The Letter In The Chaps





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.





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