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Concerning Lite And A Few Footprints








From: Jean Of The Lazy A

"Lucky you was with me all day, up to four o'clock, Lite," Jim said.
"That lets you out slick and clean, seeing the doctor claims he'd been
dead six hours when he seen him last night. Crofty--why, Crofty was
laying in there dead when I was talking about him to you! Kinda gives
a man the creeps to think of it. Who do you reckon done it, Lite?"

"How'n hell do I know?" Lite retorted irritably. "I didn't see it
done."

Jim studied awhile, an ear cocked for the signal that the coroner was
ready to begin the inquest. "Say," he leaned over and whispered in
Lite's ear, "where was Aleck at, all day yesterday?"

"Riding over in the bend, looking for black-leg signs," said Lite
promptly. "Packed a lunch, same as I did."

The answer seemed to satisfy Jim and to eliminate from his mind any
slight suspicion he may have held, but Lite had a sudden impulse to
improve upon his statement.

"I saw Aleck ride into the ranch as I was coming home," he said. As he
spoke, his face lightened as with a weight lifted from his mind.

Later, when the coroner questioned him about his movements and the
movements of Aleck, Lite repeated the lie as casually as possible. It
might have carried more weight with the jury if Aleck Douglas himself
had not testified, just before then, that he had returned about three
o'clock to the ranch and pottered around the corral with the mare and
colt, and unsaddled his horse before going into the house at all. It
was only when he had discovered Johnny Croft's horse at the haystack,
he said, that he began to wonder where the rider could be. He had gone
to the house--and found him on the kitchen floor.

Lite had not heard this statement, for the simple reason that, being a
closely interested person, he had been invited to remain outside while
Aleck Douglas testified. He wondered why the jury,--men whom he knew
and had known for years, most of them,--looked at one another so
queerly when he declared that he had seen Aleck ride home. The coroner
also had given him a queer look, but he had not made any comment.
Aleck, too, had turned his head and stared at Lite in a way which Lite
preferred to think he had not understood.

Beyond that one statement which had produced such a curious effect,
Lite did not have anything to say that shed the faintest light upon the
matter. He told where he had been, and that he had discovered the body
just before Jean arrived, and that he had immediately started with her
to town. The coroner did not cross-question him. Counting from four
o'clock, which Jim had already named as the time of their separation,
Lite would have had just about time to do the things he testified to
doing. The only thing he claimed to have done and could not possibly

have done, was to see Aleck Douglas riding into the coulee. Aleck
himself had branded that a lie before Lite had ever uttered it.

The result was just what was to be expected. Aleck Douglas was placed
under arrest, and as a prisoner he rode back to town alongside the
sheriff,--an old friend of his, by the way,--to where Jean waited
impatiently for news.

It was Lite who told her. "It'll come out all right," he said, in his
calm way that might hide a good deal of emotion beneath it. "It's just
to have something to work from,--don't mean anything in particular.
It's a funny way the law has got," he explained, "of arresting the last
man that saw a fellow alive, or the first one that sees him dead."

Jean studied this explanation dolefully. "They ought to find out the
last one that saw him alive," she said resentfully, "and arrest him,
then,--and leave dad out of it. There's no sense in the law, if that's
the way it works."

"Well, I didn't make the law," Lite observed, in a tone that made Jean
look up curiously into his face.

"Why don't they find out who saw him last?" she repeated. "Somebody
did. Somebody must have gone there with him. Lite, do you know that
Art Osgood came into town with his horse all in a lather of sweat, and
took the afternoon train yesterday? I saw him. I met him square in
the middle of the street, and he didn't even look at me. He was in a
frightful hurry, and he looked all upset. If I was the law, I'd leave
dad alone and get after Art Osgood. He acted to me," she added
viciously, "exactly as if he were running away!"

"He wasn't, though. Jim told me Art was going to leave yesterday; that
was in the forenoon. He's going to Alaska,--been planning it all
spring. And Carl said he was with Art till Art left to catch the
train. Somebody else from town here had seen him take the train, and
asked about him. No, it wasn't Art."

"Well, who was it, then?"

Never before had Lite failed to tell Jean just what she wanted to know.
He failed now, and he went away as though he was glad to put distance
between them. He did not know what to think. He did not want to think.
Certainly he did not want to talk, to Jean especially. For lies never
came easily to the tongue of Lite Avery. It was all very well to tell
Jean that he didn't know who it was; he did tell her so, and made his
escape before she could read in his face the fear that he did know. It
was not so easy to guard his fear from the keen eyes of his fellows,
with whom he must mingle and discuss the murder, or else pay the
penalty of having them suspect that he knew a great deal more about it
than he admitted.

Several men tried to stop him and talk about it, but he put them off.
He was due at the ranch, he said, to look after the stock. He didn't
know a thing about it, anyway.

Lazy A coulee, when he rode into it, seemed to wear already an air of
depression, foretaste of what was to come. The trail was filled with
hoofprints, and cut deep with the wagon that had borne the dead man to
town and to an unwept burial. At the gate he met Carl Douglas, riding
with his head sunk deep on his chest. Lite would have avoided that
meeting if he could have done so unobtrusively, but as it was, he
pulled up and waited while Carl opened the wire gate and dragged it to
one side. From the look of his face, Carl also would have avoided the
meeting, if he could have done so. He glanced up as Lite passed
through.

"Hell of a verdict," Lite made brief comment when he met Carl's eyes.

Carl stopped, leaning against his horse with one hand thrown up to the
saddle-horn. He was a small man, not at all like Aleck in size or in
features. He looked haggard now and white.

"What do you make of it?" he asked Lite. "Do you believe--?"

"Of course I don't! Great question for a brother to ask," Lite
retorted sharply. "It's not in Aleck to do a thing like that."

"What made you say you saw him ride home? You didn't, did you?"

"You heard what I said; take it or leave it." Lite scowled down at
Carl. "What was there queer about it? Why--"

"If you'd been inside ten minutes before then," Carl told him bluntly,
"you'd have heard Aleck say he came home a full hour or more before you
say you saw him ride in. That's what's queer. What made you do that?
It won't help Aleck none."

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Lite slouched miserably in
the saddle, and eyed the other without really seeing him at all. "They
can't prove anything on Aleck," he added with faint hope.

"I don't see myself how they can." Carl brightened perceptibly. "His
being alone all day is bad; he can't furnish the alibi you can furnish.
But they can't prove anything. They'll turn him loose, the grand jury
will; they'll have to. They can't indict him on the evidence. They
haven't got any evidence,--not any more than just the fact that he rode
in with the news. No need to worry; he'll be turned loose in a few
days." He picked up the gate, dragged it after him as he went through,
and fumbled the wire loop into place over the post. "I wish," he said
when he had mounted with the gate between them, "you hadn't been so
particular to say you saw him ride home about the same time you did.
That looks bad, Lite."

"Bad for who?" Lite turned in the saddle aggressively.

"Looks bad all around. I don't see what made you do that;--not when
you knew Jim and Aleck had both testified before you did."

Lite rode slowly down the road to the stable, and cursed the impulse
that had made him blunder so. He had no compunctions for the lie, if
only it had done any good. It had done harm; he could see now that it
had. But he could not believe that it would make any material
difference in Aleck's case. As the story had been repeated to Lite by
half a dozen men, who had heard him tell it, Aleck's own testimony had
been responsible for the verdict.

Men had told Lite plainly that Aleck was a fool not to plead
self-defense, even in face of the fact that Johnny Croft had not drawn
any weapon. Jim had declared that Aleck could have sworn that Johnny
reached for his gun. Others admitted voluntarily that while it would
be a pretty weak defense, it would beat the story Aleck had told.

Lite turned the mare and colt into a shed for the night. He milked the
two cows without giving any thought to what he was doing, and carried
the milk to the kitchen door before he realized that it would be
wasted, sitting in pans when the house would be empty. Still, it
occurred to him that he might as well go on with the routine of the
place until they knew to a certainty what the grand jury would do. So
he went in and put away the milk.

After that, Lite let other work wait while he cleaned the kitchen and
tried to wash out that brown stain on the floor. His face was moody,
his eyes dull with trouble. Like a treadmill, his mind went over and
over the meager knowledge he had of the tragedy. He could not bring
himself to believe Aleck Douglas guilty of the murder; yet he could not
believe anything else.

Johnny Croft, it had been proven at the inquest, rode out from town
alone, bent on mischief, if vague, half-drunken threats meant anything.
He had told more than one that he was going to the Lazy A, but it was
certain that no one had followed him from town. His threats had been
for the most part directed against Carl, it is true; but if he had
meant to quarrel with Carl, he would have gone to the Bar Nothing
instead of the Lazy A. Probably he had meant to see both Carl and
Aleck, and had come here first, since it was the nearest to town.

As to enemies, no one had particularly liked Johnny. He was not a
likeable sort; he was too "mouthy" according to his associates. He had
quarreled with a good many for slight cause, but since he was so
notoriously blatant and argumentative, no one had taken him seriously
enough to nurse any grudge that would be likely to breed assassination.
It was inconceivable to Lite that any man had trailed Johnny Croft to
the Lazy A and shot him down in the kitchen while he was calmly helping
himself to Jean's gingerbread. Still, he must take that for granted or
else believe what he steadfastly refused to confess even to himself
that he believed.

It was nearly dark when he threw out the last pail of water and stood
looking down dissatisfied at the result of his labor, while he dried
his hands. The stain was still there, in spite of him, just as the
memory of the murder would cling always to the place. He went out and
watered Jean's poppies and sweet peas and pansies, still going over and
over the evidence and trying to fill in the gaps.

He had blundered with his lie that had meant to help. The lie had
proven to every man who heard him utter it that his faith in Aleck's
innocence was not strong; it had proven that he did not trust the
facts. That hurt Lite, and made it seem more than ever his task to
clear up the matter, if he could. If he could not, then he would make
amends in whatever way he might.

Almost as if he were guarding that gruesome room which was empty now
and silent,--since the clock had not been wound and had run down,--he
sat long upon the narrow platform before the kitchen door and smoked
and stared straight before him. Once he thought he saw a man move
cautiously from the corner of the shed where the youngest calf slept
beside its mother, He had been thinking so deeply of other things that
he was not sure, but he went down there, his cigarette glowing in the
gloom, and stood looking and listening.

He neither saw nor heard anything, and presently he went back to the
house; but his abstraction was broken by the fancy, so that he did not
sit down again to smoke and think. He had thought until his brain felt
heavy and stupid; and the last cigarette he lighted; he threw away, for
he had smoked until his tongue was sore. He went in and went to bed.

For a long time he lay awake. Finally he dropped into a sleep so heavy
that it was nearer to a torpor, and it was the sunlight that awoke him;
sunlight that was warm in the room and proved how late the morning was.
He swore in his astonishment and got up hastily, a great deal more
optimistic than when he had lain down, and hurried out to feed the
stock before he boiled coffee and fried eggs for himself.

It was when he went in to cook his belated breakfast that Lite noticed
something which had no logical explanation. There were footprints on
the kitchen floor that he had scrubbed so diligently. He stood looking
at them, much as he had looked at the stain that would not come out, no
matter how hard he scrubbed. He had not gone in the room after he had
pulled the door shut and gone off to water Jean's dowers. He was
positive upon that point; and even if he had gone in, his tracks would
scarcely have led straight across the room to the cupboard where the
table dishes were kept.

The tracks led to the cupboard, and were muddled confusedly there, as
though the maker had stood there for some minutes. Lite could not see
any sense in that. They were very distinct, just as footprints always
show plainly on clean boards. The floor had evidently been moist
still,--Lite had scrubbed man-fashion, with a broom, and had not been
very particular about drying the floor afterwards. Also he had thrown
the water straight out from the door, and the fellow must have stepped
on the moist sand that clung to his boots. In the dark he could not
notice that, or see that he had left tracks on the floor.

Lite went to the cupboard and looked inside it, wondering what the man
could have wanted there. It was one of those old-fashioned "safes"
such as our grandmothers considered indispensable in the furnishing of
a kitchen. It held the table dishes neatly piled: dinner plates at the
end of the middle shelf, smaller plates next, then a stack of
saucers,--the arrangement stereotyped, unvarying since first Lite Avery
had taken dishtowel in hand to dry the dishes for Jean when she was ten
and stood upon a footstool so that her elbows would be higher than the
rim of the dishpan. The cherry-blossom dinner set that had come from
the mail-order house long ago was chipped now and incomplete, but the
familiar rows gave Lite an odd sense of the unreality of the tragedy
that had so lately taken place in that room.

Clearly there was nothing there to tempt a thief, and there was nothing
disturbed. Lite straightened up and looked down thoughtfully upon the
top of the cupboard, where Jean had stacked out-of-date newspapers and
magazines, and where Aleck had laid a pair of extra gloves. He pulled
out the two small drawers just under the cupboard top and looked within
them. The first held pipes and sacks of tobacco and books of cigarette
papers; Lite knew well enough the contents of that drawer. He
appraised the supply of tobacco, remembered how much had been there on
the morning of the murder, and decided that none had been taken. He
helped himself to a fresh ten-cent sack of tobacco and inspected the
other drawer.

Here were merchants' bills, a few letters of no consequence, a couple
of writing tablets, two lead pencils, and a steel pen and a squat
bottle of ink. This was called the writing-drawer, and had been since
Lite first came to the ranch. Here Lite believed the confusion was
recent. Jean had been very domestic since her return from school, and
all disorder had been frowned upon. Lately the letters had been
stacked in a corner, whereas now they were scattered. But they were of
no consequence, once they had been read, and there was nothing else to
merit attention from any one.

Lite looked down at the tracks and saw that they led into another room,
which was Aleck's bedroom. He went in there, but he could not find any
reason for a night-prowler's visit. Aleck's desk was always open.
There was never anything there which he wanted to hide away. His
account books and his business correspondence, such as it was, lay
accessible to the curious. There was nothing intricate or secret about
the running of the Lazy A ranch; nothing that should interest any one
save the owner.

It occurred to Lite that incriminating evidence is sometimes placed
surreptitiously in a suspected man's desk. He had heard of such things
being done. He could not imagine what evidence might be placed here by
any one, but he made a thorough search. He did not find anything that
remotely concerned the murder.

He looked through the living-room, and even opened the door which led
from the kitchen into Jean's room, which had been built on to the rest
of the house a few years before. He could not find any excuse for
those footprints.

He cooked and ate his breakfast absent-mindedly, glancing often down at
the footprints on the floor, and occasionally at the brown stain in the
center. He decided that he would not say anything about those tracks.
He would keep his eyes open and his mouth shut, and see what came of it.





Next: What A Man's Good Name Is Worth

Previous: How Trouble Came To The Lazy A



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