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Jean of the Lazy A By B. M. Bower Characters: 19108

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

"What you doing now?" Robert Grant Burns came around the corner of the house looking for her, half an hour later, and found her sitting on the doorstep with the old atlas on her knees and her hat far back on her head, scribbling away for dear life.

Jean smiled abstractedly up at him. "Why, I'm-why-y, I'm becoming a famous scenario writer! Do you want me to go and plaster my face with grease-paint, and become a mere common leading lady again?"

"No, I don't." Robert Grant Burns chuckled fatly and held out his hand with a big, pink cameo on his little finger. "Let's see what a famous scenario looks like. What is it,-that plot you were telling me awhile ago?"

"Why, yes. I'm putting on the meat." There was a slight hesitation before Jean handed him the pages she had done. "I expect it's awfully crude," she apologized, with one of her diffident spells. "I'm afraid you'll laugh at me."

Robert Grant Burns was reading rapidly, mentally photographing the scenes as he went along. He held out his hand again without looking toward her. "Lemme take your pencil a minute. I believe I'd have a panoram of the coulee,-a long shot from out there in the meadow. And show the brother and you leaving the house and riding toward the camera; at the gate, you separate. You're going to town, say. He rides on toward the hills. That fixes you both as belonging here at the ranch, identifies you two and the home ranch both in thirty feet or so of the film, with a leader that tells you're brother and sister. See what I mean?" He scribbled a couple of lines, crossed out a couple, and went on reading to where he had interrupted Jean in the middle of a sentence.

"I see you're writing in a part for that Lite Avery; how do you know he'd do it? Or can put it over if he tries? He don't look to me like an actor."

"Lite," declared Jean with a positiveness that would have thrilled Lite, had he heard her, "can put over anything he tries to put over. And he'll do it, if I tell him he must!" Which showed what were Jean's ideas, at least on the subject of which was the master.

"What you going to call it a The Perils of the Prairie, say?" Burns abandoned further argument on the subject of Lite's ability.

"Oh, no! That's awfully cheap. That would stamp it as a melodrama before any of the picture appeared on the screen."

Robert Grant Burns had not been serious; he had been testing Jean's originality. "Well, what will we call it, then?"

"Oh, we'll call it-" Jean nibbled the rubber on her pencil and looked at him with that unseeing, introspective gaze which was a trick of hers. "We'll call it-does it hurt if we use real names that we've a right to?" She got a head-shake for answer. "Well, we'll call it,-let's just call it-Jean, of the Lazy A. Would that sound as if-"

"Great! Girl, you're a winner! Jean, of the Lazy A! Say, that title alone will jump the releases ten per cent., if I know the game. Featuring Jean herself; pictures made right at the Lazy A Ranch. Say, the dope I can give our publicity man-"

Thereupon Jean, remembering Gil Huntley's lecture on the commercial side of the proposition, startled his enthusiasm with one naive question.

"How much will the Great Western Film Company pay me extra for furnishing the story I play in?"

"How much?" Robert Grant Burns blurted the words automatically.

"Yes. How much? If it will jump your releases ten per cent. they ought to pay me quite a lot more than they're paying me now."

"You're doing pretty well as it is," Burns reminded her, with a visible dampening of his eagerness.

"For keeping your cut-and-dried stories from falling flat, yes. But for writing the kind of play that will have just as many 'punches' and still be true to life, and then for acting it all out and putting in those punches,-that's a different matter, Mr. Burns. And you'll have to pay Lite a decent salary, or I'll quit right here. I'm thinking up stunts for us two that are awfully risky. You'll have to pay for that. But it will be worth while. You wait till you see Lite in action!"

Gil would have been exuberant over the literal manner in which Jean was taking his advice and putting it to the test, had he overheard her driving her bargain with Robert Grant Burns. He would have been exuberant, but he would never have dared to say the things that Jean said, or to have taken the stand that she took. Robert Grant Burns found himself very much in the position which Lite had occupied for three years. He had well-defined ideas upon the subject before them, and he had the outer semblance of authority; but his ideas and his authority had no weight whatever with Jean, since she had made up her mind.

Before Jean left the subject of salary, Robert Grant Burns found himself committed to a promise of an increase, provided that Jean really "delivered the goods" in the shape of a scenario serial, and did the stunts which she declared she could and would do.

Before she settled down to the actual planning of scenes, Robert Grant Burns had also yielded to her demands for Lite Avery, though you may think that he thereby showed himself culpably weak, unless you realize what sort of a person Jean was in argument. Without having more than a good-morning acquaintance with Lite, Burns agreed to put him on "in stock" and to pay him the salary Jean demanded for him, provided that, in the try-out of the first picture, Lite should prove he could deliver the goods. Burns was always extremely firm in the matter of having the "goods" delivered; that was why he was the Great Western's leading director. Mere dollars he would yield, if driven into a corner and kept there long enough, but he must have results.

These things being settled, they spent about two hours on the doorstep of Jean's room, writing the first reel of the story; which is to say that Jean wrote, and Burns took each sheet from her hands as it was finished, and read and made certain technical revisions now and then. Several times he grunted words of approbation, and several times he let his fat, black cigar go out, while he visualized the scenes which Jean's flying pencil portrayed.

"I'll go over and get Lite," she said at last, rubbing the cramp out of her writing-hand and easing her shoulders from their strain of stooping. "There'll be time, while you send the machine after some real hats for your rustlers. Those toadstool things were never seen in this country till you brought them in your trunk; and this story is going to be real! Your rustlers won't look much different from the punchers, except that they'll be riding different horses; we'll have to get some paint somewhere and make a pinto out of that wall-eyed cayuse Gil rides mostly. He'll lead the rustlers, and you want the audience to be able to spot him a mile off. Lite and I will fix the horse; we'll put spots on him like a horse Uncle Carl used to own."

"Maybe you can't get Lite," Burns pointed out, eyeing her over a match blaze. "He never acted to me like he had the movie-fever at all. Passes us up with a nod, and has never showed signs of life on the subject. Lee can ride pretty well," he added artfully, "even if he wasn't born in the saddle. And we can fake that rope work."

"All right; you can send the machine in with a wire to your company for a leading woman." Jean picked up her gloves and turned to pull the door shut behind her, and by other signs and tokens made plain her intention to leave.

"Oh, well, you can see if he'll come. I said I'd try him out, but-"

"He'll come. I told you that before." Jean stopped and looked at her director coldly. "And you'll keep your word. And we won't have any fake stuff in this,-except the spots on the pinto." She smiled then. "We wouldn't do that, but there isn't a pinto in the country right now that would be what we want. You had better get your bunch together, because I'll be back in a little while with Lite."

As it happened, Lite was on his way to the Lazy A, and met Jean in the bottom of the sandy hollow. His eyes lightened when he saw her come loping up to him. But when she was close enough to read the expression of his face, it was schooled again to the frank friendship which Jean always had accepted as a matter of course.

"Hello, Lite! I've got a job for you with the movies," Jean announced, as soon as she was within speaking distance. "You can come right back with me and begin. It's going to be great. We're going to make a real Western picture, Lite, you and I. Lee and Gil and all the rest will be in it, of course; but we're going to put in the real West. And we're going to put in the ranch,-the REAL Lazy A, Lite. Not these dinky little sets that Burns has toggled up with bits of the bluff showing for background, but the ranch just as it-it used to be." Jean's eyes grew wistful while she looked at him and told him her plans.

"I'm writing the scenario myself," she explained, "and that's why you have to be in it. I've written in stuff that the other boys can't do to save their lives. REAL stuff, Lite! You and I are going to run the ranch and punch the cows,-Lazy A cattle, what there are left of them,-and hunt down a bunch of rustlers that have their hangout somewhere down in the breaks; we don't know just where, yet. The places we'll ride, they'll need an airship to follow with the camera! I haven't got it all planned yet, but the first reel is about done; we're going to begin on it this afternoon. We'll need you in the first scenes,-just ranch scenes, with you and Lee; he's my brot

her, and he'll get killed- Now, what's the matter with you?" She stopped and eyed him disapprovingly. "Why have you got that stubborn look to your mouth? Lite, see here. Before you say a word, I want to tell you that you are not to refuse this. It-it means money, Lite; for you, and for me, too. And that means-dad at home again. Lite-"

Bite looked at her, looked away and bit his lips. It was long since he had seen tears in Jean's steady, brown eyes, and the sight of them hurt him intolerably. There was nothing that he could say to strengthen her faith, absolutely nothing. He did not see how money could free her father before his sentence expired. Her faith in her dad seemed to Lite a wonderful thing, but he himself could not altogether share it, although he had lately come to feel a very definite doubt about Aleck's guilt. Money could not help them, except that it could buy back the Lazy A and restock it, and make of it the home it had been three years ago.

Lite, in the secret heart of him, did not want Jean to set her heart on doing that. Lite was almost in a position to do it himself, just as he had planned and schemed and saved to do, ever since the day when he took Jean to the Bar Nothing, and announced to her that he intended to take care of her in place of her father. He had wanted to surprise Jean; and Jean, with her usual headlong energy bent upon the same object, seemed in a fair way to forestall him, unless he moved very quickly.

"Lite, you won't spoil everything now, just when I'm given this great opportunity, will you?" Jean's voice was steady again. She could even meet his eyes without flinching. "Gil says it's a great opportunity, in every way. It's a series of pictures, really, and they are to be called 'Jean, of the Lazy A.' Gil says they will be advertised a lot, and make me famous. I don't care about that; but the company will pay me more, and that means-that means that I can get out and find Art Osgood sooner, and-get dad home. And you will have to help. The whole thing, as I have planned it, depends upon you, Lite. The riding and the roping, and stuff like that, you'll have to do. You'll have to work right alongside me in all that outdoor stuff, because I am going to quit doing all those spectacular, stagey stunts, and get down to real business. I've made Burns see that there will be money in it for his company, so he is perfectly willing to let me go ahead with it and do it my way. Our way, Lite, because, once you start with it, you can help me plan things." Whereupon, having said almost everything she could think of that would tend to soften that stubborn look in Lite's face, Jean waited.

Lite did a great deal of thinking in the next two or three minutes, but being such a bottled-up person, he did not say half of what he thought; and Jean, closely as she watched his face, could not read what was in his mind. Of Aleck he thought, and the slender chance there was of any one doing what Jean hoped to do; of Art Osgood, and the meager possibility that Art could shed any light upon the killing of Johnny Croft; of the Lazy A, and the probable price that Carl would put upon it if he were asked to sell the ranch and the stock; of the money he had already saved, and the chance that, if he went to Carl now and made him an offer, Carl would accept. He weighed mentally all the various elements that went to make up the depressing tangle of the whole affair, and decided that he would write at once to Rossman, the lawyer who had defended Aleck, and put the whole thing into his hands. He would then know just where he stood, and what he would have to do, and what legal steps he must take.

He looked at Jean and grinned a little. "I'm not pretty enough for a picture actor," he said whimsically. "Better let me be a rustler and wear a mask, if you don't want folks to throw fits."

"You'll be what I want you to be," Jean told him with the little smile in her eyes that Lite had learned to love more than he could ever say. "I'm going to make us both famous, Lite. Now, come on, Bobby Burns has probably chewed up a whole box of those black cigars, waiting for us to show up."

I am not going to describe the making of "Jean, of the Lazy A." It would be interesting, but this is not primarily a story of the motion-picture business, remember. It is the story of the Lazy A and the problem that both Jean and Lite were trying to solve. The Great Western Film Company became, through sheer chance, a factor in that problem, and for that reason we have come into rather close touch with them; but aside from the fact that Jean's photo-play brought Lite into the company and later took them both to Los Angeles, this particular picture has no great bearing upon the matter.

Robert Grant Burns had intended taking his company back to Los Angles in August, when the hot winds began to sweep over the range land. But Jean's story was going "big." Jean was throwing herself into the part heart and mind. She lived it. With Lite riding beside her, helping her with all his skill and energy and much enthusiasm, she almost forgot her great undertaking sometimes, she was so engrossed with her work. With his experience, suggesting frequent changes, she added new touches of realism to this story that made the case-hardened audience of the Great Western's private projection room invent new ways of voicing their enthusiasm, when the negative films Pete Lowry sent in to headquarters were printed and given their trial run.

They were just well started when August came with its hot winds. They stayed and worked upon the serial until it was finished, and that meant that they stayed until the first October blizzard caught them while they were finishing the last reel.

Do you know what they did then? Jean changed a few scenes around at Lite's suggestion, and they went out into the hills in the teeth of the storm and pictured Jean lost in the blizzard, and coming by chance upon the outlaws at their camp, which she and Lite and Lee had been hunting through all the previous installments of the story. It was great stuff,-that ride Jean made in the blizzard,-and that scene where, with numbed fingers and snow matted in her dangling braid, she held up the rustlers and marched them out of the hills, and met Lite coming in search of her.

You will remember it, if you have been frequenting the silent drama and were fortunate enough to see the picture. You may have wondered at the realism of those blizzard scenes, and you may have been curious to know how the camera got the effect. It was wonderful photography, of course; but then, the blizzard was real, and that pinched, half frozen look on Jean's face in the close-up where she met Lite was real. Jean was so cold when she turned the rustlers over to Lite that when she started to dismount and fell in a heap,-you remember?-she was not acting at all. Neither was Lite acting when he plunged through the drift and caught Jean in his arms and held her close against him just as that scene ended. In the name of realism they cut the scene, because Lite showed that he forgot all about the outlaws and the part he was playing.

So they finished the picture, and the whole company packed their trunks thankfully and turned their faces and all their thoughts westward.

Jean was not at all sure that she wanted to go. It seemed almost as though she were setting aside her great undertaking; as though she were weakly deserting her dad when she closed the door for the last time upon her room and turned her back upon Lazy A coulee. But there were certain things which comforted her; Lite was going along to look after the horses, he told her just the day before they started. For Robert Grant Burns, with an eye to the advertising value of the move, had decided that Pard must go with them. He would have to hire an express car, anyway, he said, for the automobile and the scenery sets they had used for interiors. And there would be plenty of room for Pard and Lite's horse and another which Robert Grant Burns had used to carry him to locations in rough country, where the automobile could not go. The car would run in passenger service, Burns said,-he'd fix that,-so Lite would be right with the company all the way out.

Jean appreciated all that as a personal favor, which merely proved how unsophisticated she really was. She did not know that Robert Grant Burns was thinking chiefly of furnishing material for the publicity man to use in news stories. She never once dreamed that the coming of "Jean, of the Lazy A" and Jean's pet horse Pard, and of Lite, who had done so many surprising things in the picture, would be heralded in all the Los Angeles papers before ever they left Montana.

Jean was concerned chiefly with attending to certain matters which seemed to her of vital importance. If she must go, there was something which she must do first,-something which for three years she had shrunk from doing. So she told Robert Grant Burns that she would meet him and his company in Helena, and without a word of explanation, she left two days in advance of them, just after she had had another maddening talk with her Uncle Carl, wherein she had repeated her intention of employing a lawyer.

When she boarded the train at Helena, she did not tell even Lite just where she had been or what she had been doing. She did not need to tell Lite. He looked into her face and saw there the shadow of the high, stone wall that shut her dad away from the world, and he did not ask a single question.

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