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Jean Spoils Something








From: Jean Of The Lazy A

Jean found the padlock key where she had hidden it under a rock ten
feet from the door, and let herself into her room. The peaceful
familiarity of its four walls, and the cheerful patch of sunlight lying
warm upon the faded rag carpet, gave her the feeling of security and of
comfort which she seldom felt elsewhere.

She wandered aimlessly around the room, brushing the dust from her
books and straightening a tiny fold in the cradle quilt. She ran an
investigative forefinger along the seat of her father's saddle, brought
the finger away dusty, pulled one of the stockings from the overflowing
basket and used it for a dust cloth. She wiped and polished the
stamped leather with a painstaking tenderness that had in it a good
deal of yearning, and finally left it with a gesture of hopelessness.

She went next to her desk and fumbled the quirt that lay there still.
Then she pulled out the old ledger, picked up a pencil, and began to
write, sitting on the arm of an old, cane-seated chair while she did
so. As I told you before, Jean never wrote anything in that book
except when her moods demanded expression of some sort; when she did
write, she said exactly what she thought and felt at the time. So if
you are permitted to know what she wrote at this time, you will have
had a peep into Jean's hidden, inner life that none of her world save
Lite knew anything about. She wrote rapidly, and she did not always
take the trouble to finish her sentences properly,--as if she never
could quite keep pace with her thoughts. So this is what that page
held when finally she slammed the book shut and slid it back into the
desk:


I don't know what's the matter with me lately. I feel as if I wanted
to shoot somebody, or rob a bank or run away--I guess it's the old
trouble nagging at me. I KNOW dad never did it. I don't know why, but
I know it just the same--and I know Uncle Carl knows it too. I'd like
to take out his brain and put it into some scientific machine that
would squeeze out his thoughts--hope it wouldn't hurt him--I'd give him
ether, maybe. What I want is money--enough to buy back this place and
the stock. I don't believe Uncle Carl spent as much defending dad as
he claims he did--not enough to take the whole ranch anyway. If I had
money I'd find Art Osgood if I had to hunt from Alaska to Africa--don't
believe he went to Alaska at all. Uncle Carl thinks so.... I'd like
the price of that machine I helped drag out of the sand--some people
can have anything they want but all I want is dad back, and this place
the way it was before....

If I had any brains I could write something wonderful and be rich and
famous and do the things I want to do--but there's no profit in just
feeling wonderful things; if I could make the world see and feel what I
see and feel--when I'm here, or riding alone....

If I could find Art Osgood I believe I could make him tell--I know he
knows something, even if he didn't do it himself. I believe he
did--But what can you do when you're a woman and haven't any money and
must stay where you're put and can't even get out and do the little you
might do, because somebody must have you around to lean on and tell
their troubles to.... I don't blame Aunt Ella so much--but thank
goodness, I can do without a shoulder to weep on, anyway. What's life
for if you've got to spend your days hopping round and round in a cage.
It wouldn't be a cage if I could have dad back--I'd be doing things for
him all the time and that would make life worth while. Poor dad--four
more years is--I can't think about it. I'll go crazy if I do--


It was there that she stopped and slammed the book shut, and pushed it
back out of sight in the desk. She picked up her hat and gloves, and
went out with blurred eyes, and began to climb the bluff above the
little spring, where a faint, little-used trail led to the benchland
above. By following a rock ledge to where it was broken, and climbing
through the crevice to where the trail marked faintly the way to the
top, one could in a few minutes leave the Lazy A coulee out of sight
below, and stand on a high level where the winds blew free from the
mountains in the west to the mountains in the east.

Some day, it was predicted, the benchland would be cut into squares and
farmed,--some day when the government brought to reality a
long-talked-of irrigation project. But in the meantime, the land lay
unfenced and free. One could look far away to the north, and at
certain times see the smoke of passing trains through the valley off
there. One could look south to the distant river bluffs, and east and
west to the mountains. Jean often climbed the bluff just for the wide
outlook she gained. The cage did not seem so small when she could
stand up there and tire her eyes with looking. Life did not seem quite
so purposeless, and she could nearly always find little whispers of
hope in the winds that blew there.

She walked aimlessly and yet with a subconscious purpose for ten
minutes or so, and her face was turned directly toward the eastern
hills. She stopped on the edge of the bluff that broke abruptly there,
and sat down and stared at the soft purple of the hills and the soft
green of the nearer slopes, and at the peaceful blue of the sky arched
over it all. Her eyes cleared of their troubled look and grew dreamy.
Her mouth lost its tenseness and softened to a half smile. She was not
looking now into the past that was so full of heartbreak, but into the
future as hope pictured it for her.

She was seeing the Lazy A alive again and all astir with the business
of life; and her father saddling Sioux and riding out to look after the
stock. She was seeing herself riding with him,--or else cooking the
things he liked best for his dinner when he came back hungry. She sat
there for a long, long while and never moved.

A sparrow hawk swooped down quite close to Jean and then shot upward
with a little brown bird in its claws, and startled her out of her
castle building. She felt a hot anger against the hawk, which was like
the sudden grasp of misfortune; and a quick sympathy with the bird,
which was like herself and dad, caught unawares and held helpless. But
she did not move, and the hawk circled and came back on his way to the
nesting-place in the trees along the creek below. He came quite close,
and Jean shot him as he lifted his wings for a higher flight. The hawk
dropped head foremost to the grass and lay there crumpled and quiet.

Jean put back her gun in its holster and went over to where the hawk
lay. The little brown bird fluttered terrifiedly and gave a piteous,
small chirp when her hand closed over it, and then lay quite still in
her cupped palms and blinked up at her.

Jean cuddled it up against her cheek, and talked to it and pitied it
and promised it much in the way of fat little bugs and a warm nest and
her tender regard. For the hawk she had no pity, nor a thought beyond
the one investigative glance she gave its body to make sure that she
had hit it where she meant to hit it. Lite had taught her to shoot
like that,--straight and quick. Lite was a man who trimmed life down to
the essentials, and he had long ago impressed it upon her that if she
could not shoot quickly, and hit where she aimed, there was not much
use in her attempting to shoot at all. Jean proved by her scant
interest in the hawk how well she had learned the lesson, and how sure
she was of hitting where she aimed.

The little brown bird had been gashed in the breast by a sharp talon.
Jean was much concerned over the wound, even though it did not reach
any vital organ. She was afraid of septic poisoning, she told the bird;
but added comfortingly: "There--you needn't worry one minute over
that. I'm almost sure there's a bottle of peroxide down at the house,
that isn't spoiled. We'll go and put some on it right away; and then
we'll go bug-hunting. I believe I know where there's the fattest,
juiciest bugs!" She cuddled the bird against her cheek, and started
back across the wide point of the benchland to where the trail led down
the bluff to the house.

She was wholly absorbed in the trouble of the little brown bird; and
the trail, following a crevice through the rocks and later winding
along behind some scant bushes, partially concealed the buildings and
the house yard from view until one was well down into the coulee. So it
was not until she was at the spring, looking at the moist earth there
for fat bugs for the bird, that she had any inkling of visitors. Then
she heard voices and went quickly around the corner of the house toward
the sound.

It seemed to her that she was lately fated to come plump into the
middle of that fat Mr. Burns' unauthorized picture-making. The first
thing she saw when she rounded the corner was the camera perched high
upon its tripod and staring at her with its one round eye; and the
humorous-eyed Pete Lowry turning a crank at the side and counting in a
whisper. Close beside her the two women were standing in animated
argument which they carried on in undertones with many gestures to
point their meaning.

"Hey, you're in the scene!" called Pete Lowry, and abruptly stopped
counting and turning the crank.

"You're in the scene, sister. Step over here to one side, will you?"
The fat director waved his pink-cameoed hand impatiently.

An old bench had been placed beside the house, under a window. Jean
backed a step and sat down upon the bench, and looked from one to the
other. The two women glanced at her wide-eyed and moved away with
mutual embracings. Jean lifted her hands and looked at the soft little
crest and beady eyes of the bird, to make sure that it was not
disturbed by these strangers, before she gave her attention to the
expostulating Mr. Burns.

"Did I spoil something?" she inquired casually, and watched curiously
the pulling of many feet of narrow film from the camera.

"About fifteen feet of good scene," Pete Lowry told her dryly, but with
that queer, half smile twisting his lips.

Jean looked at him and decided that, save for the company he kept,
which made of him a latent enemy, she might like that lean man in the
red sweater who wore a pencil over one ear and was always smiling to
himself about something. But what she did was to cross her feet and
murmur a sympathetic sentence to the little brown bird. Inwardly she
resented deeply this bold trespass of Robert Grant Burns; but she meant
to guard against making herself ridiculous again. She meant to be sure
of her ground before she ordered them off. The memory of her
humiliation before the supposed rustlers was too vivid to risk a
repetition of the experience.

"When you're thoroughly rested," said Robert Grant Burns, in the tone
that would have shriveled the soul of one of his actors, "we'd like to
make that scene over."

"Thank you. I am pretty tired," she said in that soft, drawly voice
that could hide so effectually her meaning. She leaned her head
against the wall and gave a luxurious sigh, and crossed her feet the
other way. She believed that she knew why Robert Grant Burns was
growing so red in the face and stepping about so uneasily, and why the
women were looking at her like that. Very likely they expected her to
prove herself crude and uncivilized, but she meant to disappoint them
even while she made them all the trouble she could.

She pushed back her hat until its crown rested against the rough
boards, and cuddled the little brown bird against her cheek again, and
talked to it caressingly. Though she seemed unconscious of his
presence, she heard every word that Robert Grant Burns was muttering to
himself. Some of the words were plain, man-sized swearing, if she were
any judge of language. It occurred to her that she really ought to go
and find that peroxide, but she could not forego the pleasure of
irritating this man.

"I always supposed that fat men were essentially; sweet-tempered," she
observed to the world in general, when the mutterings ceased for a
moment.

"Gee! I'd like to make that," Pete Lowry said in an undertone to his
assistant.

Jean did not know that he referred to herself and the unstudied picture
she made, sitting there with her hat pushed back, and the little bird
blinking at her from between her cupped palms. But she looked at him
curiously, with an impulse to ask questions about what he was doing
with that queer-looking camera, and how he could inject motion into
photography. While she watched, he drew out a narrow, gray strip of
film and made mysterious markings upon it with the pencil, which he
afterwards thrust absent-mindedly behind his ear. He closed a small
door in the side of the camera, placed his palm over the lens and
turned the little crank several times around. Then he looked at Jean,
and from her to the director.

Robert Grant Burns gave a sweeping, downward gesture with both
hands,--a gesture which his company knew well,--and came toward Jean.

"You may not know it," he began in a repressed tone, "but we're in a
hurry. We've got work to do. We ain't here on any pleasure excursion,
and you'll be doing me a favor by getting out of the scene so we can go
on with our work."

Jean sat still upon the bench and looked at him. "I suppose so; but why
should I be doing you favors? You haven't seemed to appreciate them, so
far. Of course, I dislike to seem disobliging, or anything like that,
but your tone and manner would not make any one very enthusiastic about
pleasing you, Mr. Burns. In fact, I don't see why you aren't
apologizing for being here, instead of ordering me about as if I worked
for you. This bench--is my bench. This ranch--is where I have lived
nearly all my life. I hate to seem vain, Mr. Burns, but at the same
time I think it is perfectly lovely of me to explain that I have a
right here; and I consider myself an angel of patience and graciousness
and many other rare virtues, because I have not even hinted that you
are once more taking liberties with other people's property." She
looked at him with a smile at the corners of her eyes and just easing
the firmness of her lips, as if the humor of the situation was
beginning to appeal to her.

"If you would stop dancing about, and let your naturally sweet
disposition have a chance, and would explain just why you are here and
what you want to do, and would ask me nicely,--it might help you more
than to get apoplexy over it."

The two women exclaimed under their breaths to each other and moved
farther away, as if from an impending explosion. The assistant camera
man gurgled and turned his back abruptly. Lee Milligan, wandering up
from the stables, stopped and stared. No one, within the knowledge of
those present, had ever spoken so to Robert Grant Burns; no one had
ever dreamed of speaking thus to him. They had seen him when rage had
mastered him and for slighter cause; it was not an experience that one
would care to repeat.

Robert Grant Burns walked up to Jean as if he meant to lift her from
the bench and hurl her by sheer brute force out of his way. He stopped
so close to her that his shadow covered her.

"Are you going to get out of the way so we can go on?" he asked, in the
tone of one who gives a last merciful chance of escape from impending
doom.

"Are you going to explain why you're here, and apologize for your tone
and manner, which are extremely rude?" Jean did not pay his rage the
compliment of a glance at him. She was looking at the dainty beak of
the little brown bird, and was telling herself that she could not be
bullied into losing control of herself. These two women should not
have the satisfaction of calling her a crude, ignorant, country girl;
and Robert Grant Burns should not have the triumph of browbeating her
into yielding one inch of ground. She forced herself to observe the
wonderfully delicate feathers on the bird's head. It seemed more
content now in the little nest her two palms had made for it. Its heart
did not flutter so much, and she fancied that the tiny, bead-like eyes
were softer in their bright regard of her.

Robert Grant Burns came to a pause. Jean sensed that he was waiting
for some reply, and she looked up at him. His hand was just reaching
out to her shoulder, but it dropped instead to his coat pocket and
fumbled for his handkerchief. Her eyes strayed to Pete Lowry. He was
looking upward with that measuring glance which belongs to his
profession, estimating the length of time the light would be suitable
for the scene he had focussed. She followed his glance to where the
shadow of the kitchen had crept closer to the bench. Jean was not
stupid, and she had passed through the various stages of the kodak
fever; she guessed what was in the mind of the operator, and when she
met his eyes full, she smiled at him sympathetically.

"I should dearly love to watch you work," she said to him frankly.
"But you see how it is; Mr. Burns hasn't got hold of himself yet. If
he comes to his senses before he has a stroke of apoplexy, will you
show me how you run that thing?"

"You bet I will," the red-sweatered one promised her cheerfully.

"How much longer will it be before this bench is in the shade?" she
asked him next.

"Half an hour,--maybe a little longer." Pete glanced again anxiously
upward.

"And--how long do these spasms usually last?" Jean's head tilted toward
Robert Grant Burns as impersonally as if she were indicating a horse
with colic.

But the camera man had gone as far as was wise, if he cared to continue
working for Burns, and he made no reply whatever. So Jean turned her
attention to the man whose bulk shaded her from the sun, and whose
remarks would have been wholly unforgivable had she not chosen to
ignore them.

"If you really are anxious to go on making pictures, why don't you stop
all that ranting and be sensible about it?" she asked him. "You can't
bully me into being afraid of you, you know. And really, you are
making an awful spectacle of yourself, going on like that."

"Listen here! Are you going to get off that bench and out of the
scene?" By a tremendous effort Robert Grant Burns spoke that sentence
with a husky kind of calm.

"That all depends upon yourself, Mr. Burns. First, I want to know by
what right you come here with your picture-making. You haven't
explained that yet, you know."

The highest paid director of the Great Western Film Company looked at
her long. With her head tilted back, Jean returned the look.

"Oh, all right--all right," he surrendered finally. "Read that paper.
That ought to satisfy you that we ain't trespassing here or anywhere
else. And if you'd kindly,"--and Mr. Burns emphasized the word
"kindly,"--"remove yourself to some other spot that is just as
comfortable--"

Jean did not even hear him, once she had the paper in her hands and had
begun to read it. So Robert Grant Burns folded his arms across his
heaving chest and watched her and studied her and measured her with his
mind while she read. He saw the pulling together of her eyebrows, and
the pinching of her under-lip between her teeth. He saw how she
unconsciously sheltered the little brown bird under her left hand in
her lap because she must hold the paper with the other, and he quite
forgot his anger against her.

Sitting so, she made a picture that appealed to him. Had you asked him
why, he would have said that she was the type that would photograph
well, and that she had a screen personality; which would have been high
praise indeed, coming from him.

Jean read the brief statement that in consideration of a certain sum
paid to him that day by Robert G. Burns, her uncle, Carl Douglas,
thereby gave the said Robert G. Burns permission to use the Lazy A
ranch and anything upon it or in any manner pertaining to it, for the
purpose of making motion pictures. It was plainly set forth that
Robert G. Burns should be held responsible for any destruction of or
damage to the property, and that he might, for the sum named, use any
cattle bearing the Lazy A or Bar O brands for the making of pictures,
so long as he did them no injury and returned them in good condition to
the range from which he had gathered them.

Jean recognized her uncle's ostentatious attempt at legal phraseology
and knew, even without the evidence of his angular writing, that the
document was genuine. She knew also that Robert Grant Burns was
justified in ordering her off that bench; she had no right there, where
he was making his pictures. She forced back the bitterness that filled
her because of her own helplessness, and folded the paper carefully.
The little brown bird chirped shrilly and fluttered a feeble protest
when she took away her sheltering hand. Jean returned the paper
hastily to its owner and took up the bird.

"I beg your pardon for delaying your work," she said coldly, and rose
from the bench. "But you might have explained your presence in the
first place." She wrapped the bird carefully in her handkerchief so
that only its beak and its bright eyes were uncovered, pulled her hat
forward upon her head, and walked away from them down the path to the
stables.

Robert Grant Burns turned slowly on his heels and watched her go, and
until she had led out her horse, mounted and ridden away, he said never
a word. Pete Lowry leaned an elbow upon the camera and watched her
also, until she passed out of sight around the corner of the
dilapidated calf shed, and he was as silent as the director.

"Some rider," Lee Milligan commented to the assistant camera man, and
without any tangible reason regretted that he had spoken.

Robert Grant Burns turned harshly to the two women. "Now then, you two
go through that scene again. And when you put out your hand to stop
Muriel, don't grab at her, Mrs. Gay. Hesitate! You want your son to
get the warning, but you've got your doubts about letting her take the
risk of going. And, Gay, when you read the letter, try and show a
little emotion in your face. You saw how that girl looked--see if you
can't get that hurt, bitter look GRADUALLY, as you read. The way she
got it. Put in more feeling and not so much motion. You know what I
mean; you saw the girl. That's the stuff that gets over. Ready?
Camera!"





Next: A Man-sized Job For Jean

Previous: Robert Grant Burns Gets Help



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