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Jean of the Lazy A By B. M. Bower Characters: 20744

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

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 t

he 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."

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