What A Man's Good Name Is Worth





You would think that the bare word of a man who has lived uprightly in

a community for fifteen years or so would be believed under oath, even

if his whole future did depend upon it. You would think that Aleck

Douglas could not be convicted of murder just because he had reported

that a man was shot down in Aleck's house.



The report of Aleck Douglas' trial is not the main feature of this

story; it is merely the commencement, one might say. Therefore, I am

going to be brief as I can and still give you a clear idea of the

situation, and then I am going to skip the next three years and begin

where the real story begins.



Aleck's position was dishearteningly simple, and there was nothing much

that one could do to soften the facts or throw a new light on the

murder. Lite watched, wide awake and eager, many a night for the

return of that prowler, but he never saw or heard a thing that gave him

any clue whatever. So the footprints seemed likely to remain the

mystery they had seemed on the morning when he discovered them. He

laid traps, pretending to ride away from the ranch to town before dark,

and returning cautiously by way of the trail down the bluff behind the

house. But nothing came of it. Lazy A ranch was keeping its secret

well, and by the time the trial was begun, Lite had given up hope. Once

he believed the house had been visited in the daytime, during his

absence in town, but he could not be sure of that.



Jean went to Chinook and stayed there, so that Lite saw her seldom.

Carl also was away much of the time, trying by every means he could

think of to swing public opinion and the evidence in Aleck's favor. He

prevailed upon Rossman, who was Montana's best-known lawyer, to defend

the case, for one thing. He seemed to pin his faith almost wholly upon

Rossman, and declared to every one that Aleck would never be convicted.

It would be, he maintained, impossible to convict him, with Rossman

handling the case; and he always added the statement that you can't

send an innocent man to jail, if things are handled right.



Perhaps he did not, after all, handle things right. For in spite of

Rossman, and Aleck's splendid reputation, and the meager evidence

against him, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight

years in Deer Lodge penitentiary.



Rossman had made a great speech, and had made men in the jury blink

back unshed tears. But he could not shake from them the belief that

Aleck Douglas had ridden home and met Johnny Croft, calmly making

himself at home in the Lazy A kitchen. He could not convince them that

there had not been a quarrel, and that Aleck had not fired the shot in

the grip of a sudden, overwhelming rage against Croft. By Aleck's own

statement he had been at the ranch some time before he had started for

town to report the murder. By the word of several witnesses, it had

been proven that Croft had left town meaning to collect wages which he

claimed were due him or else he would "get even." His last words to a

group out by the hitching pole in front of the saloon which was

Johnny's hangout, were: "I'm going to get what's coming to me, or

there'll be one fine, large bunch of trouble!" He had not mentioned

Aleck Douglas by name, it is true; but the fact that he had been found

at the Lazy A was proof enough that he had referred to Aleck when he

spoke.



There is no means of knowing just how far-reaching was the effect of

that impulsive lie which Lite had told at the inquest. He did not

repeat the blunder at the trial. When the district attorney reminded

Lite of the statement he had made, Lite had calmly explained that he

had made a mistake; he should have said that he had seen Aleck ride

away from the ranch instead of to it. Beyond that he would not go,

question him as they might.



The judge sentenced Aleck to eight years, and publicly regretted the

fact that Aleck had persisted in asserting his innocence; had he

pleaded guilty instead, the judge more than hinted, the sentence would

have been made as light as the law would permit. It was the stubborn

denial of the deed in the face of all reason, he said, that went far

toward weaning from the prisoner what sympathy he would otherwise have

commanded from the public and the court of justice.



You know how those things go. There was nothing particularly out of

the ordinary in the case; we read of such things in the paper, and a

paragraph or two is considered sufficient space to give so commonplace

a happening.



But there was Lite, loyal to his last breath in the face of his secret

belief that Aleck was probably guilty; loyal and blaming himself

bitterly for hurting Aleck's cause when he had meant only to help.

There was Jean, dazed by the magnitude of the catastrophe that had

overtaken them all; clinging to Lite as to the only part of her home

that was left to her, steadfastly refusing to believe that they would

actually take her dad away to prison, until the very last minute when

she stood on the crowded depot platform and watched in dry-eyed misery

while the train slid away and bore him out of her life. These things

are not put in the papers.



"Come on, Jean." Lite took her by the arm and swung her away from the

curious crowd which she did not see. "You're my girl now, and I'm

going to start right in using my authority. I've got Pard here in the

stable. You go climb into your riding-clothes, and we'll hit it outa

this darned burg where every man and his dog has all gone to eyes and

tongues. They make me sick. Come on."



"Where?" Jean held back a little with vague stubbornness against the

thought of taking up life again without her dad. "This--this is the

jumping-off place, Lite. There's nothing beyond."



Lite gripped her arm a little tighter if anything, and led her across

the street and down the high sidewalk that bridged a swampy tract at

the edge of town beyond the depot.



"We're taking the long way round," he observed "because I'm going to

talk to you like a Dutch uncle for saying things like that. I--had a

talk with your dad last night, Jean. He's turned you over to me to

look after till he gets back. I wish he coulda turned the ranch over,

along with you, but he couldn't. That's been signed over to Carl,

somehow; I didn't go into that with your dad; we didn't have much time.

Seems Carl put up the money to pay Rossman,--and other things,--and

took over the ranch to square it. Anyway, I haven't got anything to

say about the business end of the deal. I've got permission to boss

you, though, and I'm sure going to do it to a fare-you-well." He cast a

sidelong glance down at her. He could not see anything of her face

except the droop of her mouth, a bit of her cheek, and her chin that

promised firmness. Her mouth did not change expression in the slightest

degree until she moved her lips in speech.



"I don't care. What is there to boss me about? The world has stopped."

Her voice was steady, and it was also sullen.



"Right there is where the need of bossing begins. You can't stay in

town any longer. There's nothing here to keep you from going crazy;

and the Allens are altogether too sympathetic; nice folks, and they

mean well,--but you don't want a bunch like that slopping around,

crying all over you and keeping you in mind of things. I'm going to

work for Carl, from now on. You're going out there to the Bar

Nothing--" He felt a stiffening of the muscles under his fingers, and

answered calmly the signal of rebellion.



"Sure, that's the place for you. Your dad and Carl fixed that up

between them, anyway. That's to be your home; so my saying so is just

an extra rope to bring you along peaceable. You're going to stay at

the Bar Nothing. And I'm going to make a top hand outa you, Jean. I'm

going to teach you to shoot and rope and punch cows and ride, till

there won't be a girl in the United States to equal you."



"What for?" Jean still had an air of sullen apathy. "That won't help

dad any."



"It'll start the world moving again." Lite forced himself to

cheerfulness in the face of his own despondency. "You say it's

stopped. It's us that have stopped. We've come to a blind pocket, you

might say, in the trail we've been taking through life. We've got to

start in a new place, that's all. Now, I know you're dead game, Jean;

at least I know you used to be, and I'm gambling on school not taking

that outa you. You're maybe thinking about going away off somewhere

among strangers; but that wouldn't do at all. Your dad always counted

on keeping you away from town life. I'm just going to ride herd on

you, Jean, and see to it that you go on the way your dad wanted you to

go. He can't be on the job, and so I'm what you might call his

foreman. I know how he wants you to grow up; I'm going to make it my

business to grow you according to directions."



He saw a little quirk of her lips, at that, and was vastly encouraged

thereby.



"Has it struck you that you're liable to have your hands full?" she

asked him with a certain drawl that Jean had possessed since she first

learned to express herself in words.



"Sure! I'll likely have both hand and my hat full of trouble. But

she's going to be done according to contract. I reckon I'll wish you

was a bronk before I'm through--"



"What maddens me so that I could run amuck down this street, shooting

everybody I saw," Jean flared out suddenly, "is the sickening injustice

of it. Dad never did that; you know he never did it." She turned upon

him fiercely. "Do you think he did?" she demanded, her eyes boring

into his.



"Now, that's a bright question to be asking me, ain't it?" Lite

rebuked. "That's a real bright, sensible question, I must say! I

reckon you ought to be stood in the corner for that,--but I'll let it

go this time. Only don't never spring anything like that again."



Jean looked ashamed. "I could doubt God Himself, right now," she

gritted through her teeth.



"Well, don't doubt me, unless you want a scrap on your hands," Lite

warned. "I'm sure ashamed of you. We'll stop here at the stable and

get the horses. You can ride sideways as far as the Allens', and get

your riding-skirt and come on. The sooner you are on top of a horse,

the quicker you're going to come outa that state of mind."



It was pitifully amusing to see Lite Avery attempt to bully any

one,--especially Jean,--who might almost be called Lite's religion.

The idea of that long, lank cowpuncher whose shyness was so ingrained

that it had every outward appearance of being a phlegmatic coldness,

assuming the duties of Jean's dad and undertaking to see that she grew

up according to directions, would have been funny, if he had not been

so absolutely in earnest.



His method of comforting her and easing her through the first stage of

black despair was unorthodox, but it was effective. Because she was

too absorbed in her own misery to combat him openly, he got her started

toward the Bar Nothing and away from the friends whose enervating pity

was at that time the worst influence possible. He set the pace, and he

set it for speed. The first mile they went at a sharp gallop that was

not far from a run, and the horses were breathing heavily when he

pulled up, well out of sight of the town, and turned to the girl.



There was color in her cheeks, and the dullness was gone from her eyes

when she returned his glance inquiringly. The droop of her lips was no

longer the droop of a weak yielding to sorrow, but rather the beginning

of a brave facing of the future. Lite managed a grin that did not look

forced.



"I'll make a real range hand outa you yet," he announced confidently.

"You remember the roping and shooting science I taught you before you

went off to school? You're going to start right in where you left off

and learn all I know and some besides. I'll make a lady of you

yet,--darned if I don't."



At that Jean laughed unexpectedly. Lite drew a long breath of relief.





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