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Pictures And Plans And Mysterious Footsteps

From: Jean Of The Lazy A

When Lite objected to her staying altogether at the Lazy A, Jean
assured him that she was being terribly practical and cautious and
businesslike, and pointed out to him that staying there would save Pard
and herself the trip back and forth each day, and would give her time,
mornings and evenings to work on her book.

Lite, of course, knew all about that soon-to-be-famous book. He
usually did know nearly everything that concerned Jean or held her
interest. Whether, after three years of futile attempts, Lite still
felt himself entitled to be called Jean's boss, I cannot say for a
certainty. He had grown rather silent upon that subject, and rather
inclined to keep himself in the background, as Jean grew older and more
determined in her ways. But certainly he was Jean's one confidential
friend,--her pal. So Lite, perforce, listened while Jean told him the
plot of her story. And when she asked him in all earnestness what he
thought would be best for the tragic element, ghosts or Indians, Lite
meditated gravely upon the subject and then suggested that she put in
both. That is why Jean lavishly indulged in mysterious footsteps all
through the first chapter, and then opened the second with
blood-curdling war-whoops that chilled the soul of her heroine and led
her to suspect that the rocks behind the cabin concealed the forms of
painted savages.

Her imagination must have been stimulated by her new work, which called
for wild rides after posses and wilder flights away from the outlaws,
while the flash of blank cartridges and the smoke-pots of disaster by
fire added their spectacular effect to a scene now and then.

Jean, of course, was invariably the wild rider who fled in a blond wig
and Muriel's clothes from pursuing villains, or dashed up to the
sheriff's office to give the alarm. Frequently she fired the blank
cartridges, until Lite warned her that blank cartridges would ruin her
gun-barrel; after which she insisted upon using bullets, to the secret
trepidation of the villains who must stand before her and who could
never quite grasp the fact that Jean knew exactly where those bullets
were going to land.

She would sit in her room at the Lazy A, when the sun and the big,
black automobile and the painted workers were gone, and write
feverishly of ghosts and Indians and the fair maiden who endured so
much and the brave hero who dared so much and loved so well. Lee
Milligan she visualized as the human wolf who looked with desire upon
Lillian. Gil Huntley became the hero as the story unfolded; and while
I have told you absolutely nothing about Jean's growing acquaintance
with these two, you may draw your own conclusions from the place she
made for them in her book that she was writing. And you may also form
some idea of what Lite Avery was living through, during those days when
his work and his pride held him apart, and Jean did "stunts" to her
heart's content with these others.

A letter from the higher-ups in the Great Western Company, written just
after a trial run of the first picture wherein Jean had worked, had
served to stimulate Burns' appetite for the spectacular, so that the
stunts became more and more the features of his pictures. Muriel Gay
was likely to become the most famous photo-play actress in the West, he
believed. That is, she would if Jean continued to double for her in
everything save the straight dramatic work.

Jean did not care just at that time how much glory Muriel Gay was
collecting for work that Jean herself had done. Jean was experiencing
the first thrills of seeing her name written upon the face of fat,
weekly checks that promised the fulfillment of her hopes, and she would
not listen to Lite when he ventured a remonstrance against some of the
things she told him about doing. Jean was seeing the Lazy A restored
to its old-time home-like prosperity. She was seeing her dad there,
going tranquilly about the everyday business of the ranch, holding his
head well up, and looking every man straight in the eye. She could not
and she would not let even Lite persuade her to give up risking her
neck for the money the risk would bring her.

If she could change these dreams to reality by dashing madly about on
Pard while Pete Lowry wound yards and yards of narrow gray film around
something on the inside of his camera, and watched her with that
little, secret smile on his face; and while Robert Grant Burns waddled
here and there with his hands on his hips, and watched her also; and
while villains pursued or else fled before her, and Lee Milligan
appeared furiously upon the scene in various guises to rescue her,--if
she could win her dad's freedom and the Lazy A's possession by doing
these foolish things, she was perfectly willing to risk her neck and
let Muriel receive the applause.

She did not know that she was doubling the profit on these Western
pictures which Robert Grant Burns was producing. She did not know that
it would have hastened the attainment of her desires had her name
appeared in the cast as the girl who put the "punches" in the plays.
She did not know that she was being cheated of her rightful reward when
her name never appeared anywhere save on the pay-roll and the weekly
checks which seemed to her so magnificently generous. In her ignorance
of what Gil Huntley called the movie game, she was perfectly satisfied
to give the best service of which she was capable, and she never once
questioned the justice of Robert Grant Burns.

Jean started a savings account in the little bank where her father had
opened an account before she was born, and Lite was made to writhe
inwardly with her boasting. Lite, if you please, had long ago started
a savings account at that same bank, and had lately cut out poker, and
even pool, from among his joys, that his account might fatten the
faster. He had the same object which Jean had lately adopted so
zealously, but he did not tell her these things. He listened instead
while Jean read gloatingly her balance, and talked of what she would do
when she had enough saved to buy back the ranch. She had stolen
unwittingly the air castle which Lite had been three years building,
but he did not say a word about it to Jean. Wistful eyed, but smiling
with his lips, he would sit while Jean spoiled whole sheets of
perfectly good story-paper, just figuring and estimating and building
castles with the dollar sign. If Robert Grant Burns persisted in his
mania for "feature-stuff" and "punches" in his pictures, Jean believed
that she would have a fair start toward buying back the Lazy A long
before her book was published and had brought her the thousands and
thousands of dollars she was sure it would bring. Very soon she could
go boldly to a lawyer and ask him to do something about her father's
case. Just what he should do she did not quite know; and Lite did not
seem to be able to tell her, but she thought she ought to find out just
how much the trial had cost. And she wished she knew how to get about
setting some one on the trail of Art Osgood.

Jean was sure that Art Osgood knew something about the murder, and she
frequently tried to make Lite agree with her. Sometimes she was sure
that Art Osgood was the murderer, and would argue and point out her
reasons to Lite. Art had been working for her uncle, and rode often to
the Lazy A. He had not been friendly with Johnny Croft,--but then,
nobody had been very friendly with Johnny Croft. Still, Art Osgood was
less friendly with Johnny than most of the men in the country, and just
after the murder he had left the country. Jean laid a good deal of
stress upon the circumstance of Art Osgood's leaving on that particular
afternoon, and she seemed to resent it because no one had tried to find
Art. No one had seemed to think his going at that time had any
significance, or any bearing upon the murder, because he had been
planning to leave, and had announced that he would go that day.

Jean's mind, as her bank account grew steadily to something approaching
dignity, worked back and forth incessantly over the circumstances
surrounding the murder, in spite of Lite's peculiar attitude toward the
subject, which Jean felt but could not understand, since he invariably
assured her that he believed her dad was innocent, when she asked him

Sometimes, in the throes of literary composition, she could not think
of the word that she wanted. Her eyes then would wander around
familiar objects in the shabby little room, and frequently they would
come to rest upon her father's saddle or her father's chaps: the chaps
especially seemed potent reminders of her father, and drew her thoughts
to him and held them there. The worn leather, stained with years of
hard usage and wrinkled permanently where they had shaped themselves to
his legs in the saddle, brought his big, bluff presence vividly before
her, when she was in a certain receptive mood. She would forget all
about her story, and the riding and shooting and roping she had done
that day to appease the clamorous, professional appetite of Robert
Grant Burns, and would sit and stare, and think and think. Always her
thoughts traveled in a wide circle and came back finally to the
starting point: to free her father, and to give him back his home, she
must have money. To have money, she must earn it; she must work for
it. So then she would give a great sigh of relaxed nervous tension and
go back to her heroine and the Indians and the mysterious footsteps
that marched on moonlight nights up and down a long porch just outside
windows that frequently framed white, scared faces with wide,
horror-stricken eyes which saw nothing of the marcher, though the steps
still went up and down.

It was very creepy, in spots. It was so creepy that one evening when
Lite had come to smoke a cigarette or two in her company and to listen
to her account of the day's happenings, Lite noticed that when she read
the creepy passages in her story, she glanced frequently over her

"You want to cut out this story writing," he said abruptly, when she
paused to find the next page. "It's bad enough to work like you do in
the pictures. This is going a little too strong; you're as jumpy
to-night as a guilty conscience. Cut it out."

"I'm all right. I'm just doing that for dramatic effect. This is very
weird, Lite. I ought to have a green shade on the lamp, to get the
proper effect. I--don't you think--er--those footsteps are terribly

Lite looked at her sharply for a minute. "I sure do," he said drily.
"Where did you get the idea, Jean?"

"Out of my head," she told him airily, and went on reading while Lite
studied her curiously.

That night Jean awoke and heard stealthy footsteps, like a man walking
in his socks and no boots, going all through the house but never coming
to her room. She did not get up to see who it was, but lay perfectly
still and heard her heart thump. When she saw a dim, yellow ray of
light under the door which opened into the kitchen, she drew the
blanket over her head, and got no comfort whatever from the feel of her
six-shooter close against her hand.

The next morning she told herself that she had given in to a fine case
of nerves, and that the mysterious footsteps of her story had become
mixed up with the midnight wanderings of a pack-rat that had somehow
gotten into the house. Then she remembered the bar of light under the
door, and the pack-rat theory was spoiled.

She had taken the board off the doorway into the kitchen, so that she
could use the cookstove. The man could have come in if he had wanted
to, and that knowledge she found extremely disquieting. She went all
through the house that morning, looking and wondering. The living-room
was now the dressing-room of Muriel and her mother, and the make-up
scattered over the centertable was undisturbed; the wardrobe of the two
women had apparently been left untouched. Yet she was sure that some
one had been prowling in there in the night. She gave up the puzzle at
last and went back to her breakfast, but before the company arrived in
the big, black automobile, she had found a stout hasp and two staples,
and had fixed the door which led from her room into the kitchen so that
she could fasten it securely on the inside.

Jean did not tell Lite about the footsteps. She was afraid that he
might insist upon her giving up staying at the Lazy A. Lite did not
approve of it, anyway, and it would take very little encouragement in
the way of extra risk to make him stubborn about it. Lite could be
very obstinate indeed upon occasion, and she was afraid he might take a
stubborn streak about this, and perhaps ride over every night to make
sure she was all right, or do something equally unnecessary and foolish.

She did not know Lite as well as she imagined, which is frequently the
case with the closest of friends. As a matter of fact, Jean had never
spent one night alone on the ranch, even though she did believe she was
doing so. Lite had a homestead a few miles away, upon which he was
supposed to be sleeping occasionally to prove his good faith in the
settlement. Instead of spending his nights there, however, he rode
over and slept in the gable loft over the old granary, where no one
ever went; and he left every morning just before the sky lightened with
dawn. He did not know that Jean was frightened by the sound of
footsteps, but he had heard the man ride up to the stable and dismount,
and he had followed him to the house and watched him through the
uncurtained windows, and had kept his fingers close to his gun all the
while. Jean did not dream of anything like that; but Lite, going about
his work with the easy calm that marked his manner always, was quite as
puzzled over the errand of the night-prowler as was Jean herself.

For three years Lite had lain aside the mystery of the footprints on
the kitchen floor on the night after the inquest, as a puzzle he would
probably never solve. He had come to remember them as a vagrant
incident that carried no especial meaning. But now they seemed to
carry a new significance,--if only he could get at the key. For three
years he had gone along quietly, working and saving all he could, and
looking after Jean in an unobtrusive way, believing that Aleck was
guilty,--and being careful to give no hint of that belief to any one.
And now Jean herself seemed to be leading him unconsciously face to
face with doubt and mystery. It tantalized him. He knew the prowler,
and for that reason he was all the more puzzled. What had he wanted or
expected to find? Lite was tempted to face the man and ask him; but on
second thought he knew that would be foolish. He would say nothing to
Jean. He thanked the Lord she slept soundly! and he would wait and see
what happened.

Jean herself was thoughtful all that day, and was slow to lighten her
mood or her manner even when Gil Huntley rode beside her to location
and talked enthusiastically of the great work she was doing for a
beginner, and of the greater work she would do in the future, if only
she took advantage of her opportunities.

"It can't go on like this forever," he told her impressively for the
second time, before he was sure of her attention and her interest.
"Think of you, working extra under a three-day guarantee! Why, you're
what's making the pictures! I had a letter from a friend of mine; he's
with the Universal. He'd been down to see one of our pictures,--that
first one you worked in. You remember how you came down off that
bluff, and how you roped me and jerked me down off the bank just as I'd
got a bead on Lee? Say! that picture was a RIOT! Gloomy says he never
saw a picture get the hand that scene got. And he wanted to know who
was doubling for Gay, up here. You see, he got next that it was a
double; he knows darned well Gay never could put over that line of
stuff. The photography was dandy,--Pete's right there when it comes to
camera work, anyway,--and that run down the bluff, he said, had people
standing on their hind legs even before the rope scene. You could tell
it was a girl and no man doubling the part. Gloomy says everybody
around the studio has begun to watch for our releases, and go just to
see you ride and rope and shoot. And Gay gets all the press-notices!
Say, it makes me sick!" He looked at Jean wistfully.

"The trouble is, you don't realize what a raw deal you're getting," he
said, with much discontent in his tone. "As an extra, you're getting
fine treatment and fine pay; I admit that. But the point is, you've no
business being an extra. Where you belong is playing leads. You don't
know what that means, but I do. Burns is just using you to boost Muriel
Gay, and I say it's the rawest deal I ever saw handed out in the
picture game; and believe me, I've seen some raw deals!"

"Now, now, don't get peevish, Gil." Jean's drawl was soft, and her
eyes were friendly and amused. So far had their friendship progressed.
"It's awfully dear of you to want to see me a real leading lady. I
appreciate it, and I won't take off that lock of hair I said I'd take
when I shoot you in the foreground. Burns wants a real thrilling
effect close up, and he's told me five times to remember and keep my
face turned away from the camera, so they won't see it isn't Gay. If I
turn around, there will have to be a re-take, he says; and you won't
like that, Gil, not after you've heard a bullet zip past your ear so
close that it will fan your hair. Are--aren't you afraid of me, Gil?"

"Afraid of you?" Gil's horse swung closer, and Gil's eyes threatened
the opening of a tacitly forbidden subject.

"Because if you get nervous and move the least little bit-- To make it
look real, as Bobby described the scene to me, I've got to shoot the
instant you stop to gather yourself for a spring at me. It's that
lightning-draw business I have to do, Gil. I'm to stand three quarters
to the camera, with my face turned away, watching you. You keep
coming, and you stop just an instant when you're almost within reach of
me. In that instant I have to grab my gun and shoot; and it has to
look as if I got you, Gil. I've got to come pretty close, in order to
bring the gun in line with you for the camera. Bobby wants to show off
the quick draw that Lite Avery taught me. That's to be the 'punch' in
the scene. I showed him this morning what it is like, and Bobby is
just tickled to death. You see, I don't shoot the way they usually do
in pictures--"

"I should say not!" Gil interrupted admiringly.

"You haven't seen that quick work, either. It'll look awfully real,
Gil, and you mustn't dodge or duck, whatever you do. It will be just
as if you really were a man I'm deadly afraid of, that has me cornered
at last against that ledge. I'm going to do it as if I meant it. That
will mean that when you stop and kind of measure the distance, meaning
to grab me before I can do anything, I'll draw and shoot from the level
of my belt; no higher, Gil, or it won't be the lightning-draw--as
advertised. I won't have time to take a fine aim, you know."

"Listen!" said Gil, leaning toward her with his eyes very earnest. "I
know all about that. I heard you and Burns talking about it. You go
ahead and shoot, and put that scene over big. Don't you worry about
me; I'm going to play up to you, if I can. Listen! Pete's just
waiting for a chance to register your face on the film. Burns has
planned his scenes to prevent that, but we're just lying low till the
chance comes. It's got to be dramatic, and it's got to seem
accidental. Get me? I shouldn't have told you, but I can't seem to
trick you, Jean. You're the kind of a girl a fellow's got to play fair

"Bobby has told me five times already to remember and keep my face away
from the camera," Jean pointed out the second time. "Makes me feel as
if I had lost my nose, or was cross-eyed or something. I do feel as if
I'd lose my job, Gil."

"No, you wouldn't; all he'd do would be to have a re-take of the whole
scene, and maybe step around like a turkey in the snow, and swear to
himself. Anyway, you can forget what I've said, if you'll feel more
comfortable. It's up to Pete and me, and we'll put it over smooth, or
we won't do it at all. Bobby won't realize it's happened till he hears
from it afterwards. Neither will you." He turned his grease-painted

face toward her hearteningly and smiled as endearingly as the sinister,
painted lines would allow.

"Listen!" he repeated as a final encouragement, because he had sensed
her preoccupation and had misread it for worry over the picture. "You
go ahead and shoot, and don't bother about me. Make it real. Shoot as
close as you like. If you pink me a little I won't care,--if you'll
promise to be my nurse. I want a vacation, anyway."

Next: Punch Verses Prestige

Previous: To Double For Muriel Gay

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