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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 20. Chance Takes A Hand
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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 20. Chance Takes A Hand Post by :CharlesWest Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1872

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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 20. Chance Takes A Hand

CHAPTER XX. CHANCE TAKES A HAND

A huge pipe organ was filling the theater with a vast undertone that was like the whispering surge of a great wind. Jean went into the soft twilight and sat down, feeling that she had shut herself away from the harsh, horrible world that held so much of suffering. She sighed and leaned her head back against the curtained enclosure of the loges, and closed her eyes and listened to the big, sweeping harmonies that were yet so subdued.

Down next the river, in a sheltered little coulee, there was a group of great bull pines. Sometimes she had gone there and leaned against a tree trunk, and had shut her eyes and listened to the vast symphony which the wind and the water played together. She forgot that she had come to see a picture which she had helped to create. She held her eyes shut and listened; and that horror of high walls and iron bars that had haunted her for days, and the aged, broken man who was her father, dimmed and faded and was temporarily erased; the lightness of her lips eased a little; the tenseness relaxed from her face, as it does from one who sleeps.

But the music changed, and her mood changed with it. She did not know that this was because the story pictured upon the screen had changed, but she sat up straight and opened her eyes, and felt almost as though she had just awakened from a vivid dream.

A Mexican series of educational pictures were being shown. Jean looked, and leaned forward with a little gasp. But even as she fixed her eyes and startled attention upon it, that scene was gone, and she was reading mechanically of refugees fleeing to the border line.

She must have been asleep, she told herself, and had gotten things mixed up in her dreams. She shook herself mentally and remembered that she ought to take off her hat; and she tried to fix her mind upon the pictures. Perhaps she had been mistaken; perhaps she had not seen what she believed she had seen. But--what if it were true? What if she had really seen and not imagined it? It couldn't be true, she kept telling herself; of course, it couldn't be true! Still, her mind clung to that instant when she had first opened her eyes, and very little of what she saw afterwards reached her brain at all.

Then she had, for the first time in her life, the strange experience of seeing herself as others saw her. The screen announcement and expectant stir that greeted it caught her attention, and pulled her back from the whirl of conjecture into which she had been plunged. She watched, and she saw herself ride up to the foreground on Pard. She saw herself look straight out at the audience with that peculiar little easing of the lips and the lightening of the eyes which was just the infectious beginning of a smile. Involuntarily she smiled back at her pictured self, just as every one else was smiling back. For that, you must know, was what had first endeared her so to the public; the human quality that compelled instinctive response from those who looked at her. So Jean in the loge smiled at Jean on the screen. Then Lite--dear, silent, long-legged Lite!--came loping up, and pushed back his hat with the gesture that she knew so well, and spoke to her and smiled; and a lump filled the throat of Jean in the loge, though she could not have told why. Then Jean on the screen turned and went riding with Lite back down the trail, with her hat tilted over one eye because of the sun, and with one foot swinging free of the stirrup in that absolute unconsciousness of pose that had first caught the attention of Robert Grant Burns and his camera man. Jean in the loge heard the ripple of applause among the audience and responded to it with a perfectly human thrill.

Presently she was back at the Lazy A, living again the scenes which she herself had created. This was the fourth or fifth picture,--she did not at the moment remember just which. At any rate, it had in it that incident when she had first met the picture-people in the hills and mistaken Gil Huntley and the other boys for real rustlers stealing her uncle's cattle. You will remember that Robert Grant Burns had told Pete to take all of that encounter, and he had later told Jean to write her scenario so as to include that incident.

Jean blushed when she saw herself ride up to those three and "throw down on them" with her gun. She had been terribly chagrined over that performance! But now it looked awfully real, she told herself with a little glow of pride. Poor old Gil! They hadn't caught her roping him, anyway, and she was glad of that. He would have looked absurd, and those people would have laughed at him. She watched how she had driven the cattle back up the coulee, with little rushes up the bank to head off an unruly cow that had ideas of her own about the direction in which she would travel. She loved Pard, for the way he tossed his head and whirled the cricket in his bit with his tongue, and obeyed the slightest touch on the rein. The audience applauded that cattle drive; and Jean was almost betrayed into applauding it herself.

Later there was a scene where she had helped Lite Avery and Lee Milligan round up a bunch of cattle and cut out three or four, which were to be sold to a butcher for money to take her mother to the doctor. Lite rode close to the camera and looked straight at her, and Jean bit her lips sharply as tears stung her lashes for some inexplicable reason. Dear old Lite! Every line in his face she knew, every varying, vagrant expression, every little twitch of his lips and eyelids that meant so much to those who knew him well enough to read his face. Jean's eyes softened, cleared, and while she looked, her lips parted a little, and she did not know that she was smiling.

She was thinking of the day, not long ago, when she had seen a bird fly into the loft over the store-house, and she had climbed in a spirit of idle curiosity to see what the bird wanted there. She had found Lite's bed neatly smoothed for the day, the pillow placed so that, lying there, he could look out through the opening and see the house and the path that led to it. There was the faint aroma of tobacco about the place. Jean had known at once just why that bed was there, and almost she knew how long it had been there. She had never once hinted that she knew; and Lite would never tell her, by look or word, that he was watching her welfare.

Here came Gil, dashing up to the brow of the hill, dismounting and creeping behind a rock, that he might watch them working with the cattle in the valley below. Jean met his pictured approach with a little smile of welcome. That was the scene where she told him he got off the horse like a sack of oats, and had shown him how to swing down lightly and with a perfect balance, instead of coming to the earth with a thud of his feet. Gil had taken it all in good faith; the camera proved now how well he had followed her instructions. And afterwards, while the assistant camera-man (with whom Jean never had felt acquainted) shouldered the camera and tripod, and they all tramped down the hill to another location, there had been a little scene in the shade of that rock, between Jean and the star villain. She blushed a little and wondered if Gil remembered that tentative love-making scene which Burns had unconsciously cut short with a bellowing order to rehearse the next scene.

It was wonderful, it was fascinating to sit there and see those days of hard, absorbing work relived in the story she had created. Jean lost herself in watching how Jean of the Lazy A came and went and lived her life bravely in the midst of so much that was hard. Jean in the loge remembered how Burns had yelled, "Smile when you come up; look light-hearted! And then let your face change gradually, while you listen to your mother crying in there. There'll be a cut-back to show her down on her knees crying before Bob's chair. Let that tired, worried look come into your face,--the load's dropping on to your shoulders again,--that kind of dope. Get me?" Jean in the loge remembered how she had been told to do this deliberately, just out of her imagination. And then she saw how Jean on the screen came whistling up to the house, swinging her quirt by its loop and with a spring in her walk, and making you feel that it was a beautiful day and that all the meadow larks were singing, and that she had just had a gallop on Pard that made her forget that she ever looked trouble in the face.

Then Jean in the loge looked and saw screen--Jean's mother kneeling before Bob's chair and sobbing so that her shoulders shook. She looked and saw screen Jean stop whistling and swinging her quirt; saw her stand still in the path and listen; saw the smile fade out of her eyes. Jean in the loge thought suddenly of that moment when she had looked at dad coming in where she waited, and swallowed a lump in her throat. A woman near her gave a little stifled sob of sympathy when screen-Jean turned and went softly around the corner of the house with all the light gone from her face and all the spring gone out of her walk.

Jean in the loge gave a sigh of relaxed tension and looked around her. The seats were nearly all full, and every one was gazing fixedly forward, lost in the pictured story of Jean on the screen. So that was what all those made-to-order smiles and frowns meant! Jean had done them at Burns' command, because she had seen that the others simulated different emotions whenever he told them to. She knew, furthermore, that she had done them remarkably well; so well that people responded to every emotion she presented to them. She was surprised at the vividness of every one of those cut-and-dried scenes. They imposed upon her, even, after all the work and fussing she had gone through to get them to Burns' liking. And there, in the cool gloom of the Victoria, Jean for the first time realized to the full the true ability of Robert Grant Burns. For the first time she really appreciated him and respected him, and was grateful to him for what he had taught her to do.

Her mood changed abruptly when the Jean picture ended. The music changed to the strain that had filled the great place when she entered, nearly an hour before. Jean sat up straight again and waited, alert, impatient, anxious to miss no smallest part of that picture which had startled her so when she had first looked at the screen. If the thing was true which she half believed--if it were true! So she stared with narrowed lids, intent, watchful, her whole mind concentrated upon what she should presently see.

"Warring Mexico!" That was the name of it; a Lubin special release, of the kind technically called "educational." Jean held her breath, waiting for the scene that might mean so much to her. There: this must be it, she thought with a flush of inner excitement. This surely must be the one:

"NOGALES, MEXICO. FEDERAL TROOPS OF GENERAL KOSTERLISKY, WITH AMERICAN SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE SERVING ON STAFF OF NOTED GENERAL."

Jean had it stamped indelibly upon her brain. She waited, with a quick intake of breath when the picture stood out with a sudden clarity before her eyes.

A "close-up" group of officers and men,--and some of the men Americans in face, dress, and manner. But it was one man, and one only, at whom she looked. Tall he was, and square-shouldered and lean; with his hat set far back on his head and a half smile curling his lips, and his eyes looking straight into the camera. Standing there with his weight all on one foot, in that attitude which cowboys call "hipshot." Art Osgood! She was sure of it! Her hands clenched in her lap. Art Osgood, at Nogales, Mexico. Serving on the staff of General Kosterlisky. Was the man mad, to stand there publicly before the merciless, revealing eye of a motion-picture camera? Or did his vanity blind him to the risk he was taking?

The man at whom she sat glaring glanced sidewise at some person unseen; and Jean knew that glance, that turn of the head. He smiled anew and lifted his American-made Stetson a few inches above his head and held it so in salute. Just so had he lifted and held his hat high one day, when she had turned and ridden away from him down the trail. Jean caught herself just as her lips opened to call out to him in recognition and sharp reproach. He turned and walked away to where the troopers were massed in the background. It was thus that she had first glimpsed him for one instant before the scene ended; it was just as he turned his face away that she had opened her eyes, and thought it was Art Osgood who was walking away from the camera.

She waited a minute, staring abstractedly at the refugees who were presented next. She wished that she knew when the picture had been taken,--how long ago. Her experience with motion-picture making, her listening to the shop-talk of the company, had taught her much; she knew that sometimes weeks elapse between the camera's work and the actual projection of a picture upon the theater screens. Still, this was, in a sense, a news release, and therefore in all probability hurried to the public. Art Osgood might still be at Nogales, Mexico, wherever that was. He might; and Jean made up her mind and laid her plans while she sat there pinning on her hat.

She got up quietly and slipped out. She was going to Nogales, Mexico, wherever that was. She was going to get Art Osgood, and she didn't care whether she had to fight her way clear through "Warring Mexico." She would find him and get him and bring him back.

In the lobby, while she paused with a truly feminine instinct to tip her hat this way and that before the mirror, and give her hair a tentative pat or two at the back, the grinning face of Lite Avery in his gray Stetson appeared like an apparition before her eyes. She turned quickly.

"Why, Lite!" she said, a little startled.

"Why, Jean!" he mimicked, in the bantering voice that was like home to her. "Don't rush off; haven't seen you to-day. Wait till I get you a ticket, and then you come back and help me admire ourselves. I came down on a long lope when somebody said you caught a street car headed this way. Thought maybe I'd run across you here. Knew you couldn't stay away much longer from seeing how you look. Ain't too proud to sit alongside a rough-neck puncher, are you?"

Jean looked at him understandingly. Lite's exuberance was unusual; but she knew, as well as though he had told her, that he had been lonesome in this strange city, and that he was overjoyed at the sight of her, who was his friend. She unpinned her hat which she had been at some pains to adjust at the exact angle decreed by fashion.

"Yes, I'll go back with you," she drawled. "I want to see how you like the sight of yourself just as you are. It--it's good for one, after the first shock wears off." She would not say a word about that Mexican picture, she thought; but she wanted to see if Lite also would recognize Art Osgood, and feel as sure of his identity as she had felt. That would make her doubly sure of her self. She could do what she meant to do without any misgivings whatsoever. She could afford to wait a little while and have the pleasure of Lite's presence beside her. Lite was homesick and lonesome;--she felt it in every tone and in every look;--almost as homesick and lonesome as she was herself. She would not hurt him by going off and leaving him alone, even if she had not wanted to be with him and to watch the effect that Mexican picture would have upon him. Lite believed Art Osgood was in the Klondyke. She would wait and see what he believed after he had seen that Nogales picture.

She waited. She had missed Lite in the last day or so; she had seemed almost as far away from him as from the Lazy A. But all the while she talked to him in whispers when he had wanted to discuss the Jean picture, she was waiting, just waiting, for that Nogales picture.

When it came at last, Jean turned her head and watched Lite. And Lite gave a real start and said something under his breath, and plucked at her sleeve afterwards to attract her attention.

"Look--quick! That fellow standing there with his arms folded. Skin me alive if it isn't Art Osgood!"

"Are you sure?" Jean studied him.

"Sure? Where're your eyes? Look at him! It sure ain't anybody else, Jean. Now, what do you reckon he's doing down in Mexico?"

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