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A Man-sized Job For Jean








From: Jean Of The Lazy A

Jean was just returning wet-lashed from burying the little brown bird
under a wild-rose bush near the creek. She had known all along that it
would die; everything that she took any interest in turned out badly,
it seemed to her. The wonder was that the bird had lived so long after
she had taken it under her protection.

All that day her Aunt Ella had worn a wet towel turban-wise upon her
head, and the look of a martyr about to enter a den of lions. Add that
to the habitual atmosphere of injury which she wore, and Aunt Ella was
not what one might call a cheerful companion. Besides, the appearance
of the wet towel was a danger signal to Jean's conscience, and forbade
any thought of saddling Pard and riding away from the Bar Nothing into
her own dream world and the great outdoors. Jean's conscience commanded
her instead to hang her riding-clothes in the closet and wear striped
percale and a gingham apron, which she hated; and to sweep and dust and
remember not to whistle, and to look sympathetic,--which she was not,
particularly; and to ask her Aunt Ella frequently if she felt any
better, and if there was anything Jean could do for her. There never
was anything she could do, but conscience and custom required her to
observe the ceremony of asking. Aunt Ella found some languid
satisfaction in replying dolorously that there was nothing that anybody
could do, and that her part in life seemed to be to suffer.

You may judge what Jean's mood was that day, when you are told that she
came to the point, not an hour before the bird died, of looking at her
aunt with that little smile at the corners of her eyes and just easing
her lips. "Well, you certainly play your part in life with a heap of
enthusiasm," she had replied, and had gone out into the kitchen and
whistled when she did not feel in the least like whistling. Her
conscience knew Jean pretty well, and did not attempt to reprove her
for what she had done.

Then she found the bird dead in the little nest she had made for it,
and things went all wrong.

She was returning from the burial of the bird, and was trying to force
herself back to her normal attitude of philosophic calm, when she saw
her Uncle Carl sitting on the edge of the front porch, with his elbows
resting loosely upon his knees, his head bowed, and his boot-heel
digging a rude trench in the hard-packed earth.

The sight of him incensed her suddenly. Once more she wished that she
might get at his brain and squeeze out his thoughts; and it never
occurred to her that she would probably have found them extremely
commonplace thoughts that strayed no farther than his own little
personal business of life, and that they would easily be translated to
the dollar sign. His attitude was one of gloomy meditation, and her
own mood supplied the subject. She watched him for a minute or two,
and his abstraction was so deep that he did not feel her presence.

"Uncle Carl, just how much did the Lazy A cost you?" she asked so
abruptly that she herself was surprised at the question. "Or putting
it another way, just how many dollars and cents did you spend in
defending dad?"

Carl started, which was perfectly natural, and glared at her, which was
natural also, when one considers that Jean had without warning opened a
subject tacitly forbidden upon that ranch. His eyes hardened a little
while he looked at her, for between these two there was scant affection.

"What do you want to know for?" he countered, when she persisted in
looking at him as though she was waiting for an answer.

"Because I've a right to know. Some time,--within four years,--I mean
to buy back the Lazy A. I want to know how much it will take." Until
that moment Jean had merely dreamed of some day buying it back. Until
she spoke she would have named the idea a beautiful, impossible desire.

"Where you going to get the money?" Carl looked at her curiously, as if
he almost doubted her sanity.

"Rob a bank, perhaps. How much will it take to square things with you?
Of course, being a relative, I expect to be cheated a little. So I am
going to adopt sly, sleuth-like methods and find out just how much dad
owed you before--it happened, and just how much the lawyers charged,
and what was the real market value of the outfit, and all that. Dad
told me--dad told me that there was something left over for me. He
didn't explain--there wasn't time, and I--couldn't listen to
dollar-talk then. I've gone along all this time, just drifting and
getting used to facts, and taking it for granted that everything is all
right--"

"Well, what's wrong? Everything is all right, far as I know. I can
see what you're driving at--"

"And I'm a pretty fair driver, too," Jean cut in calmly. "I'll reach
my destination, I think,--give me time enough."

"Whatever fool notion you've got in your head, you'd better drop it,"
Carl told her harshly. "There ain't anything you can do to better
matters. I came out with the worst of it, when you come right down to
facts, and all the nagging-"

Jean went toward him as if she would strike him with her uplifted hand.
"Don't dare say that! How can you say that,--and think of dad? He got
the worst of it. He's the one that suffers most--and--he's as innocent
as you or I. You know it."

Carl rose from the porch and faced her like an enemy. "What do you
mean by that? I know it? If I knew anything like that, do you think
I'd leave a stone unturned to prove it? Do you think--"

"I think we both know dad. And some things were not proved,--to my
satisfaction, at least. And you know how long the jury was out, and
what a time they had agreeing. Some points were weak. It was simply
that they couldn't point to any one else. You know that was it. If I
could find Art Osgood--"

"What's he got to do with it?" Her uncle leaned a little and peered
into her face, which the dusk was veiling.

"That is what I want to find out." Jean's voice was quiet, but it had
a quality which he had never before noticed.

"You'd better," he advised her tritely, "let sleeping dogs lie."

"That's the trouble with sleeping dogs; they do lie, more often than
not. These particular dogs have lied for nearly three years. I'm
going to stir them up and see if I can't get a yelp of the truth out of
them."

"Oh, you are!" Carl laughed ironically. "You'll stir up a lot of
unpleasantness for yourself and the rest of us, is what you'll do. The
thing's over and done with. Folks are beginning to forget it. You've
got a home--"

Jean laughed, and her laugh was extremely unpleasant.

"You get as good as the rest of us get," her uncle reminded her
sharply. "I came near going broke myself over the affair, if you want
to know; and you stand there and accuse me of cheating you out of
something! I don't know what in heaven's name you expect. The Lazy A
didn't make me rich, I can tell you that. It just barely helped to
tide things over. You've got a home here, and you can come and go as
you please. What you ain't got," he added bitterly, "is common
gratitude."

He turned away from her and went into the house, and Jean sat down upon
the edge of the porch and stared away at the dimming outline of the
hills, and wondered what had come over her.

Three years on this ranch, seeing her uncle every day almost, living
under the same roof with him, talking with him upon the everyday
business of life,--and to-night, for the first time, the forbidden
subject had been opened. She had said things that until lately she had
not realized were in her mind. She had never liked her uncle, who was
so different from her father, but she had never accused him in her mind
of unfairness until she had written something of the sort in her
ledger. She had never thought of quarrelling,--and yet one could
scarcely call this encounter less than a quarrel. And the strange part
of it was that she still believed what she had said; she still intended
to do the things she declared she would do. Just how she would do them
she did not know, but her purpose was hardening and coming clean-cut
out of the vague background of her mind.

After awhile the dim outline of the high-shouldered hills glowed under
a yellowing patch of light. Jean sat with her chin in her palms and
watched the glow brighten swiftly. Then some unseen force seemed to be
pushing a bright yellow disk up through a gap in the hills, and the gap
was almost too narrow, so that the disk touched either side as it slid
slowly upward. At last it was up, launched fairly upon its leisurely,
drifting journey across to the farther hills behind her. It was not
quite round. That was because one edge had scraped too hard against
the side of the hill, perhaps. But warped though it was, its light fell
softly upon Jean's face, and showed it set and still and stern-eyed and
somber.

She sat there awhile longer, until the slopes lay softly revealed to
her, their hollows filled with inky shadows. She drew a long breath
then, and looked around her at the familiar details of the Bar Nothing
dwelling-place, softened a little by the moonlight, but harsh with her
memories of unhappy days spent there. She rose and went into the house
and to her room, and changed the hated striped percale for her
riding-clothes.

A tall, lank form detached itself from the black shade of the
bunk-house as she went by, hesitated perceptibly, and then followed her
down to the corral. When she had gone in with a rope and later led out
Pard, the form stood forth in the white light of the moon.

"Where are you going, Jean?" Lite asked her in a tone that was soothing
in its friendliness.

"That you, Lite? I'm going--well, just going. I've got to ride." She
pulled Pard's bridle off the peg where she always hung it, and laid an
arm over his neck while she held the bit against his clinched teeth.
Pard never did take kindly to the feel of the cold steel in his mouth,
and she spoke to him sharply before his jaws slackened.

"Want me to go along with you?" Lite asked, and reached for his saddle
and blanket.

"No, I want you to go to bed." Jean's tone was softer than it had been
for that whole day. "You've had all the riding you need. I've been
shut up with Aunt Ella and her favorite form of torture."

"Got your gun?" Lite gave the latigo a final pull which made Pard
grunt.

"Of course. Why?"

"Nothing,--only it's a good night for coyotes, and you might get a shot
at one. Another thing, a gun's no good on earth when you haven't got
it with you."

"Yes, and you've told me so about once a week ever since I was big
enough to pull a trigger," Jean retorted, with something approaching
her natural tone. "Maybe I won't come back, Lite. Maybe I'll camp over
home till morning."

Lite did not say anything in reply to that. He leaned his long person
against a corral post and watched her out of sight on the trail up the
hill. Then he caught his own horse, saddled it leisurely, and rode
away.

Jean rode slowly, leaving the trail and striking out across the open
country straight for the Lazy A. She had no direct purpose in riding
this way; she had not intended to ride to the Lazy A until she named
the place to Lite as her destination, but since she had told him so,
she knew that was where she was going. The picture-people would not be
there at night, and she felt the need of coming as close as possible to
her father; at the Lazy A, where his thoughts would cling, she felt
near to him,--much nearer than when she was at the Bar Nothing. And
that the gruesome memory of what had happened there did not make the
place seem utterly horrible merely proves how unshakable was her faith
in him.

A coyote trotted up out of a hollow facing her, stiffened with
astonishment, dropped nose and tail, and slid away in the shadow of the
hill. A couple of minutes later Jean saw him sitting alert upon his
haunches on a moon-bathed slope, watching to see what she would do.
She did nothing; and the coyote pointed his nose to the moon,
yap-yap-yapped a quavering defiance, and slunk out of sight over the
hill crest.

Her mind now was more at ease than it had been since the day of horror
when she had first stared black tragedy in the face. She was passing
through that phase of calm elation which follows close upon the heels
of a great resolve. She had not yet come to the actual surmounting of
the obstacles that would squeeze hope from the heart of her; she had
not yet looked upon the possibility of absolute failure.

She was going to buy back the Lazy A from her Uncle Carl, and she was
going to tear away that atmosphere of emptiness and desolation which it
had worn so long. She was going to prove to all men that her father
never had killed Johnny Croft. She was going to do it! Then life
would begin where it had left off three years ago. And when this
deadening load of trouble was lifted, then perhaps she could do some of
the glorious, great things she had all of her life dreamed of doing.
Or, if she never did the glorious, great things, she would at least
have done something to justify her existence. She would be content in
her cage if she could go round and round doing things for dad.

A level stretch of country lay at the foot of the long bluff, which
farther along held the Lazy A coulee close against its rocky side. The
high ridges stood out boldly in the moonlight, so that she could see
every rock and the shadow that it cast upon the ground. Little,
soothing night noises fitted themselves into her thoughts and changed
them to waking dreams. Crickets that hushed while she passed them by;
the faint hissing of a half-wakened breeze that straightway slept upon
the grasses it had stirred; the sleepy protest of some bird which
Pard's footsteps had startled.

She came into Lazy A coulee, half fancying that it was a real
home-coming. But when she reached the gate and found it lying flat
upon the ground away from the broad tread of the picture-people's
machine, her mind jarred from dreams back to reality. From sheer habit
she dismounted, picked up the spineless thing of stakes and barbed
wire, dragged it into place across the trail, and fastened it securely
to the post. She remounted and went on, and a little of the
hopefulness was gone from her face.

"I'll just about have to rob a bank, I guess," she told herself with a
grim humor at the tremendous undertaking to which she had so calmly
committed herself. "This is what dad would call a man-sized job, I
reckon." She pulled up in the white-lighted trail and stared along the
empty, sagging-roofed sheds and stables, and at the corral with its
open gate and warped rails and leaning posts. "I'll just about have to
rob a bank,--or write a book that will make me famous."

She touched Pard with a rein end and went on slowly. "Robbing a bank
would be the quickest and easiest," she decided whimsically, as she
neared the place where she always sheltered Pard. "But not so
ladylike. I guess I'll write a book. It should be something real
thrilly, so the people will rush madly to all the bookstores to buy it.
It should have a beautiful girl, and at least two handsome men,--one
with all the human virtues, and the other with all the arts of the
devil and the cruel strength of the savage. And--I think some Indians
and outlaws would add several dollars' worth of thrills; or else a
ghost and a haunted house. I wonder which would sell the best?
Indians could steal the girl and give her two handsome men a chance to
do chapters of stunts, and the wicked one could find her first and
carry her away in front of him on a horse (they do those things in
books!) and the hero could follow in a mad chase for miles and miles--

"But then, ghosts can be made very creepy, with tantalizing glimpses of
them now and then in about every other chapter, and mysterious hints
here and there, and characters coming down to breakfast with white,
drawn faces and haggard eyes. And the wicked one would look over his
shoulder and then utter a sardonic laugh. Sardonic is such an
effective word; I don't believe Indians would give him any excuse for
sardonic laughter."

She swung down from the saddle and led Pard into his stall, that was
very black next the manger and very light where the moon shone in at
the door. "I must have lots of moonlight and several stormy sunsets,
and the wind soughing in the branches. I shall have to buy a new
dictionary,--a big, fat, heavy one with the flags of all nations and
how to measure the contents of an empty hogshead, and the deaf and dumb
alphabet, and everything but the word you want to know the meaning of
and whether it begins with ph or an f."

She took the saddle off Pard and hung it up by a stirrup on the rusty
spike where she kept it, with the bridle hung over the stirrup, and the
saddle blanket folded over the horn. She groped in the manger and
decided that there was hay enough to last him till morning, and went
out and closed the door. Her shadow fell clean cut upon the rough
planks, and she stood for a minute looking at it as if it were a
person. Her Stetson hat tilted a little to one side, her hair fluffed
loosely at the sides, leaving her neck daintily slender where it showed
above the turned-back collar of her gray sweater; her shoulders square
and capable and yet not too heavy, and the slim contour of her figure
reaching down to the ground. She studied it abstractedly, as she would
study herself in her mirror, conscious of the individuality, its
likeness to herself.

"I don't know what kind of a mess you'll make of it," she said to her
shadow, "but you're going to tackle it, just the same. You can't do a
thing till you get some money."

She turned then and went thoughtfully up to the house and into her
room, which had as yet been left undisturbed behind the bars she had
placed against idle invasion.

The moon shone full into the window that faced the coulee, and she sat
down in the old, black wooden rocker and gazed out upon the familiar,
open stretch of sand and scant grass-growth that lay between the house
and the corrals. She turned her eyes to the familiar bold outline of
the bluff that swung round in a crude oval to the point where the trail
turned into the coulee from the southwest. Half-way between the base
and the ragged skyline, the boulder that looked like an elephant's head
stood out, white of profile, hooded with black shade. Beyond was the
fat shelf of ledge that had a small cave beneath, where she had once
found a nest full of little, hungry birds and upon the slope beneath
the telltale, scattered wing-feathers, to show what fate had fallen
upon the mother. Those birds had died also, and she had wept and given
them Christian burial, and had afterwards spent hours every day with
her little rifle hunting the destroyer of that small home. She
remembered the incident now as a small thread in the memory-pattern she
was weaving.

While the shadows shortened as the moon swung high, she sat and looked
out upon the coulee and the bluff that sheltered it, and she saw the
things that were blended cunningly with the things that were not.
After a long while her hands unclasped themselves from behind her head
and dropped numbly to her lap. She sighed and moved stiffly, and knew
that she was tired and that she must get some sleep, because she could
not sit down in one spot and think her way through the problems she had
taken it upon herself to solve. So she got up and crept under the
Navajo blanket upon the couch, tucked it close about her shoulders, and
shut her eyes deliberately. Presently she fell asleep.





Next: Jean Learns What Fear Is Like

Previous: Jean Spoils Something



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