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Jean Rides Into A Small Adventure








From: Jean Of The Lazy A

At the mouth of the coulee, she turned to the left instead of to the
right, and so galloped directly away from the Bar Nothing ranch, down
the narrow valley known locally as the Flat, and on to the hills that
invited her with their untroubled lights and shadows and the deep scars
she knew for canyons.

There were no ranches out this way. The land was too broken and too
barren for anything but grazing, so that she felt fairly sure of having
her solitude unspoiled by anything human. Solitude was what she
wanted. Solitude was what she had counted upon having in that little
room at the Lazy A; robbed of it there, she rode straight to the hills,
where she was most certain of finding it.

And then she came up out of a hollow upon a little ridge and saw three
horsemen down in the next coulee. They were not close enough so that
she could distinguish their features, but by the horses they rode, by
the swing of their bodies in the saddles, by all those little,
indefinable marks by which we recognize acquaintances at a distance,
Jean knew them for strangers. She pulled up and watched them, puzzled
for a minute at their presence and behavior.

When first she discovered them, they were driving a small bunch of
cattle, mostly cows and calves, down out of a little "draw" to the
level bottom of the narrow coulee. While she watched, herself screened
effectually by a clump of bushes, she saw one rider leave the cattle
and gallop out into the open, stand there looking toward the mouth of
the coulee, and wave his hand in a signal for the others to advance.
This looked queer to Jean, accustomed all her life to seeing men go
calmly about their business upon the range, careless of observation
because they had nothing to conceal. She urged Pard a little nearer,
keeping well behind the bushes still, and leaned forward over the
saddle horn, watching the men closely.

Their next performance was enlightening, but incredibly bold for the
business they were engaged in. One of the three got off his horse and
started a little fire of dry sticks under a convenient ledge. Another
untied the rope from his saddle, widened the loop, swung it twice over
his head and flipped it neatly over the head of a calf.

Jean did not wait to see any more than that; she did not need to see
any more to know them for "rustlers." Brazen rustlers, indeed, to go
about their work in broad daylight like that. She was not sure as to
the ownership of the calf, but down here was where the Bar Nothing
cattle, and what few were left of the Lazy A, ranged while the feed was
good in the spring, so that the probabilities were that this theft
would strike rather close home. Whether it did or not, Jean was not
one to ride away and leave range thieves calmly at work.

She turned back behind the bushy screen, rode hastily along the ridge
to the head of the little coulee and dismounted, leading Pard down a
steep bank that was treacherous with loose shale. The coulee was more
or less open, but it had convenient twists and windings; and if you
think that Jean failed to go down it quietly and unseen, that merely
proves how little you know Jean.

She hurried as much as she dared. She knew that the rustlers would be
in something of a hurry themselves, and she very much desired to ride
on them unawares and catch them at that branding, so that there would
be no shadow of a doubt of their guilt. What she would do after she
had ridden upon them, she did not quite know.

So she came presently around the turn that revealed them to her. They
were still fussing with the calf,--or it may have been another
one,--and did not see her until she was close upon them. When they did
see her, she had them covered with her 38-caliber six-shooter, that she
usually carried with her on the chance of getting a shot at a coyote or
a fox or something like that.

The three stood up and stared at her, their jaws sagging a little at
the suddenness of her appearance, and their eyes upon the gun. Jean
held it steady, and she had all the look of a person who knew exactly
what she meant, and who meant business. She eyed them curiously,
noting the fact that they were strangers, and cowboys,--though of a
type that she had never seen on the range. She glanced sharply at the
beaded, buckskin jacket of one of them, and the high, wide-brimmed
sombrero of another.

"Well," she said at length, "turn your backs, you've had a good look at
me. Turn--your--backs, I said. Now, drop those guns on the ground.
Walk straight ahead of you till you come to that bank. You needn't
look around; I'm still here."

She leaned a little, sending Pard slowly forward until he was close to
the six-shooters lying on the ground. She glanced down at them
quickly, and again at the men who stood, an uneasy trio, with their
faces toward the wall, except when they ventured a glance sidewise or
back at her over one shoulder. She glanced at the cattle huddled in
the narrow mouth of the "draw" behind them, and saw that they were
indeed Bar Nothing and Lazy A stock. The horses the three had been
riding she did not remember to have seen before.

Jean hesitated, not quite knowing what she ought to do next. So far
she had acted merely upon instincts born of her range life and
training; the rest would not be so easy. She knew she ought to have
those guns, at any rate, so she dismounted, still keeping the three in
line with her own weapon, and went to where the revolvers lay on the
ground. With her boot toe she kicked them close together, and stooped
and picked one up. The last man in the line turned toward her
protestingly, and Jean fired so close to his head that he ducked.

"Believe me, I could kill the three of you if I wanted to, before you
could turn around," she informed them calmly, "so you had better stand
still till I tell you to move." She frowned down at the rustler's gun
in her hand. There was something queer about that gun.

"Hey, Burns," called the man in the middle, without venturing to turn
his head, "come out of there and explain to the lady. This ain't in
the scene!"

"Oh, yes, it is!" a voice retorted chucklingly. "You bet your life this
is in the scene! Lowry's been pamming it all in; don't you worry about
that!" Jean was startled, but she did not lower her gun from its steady
aiming at the three of them. It was just some trick, very likely,
meant to throw her off her guard. There were more than the three, and
the fourth man probably had her covered with a gun. But she would not
turn her head toward his voice, for all that.

"The gentleman called Burns may walk out into the open and explain, if
he can," she announced sharply, her eyes upon the three whom she had
captured so easily.

She heard the throaty chuckle again, from somewhere to the left of her.
She saw the three men in front of her look at each other with sickly
grins. She felt that the whole situation was swinging against
her,--that she had somehow blundered and made herself ridiculous. It
never occurred to her that she was in any particular danger; men did
not shoot down women in that country, unless they were drunk or crazy,
and the man called Burns had sounded extremely sane, humorous even.
She heard a rattle of bushes and the soft crunching of footsteps coming
toward her. Still she would not turn her head, nor would she lower the
gun; if it was a trick, they should not say that it had been successful.

"It's all right, sister," said the chuckling voice presently, almost at
her elbow. "This isn't any real, honest-to-John bandit party. We're
just movie people, and we're making pictures. That's all." He
stopped, but Jean did not move or make any reply whatever, so he went
on. "I must say I appreciate the compliment you paid us in taking it
for the real dope, sister--"

"Don't call me sister again." Jean flashed him a sidelong glance of
resentment. "You've already done it twice too often. Come around in
front where I can see you, if you're what you claim to be."

"Well, don't shoot, and I will," soothed the chuckling voice. "My, my,
it certainly is a treat to see a real, live Prairie Queen once. Beats
making them to order--"

"We'll omit the superfluous chatter, please." Jean looked him over and
tagged him mentally with one glance. He did not look like a
rustler,--with his fat good-nature and his town-bred personality, and
his gray tweed suit and pigskin puttees, and the big cameo ring on his
manicured little finger, and his fresh-shaven face as round as the sun
above his head and almost as cheerful. Perfectly harmless, but Jean
would not yield to the extent of softening her glance or her manner one
hundredth of a degree. The more harmless these people, the more
ridiculous she had made herself appear.

The chuckly one grinned and removed his soft gray hat, held it against
his generous equator, and bowed so low as to set him puffing a little
afterward. His eyes, however, appraised her shrewdly.

"Omitting all superfluous chatter, as you suggest, I am Robert Grant
Burns, of the Great Western Film Company. These men are also members
of that company. We are here for the purpose of making Western
pictures, and this little bit of unlawful branding of stock which you
were flattering enough to mistake for the real thing, is merely a scene
which we were making." He was about to indulge in what he would have
termed a little "kidding" of the girl, but wisely refrained after
another shrewd reading of her face.

Jean looked at the three men, who had taken it for granted that they
might leave their intimate study of the clay bank and were coming
toward her. She looked at the gun she had picked up from the
ground,--being loaded with blank cartridges was what had made it look
so queer!--and at Robert Grant Burns of the Great Western Film Company,
who had put on his hat again and was studying her the way he was wont
to study applicants for a position in his company.

"Did you get permission to haze our cattle around like this?" she asked
abruptly, to hide how humiliated she really felt.

"Why--no. Just for a few scenes, I did not consider it necessary."
Plainly, the chuckly Mr. Burns was taken at a disadvantage.

"But it is necessary. Don't make the mistake, Mr. Burns, of thinking
this country and all it contains is at the disposal of any chance
stranger, just because we do not keep it under lock and key. You are
making rather free with another man's personal property, when you use
my uncle's cattle for your rustling scenes."

"Your uncle? Well, I shall be very glad to make some arrangement with
your uncle, if that is customary."

"Why the doubt? Are you in the habit of walking into a man's house,
for instance, and using his kitchen to make pictures without
permission? Has it been your custom to lead a man's horses out of his
stable whenever you chose, and use them for race pictures?"

"No, no--nothing like that. Sorry to have infringed upon your
property-rights, I am sure." Mr. Burns did not sound so chuckly now;
but that may have been because the three picture-rustlers were quite
openly pleased at the predicament of their director. "It never occurred
to me that--"

"That the cattle were not as free as the hills?" The quiet voice of
Jean searched out the tenderest places in the self-esteem of Robert
Grant Burns. She tossed the blank-loaded gun back upon the ground and
turned to her horse. "It does seem hard to impress it upon city people
that we savages do have a few rights in this country. We should have
policemen stationed on every hilltop, I suppose, and 'No Trespassing'
signs planted along every cow-trail. Even then I doubt whether we
could convince some people that we are perfectly human and that we
actually do own property here."

While she drawled the last biting sentences, she stuck her toe in the
stirrup and went up into the saddle as easily as any cowpuncher in the
country could have done. Robert Grant Burns stood with his hands at
his hips and watched her with the critical eye of the expert who sees
in every gesture a picture, effective or ineffective, good, bad, or
merely so--so. Robert Grant Burns had never, in all his experience in
directing Western pictures, seen a girl mount a horse with such
unconscious ease of every movement.

Jean twitched the reins and turned towards him, looking down at the
little group with unfriendly eyes. "I don't want to seem inhospitable
or unaccommodating, Mr. Burns," she told him, "but I fear that I must
take these cattle back home with me. You probably will not want to use
them any longer."

Mr. Burns did not say whether she was right or wrong in her conjecture.
As a matter of fact, he did want to use them for several more scenes;
but he stood silent while Jean, with a chilly bow to the four of them,
sent Pard up the rough bank of the little gulley. Rather, he made no
reply to Jean, but he waved his three rustlers back, retreating himself
to where the bank stopped them. And he turned toward the bushes that
had at first hidden him from Jean, waved his hand in an imperative
gesture, and called guardedly through cupped palms. "Take that! All
you can get of it!" Which goes far to show why he was considered one of
the best directors the Great Western Film Company had in its employ.

So Jean unconsciously made a picture which caused the eyes of Robert
Grant Burns to glisten while he watched. She ignored the men who had
so fooled her, and took down her rope that she might swing the loop of
it toward the cattle and drive them back across the gulley and up the
coulee toward home. Cattle are stubborn things at best, and this
little bunch seemed determined to seek the higher slopes. Put upon her
mettle because of that little audience down below,--a mildly jeering
audience at that, she imagined,--Jean had need of her skill and her
fifteen years or so of experience in handling stock.

She swung her rope and shouted, weaving back and forth across the
gulley, with little lunging rushes now and then to head off an animal
that tried to bolt past her up the hill. She would not have glanced
toward Robert Grant Burns to save her life, and she did not hear him
saying:

"Great! Great stuff! Get it all, Pete. By George, you can't beat the
real thing, can you? 'J get that up-hill dash? Good! Now panoram the
drive up the gulley--get it ALL, Pete--turn as long as you can see the
top of her hat. My Lord! You wouldn't get stuff like that in ten
years. I wish Gay could handle herself like that in the saddle, but
there ain't a leading woman in the business to-day that could put that
over the way she's doing it. By George! Say, Gil, you get on your
horse and ride after her, and find out where she lives. We can't work
any more now, anyway; she's gone off with the cattle. And, say! You
don't want to let her get a sight of you, or she might take a shot at
you. And if she can shoot the way she rides--good night!"





Next: And The Villain Pursued Her

Previous: Jean



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