A Man-sized Job For Jean





Jean was just returning wet-lashed from burying the little brown bird

under a wild-rose bush near the creek. She had known all along that it

would die; everything that she took any interest in turned out badly,

it seemed to her. The wonder was that the bird had lived so long after

she had taken it under her protection.



All that day her Aunt Ella had worn a wet towel turban-wise upon her

head, and the look of a martyr about to enter a den of lions. Add that

to the habitual atmosphere of injury which she wore, and Aunt Ella was

not what one might call a cheerful companion. Besides, the appearance

of the wet towel was a danger signal to Jean's conscience, and forbade

any thought of saddling Pard and riding away from the Bar Nothing into

her own dream world and the great outdoors. Jean's conscience commanded

her instead to hang her riding-clothes in the closet and wear striped

percale and a gingham apron, which she hated; and to sweep and dust and

remember not to whistle, and to look sympathetic,--which she was not,

particularly; and to ask her Aunt Ella frequently if she felt any

better, and if there was anything Jean could do for her. There never

was anything she could do, but conscience and custom required her to

observe the ceremony of asking. Aunt Ella found some languid

satisfaction in replying dolorously that there was nothing that anybody

could do, and that her part in life seemed to be to suffer.



You may judge what Jean's mood was that day, when you are told that she

came to the point, not an hour before the bird died, of looking at her

aunt with that little smile at the corners of her eyes and just easing

her lips. "Well, you certainly play your part in life with a heap of

enthusiasm," she had replied, and had gone out into the kitchen and

whistled when she did not feel in the least like whistling. Her

conscience knew Jean pretty well, and did not attempt to reprove her

for what she had done.



Then she found the bird dead in the little nest she had made for it,

and things went all wrong.



She was returning from the burial of the bird, and was trying to force

herself back to her normal attitude of philosophic calm, when she saw

her Uncle Carl sitting on the edge of the front porch, with his elbows

resting loosely upon his knees, his head bowed, and his boot-heel

digging a rude trench in the hard-packed earth.



The sight of him incensed her suddenly. Once more she wished that she

might get at his brain and squeeze out his thoughts; and it never

occurred to her that she would probably have found them extremely

commonplace thoughts that strayed no farther than his own little

personal business of life, and that they would easily be translated to

the dollar sign. His attitude was one of gloomy meditation, and her

own mood supplied the subject. She watched him for a minute or two,

and his abstraction was so deep that he did not feel her presence.



"Uncle Carl, just how much did the Lazy A cost you?" she asked so

abruptly that she herself was surprised at the question. "Or putting

it another way, just how many dollars and cents did you spend in

defending dad?"



Carl started, which was perfectly natural, and glared at her, which was

natural also, when one considers that Jean had without warning opened a

subject tacitly forbidden upon that ranch. His eyes hardened a little

while he looked at her, for between these two there was scant affection.



"What do you want to know for?" he countered, when she persisted in

looking at him as though she was waiting for an answer.



"Because I've a right to know. Some time,--within four years,--I mean

to buy back the Lazy A. I want to know how much it will take." Until

that moment Jean had merely dreamed of some day buying it back. Until

she spoke she would have named the idea a beautiful, impossible desire.



"Where you going to get the money?" Carl looked at her curiously, as if

he almost doubted her sanity.



"Rob a bank, perhaps. How much will it take to square things with you?

Of course, being a relative, I expect to be cheated a little. So I am

going to adopt sly, sleuth-like methods and find out just how much dad

owed you before--it happened, and just how much the lawyers charged,

and what was the real market value of the outfit, and all that. Dad

told me--dad told me that there was something left over for me. He

didn't explain--there wasn't time, and I--couldn't listen to

dollar-talk then. I've gone along all this time, just drifting and

getting used to facts, and taking it for granted that everything is all

right--"



"Well, what's wrong? Everything is all right, far as I know. I can

see what you're driving at--"



"And I'm a pretty fair driver, too," Jean cut in calmly. "I'll reach

my destination, I think,--give me time enough."



"Whatever fool notion you've got in your head, you'd better drop it,"

Carl told her harshly. "There ain't anything you can do to better

matters. I came out with the worst of it, when you come right down to

facts, and all the nagging-"



Jean went toward him as if she would strike him with her uplifted hand.

"Don't dare say that! How can you say that,--and think of dad? He got

the worst of it. He's the one that suffers most--and--he's as innocent

as you or I. You know it."



Carl rose from the porch and faced her like an enemy. "What do you

mean by that? I know it? If I knew anything like that, do you think

I'd leave a stone unturned to prove it? Do you think--"



"I think we both know dad. And some things were not proved,--to my

satisfaction, at least. And you know how long the jury was out, and

what a time they had agreeing. Some points were weak. It was simply

that they couldn't point to any one else. You know that was it. If I

could find Art Osgood--"



"What's he got to do with it?" Her uncle leaned a little and peered

into her face, which the dusk was veiling.



"That is what I want to find out." Jean's voice was quiet, but it had

a quality which he had never before noticed.



"You'd better," he advised her tritely, "let sleeping dogs lie."



"That's the trouble with sleeping dogs; they do lie, more often than

not. These particular dogs have lied for nearly three years. I'm

going to stir them up and see if I can't get a yelp of the truth out of

them."



"Oh, you are!" Carl laughed ironically. "You'll stir up a lot of

unpleasantness for yourself and the rest of us, is what you'll do. The

thing's over and done with. Folks are beginning to forget it. You've

got a home--"



Jean laughed, and her laugh was extremely unpleasant.



"You get as good as the rest of us get," her uncle reminded her

sharply. "I came near going broke myself over the affair, if you want

to know; and you stand there and accuse me of cheating you out of

something! I don't know what in heaven's name you expect. The Lazy A

didn't make me rich, I can tell you that. It just barely helped to

tide things over. You've got a home here, and you can come and go as

you please. What you ain't got," he added bitterly, "is common

gratitude."



He turned away from her and went into the house, and Jean sat down upon

the edge of the porch and stared away at the dimming outline of the

hills, and wondered what had come over her.



Three years on this ranch, seeing her uncle every day almost, living

under the same roof with him, talking with him upon the everyday

business of life,--and to-night, for the first time, the forbidden

subject had been opened. She had said things that until lately she had

not realized were in her mind. She had never liked her uncle, who was

so different from her father, but she had never accused him in her mind

of unfairness until she had written something of the sort in her

ledger. She had never thought of quarrelling,--and yet one could

scarcely call this encounter less than a quarrel. And the strange part

of it was that she still believed what she had said; she still intended

to do the things she declared she would do. Just how she would do them

she did not know, but her purpose was hardening and coming clean-cut

out of the vague background of her mind.



After awhile the dim outline of the high-shouldered hills glowed under

a yellowing patch of light. Jean sat with her chin in her palms and

watched the glow brighten swiftly. Then some unseen force seemed to be

pushing a bright yellow disk up through a gap in the hills, and the gap

was almost too narrow, so that the disk touched either side as it slid

slowly upward. At last it was up, launched fairly upon its leisurely,

drifting journey across to the farther hills behind her. It was not

quite round. That was because one edge had scraped too hard against

the side of the hill, perhaps. But warped though it was, its light fell

softly upon Jean's face, and showed it set and still and stern-eyed and

somber.



She sat there awhile longer, until the slopes lay softly revealed to

her, their hollows filled with inky shadows. She drew a long breath

then, and looked around her at the familiar details of the Bar Nothing

dwelling-place, softened a little by the moonlight, but harsh with her

memories of unhappy days spent there. She rose and went into the house

and to her room, and changed the hated striped percale for her

riding-clothes.



A tall, lank form detached itself from the black shade of the

bunk-house as she went by, hesitated perceptibly, and then followed her

down to the corral. When she had gone in with a rope and later led out

Pard, the form stood forth in the white light of the moon.



"Where are you going, Jean?" Lite asked her in a tone that was soothing

in its friendliness.



"That you, Lite? I'm going--well, just going. I've got to ride." She

pulled Pard's bridle off the peg where she always hung it, and laid an

arm over his neck while she held the bit against his clinched teeth.

Pard never did take kindly to the feel of the cold steel in his mouth,

and she spoke to him sharply before his jaws slackened.



"Want me to go along with you?" Lite asked, and reached for his saddle

and blanket.



"No, I want you to go to bed." Jean's tone was softer than it had been

for that whole day. "You've had all the riding you need. I've been

shut up with Aunt Ella and her favorite form of torture."



"Got your gun?" Lite gave the latigo a final pull which made Pard

grunt.



"Of course. Why?"



"Nothing,--only it's a good night for coyotes, and you might get a shot

at one. Another thing, a gun's no good on earth when you haven't got

it with you."



"Yes, and you've told me so about once a week ever since I was big

enough to pull a trigger," Jean retorted, with something approaching

her natural tone. "Maybe I won't come back, Lite. Maybe I'll camp over

home till morning."



Lite did not say anything in reply to that. He leaned his long person

against a corral post and watched her out of sight on the trail up the

hill. Then he caught his own horse, saddled it leisurely, and rode

away.



Jean rode slowly, leaving the trail and striking out across the open

country straight for the Lazy A. She had no direct purpose in riding

this way; she had not intended to ride to the Lazy A until she named

the place to Lite as her destination, but since she had told him so,

she knew that was where she was going. The picture-people would not be

there at night, and she felt the need of coming as close as possible to

her father; at the Lazy A, where his thoughts would cling, she felt

near to him,--much nearer than when she was at the Bar Nothing. And

that the gruesome memory of what had happened there did not make the

place seem utterly horrible merely proves how unshakable was her faith

in him.



A coyote trotted up out of a hollow facing her, stiffened with

astonishment, dropped nose and tail, and slid away in the shadow of the

hill. A couple of minutes later Jean saw him sitting alert upon his

haunches on a moon-bathed slope, watching to see what she would do.

She did nothing; and the coyote pointed his nose to the moon,

yap-yap-yapped a quavering defiance, and slunk out of sight over the

hill crest.



Her mind now was more at ease than it had been since the day of horror

when she had first stared black tragedy in the face. She was passing

through that phase of calm elation which follows close upon the heels

of a great resolve. She had not yet come to the actual surmounting of

the obstacles that would squeeze hope from the heart of her; she had

not yet looked upon the possibility of absolute failure.



She was going to buy back the Lazy A from her Uncle Carl, and she was

going to tear away that atmosphere of emptiness and desolation which it

had worn so long. She was going to prove to all men that her father

never had killed Johnny Croft. She was going to do it! Then life

would begin where it had left off three years ago. And when this

deadening load of trouble was lifted, then perhaps she could do some of

the glorious, great things she had all of her life dreamed of doing.

Or, if she never did the glorious, great things, she would at least

have done something to justify her existence. She would be content in

her cage if she could go round and round doing things for dad.



A level stretch of country lay at the foot of the long bluff, which

farther along held the Lazy A coulee close against its rocky side. The

high ridges stood out boldly in the moonlight, so that she could see

every rock and the shadow that it cast upon the ground. Little,

soothing night noises fitted themselves into her thoughts and changed

them to waking dreams. Crickets that hushed while she passed them by;

the faint hissing of a half-wakened breeze that straightway slept upon

the grasses it had stirred; the sleepy protest of some bird which

Pard's footsteps had startled.



She came into Lazy A coulee, half fancying that it was a real

home-coming. But when she reached the gate and found it lying flat

upon the ground away from the broad tread of the picture-people's

machine, her mind jarred from dreams back to reality. From sheer habit

she dismounted, picked up the spineless thing of stakes and barbed

wire, dragged it into place across the trail, and fastened it securely

to the post. She remounted and went on, and a little of the

hopefulness was gone from her face.



"I'll just about have to rob a bank, I guess," she told herself with a

grim humor at the tremendous undertaking to which she had so calmly

committed herself. "This is what dad would call a man-sized job, I

reckon." She pulled up in the white-lighted trail and stared along the

empty, sagging-roofed sheds and stables, and at the corral with its

open gate and warped rails and leaning posts. "I'll just about have to

rob a bank,--or write a book that will make me famous."



She touched Pard with a rein end and went on slowly. "Robbing a bank

would be the quickest and easiest," she decided whimsically, as she

neared the place where she always sheltered Pard. "But not so

ladylike. I guess I'll write a book. It should be something real

thrilly, so the people will rush madly to all the bookstores to buy it.

It should have a beautiful girl, and at least two handsome men,--one

with all the human virtues, and the other with all the arts of the

devil and the cruel strength of the savage. And--I think some Indians

and outlaws would add several dollars' worth of thrills; or else a

ghost and a haunted house. I wonder which would sell the best?

Indians could steal the girl and give her two handsome men a chance to

do chapters of stunts, and the wicked one could find her first and

carry her away in front of him on a horse (they do those things in

books!) and the hero could follow in a mad chase for miles and miles--



"But then, ghosts can be made very creepy, with tantalizing glimpses of

them now and then in about every other chapter, and mysterious hints

here and there, and characters coming down to breakfast with white,

drawn faces and haggard eyes. And the wicked one would look over his

shoulder and then utter a sardonic laugh. Sardonic is such an

effective word; I don't believe Indians would give him any excuse for

sardonic laughter."



She swung down from the saddle and led Pard into his stall, that was

very black next the manger and very light where the moon shone in at

the door. "I must have lots of moonlight and several stormy sunsets,

and the wind soughing in the branches. I shall have to buy a new

dictionary,--a big, fat, heavy one with the flags of all nations and

how to measure the contents of an empty hogshead, and the deaf and dumb

alphabet, and everything but the word you want to know the meaning of

and whether it begins with ph or an f."



She took the saddle off Pard and hung it up by a stirrup on the rusty

spike where she kept it, with the bridle hung over the stirrup, and the

saddle blanket folded over the horn. She groped in the manger and

decided that there was hay enough to last him till morning, and went

out and closed the door. Her shadow fell clean cut upon the rough

planks, and she stood for a minute looking at it as if it were a

person. Her Stetson hat tilted a little to one side, her hair fluffed

loosely at the sides, leaving her neck daintily slender where it showed

above the turned-back collar of her gray sweater; her shoulders square

and capable and yet not too heavy, and the slim contour of her figure

reaching down to the ground. She studied it abstractedly, as she would

study herself in her mirror, conscious of the individuality, its

likeness to herself.



"I don't know what kind of a mess you'll make of it," she said to her

shadow, "but you're going to tackle it, just the same. You can't do a

thing till you get some money."



She turned then and went thoughtfully up to the house and into her

room, which had as yet been left undisturbed behind the bars she had

placed against idle invasion.



The moon shone full into the window that faced the coulee, and she sat

down in the old, black wooden rocker and gazed out upon the familiar,

open stretch of sand and scant grass-growth that lay between the house

and the corrals. She turned her eyes to the familiar bold outline of

the bluff that swung round in a crude oval to the point where the trail

turned into the coulee from the southwest. Half-way between the base

and the ragged skyline, the boulder that looked like an elephant's head

stood out, white of profile, hooded with black shade. Beyond was the

fat shelf of ledge that had a small cave beneath, where she had once

found a nest full of little, hungry birds and upon the slope beneath

the telltale, scattered wing-feathers, to show what fate had fallen

upon the mother. Those birds had died also, and she had wept and given

them Christian burial, and had afterwards spent hours every day with

her little rifle hunting the destroyer of that small home. She

remembered the incident now as a small thread in the memory-pattern she

was weaving.



While the shadows shortened as the moon swung high, she sat and looked

out upon the coulee and the bluff that sheltered it, and she saw the

things that were blended cunningly with the things that were not.

After a long while her hands unclasped themselves from behind her head

and dropped numbly to her lap. She sighed and moved stiffly, and knew

that she was tired and that she must get some sleep, because she could

not sit down in one spot and think her way through the problems she had

taken it upon herself to solve. So she got up and crept under the

Navajo blanket upon the couch, tucked it close about her shoulders, and

shut her eyes deliberately. Presently she fell asleep.





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