Jean Spoils Something





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!"





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