there, attending to the manifold details of untangling the various threads of their broken life-pattern, for him to feel the suspense which Jean had suffered. She had not done much. She had waited. And now, with Lite and her dad standing outside the door, she almost dreaded the meeting. But she took a deep breath and walked to the door and opened it.

“Hello, dad,” she cried with a nervous gaiety. “Give your dear daughter a kiss!” She had not meant to say that at all.

Tall and gaunt and gray and old; lines etched deep ground his bitter mouth; pale with the tragic prison pallor; looking out at the world with the somber eyes of one who has suffered most cruelly,–Aleck Douglas put out his thin, shaking arms and held her close. He did not say anything at all; and the kiss she asked for he laid softly upon her hair.

Lite stood in the doorway and looked at the two of them for a moment. “I’m going down to see about– things. I’ll be back in a little while. And, Jean, will you be ready?”

Jean looked up at him understandingly, and with a certain shyness in her eyes. “If it’s all right with dad,” she told him, “I’ll be ready.”

“Lite’s a man!” Aleck stated unsmilingly, with a trace of that apathy which had hurt Jean so in the warden’s office. “I’m glad you’ll have him to take care of you, Jean.”

So Lite closed the door softly and went away and left those two alone.

In a very few words I can tell you the rest. There were a few things to adjust, and a few arrangements to make. The greatest adjustment, perhaps, was when Jean begged off from that contract with the Great Western Company. Dewitt did not want to let her go, but he had read a marked article in a Montana paper that Lite mailed to him in advance of their return, and he realized that some things are greater even than the needs of a motion-picture company. He was very nice, therefore, to Jean. He told her by all means to consider herself free to give her time wholly to her father –and her husband. He also congratulated Lite in terms that made Jean blush and beat a hurried retreat from his office, and that made Lite grin all the way to the hotel. So the public lost Jean of the Lazy A almost as soon as it had learned to welcome her.

Then there was Pard, that had to leave the little buckskin and take that nerve-racking trip back to the Lazy A. Lite attended to that with perfect calm and a good deal of inner elation. So that detail was soon adjusted.

At the Lazy A there was a great deal to do before the traces of its tragedy were wiped out. We’ll have to leave them doing that work, which was only a matter of time, after all, and not nearly so hard to accomplish as their attempts to wipe out from Aleck’s soul the black scar of those three years. I think, on the whole, we shall leave them doing that work, too. As much as human love and happiness could do toward wiping out the bitterness they would accomplish, you may be sure, –give them time enough.