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Jean of the Lazy A By B. M. Bower Characters: 16684

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

"Well, you don't seem crazy about it. What's the matter?" Robert Grant Burns stood in his favorite attitude with his hands on his hips and his feet far apart, and looked down at Jean with a secret anxiety in his eyes. Without realizing it in the least, Jean's opinion had come to have a certain weight with Robert Grant Burns. "What's wrong with that?" Burns, having sat up until two o'clock to finish that particular scenario to his liking, plainly resented the expression on Jean's face while she read it.

"Oh, nothing, only I'm getting awfully sick of these kidnap-and-rescue, and kiss-in-the-last-scene pictures, and Wild West stuff without a real Western man in the whole thing. I'd like to do something real for a change."

Robert Grant Burns grunted and reached for his slighted brain-child. "What you want? Mother on, knitting. Girl washing dishes. Lover arrives; they sit on front steps and spoon. Become engaged. Lover hitches up team, girl climbs into wagon, they drive to town. Ten scenes of driving to town. Lover gets out, ties team in front of courthouse. Goes in and gets license. Three scenes of license business. Goes out. Two scenes of driving to minister and hitching team to gate. One scene of getting to door. One scene getting inside the house. One scene preacher calling his wife and hired girl. One scene 'Do you take this woman,' one scene 'I do.' Fifteen scenes getting team untied and driving back to ranch. That's about as much pep as there is in real life in the far West, these days. Something like that would suit you, maybe. It don't suit the people who pay good nickels and dimes to get a thrill, though."

"Neither does this sort of junk, if they've got any sense. Think of paying nickel after nickel to see Lee Milligan rush to the girl's door, knock, learn the fatal news, stagger back and clap his hand to his brow and say 'Great Heaven! GONE!'" Jean, stirred to combat by the sarcasm of Robert Grant Burns, did the stagger and the hand-to-brow and great-heaven scene with a realism that made Pete Lowry turn his back suddenly. "They've seen Gil abduct me or Muriel seven times in a perfectly impossible manner, and they-oh, why don't you give them something REAL? Things that are thrilling and dangerous and terrible do happen out here, Mr. Burns. Real adventures and real tragedies-" She stopped, and Burns turned his eyes involuntarily toward the kitchen. He had heard all about the history of the Lazy A, though he had been very careful to hide the fact that he had heard it. Jean's glance, following that of her director, was a revealing one. She bit her lip; and in a moment she went on, with her chin held a shade higher and her pride revolting against subterfuge.

"I didn't mean that," she said quietly. "But-well, up to a certain point, I don't mind if you put in real things, if it will be good picture-stuff. You're featuring me, anyway, it seems. Listen." Jean's face changed. Her eyes took that farseeing look of the dreamer. She was looking full at Burns, but he knew that she did not see him at all. She was looking at a mental picture of her own conjuring, he judged. He stood still and waited curiously, wondering, to use his manner of speech, what the girl was going to spring now.

"Listen: Instead of all this impossible piffle, let's start a real story. I-I've-"

"What kind of a real story?" The tone of Robert Grant Burns was carefully non-committal, but his eyes betrayed his eagerness. The girl did have some real ideas, sometimes! And Robert Grant Burns was not the one to refuse a real idea because it did not come from his own brain.

"Well," Jean flushed with an adorable shyness at the apparent egotism of her idea, "since you seem to want me for the central figure in everything, suppose we start a story like this: Suppose I am left here at the Lazy A with my mother to take care of and a ranch and a lot of cattle; and suppose it's a hard proposition, because there's really a gang of rustlers that have been running off stock and never getting caught, and they have a grudge against my family and grab our cattle every chance they get. Suppose-suppose they killed my brother when he was about to round them up, and they want to drive me and my mother out of the country. Scare us out, you know. Well,-" she hesitated and glanced diffidently at the boys who had edged up to listen,-"that would leave room for all kinds of feature stuff. Say that I have just one or two boys that I can depend on, boys that I know are loyal. With an outfit the size of ours, that keeps me in the saddle every day and all day; and I would have some narrow escapes, I reckon. You've got your rustlers all made to order,-only I'd make them up differently, if I were doing it. Have them look real, you know, instead of stagey." (Whereat Robert Grant Burns winced.) "Lee could be one of my loyal cowboys; you'd want some dramatic acting, I reckon, and he could do that. But I'd want one puncher who can ride and shoot and handle a rope. For that, to help me do the real work in the picture, I want Lite Avery. There are things I can do that you have never had me do, for the simple reason that you don't know the life well enough ever to think of them. Real stunts, not these made-to-order, shoot-the-villain-and-run-to-the-arms-of-the-hero stuff. I'd have to have Lite Avery; I wouldn't start without him."

"Well, go on." Robert Grant Burns still tried to sound non-committal, but he was plainly eager to hear all that she had to say.

"Well, that's the idea. They're trying to drive us out of the country, without really hurting me. And I've got my mind set on staying. Not only that, but I believe they killed my brother, and I'm going to hunt them down and break up their gang or die in the attempt. There's your plot. It needn't be overdone in the least, to have thrills enough. And there would be all kinds of chance for real range-stuff, like the handling of cattle and all that.

"We can use this ranch just as it is, and have the outlaws down next the river. I'm glad you haven't taken any scenes that show the ranch as a whole. You've stuck to your close-up, great-heaven scenes so much," she went on with merciless frankness, "that you've really not cheapened the place by showing more than a little bit at a time.

"You might start by making Lee up for my brother, and kill him in the first reel; show the outlaws when they shoot him and run off with a bunch of stock they're after. Lite can find him and bring him home. Lite would know just how to do that sort of thing, and make people see it's real stuff. I believe he'd show he was a real cow-puncher, even to the people who never saw one. There's an awful lot of difference between the real thing and your actors." She was so perfectly sincere and so matter-of-fact that the men she criticised could do no more than grin.

"You might, for the sake of complications, put a traitor and spy on the ranch. Oh, I tell you! Have Hepsibah be the mother of one of the outlaws. She wouldn't need to do any acting; you could show her sneaking out in the dark to meet her son and tell him what she has overheard. And show her listening, perhaps, through the crack in a door. Mrs. Gay would have to be the mother. Gil says that Hepsibah has the figure of a comedy cook and what he calls a character face. I believe we could manage her all right, for what little she would have to do, don't you?"

Jean having poured out her inspiration with a fluency born of her first enthusiasm, began to feel that she had been somewhat presumptuous in thus offering advice wholesale to the highest paid director of the Great Western Film Company. She blushed and laughed a little, and shrugged her shoulders.

"That's just a suggestion," she said with forced lightness. "I'm subject to attacks of acute imagination, sometimes. Don't mind me, Mr. Burns. Your scenario is a very nice scenario, I'm sure. Do you want me to be a braid-down-the-back girl in this? Or a curls-around-the-face girl?"

Robert Grant Burns stood absent-mindedly tapping his left palm with the folded scenario which Jean had just damned by calling it a very nice scenario. Nice was not the adjective one would apply to it in sincere admiration. Robert Grant Burns himself had mentally called it a hummer. He did not reply to Jean's tentative apolog

y for her own plot-idea. He was thinking about the idea itself.

Robert Grant Burns was not what one would call petty. He would not, for instance, stick to his own story if he considered that Jean's was a better one. And, after all, Jean was now his leading woman, and it is not unusual for a leading woman to manufacture her own plots, especially when she is being featured by her company. There was no question of hurt pride to be debated within the mind of him, therefore. He was just weighing the idea itself for what it was worth.

"Seems to me your plot-idea isn't so much tamer than mine, after all." He tested her shrewdly after a prolonged pause. "You've got a killing in the first five hundred feet, and outlaws and rustling-"

"Oh, but don't you see, it isn't the skeleton that makes the difference; it's the kind of meat you put on the bones! Paradise Lost would be a howling melodrama, if some of you picture-people tried to make it. You'd take this plot of mine and make it just like these pictures I've been working in, Mr. Burns: Exciting and all that, but not the real West after all; spectacular without being probable. What I mean,-I can't explain it to you, I'm afraid; but I have it in my head." She looked at him with that lightening of the eyes which was not a smile, really, but rather the amusement which might grow into laughter later on.

"You'd better fine me for insubordination," she drawled whimsically, "and tell me whether it's to be braids or curls, so I can go and make up." At that moment she saw Gil Huntley beckoning to her with a frantic kind of furtiveness that was a fair mixture of pinched-together eyebrows and slight jerkings of the head, and a guarded movement of his hand that hung at his side. Gil, she thought, was trying to draw her away before she went too far with her trouble-inviting freedom of speech. She laughed lazily.

"Braids or curls?" she insisted. "And please, sir, I won't do so no more, honest."

Robert Grant Burns looked at her from under his eyebrows and made a sound between his grunt of indignation and his chuckle of amusement. "Sure you won't?" he queried shortly. "Stay the way you are, if you want to; chances are you won't go to work right away, anyhow."

Jean flashed him a glance of inquiry. Did that mean that she had at last gone beyond the limit? Was Robert Grant Burns going to FIRE her? She looked at Gil, who was sauntering off with the perfectly apparent expectation that she would follow him; and Mrs. Gay, who was regarding her with a certain melancholy conviction that Jean's time as leading woman was short indeed. She pursed her lips with a rueful resignation, and followed Gil to the spring behind the house.

"Say, you mustn't hand out things like that, Jean!" he protested, when they were quite out of sight and hearing of the others. "Let me give you a tip, girl. If you've got any photo-play ideas that are worth talking about, don't go spreading them out like that for Bobby to pick and choose!"

"Pick to pieces, you mean," Jean corrected.

"You're going to tell me I'm in bad. But I can't help it; he's putting on some awfully stagey plots, and they cost just as much to produce as-"

"Listen here. You've got me wrong. That plot of yours could be worked up into a dandy series; the idea of a story running through a lot of pictures is great. What I mean is, it's worth something. You don't have to give stuff like that away, make him a present of it, you know. I just want to put you wise. If you've got anything that's worth using, make 'em pay for it. Put 'er into scenario form and sell it to 'em. You're in this game to make money, so why overlook a bet like that?"

"Oh, Gil! Could I?"

"Sure, you could! No reason why you shouldn't, if you can deliver the goods. Burns has been writing his own plays to fit his company; but aside from the features you've been putting into it, it's old stuff. He's a darned good director, and all that, but he hasn't got the knack of building real stories. You see what I mean. If you have, why-"

"I wonder," said Jean with a sudden small doubt of her literary talents, "if I have!"

"Sure, you have!" Gil's faith in Jean was of the kind that scorns proof. "You see, you've got the dope on the West, and he knows it. Why, I've been watching how he takes the cue from you right along for his features. Ever since you told Lee Milligan how to lay a saddle on the ground, Burns has been getting tips; and half the time you didn't even know you were giving them. Get into this game right, Jean. Make 'em pay for that kind of thing."

Jean regarded him thoughtfully, tempted to yield. "Mrs. Gay says a hundred dollars a week-"

"It's good pay for a beginner. She's right, and she's wrong. They're featuring you in stuff that nobody else can do. Who would they put in your place, to do the stunts you've been doing? Muriel Gay was a good actress, and as good a Western lead as they could produce; and you know how she stacked up alongside you. You're in a class by yourself, Jean. You want to keep that in mind. They aren't just trying to be nice to you; it's hard-boiled business with the Great Western. You're going awfully strong with the public. Why, my chum writes me that you're announced ahead on the screen at one of the best theaters on Broadway! 'Coming: Jean Douglas in So-and-so.' Do you know what that means? No, you don't; of course not. But let me tell you that it means a whole lot! I wish I'd had a chance to tip you off to a little business caution before you signed that contract. That salary clause should have been doctored to make a sliding scale of it. As it is, you're stuck for a year at a hundred dollars a week, unless you spring something the contract does not cover. Don't give away any more dope. You've got an idea there, if Burns will let you work up to it. Make 'em pay for it."

"O-h-h, Gil!" came the throaty call of Burns; and Gil, with a last, earnest warning, left her hurriedly.

Jean sat down on a rock and meditated, her chin in her palms, and her elbows on her knees. Vague shadows; of thoughts clouded her mind and then slowly clarified into definite ideas. Unconsciously she had been growing away from her first formulated plans. She was gradually laying aside the idea of reaching wealth and fame by way of the story-trail. She was almost at the point of admitting to herself that her story, as far as she had gone with it, could never be taken seriously by any one with any pretense of intelligence. It was too unreal, too fantastic. It was almost funny, in the most tragic parts. She was ready now to dismiss the book as she had dismissed her earlier ambitions to become a poet.

But if she and Lite together could really act a story that had the stamp of realism which she instinctively longed for, surely it would be worth while. And if she herself could build the picture story they would later enact before the camera,-that would be better, much better than writing silly things about an impossible heroine in the hope of later selling the stuff!

Automatically her thoughts swung over to the actual building of the scenes that would make for continuity of her lately-conceived plot. Because she knew every turn and every crook of that coulee and every board in the buildings snuggled within it, she began to plan her scenes to fit the Lazy A, and her action to fit the spirit of the country and those countless small details of life which go to make what we call the local color of the place.

There never had been an organized gang of outlaws just here in this part of the country, but-there might have been. Her dad could remember when Sid Cummings and his bunch hung out in the Bad Lands fifty miles to the east of there. Neither had she ever had a brother, for that matter; and of her mother she had no more than the indistinct memory of a time when there had been a long, black box in the middle of the living-room, and a lot of people, and tears which fell upon her face and tickled her nose when her father held her tightly in his arms.

But she had the country, and she had Lite Avery, and to her it was very, very easy to visualize a story that had no foundation in fact. It was what she had done ever since she could remember-the day-dreaming that had protected her from the keen edge of her loneliness.

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