Jean Learns What Fear Is Like





Sometime in the still part of the night which comes after midnight,

Jean woke slowly from dreaming of the old days that had been so vivid

in her mind when she went to sleep. Just at first she did not know

what it was that awakened her, though her eyes were open and fixed upon

the lighted square of the window. She knew that she was in her room at

the Lazy A, but just at first it seemed to her that she was there

because she had always been sleeping in that room. She sighed and

turned her face away from the moonlight, and closed her eyes again

contentedly.



Half dreaming she opened them again and stared up at the low ceiling.

Somewhere in the house she heard footsteps. Very slowly she wakened

enough to listen. They were footsteps,--the heavy, measured tread of

some man. They were in the room that had been her father's bedroom,

and at first they seemed perfectly natural and right; they seemed to be

her dad's footsteps, and she wondered mildly what he was doing, up at

that time of night.



The footsteps passed from there into the kitchen and stopped in the

corner where stood the old-fashioned cupboard with perforated tin

panels in the doors and at the sides, and the little drawers at the

top,--the kind that old people call a "safe." She heard a drawer

pulled out. Without giving any conscious thought to it, she knew which

drawer it was; it was the one next the wall,--the one that did not pull

out straight, and so had to be jerked out. What was her dad...?



Jean thrilled then with a tremor of fear. She had wakened fully enough

to remember. That was not her dad, out there in the kitchen. She did

not know who it was; it was some strange man prowling through the

house, hunting for something. She felt again the tremor of fear that

is the heritage of womanhood alone in the dark. She pulled the Navajo

blanket up to her ears with the instinct of the woman to hide, because

she is not strong enough to face and fight the danger that comes in the

dark. She listened to the sound of that drawer being pushed back, and

the other drawer being pulled out, and she shivered under the blanket.



Then she reached out her hand and got hold of her six-shooter which she

had laid down unthinkingly upon a chair near the couch. She wondered

if she had locked the outside door when she came in. She could not

remember having done so; probably she had not, since it is not the

habit of honest ranch-dwellers to lock their doors at night. She

wanted to get up and see, and fasten it somehow; but she was afraid the

man out there might hear her. As it was, she reasoned nervously with

herself, he probably did not suspect that there was any one in the

house. It was an empty house. And unless he had seen Pard in the

closed stall.... She wondered if he had heard Pard there, and had

investigated and found him. She wondered if he would come into this

room. She remembered how securely she had nailed up the door from the

kitchen, and she breathed freer. She remembered also that she had her

gun, there under her hand. She closed her trembling fingers on the

familiar grip of it, and the feel of it comforted her and steadied her.



Yet she had no desire, no slightest impulse to get up and see who was

there. She was careful not to move, except to cover the doorway to the

kitchen with her gun.



After a few minutes the man came and tried the door, and Jean lifted

herself cautiously upon her elbow and waited in grim desperation. If

he forced that door open, if he came in, she certainly would shoot; and

if she shot,--well, you remember the fate of that hawk on the wing.



The man did not force the door open, which was perhaps the luckiest

thing that ever happened to him. He fussed there until he must have

made sure that it was fastened firmly upon the inside, and then he left

it and went into what had been the living-room. Jean did not move from

her half-sitting position, nor did she change the aim of her gun. He

might come back and try again.



She heard him moving about in the living-room. Surely he did not expect

to find money in an empty house, or anything else of any commercial

value. What was he after? Finally he came back to the kitchen,

crossed it, and stood before the barred door. He pushed against it

tentatively, then stood still for a minute and finally went out. Jean

heard him step upon the porch and pull the kitchen door shut behind

him. She knew that squeal of the bottom hinge, and she knew the final

gasp and click that proved the latch was fastened. She heard him step

off the porch to the path, she heard the soft crunch of his feet in the

sandy gravel as he went away toward the stable. Very cautiously she

got off the couch and crept to the window; and with her gun gripped

tight in her hand, she looked out. But he had moved into a deep shadow

of the bluff, and she could see nothing of him save the deeper shadow

of his swift-moving body as he went down to the corral. Jean gave a

long sigh of nervous relaxation, and crept shivering under the Navajo

blanket. The gun she slid under the pillow, and her fingers rested

still upon the cool comfort of the butt.



Soon she heard a horse galloping, and she went to the window again and

looked out. The moon hung low over the bluff, so that the trail lay

mostly in the shadow. But down by the gate it swung out in a wide curve

to the rocky knoll, and there it lay moon-lighted and empty. She fixed

her eyes upon that curve and waited. In a moment the horseman galloped

out upon the curve, rounded it, and disappeared in the shadows beyond.

At that distance and in that deceptive light, she could not tell who it

was; but it was a horseman, a man riding at night in haste, and with

some purpose in mind.



Jean had thought that the prowler might be some tramp who had wandered

far off the beaten path of migratory humans, and who, stumbling upon

the coulee and its empty dwellings, was searching at random for

whatever might be worth carrying off. A horseman did not fit that

theory anywhere. That particular horseman had come there deliberately,

had given the house a deliberate search, and had left in haste when he

had finished. Whether he had failed or succeeded in finding what he

wanted, he had left. He had not searched the stables, unless he had

done that before coming into the house. He had not forced his way into

her room, probably because he did not want to leave behind him the

evidence of his visit which the door would have given, or because he

feared to disturb the contents of Jean's room.



Jean stared up in the dark and puzzled long over the identity of that

man, and his errand. And the longer she thought about it, the more

completely she was at sea. All the men that she knew were aware that

she kept this room habitable, and visited the ranch often. That was no

secret; it never had been a secret. No one save Lite Avery had ever

been in it, so far as she knew,--unless she counted those chance

trespassers who had prowled boldly through her most sacred belongings.

So that almost any one in the country, had he any object in searching

the house, would know that this room was hers, and would act in that

knowledge.



As to his errand. There could be no errand, so far as she knew. There

were no missing papers such as plays and novels are accustomed to have

cunningly hidden in empty houses. There was no stolen will, no hidden

treasure, no money, no Rajah's ruby, no ransom of a king; these things

Jean named over mentally, and chuckled at the idea of treasure-hunting

at the Lazy A. It vas very romantic, very mysterious, she told

herself. And she analyzed the sensation of little wet alligators

creeping up her spine (that was her own simile), and decided that her

book should certainly have a ghost in it; she was sure that she could

describe with extreme vividness the effect of a ghost upon her various

characters.



In this wise she recovered her composure and laughed at her fear, and

planned new and thrilly incidents for her novel.



She would not tell Lite anything about it, she decided. He would try to

keep her from coming over here by herself, and that would precipitate

one of those arguments between them that never seemed to get them

anywhere, because Lite never would yield gracefully, and Jean never

would yield at all,--which does not make for peace.



She wished, just the same, that Lite was there. It would be much more

comfortable if he were near instead of away over to the Bar Nothing,

sound asleep in the bunk-house. As a self-appointed guardian, Jean

considered Lite something of a nuisance, when he wasn't funny. But as

a big, steady-nerved friend and comrade, he certainly was a comfort.





Jean Believes That She Takes Matters Into Her Own Hands Jean Meets One Crisis And Confronts Another facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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