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The Letter In The Chaps








From: Jean Of The Lazy A

Though hours may drag themselves into the past so sluggishly that one
is fairly maddened by the snail's pace of them, into the past they must
go eventually. Jean had sat and listened to the wheels of the Golden
State Limited clank over the cryptic phrase that meant so much.
"Letter-in-the-chaps! Letter-in-the chaps!" was what they had said
while the train pounded across the desert and slid through arroyas and
deep cuts which leveled hills for its passing. "Letter-in-the-chaps!
Letter-in-the-chaps!" And then a silence while they stood by some
desolate station where the people were swarthy of skin and black of
hair and eyes, and moved languidly if they moved at all. Then they
would go on; and when the wheels had clicked over the switches of the
various side tracks, they would take up again the refrain:
"Letter-in-the-chaps! Letter-in-the-chaps!" until Jean thought she
would go crazy if they kept it up much longer.

Little by little they drew near to Los Angeles. And then they were
there, sliding slowly through the yards in a drab drizzle of one of
California's fall rains. Then they were in a taxicab, making for the
Third Street tunnel. Then Jean stared heavy-eyed at the dripping palms
along the boulevard which led away from the smoke of the city and into
Hollywood, snuggled against the misty hills. "Letter-in-the-chaps!"
her tired brain repeated it still.

Then she was in the apartment shared with Muriel Gay and her mother.
These two were over at the studio, the landlady told her when she let
them in, and Jean was glad that they were gone.

She knelt, still in her hat and coat and with her gloves on, and fitted
her trunk key into the lock. And there she stopped. What if the
letter were not in the chaps, after all? What if it were but a trivial
note, concerning a matter long since forgotten; a trivial note that had
not the remotest bearing upon the murder? "Letter-in-the-chaps!" The
phrase returned with a mocking note and beat insistently through her
brain. She sat back on the floor and shivered with the chill of a
fireless room in California, when a fall rain is at its drizzling worst.

In the next room one of the men coughed; afterwards she heard Lite's
voice, saying something in an undertone to Art Osgood. She heard Art's
voice mutter a reply. She raised herself again to her knees, turned
the key in the lock, and lifted the trunk-lid with an air of
determination.

Down next the bottom of her big trunk they lay, just as she had packed
them away, with her dad's six-shooter and belt carefully disposed
between the leathern folds. She groped with her hands under a couple of
riding-skirts and her high, laced boots, got a firm grip on the fringed
leather, and dragged them out. She had forgotten all about the gun and
belt until they fell with a thump on the floor. She pulled out the
belt, left the gun lying there by the trunk, and hurried out with the
chaps dangling over her arm.

She was pale when she stood before the two who sat there waiting with
their hats in their hands and their faces full of repressed eagerness.
Her fingers trembled while she pulled at the stiff, leather flap of the
pocket, to free it from the button.

"Maybe it ain't there yet," Art hazarded nervously, while they watched
her. "But that's where he put it, all right. I saw him."

Jean's fingers went groping into the pocket, stayed there for a second
or two, and came out holding a folded envelope.

"That's it!" Art leaned toward her eagerly. "That's the one, all
right."

Jean sat down suddenly because her knees seemed to bend under her
weight. Three years--and that letter within her reach all the time!

"Let's see, Jean." Lite reached out and took it from her nerveless
fingers. "Maybe it won't amount to anything at all."

Jean tried to hold herself calm. "Read it--out loud," she said. "Then
we'll know." She tried to smile, and made so great a failure of it
that she came very near crying. The faint crackle of the cheap paper
when Lite unfolded the letter made her start nervously. "Read it--no
matter--what it is," she repeated, when she saw Lite's eyes go rapidly
over the lines.

Lite glanced at her sharply, then leaned and took her hand and held it
close. His firm clasp steadied her more than any words could have
done. Without further delay or attempt to palliate its grim
significance, he read the note:

Aleck:

If Johnny Croft comes to you with anything about me, kick him off the
ranch. He claims he knows a whole lot about me branding too many
calves. Don't believe anything he tells you. He's just trying to make
trouble because he claims I underpaid him. He was telling Art a lot of
stuff that he claimed he could prove on me, but it's all a lie. Send
him to me if he comes looking for trouble. I'll give him all he wants.

Art found a heifer down in the breaks that looks like she might have
blackleg. I'm going down there to see about it. Maybe you better ride
over and see what you think about it; we don't want to let anything
like that get a start on us.

Don't pay any attention to Johnny. I'll fix him if he don't keep his
face shut.

CARL.


"Carl!" Jean repeated the name mechanically. "Carl."

"I kinda thought it was something like that," Art Osgood interrupted
her to say. "Now you know that much, and I'll tell you just what I
know about it. It was Carl shot Crofty, all right. I rode over with
him to the Lazy A; I was on my way to town and we went that far
together. I rode that way to tell you good-by." He looked at Jean
with a certain diffidence. "I kinda wanted to see you before I went
clear outa the country, but you weren't at home.

"Johnny Croft's horse was standing outside the house when we rode up.
I guess he must have just got there ahead of us. Carl got off and went
in ahead of me. Johnny was eating a snack when I went in. He said
something to Carl, and Carl flared up. I saw there wasn't anybody at
home, and I didn't want to get mixed up in the argument, so I turned
and went on out. And I hadn't more than got to my horse when I heard a
shot, and Carl came running out with his gun in his hand.

"Well, Johnny was dead, and there wasn't anything I could do about it.
Carl told me to beat it outa the country, just like I'd been planning;
he said it would be a whole lot better for him, seeing I wasn't an
eye-witness. He said Johnny started to draw his gun, and he shot in
self-defense; and he said I better go while the going was good, or I
might get pulled into it some way.

"Well, I thought it over for a minute, and I didn't see where it would
get me anything to stay. I couldn't help Carl any by staying, because
I wasn't in the house when it happened. So I hit the trail for town,
and never said anything to anybody." He looked at the two contritely.
"I never knew, till you folks came to Nogales looking for me, that
things panned out the way they did. I thought Carl was going to give
himself up, and would be cleared. I never once dreamed he was the
kinda mark that would let his own brother take the blame that way."

"I guess nobody did." Lite folded the letter and pushed it back into
the envelope. "I can look back now, though, and see how it come about.
He hung back till Aleck found the body and was arrested; and after that
he just simply didn't have the nerve to step out and say that he was
the one that did it. He tried hard to save Aleck, but he wouldn't--"

"The coward! The low, mean coward!" Jean stood up and looked from one
to the other, and spoke through her clinched teeth. "To let dad suffer
all this while! Lite, when did you say that train left for Salt Lake?
We can take the taxi back down town, and save time." She was at the
door when she turned toward the two again. "Hurry up! Don't you know
we've got to hurry? Dad's in prison all this while! And Uncle
Carl,--there's no telling where Uncle Carl is! That wire I sent him was
the worst thing I could have done!"

"Or the best," suggested Lite laconically, as he led the way down the
hall and out to the rain-drenched, waiting taxicab.





Next: Lite Comes Out Of The Background

Previous: A Little Enlightenment



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