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   Chapter 3 WHAT A MAN'S GOOD NAME IS WORTH

Jean of the Lazy A By B. M. Bower Characters: 11875

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We're taking the long way round," he observed "because I'm goi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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