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Jean Learns What Fear Is Like








From: Jean Of The Lazy A

Sometime in the still part of the night which comes after midnight,
Jean woke slowly from dreaming of the old days that had been so vivid
in her mind when she went to sleep. Just at first she did not know
what it was that awakened her, though her eyes were open and fixed upon
the lighted square of the window. She knew that she was in her room at
the Lazy A, but just at first it seemed to her that she was there
because she had always been sleeping in that room. She sighed and
turned her face away from the moonlight, and closed her eyes again
contentedly.

Half dreaming she opened them again and stared up at the low ceiling.
Somewhere in the house she heard footsteps. Very slowly she wakened
enough to listen. They were footsteps,--the heavy, measured tread of
some man. They were in the room that had been her father's bedroom,
and at first they seemed perfectly natural and right; they seemed to be
her dad's footsteps, and she wondered mildly what he was doing, up at
that time of night.

The footsteps passed from there into the kitchen and stopped in the
corner where stood the old-fashioned cupboard with perforated tin
panels in the doors and at the sides, and the little drawers at the
top,--the kind that old people call a "safe." She heard a drawer
pulled out. Without giving any conscious thought to it, she knew which
drawer it was; it was the one next the wall,--the one that did not pull
out straight, and so had to be jerked out. What was her dad...?

Jean thrilled then with a tremor of fear. She had wakened fully enough
to remember. That was not her dad, out there in the kitchen. She did
not know who it was; it was some strange man prowling through the
house, hunting for something. She felt again the tremor of fear that
is the heritage of womanhood alone in the dark. She pulled the Navajo
blanket up to her ears with the instinct of the woman to hide, because
she is not strong enough to face and fight the danger that comes in the
dark. She listened to the sound of that drawer being pushed back, and
the other drawer being pulled out, and she shivered under the blanket.

Then she reached out her hand and got hold of her six-shooter which she
had laid down unthinkingly upon a chair near the couch. She wondered
if she had locked the outside door when she came in. She could not
remember having done so; probably she had not, since it is not the
habit of honest ranch-dwellers to lock their doors at night. She
wanted to get up and see, and fasten it somehow; but she was afraid the
man out there might hear her. As it was, she reasoned nervously with
herself, he probably did not suspect that there was any one in the
house. It was an empty house. And unless he had seen Pard in the
closed stall.... She wondered if he had heard Pard there, and had
investigated and found him. She wondered if he would come into this
room. She remembered how securely she had nailed up the door from the
kitchen, and she breathed freer. She remembered also that she had her
gun, there under her hand. She closed her trembling fingers on the
familiar grip of it, and the feel of it comforted her and steadied her.

Yet she had no desire, no slightest impulse to get up and see who was
there. She was careful not to move, except to cover the doorway to the
kitchen with her gun.

After a few minutes the man came and tried the door, and Jean lifted
herself cautiously upon her elbow and waited in grim desperation. If
he forced that door open, if he came in, she certainly would shoot; and
if she shot,--well, you remember the fate of that hawk on the wing.

The man did not force the door open, which was perhaps the luckiest
thing that ever happened to him. He fussed there until he must have
made sure that it was fastened firmly upon the inside, and then he left
it and went into what had been the living-room. Jean did not move from
her half-sitting position, nor did she change the aim of her gun. He
might come back and try again.

She heard him moving about in the living-room. Surely he did not expect
to find money in an empty house, or anything else of any commercial
value. What was he after? Finally he came back to the kitchen,
crossed it, and stood before the barred door. He pushed against it
tentatively, then stood still for a minute and finally went out. Jean
heard him step upon the porch and pull the kitchen door shut behind
him. She knew that squeal of the bottom hinge, and she knew the final
gasp and click that proved the latch was fastened. She heard him step
off the porch to the path, she heard the soft crunch of his feet in the
sandy gravel as he went away toward the stable. Very cautiously she
got off the couch and crept to the window; and with her gun gripped
tight in her hand, she looked out. But he had moved into a deep shadow
of the bluff, and she could see nothing of him save the deeper shadow
of his swift-moving body as he went down to the corral. Jean gave a
long sigh of nervous relaxation, and crept shivering under the Navajo
blanket. The gun she slid under the pillow, and her fingers rested
still upon the cool comfort of the butt.

Soon she heard a horse galloping, and she went to the window again and
looked out. The moon hung low over the bluff, so that the trail lay
mostly in the shadow. But down by the gate it swung out in a wide curve
to the rocky knoll, and there it lay moon-lighted and empty. She fixed
her eyes upon that curve and waited. In a moment the horseman galloped
out upon the curve, rounded it, and disappeared in the shadows beyond.
At that distance and in that deceptive light, she could not tell who it
was; but it was a horseman, a man riding at night in haste, and with
some purpose in mind.

Jean had thought that the prowler might be some tramp who had wandered
far off the beaten path of migratory humans, and who, stumbling upon
the coulee and its empty dwellings, was searching at random for
whatever might be worth carrying off. A horseman did not fit that
theory anywhere. That particular horseman had come there deliberately,
had given the house a deliberate search, and had left in haste when he
had finished. Whether he had failed or succeeded in finding what he
wanted, he had left. He had not searched the stables, unless he had
done that before coming into the house. He had not forced his way into
her room, probably because he did not want to leave behind him the
evidence of his visit which the door would have given, or because he
feared to disturb the contents of Jean's room.

Jean stared up in the dark and puzzled long over the identity of that
man, and his errand. And the longer she thought about it, the more
completely she was at sea. All the men that she knew were aware that
she kept this room habitable, and visited the ranch often. That was no
secret; it never had been a secret. No one save Lite Avery had ever
been in it, so far as she knew,--unless she counted those chance
trespassers who had prowled boldly through her most sacred belongings.
So that almost any one in the country, had he any object in searching
the house, would know that this room was hers, and would act in that
knowledge.

As to his errand. There could be no errand, so far as she knew. There
were no missing papers such as plays and novels are accustomed to have
cunningly hidden in empty houses. There was no stolen will, no hidden
treasure, no money, no Rajah's ruby, no ransom of a king; these things
Jean named over mentally, and chuckled at the idea of treasure-hunting
at the Lazy A. It vas very romantic, very mysterious, she told
herself. And she analyzed the sensation of little wet alligators
creeping up her spine (that was her own simile), and decided that her
book should certainly have a ghost in it; she was sure that she could
describe with extreme vividness the effect of a ghost upon her various
characters.

In this wise she recovered her composure and laughed at her fear, and
planned new and thrilly incidents for her novel.

She would not tell Lite anything about it, she decided. He would try to
keep her from coming over here by herself, and that would precipitate
one of those arguments between them that never seemed to get them
anywhere, because Lite never would yield gracefully, and Jean never
would yield at all,--which does not make for peace.

She wished, just the same, that Lite was there. It would be much more
comfortable if he were near instead of away over to the Bar Nothing,
sound asleep in the bunk-house. As a self-appointed guardian, Jean
considered Lite something of a nuisance, when he wasn't funny. But as
a big, steady-nerved friend and comrade, he certainly was a comfort.





Next: Lite's Pupil Demonstrates

Previous: A Man-sized Job For Jean



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