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How Trouble Came To The Lazy A








From: Jean Of The Lazy A

Without going into a deep, psychological discussion of the elements in
men's souls that breed events, we may say with truth that the Lazy A
ranch was as other ranches in the smooth tenor of its life until one
day in June, when the finger of fate wrote bold and black across the
face of it the word that blotted out prosperity, content, warm family
ties,--all those things that go to make life worth while.

Jean, sixteen and a range girl to the last fiber of her being, had
gotten up early that morning and had washed the dishes and swept, and
had shaken the rugs of the little living-room most vigorously. On her
knees, with stiff brush and much soapy water, she had scrubbed the
kitchen floor until the boards dried white as kitchen floors may be.
She had baked a loaf of gingerbread, that came from the oven with a
most delectable odor, and had wrapped it in a clean cloth to cool on
the kitchen table. Her dad and Lite Avery would show cause for the
baking of it when they sat down, fresh washed and ravenous, to their
supper that evening. I mention Jean and her scrubbed kitchen and the
gingerbread by way of proving how the Lazy A went unwarned and
unsuspecting to the very brink of its disaster.

Lite Avery, long and lean and silently content with life, had ridden
away with a package of sandwiches, after a full breakfast and a smile
from the slim girl who cooked it, upon the business of the day; which
happened to be a long ride with one of the Bar Nothing riders, down in
the breaks along the river. Jean's father, big Aleck Douglas, had
saddled and ridden away alone upon business of his own. And presently,
in mid-forenoon, Jean closed the kitchen door upon an immaculately
clean house filled with the warm, fragrant odor of her baking, and in
fresh shirt waist and her best riding-skirt and Stetson, went whistling
away down the path to the stable, and saddled Pard, the brown colt that
Lite had broken to the saddle for her that spring. In ten minutes or so
she went galloping down the coulee and out upon the trail to town,
which was fifteen miles away and held a chum of hers.

So Lazy A coulee was left at peace, with scratching hens busy with the
feeding of half-feathered chicks, and a rooster that crowed from the
corral fence seven times without stopping to take breath. In the big
corral a sorrel mare nosed her colt and nibbled abstractedly at the
pile of hay in one corner, while the colt wabbled aimlessly up and
sniffed curiously and then turned to inspect the rails that felt so
queer and hard when he rubbed his nose against them. The sun was warm,
and cloud-shadows drifted lazily across the coulee with the breeze that
blew from the west. You never would dream that this was the last
day,--the last few hours even,--when the Lazy A would be the untroubled
home of three persons of whose lives it formed so great a part.

At noon the hens were hovering their chickens in the shade of the mower
which Lite was overhauling during his spare time, getting it ready for
the hay that was growing apace out there in the broad mouth of the
coulee. The rooster was wallowing luxuriously in a dusty spot in the
corral. The young colt lay stretched out on the fat of its side in the
sun, sound asleep. The sorrel mare lay beside it, asleep also, with
her head thrown up against her shoulder. Somewhere in a shed a calf
was bawling in bored lonesomeness away from its mother feeding down the
pasture. And over all the coulee and the buildings nestled against the
bluff at its upper end was spread that atmosphere of homey comfort and
sheltered calm which surrounds always a home that is happy.

Lite Avery, riding toward home just when the shadows were beginning to
grow long behind him, wondered if Jean would be back by the time he
reached the ranch. He hoped so, with a vague distaste at finding the
place empty of her cheerful presence. Be looked at his watch; it was
nearly four o'clock. She ought to be home by half-past four or five,
anyway. He glanced sidelong at Jim and quietly slackened his pace a
little. Jim was telling one of those long, rambling tales of the little
happenings of a narrow life, and Lite was supposed to be listening
instead of thinking about when Jean would return home. Jim believed he
was listening, and drove home the point of his story.

"Yes, sir, them's his very words. Art Osgood heard him. He'll do it,
too, take it from me, Crofty is shore riled up this time."

"Always is," Lite observed, without paying much attention. "I'll turn
off here, Jim, and cut across. Got some work I want to get done yet
to-night. So long."

He swung away from his companion, whose trail to the Bar Nothing led
him straight west, passing the Lazy A coulee well out from its mouth,
toward the river. Lite could save a half mile by bearing off to the
north and entering the coulee at the eastern side and riding up through
the pasture. He wanted to see how the grass was coming on, anyway.
The last rain should have given it a fresh start.

He was in no great hurry, after all; he had merely been bored with
Jim's company and wanted to go on alone. And then he could get the
fire started for Jean. Lite's life was running very smoothly indeed;
so smoothly that his thoughts occupied themselves largely with little
things, save when they concerned themselves with Jean, who had been
away to school for a year and had graduated from "high," as she called
it, just a couple of weeks ago, and had come home to keep house for dad
and Lite. The novelty of her presence on the ranch was still fresh
enough to fill his thoughts with her slim attractiveness. Town hadn't
spoiled her, he thought glowingly. She was the same good little
pal,--only she was growing up pretty fast, now. She was a young lady
already.

So, thinking of her with the brightening of spirits which is the first
symptom of the world-old emotion called love, Lite rounded the eastern
arm of the bluff and came within sight of the coulee spread before him,
shaped like the half of a huge platter with a high rim of bluff on
three sides.

His first involuntary glance was towards the house, and there was
unacknowledged expectancy in his eyes. But he did not see Jean, nor any
sign that she had returned. Instead, he saw her father just mounting
in haste at the corral. He saw him swing his quirt down along the side
of his horse and go tearing down the trail, leaving the wire gate flat
upon the ground behind him,--which was against all precedent.

Lite quickened his own pace. He did not know why big Aleck Douglas
should be hitting that pace out of the coulee, but since Aleck's pace
was habitually unhurried, the inference was plain enough that there was
some urgent need for haste. Lite let down the rails of the barred gate
from the meadow into the pasture, mounted, and went galloping across
the uneven sod. His first anxious thought was for the girl. Had
something happened to her?

At the stable he looked and saw that Jean's saddle did not hang on its
accustomed peg inside the door, and he breathed freer. She could not
have returned, then. He turned his own horse inside without taking off
the saddle, and looked around him puzzled. Nothing seemed wrong about
the place. The sorrel mare stood placidly switching at the flies and
suckling her gangling colt in the shady corner of the corral, and the
chickens were pecking desultorily about their feeding-ground in
expectation of the wheat that Jean or Lite would fling to them later
on. Not a thing seemed unusual.

Yet Lite stood just outside the stable, and the sensation that
something was wrong grew keener. He was not a nervous person,--you
would have laughed at the idea of nerves in connection with Lite Avery.
He felt that something was wrong, just the same. It was not altogether
the hurried departure of Aleck Douglas, either, that made him feel so.
He looked at the house setting back there close to the bluff just where
it began to curve rudely out from the narrowest part of the coulee. It
was still and quiet, with closed windows and doors to tell there was no
one at home. And yet, to Lite its very silence seemed sinister.

Wolves were many, down in the breaks along the river that spring; and
the coyotes were an ever-present evil among the calves, so that Lite
never rode abroad without his six-shooter. He reached back and
loosened it in the holster before he started up the sandy path to the
house; and if you knew the Lazy A ranch as well as Lite knew it, from
six years of calling it home, you would wonder at that action of his,
which was instinctive and wholly unconscious.

So he went up through the sunshine of late afternoon that sent his
shadow a full rod before him, and he stepped upon the narrow platform
before the kitchen door, and stood there a minute listening. He heard
the mantel clock in the living-room ticking with the resonance given by
a room empty of all other sound. Because his ears were keen, he heard
also the little alarm clock in the kitchen tick-tick-tick on the shelf
behind the stove where Jean kept it daytimes.

Peaceful enough, for all the silence; yet Lite reached back and laid
his fingers upon the smooth butt of his six-shooter and opened the door
with his left hand, which was more or less awkward. He pushed the door
open and stepped inside. Then for a full minute he did not move.

On the floor that Jean had scrubbed till it was so white, a man lay
dead, stretched upon his back. His eyes stared vacantly straight up at
the ceiling, where a single cobweb which Jean had not noticed swayed in
the air-current Lite set in motion with the opening of the door. On
the floor, where it had dropped from his hand perhaps when he fell, a
small square piece of gingerbread lay, crumbled around the edges.
Tragic halo around his head, a pool of blood was turning brown and
clotted. Lite shivered a little while he stared down at him.

In a minute he lifted his eyes from the figure and looked around the
small room. The stove shone black in the sunlight which the open door
let in. On the table, covered with white oilcloth, the loaf of
gingerbread lay uncovered, and beside it lay a knife used to cut off
the piece which the man on the floor had not eaten before he died.
Nothing else was disturbed. Nothing else seemed in the least to bear
any evidence of what had taken place.

Lite's thoughts turned in spite of him to the man who had ridden from
the coulee as though fiends had pursued. The conclusion was obvious,
yet Lite loyally rejected it in the face of reason. Reason told him
that there went the slayer. For this dead man was what was left of
Johnny Croft, the Crofty of whom Jim had gossiped not more than half an
hour before. And the gossip had been of threats which Johnny Croft had
made against the two Douglas brothers,--big Aleck, of the Lazy A, and
Carl, of the Bar Nothing ranch adjoining.

Suicide it could scarcely be, for Crofty was the type of man who would
cling to life; besides, his gun was in its holster, and a man would
hardly have the strength or the desire to put away his gun after he has
shot himself under one eye. Death had undoubtedly been immediate.
Lite thought of these things while he stood there just inside the door.
Then he turned slowly and went outside, and stood hesitating upon the
porch. He did not quite know what he ought to do about it, and so he
did not mean to be in too great a hurry to do anything; that was Lite's
habit, and he had always found that it served him well.

If the rider had been fleeing from his crime, as was likely, Lite had
no mind to raise at once the hue and cry. An hour or two could make no
difference to the dead man,--and you must remember that Lite had for
six years called this place his home, and big Aleck Douglas his friend
as well as the man who paid him wages for the work he did. He was half
tempted to ride away and say nothing for a while. He could let it
appear that he had not been at the house at all and so had not
discovered the crime when he did. That would give Aleck Douglas more
time to get away. But there was Jean, due at any moment now. He could
not go away and let Jean discover that gruesome thing on the kitchen
floor. He could not take it up and hide it away somewhere; he could
not do anything, it seemed to him, but just wait.

He went slowly down the path to the stable, his chin on his chest, his
mind grappling with the tragedy and with the problem of how best he
might lighten the blow that had fallen upon the ranch. It was
unreal,--it was unthinkable,--that Aleck Douglas, the man who met but
friendly glances, ride where he might, had done this thing. And yet
there was nothing else to believe. Johnny Croft had worked here on the
ranch for a couple of months, off and on. He had not been steadily
employed, and he had been paid by the day instead of by the month as
was the custom. He had worked also for Carl Douglas at the Bar
Nothing; back and forth, for one or the other as work pressed. He was
too erratic to be depended upon except from day to day; too prone to
saddle his horse and ride to town and forget to return for a day or two
days or a week, as the mood seized him or his money held out.

Lite knew that there had been some dispute when he had left; he had
claimed payment for more days than he had worked. Aleck was a just man
who paid honestly what he owed; he was also known to be "close-fisted."
He would pay what he owed and not a nickel more,--hence the dispute.
Johnny had gone away seeming satisfied that his own figures were wrong,
but later on he had quarreled with Carl over wages and other things.
Carl had a bad temper that sometimes got beyond his control, and he had
ordered Johnny off the ranch. This was part of the long, full-detailed
story Jim had been telling. Johnny had left, and he had talked about
the Douglas brothers to any one who would listen. He had said they
were crooked, both of them, and would cheat a working-man out of his
pay. He had come back, evidently, to renew the argument with Aleck.
With the easy ways of ranch people, he had gone inside when he found no
one at home,--hungry, probably, and not at all backward about helping
himself to whatever appealed to his appetite. That was Johnny's
way,--a way that went unquestioned, since he had lived there long
enough to feel at home. Lite remembered with an odd feeling of pity how
Johnny had praised the first gingerbread which Jean had baked, the day
after her arrival; and how he had eaten three pieces and had made
Jean's cheeks burn with confusion at his bold flattery.

He had come back, and he had helped himself to the gingerbread. And
then he had been shot down. He was lying in there now, just as he had
fallen, and his blood was staining deep the fresh-scrubbed floor. And
Jean would be coming home soon. Lite thought it would be better if he
rode out to meet her, and told her what had happened, so that she need
not come upon it unprepared. There was nothing else that he could
bring himself to do, and his mood demanded action of some sort; one
could not sit down at peace with a fresh tragedy like that hanging over
the place.

He had reached the stable when a horse walked out from behind the hay
corral and stopped, eyeing him curiously. It was Johnny's horse. Even
as improvident a cowpuncher as Johnny Croft had been likes to own a
"private" horse,--one that is his own and can be ridden when and where
the owner chooses. Lite turned and went over to it, caught it by the
dragging bridle-reins, and led it into an empty stall. He did not know
whether he ought to unsaddle it or leave it as it was; but on second
thought, he loosened the cinch in kindness to the animal, and took off
its bridle, so that it could eat without being hampered by the bit.
Lite was too thorough a horseman not to be thoughtful of an animal's
comfort.

He led his own horse out, and then he stopped abruptly. For Pard stood
in front of the kitchen door, and Jean was untying a package or two
from the saddle. He opened his mouth to call to her; he started
forward; but he was too late to prevent what happened. Before his
throat had made a sound, Jean turned with the packages in the hollow of
her arm and stepped upon the platform with that springy haste of
movement which belongs to health and youth and happiness; and before he
had taken more than the first step away from his horse, she had opened
the kitchen door.

Lite ran, then. He did not call to her. What was the use? She had
seen. She had dropped her packages, and turned and ran to meet him,
and caught him by the arm in a panic of horror. Lite patted her hand
awkwardly, not knowing what he ought to say.

"What made you go in there?" came of its own accord from his lips.
"That's no place for a girl."

"It's Johnny Croft!" she gasped just above her breath. "How--did it
happen, Lite?"

"I don't know," said Lite slowly, looking down and still patting her
hand. "Your father and I have both been gone all day. I just got back
a few minutes ago and found out about it." His tone, his manner and
his words impressed upon Jean the point he wanted her to get,--that her
father had not yet returned, and so knew nothing of the crime.

He led her back to where Pard stood, and told her to get on. Without
asking him why, Jean obeyed him, with a shudder when her wide eyes
strayed fascinated to the open door and to what lay just within. Lite
went up and pulled the door shut, and then, walking beside her with an
arm over Pard's neck, he led the way down to the stable, and mounted
Ranger.

"You can't stay here," he explained, when she looked at him
inquiringly. "Do you want to go over and stay at Carl's, or would you
rather go back to town?" He rode down toward the gate, and Jean kept
beside him.

"I'm going to stay with dad," she told him shakily. "If he stays,
I'll--I'll stay."

"You'll not stay," he contradicted her bluntly. "You can't. It
wouldn't be right." And he added self-reproachfully: "I never thought
of your cutting across the bench and riding down the trail back of the
house. I meant to head you off--"

"It's shorter," said Jean briefly. "I--if I can't stay, I'd rather go
to town, Lite. I don't like to stay over at Uncle Carl's."

Therefore, when they reached the mouth of the coulee, Lite turned into
the trail that led to town. All down the coulee the trail had been dug
deep with the hoofprints of a galloping horse; and now, on the town
trail, they were as plain as a primer to one schooled in the open. But
Jean was too upset to notice them, and for that Lite was thankful.
They did not talk much, beyond the commonplace speculations which
tragedy always brings to the lips of the bystanders. Comments that
were perfectly obvious they made, it is true. Jean said it was
perfectly awful, and Lite agreed with her. Jean wondered how it could
have happened, and Lite said he didn't know. Neither of them said
anything about the effect it would have upon their future; I don't
suppose that Jean, at least, could remotely guess at the effect. It is
certain that Lite preferred not to do so.

They were no more than half way to town when they met a group of
galloping horsemen, their coming heralded for a mile by the dust they
kicked out of the trail.

In the midst rode Jean's father. Alongside him rode the coroner, and
behind him rode the sheriff. The rest of the company was made up of men
who had heard the news and were coming to look upon the tragedy. Lite
drew a long breath of relief. Aleck Douglas, then, had not been
running away.





Next: Concerning Lite And A Few Footprints

Previous: Sir Redmond Gets His Answer



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