Jean





The still loneliness of desertion held fast the clutter of sheds and

old stables roofed with dirt and rotting hay. The melancholy of

emptiness hung like an invisible curtain before the sprawling house

with warped, weather-blackened shingles, and sagging window-frames.

You felt the silence when first you sighted the ranch buildings from

the broad mouth of the Lazy A coulee,--the broad mouth that yawned

always at the narrow valley and the undulations of the open range, and

the purple line of mountains beyond. You felt it more strongly when you

rode up to the gate of barbed-wire, spliced here and there, and having

an unexpected stubbornness to harry the patience of men who would pass

through it in haste. You grew unaccountably depressed if you rode on

past the stables and corrals to the house, where the door was closed

but never locked, and opened with a squeal of rusty hinges, if you

turned the brown earthenware knob and at the same instant pressed

sharply with your knee against the paintless panel.



You might notice the brown spot on the kitchen door where a man had

died; you might notice the brown spot, but unless you had been told the

grim story of the Lazy A, you would never guess the spot was a

bloodstain. Even though you guessed and shuddered, you would forget it

presently in the amazement with which you opened the door beyond and

looked in upon a room where the chill atmosphere of the whole place

could find no lodgment.



This was Jean's room, held sacred to her own needs and uses, in

defiance of the dreariness that compassed it close. A square of old

rag carpet covered the center of the floor, and beyond its border the

warped boards were painted a dull, pale green. The walls were ugly

with a cheap, flowered paper that had done its best to fade into

inoffensive neutral tints. Jean had helped, where she could, by

covering the intricate rose pattern with old prints cut from magazines

and with cheap, pretty souvenirs gleaned here and there and hoarded

jealously. And there were books, which caught the eyes and held them

even to forgetfulness of the paper.



You would laugh at Jean's room. Just at first you would laugh; after

that you would want to cry, or pat Jean on her hard-muscled, capable

shoulder; but if you knew Jean at all, you would not do either. First

you would notice an old wooden cradle, painted blue, that stood in a

corner. A button-eyed, blank-faced rag doll, the size of a baby at the

fist-sucking age, was tucked neatly under the red-and-white patchwork

quilt made to fit the cradle. Hanging directly over the cradle by a

stirrup was Jean's first saddle,--a cheap pigskin affair with harsh

straps and buckles, that her father had sent East for. Jean never had

liked that saddle, even when it was new. She used to stand perfectly

still while her father buckled it on the little buckskin pony she rode;

and she would laugh when he picked her up and tossed her into the seat.

She would throw her dad a kiss and go galloping off down the

trail,--but when she was quite out of sight around the bend of the

bench-land, she would stop and take the saddle off, and hide it in a

certain clump of wild currant bushes, and continue her journey

bareback. A kit-fox found it one day; that is how the edge of the

cantle came to have that queer, chewed look.



There was an old, black wooden rocker with an oval picture of a ship

under full sail, just where Jean's brown head rested when she leaned

back and stared big-eyed down the coulee to the hills beyond. There

was an old-fashioned work-basket always full of stockings that never

were mended, and a crumpled dresser scarf which Jean had begun to

hemstitch more than a year ago in a brief spasm of domesticity. There

were magazines everywhere; and you may be sure that Jean had read them

all, even to the soap advertisements and the sanitary kitchens and the

vacuum cleaners. There was an old couch with a coarse, Navajo rug

thrown over it, and three or four bright cushions that looked much

used. And there were hair macartas and hackamores, and two pairs of

her father's old spurs, and her father's stock saddle and chaps and

slicker and hat; and a jelly glass half full of rattlesnake rattles,

and her mother's old checked sunbonnet,--the kind with pasteboard

"slats." Half the "slats" were broken. There was a guitar and an old,

old sewing machine with a reloading shotgun outfit spread out upon it.

There was a desk made of boxes, and on the desk lay a shot-loaded quirt

that more than one rebellious cow-horse knew to its sorrow. There was

a rawhide lariat that had parted its strands in a tussle with a

stubborn cow. Jean meant to fix the broken end of the longest piece

and use it for a tie-rope, some day when she had time, and thought of

it.



Somewhere in the desk were verses which Jean had written,--dozens of

them, and not nearly as bad as you might think. Jean laughed at them

after they were written; but she never burned them, and she never spoke

of them to any one but Lite, who listened with fixed attention and a

solemn appreciation when she read them to him.



On the whole, the room was contradictory. But Jean herself was

somewhat contradictory, and the place fitted her. Here was where she

spent those hours when her absence from the Bar Nothing was left

unexplained to any one save Lite. Here was where she drew into her

shell, when her Uncle Carl made her feel more than usually an

interloper; or when her Aunt Ella's burden of complaints and worry and

headaches grew just a little too much for Jean.



She never opened the door into the kitchen. There was another just

beyond the sewing-machine, that gave an intimate look into the face of

the bluff which formed that side of the coulee wall. There were

hollyhocks along the path that led to this door, and stunted rosebushes

which were kept alive with much mysterious assistance in the way of

water and cultivation. There was a little spring just under the foot

of the bluff, where the trail began to climb; and some young alders

made a shady nook there which Jean found pleasant on a hot day.



The rest of the house might be rat-ridden and desolate. The coulee

might wear always the look of emptiness; but here, under the bluff by

the spring, and in the room Jean called hers, one felt the air of

occupancy that gave the lie to all around it.



When she rode around the bold, out-thrust shoulder of the hill which

formed the western rim of the coulee, and went loping up the trail to

where the barbed-wire gate stopped her, you would have said that Jean

had not a trouble to call her own. She wore her old gray Stetson

pretty well over one eye because of the sun-glare, and she was riding

on one stirrup and letting the other foot swing free, and she was

whirling her quirt round and round, cartwheel fashion, and whistling an

air that every one knows,--and putting in certain complicated

variations of her own.



At the gate she dismounted without ever missing a note, gave the warped

stake a certain twist and jerk which loosened the wire loop so that she

could slip it easily over the post, passed through and dragged the gate

with her, dropping it flat upon the ground beside the trail. There was

no stock anywhere in the coulee, and she would save a little trouble by

leaving the gate open until she came out on her way home. She stepped

aside to inspect the meadow lark's nest cunningly hidden under a wild

rosebush, and then mounted and went on to the stable, still whistling

carelessly.



She turned Pard into the shed where she invariably left him when she

came to the Lazy A, and went on up the grass-grown path to the house.

She had the preoccupied air of one who meditates deeply upon things

apart; as a matter of fact, she had glanced down the coulee to its

wide-open mouth, and had thrilled briefly at the wordless beauty of the

green spread of the plain and the hazy blue sweep of the mountains, and

had come suddenly into the poetic mood. She had even caught a

phrase,--"The lazy line of the watchful hills," it was,--and she was

trying to fit it into a verse, and to find something beside "rills"

that would rhyme with "hills."



She followed the path absent-mindedly to where she would have to turn

at the corner of the kitchen and go around to the door of her own room;

and until she came to the turn she did not realize what was jarring

vaguely and yet insistently upon her mood. Then she knew; and she

stopped full and stared down at the loose sand just before the warped

kitchen steps. There were footprints in the path,--alien footprints;

and they pointed toward that forbidden door into the kitchen of

gruesome memory. Jean looked up frowning, and saw that the door had

been opened and closed again carelessly. And upon the top step, strange

feet had pressed a little caked earth carried from the trail where she

stood. There were the small-heeled, pointed prints of a woman's foot,

and there were the larger tracks of a man,--a man of the town.



Jean stood with her quirt dangling loosely from her wrist and glanced

back toward the stables and down the coulee. She completely forgot

that she wanted a rhyme for "hills." What were towns people doing

here? And how did they get here? They had not ridden up the coulee;

there were no tracks through the gate; and besides, these were not the

prints of riding-boots.



She twitched her shoulders and went around to the door leading into her

own room. The door stood wide open when it should have been closed.

Inside there were evidences of curious inspection. She went hot with

an unreasoning anger when she saw the wide-open door into the kitchen;

first of all she went over and closed that door, her lips pressed

tightly together. To her it was as though some wanton hand had forced

up the lid of a coffin where slept her dead. She stood with her back

against the door and looked around the room, breathing quickly. She

felt the woman's foolish amusement at the old cradle with the rag doll

tucked under the patchwork quilt, and at her pitiful attempts at

adorning the tawdry walls. Without having seen more than the prints of

her shoes in the path, Jean hated the woman who had blundered in here

and had looked and laughed. She hated the man who had come with the

woman.



She went over to her desk and stood staring at the litter. A couple of

sheets of cheap tablet paper, whereon Jean had scribbled some verses of

the range, lay across the quirt she had forgotten on her last trip.

They had prowled among the papers, even! They had respected nothing of

hers, had considered nothing sacred from their inquisitiveness. Jean

picked up the paper and read the verses through, and her cheeks

reddened slowly.



Then she discovered something else that turned them white with fresh

anger. Jean had an old ledger wherein she kept a sporadic kind of a

diary which she had entitled "More or Less the Record of my Sins." She

did not write anything in it unless she felt like doing so; when she

did, she wrote just exactly what she happened to think and feel at the

time, and she had never gone back and read what was written there. Some

one else had read, however; at least the book had been pulled out of

its place and inspected, along with her other personal belongings.

Jean had pressed the first wind-flowers of the season between the pages

where she had done her last scribbling, and these were crumpled and two

petals broken, so she knew that the book had been opened carelessly and

perhaps read with that same brainless laughter.



She did not say anything. She straightened the wind-flowers as best

she could, put the book back where it belonged, and went outside, and

down to a lop-sided shack which might pass anywhere as a junk-shop.

She found some nails and a hammer, and after a good deal of rummaging

and some sneezing because of the dust she raised whenever she moved a

pile of rubbish, she found a padlock with a key in it. More dusty

search produced a hasp and some staples, and then she went back and

nailed two planks across the door which opened into the kitchen. After

that she fastened the windows shut with nails driven into the casing

just above the lower sashes, and cracked the outer door with

twelve-penny nails which she clinched on the inside with vicious blows

of the hammer, so that the hasp could not be taken off without a good

deal of trouble. She had pulled a great staple off the door of a

useless box-stall, and when she had driven it in so deep that she could

scarcely force the padlock into place over the hasp, and had put the

key in her pocket, she felt in a measure protected from future

prowlers. As a final hint, however, she went back to the shop and

mixed some paint with lampblack and oil, and lettered a thin board

which she afterwards carried up and nailed firmly across the outside

kitchen door. Hammer in hand she backed away and read the words

judicially, her head tilted sidewise:



ONLY SNEAKS GO WHERE THEY ARE NOT WANTED.

ARE YOU A SNEAK?





The hint was plain enough. She took the hammer back to the shop and

led Pard out of the stable and down to the gate, her eyes watching

suspiciously the trail for tracks of trespassers. She closed the gate

so thoroughly with baling wire twisted about a stake that the next

comer would have troubles of his own in getting it open again. She

mounted and went away down the trail, sitting straight in the saddle,

both feet in the stirrups, head up, and hat pulled firmly down to her

very eyebrows, glances going here and there, alert, antagonistic. No

whistling this time of rag-time tunes with queer little variations of

her own; no twirling of the quirt; instead Pard got the feel of it in a

tender part of the flank, and went clean over a narrow washout that

could have been avoided quite easily. No groping for rhythmic

phrasings to fit the beauty of the land she lived in; Jean was in the

mood to combat anything that came in her way.





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