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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 22. Jean Meets One Crisis And Confronts Another
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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 22. Jean Meets One Crisis And Confronts Another Post by :CharlesWest Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :644

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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 22. Jean Meets One Crisis And Confronts Another

CHAPTER XXII. JEAN MEETS ONE CRISIS AND CONFRONTS ANOTHER

"Well, say! This is like seeing you walk out of that picture that's running at the Teatro Palacia. You sure are making a hit with those moving-pictures; made me feel like I'd met somebody from home to stroll in there and see you and Lite come riding up, large as life. How is Lite, anyway?"

If Art Osgood felt any embarrassment over meeting her, he certainly gave no sign of it. He sat down on the railing, pushed back his hat, and looked as though he was preparing for a real soul-feast of reminiscent gossip. "Just get in?" he asked, by way of opening wider the channel of talk. He lighted a cigarette and flipped the match down into the street. "I've been here three or four months. I'm part of the Mexican revolution, though I don't reckon I look it. We been keeping things pretty well stirred up, down this way. You looking for picture dope? Lubin folks are copping all kinds of good stuff here. You ain't with them, are you?"

Jean braced herself against slipping into easy conversation with this man who seemed so friendly and unsuspicious and so conscience-free. Killing a man, she thought, evidently did not seem to him a matter of any moment; perhaps because he had since then become a professional killer of men. After planning exactly how she should meet any contingency that might arise, she found herself baffled. She had not expected to meet this attitude. She was not prepared to meet it. She had taken it for granted that Art Osgood would shun a meeting; that she would have to force him to face her. And here he was, sitting on the porch rail and swinging one spurred and booted foot, smiling at her and talking, in high spirits over the meeting--or a genius at acting. She eyed him uncertainly, trying to adjust herself to this emergency.

Art came to a pause and looked at her inquiringly. "What's the matter?" he demanded. "You called me up here--and I sure was tickled to death to come, all right!--and now you stand there looking like I was a kid that had been caught whispering, and must be kept after school. I know the symptoms, believe me! You're sore about something I've said. What, don't you like to have anybody talk about you being a movie-queen? You sure are all of that. You've got a license to be proud of yourself. Or maybe you didn't know you was speaking to a Mexican soldier, or something like that." He made a move to rise. "Ex-cuse ME, if I've said something I hadn't ought. I'll beat it, while the beating's good."

"No, you won't. You'll stay right where you are." His frank acceptance of her hostile attitude steadied Jean. "Do you think I came all the way down here just to say hello?"

"Search me." Art studied her curiously. "I never could keep track of what you thought and what you meant, and I guess you haven't grown any easier to read since I saw you last. I'll be darned if I know what you came for; but it's a cinch you didn't come just to be riding on the cars."

"No," drawled Jean, watching him. "I didn't. I came after you."

Art Osgood stared, while his cheeks darkened with the flush of confusion. He laughed a little. "I sure wish that was the truth," he said. "Jean, you never would have to go very far after any man with two eyes in his head. Don't rub it in."

"I did," said Jean calmly. "I came after you. I'd have found you if I had to hunt all through Mexico and fight both armies for you."

"Jean!" There was a queer, pleading note in Art's voice. "I wish I could believe that, but I can't. I ain't a fool."

"Yes, you are." Jean contradicted him pitilessly. "You were a fool when you thought you could go away and no one think you knew anything at all about--Johnny Croft."

Art's fingers had been picking at a loose splinter on the wooden rail whereon he sat. He looked down at it, jerked it loose with a sharp twist, and began snapping off little bits with his thumb and forefinger. In a minute he looked up at Jean, and his eyes were different. They were not hostile; they were merely cold and watchful and questioning.

"Well?"

"Well, somebody did think so. I've thought so for three years, and so I'm here." Jean found that her breath was coming fast, and that as she leaned back against a post and gripped the rail on either side, her arms were quivering like the legs of a frightened horse. Still, her voice had sounded calm enough.

Art Osgood sat with his shoulders drooped forward a little, and painstakingly snipped off tiny bits of the splinter. After a short silence, he turned his head and looked at her again.

"I shouldn't think you'd want to stir up that trouble after all this while," he said. "But women are queer. I can't see, myself, why you'd want to bother hunting me up on account of--that."

Jean weighed his words, his look, his manner, and got no clue at all to what was going on back of his eyes. On the surface, he was just a tanned, fairly good-looking young man who has been reluctantly drawn into an unpleasant subject.

"Well, I did consider it worth while bothering to hunt you up," she told him flatly. "If you don't think it's important, you at least won't object to going back with me?"

Again his glance went to her face, plainly startled. "Go back with you?" he repeated. "What for?"

"Well--" Jean still had some trouble with her breath and to keep her quiet, smooth drawl, "let's make it a woman's reason. Because."

Art's face settled to a certain hardness that still was not hostile. "Becauses don't go," he said. "Not with a girl like you; they might with some. What do you want me to go back for?"

"Well, I want you to go because I want to clear things up, about Johnny Croft. It's time--it was cleared up."

Art regarded her fixedly. "Well, I don't see yet what's back of that first BECAUSE," he sparred. "There's nothing I can do to clear up anything."

"Art, don't lie to me about it. I know--"

"What do you know?" Art's eyes never left her face, now. They seemed to be boring into her brain. Jean began to feel a certain confusion. To be sure, she had never had any experience whatever with fugitive murderers; but no one would ever expect one to act like this. A little more, she thought resentfully, and he would be making her feel as if she were the guilty person. She straightened herself and stared back at him.

"I know you left because you--you didn't want to stay and face-things. I--I have felt as if I could kill you, almost, for what you have done. I--I don't see how you can SIT there and--and look at me that way." She stopped and braced herself. "I don't want to argue about it. I came here to make you go back and face things. It's--horrible--" She was thinking of her father then, and she could not go on.

"Jean, you're all wrong. I don't know what idea you've got, but you may as well get one or two things straight. Maybe you do feel like killing me; but I don't know what for. I haven't the slightest notion of going back; there's nothing I could clear up, if I did go."

Jean looked at him dumbly. She supposed she should have to force him to go, after all. Of course, you couldn't expect that a man who had committed a crime will admit it to the first questioner; you couldn't expect him to go back willingly and face the penalty. She would have to use her gun; perhaps even call on Lite, since Lite had followed her. She might have felt easier in her mind had she seen how Lite was standing just within the glass-paneled door behind the dimity curtain, listening to every word, and watching every expression on Art Osgood's face. Lite's hand, also, was close to his gun, to be perfectly sure of Jean's safety. But he had no intention of spoiling her feeling of independence if he could help it. He had lots of faith in Jean.

"What has cropped up, anyway?" Art asked her curiously, as if he had been puzzling over her reasons for being there. "I thought that affair was settled long ago, when it happened. I thought it was all straight sailing--"

"To send an innocent man to prison for it? Do you call that straight sailing?" Jean's eyes had in them now a flash of anger that steadied her.

"What innocent man?" Art threw away the stub of the splinter and sat up straight. "I never knew any innocent man--"

"Oh! You didn't know?"

"All I know," said Art, with a certain swiftness of speech that was a new element in his manner, "I'm dead willing to tell you. I knew Johnny had been around knocking the outfit, and making some threats, and saying things he had no business to say. I never did have any use for him, just because he was so mouthy. I wasn't surprised to hear--how it ended up."

"To hear! You weren't there, when it happened?" Jean was watching him for some betraying emotion, some sign that she had struck home. She got a quick, sharp glance from him, as if he were trying to guess just how much she knew.

"Why should I have been there? The last time I was ever at the Lazy A," he stated distinctly, "was the day before I left. I didn't go any farther than the gate then. I had a letter for your father, and I met him at the gate and gave it to him."

"A letter for dad?" It was not much, but it was better than nothing. Jean thought she might lead him on to something more.

"Yes! A note, or a letter. Carl sent me over with it."

"Carl? What was it about? I never heard--"

"I never read it. Ask your dad what it was about, why don't you? I don't reckon it was anything particular."

"Maybe it was, though." Jean was turning crafty. She would pretend to be interested in the letter, and trip Art somehow when he was off his guard. "Are you sure that it was the day before--you left?"

"Yes." Some high talk in the street caught his attention, and Art turned and looked down. Jean caught at the chance to study his averted face, but she could not read innocence or guilt there. Art, she decided, was not as transparent as she had always believed him to be. He turned back and met her look. "I know it was the day before. Why?"

"Oh, I wondered. Dad didn't say-- What did he do with it--the letter?"

"He opened it and read it." A smile of amused understanding of her finesse curled Art's lips. "And he stuck it in the pocket of his chaps and went on to wherever he was going." His eyes challenged her impishly.

"And it was from Uncle Carl, you say?"

Art hesitated, and the smile left his lips. "It--it was from Carl, yes. Why?"

"Oh, I just wondered." Jean was wondering why he had stopped smiling, all at once, and why he hesitated. Was he afraid he was going to contradict himself about the day or the errand? Or was he afraid she would ask her Uncle Carl, and find that there was no letter?

"Why don't you ask your dad, if you are so anxious to know all about it?" Art demanded abruptly. "Anyway, that's the last time I was ever over there."

"Ask dad!" Jean's anger flamed out suddenly. "Art Osgood, when I think of dad, I wonder why I don't shoot you! I wonder how you dare sit there and look me in the face. Ask dad! Dad, who is paying with his life and all that's worth while in life, for that murder that you deny--"

"What's that? Paying how?" Art leaned toward her; and now his face was hard and hostile, and so were his eyes.

"Paying! You know how he is paying! Paying in Deer Lodge penitentiary--"

"Who? YOUR FATHER?" Had Art been ready to spring at her and catch her by the throat, he would not have looked much different.

"My father!" Jean's voice broke upon the word. "And you--" She did not attempt to finish the charge.

Art sat looking at her with a queer intensity. "Your father!" he repeated. "Aleck! I never knew that, Jean. Take my word, I never knew that!" He seemed to be thinking pretty fast. "Where's Carl at?" he asked irrelevantly.

"Uncle Carl? He's home, running both ranches. I--I never could make Uncle Carl see that you must have been the one."

"Been the one that shot Crofty, you mean?" Art gave a short laugh. He got up and stood in front of her. "Thanks, awfully. Good reason why he couldn't see it! He knows well enough I didn't do it. He knows--who did." He bit his lips then, as if he feared that he had said too much.

"Uncle Carl knows? Then why doesn't he tell? It wasn't dad!" Jean took a defiant step toward him. "Art Osgood, if you dare say it was dad, I--I'll kill you!"

Art smiled at her with a brief lightening of his eyes. "I believe you would, at that," he said soberly. "But it wasn't your dad, Jean."

"Who was it?"

"I--don't--know."

"You do! You do know, Art Osgood! And you ran off; and they gave dad eight years--"

Art spoke one word under his breath, and that word was profane. "I don't see how that could be," he said after a minute.

Jean did not answer. She was biting her lips to keep back the tears. She felt that somehow she had failed; that Art Osgood was slipping through her fingers, in spite of the fact that he did not seem to fear her or to oppose her except in the final accusation. It was the lack of opposition, that lack of fear, that baffled her so. Art, she felt dimly, must be very sure of his own position; was it because he was so close to the Mexican line? Jean glanced desperately that way. It was very close. She could see the features of the Mexican soldiers lounging before the cantina over there; through the lighted window of the customhouse she could see a dark-faced officer bending over a littered desk. The guard over there spoke to a friend, and she could hear the words he said.

Jean thought swiftly. She must not let Art Osgood go back across that street. She could cover him with her gun--Art knew how well she could use it!--and she would call for an American officer and have him arrested. Or, Lite was somewhere below; she would call for Lite, and he could go and get an officer and a warrant.

"How soon you going back?" Art asked abruptly, as though he had been pondering a problem and had reached the solution. "I'll have to get a leave of absence, or go down on the books as a deserter; and I wouldn't want that. I can get it, all right. I'll go back with you and straighten this thing out, if it's the way you say it is. I sure didn't know they'd pulled your dad for it, Jean."

This, coming so close upon the heels of her own decision, set Jean all at sea again. She looked at him doubtfully.

"I thought you said you didn't know, and you wouldn't go back."

Art grinned sardonically. "I'll lie any time to help a friend," he admitted frankly. "What I do draw the line at is lying to help some cowardly cuss double-cross a man. Your father got the double-cross; I don't stand for anything like that. Not a-tall!" He heaved a sigh of nervous relaxation, for the last half hour had been keyed rather high for them both, and pulled his hat down on his head.

"Say, Jean! Want to go across with me and meet the general? You can make my talk a whole lot stronger by telling what you came for. I'll get leave, all right, then. And you'll know for sure that I'm playing straight. You see that two-story 'dobe about half-way down the block,--the one with the Mexican flag over it?" He pointed. "There's where he is. Want to go over?"

"Any objections to taking me along with you?" This was Lite, coming nonchalantly toward them from the doorway. Lite was still perfectly willing to let Jean manage this affair in her own way, but that did not mean that he would not continue to watch over her. Lite was much like a man who lets a small boy believe he is driving a skittish team all alone. Jean believed that she was acting alone in this, as in everything else. She had yet to learn that Lite had for three years been always at hand, ready to take the lines if the team proved too fractious for her.

Art turned and put out his hand. "Why, hello, Lite! Sure, you can come along; glad to have you." He eyed Lite questioningly. "I'll gamble you've heard all we've been talking about," he said. "That would be you, all right! So you don't need any wising up. Come on; I want to catch the chief before he goes off somewhere."

To see the three of them go down the stairs and out upon the street and across it into Mexico,--which to Jean seemed very queer,--you would never dream of the quest that had brought them together down here on the border. Even Jean was smiling, in a tired, anxious way. She walked close to Lite and never once asked him how he came to be there, or why. She was glad that he was there. She was glad to shift the whole matter to his broad shoulders now, and let him take the lead.

They had a real Mexican dinner in a queer little adobe place where Art advised them quite seriously never to come alone. They had thick soup with a strange flavor, and Art talked with the waiter in Mexican dialect that made Jean glad indeed to feel Lite's elbow touching hers, and to know that although Lite's hand rested idly on his knee, it was only one second from his weapon. She had no definite suspicion of Art Osgood, but all the same she was thankful that she was not there alone with him among all these dark, sharp-eyed Mexicans with their atmosphere of latent treachery.

Lite ate mostly with his left hand. Jean noticed that. It was the only sign of watchfulness that he betrayed, unless one added the fact that he had chosen a seat which brought his back against an adobe wall and his face toward Art and the room, with Jean beside him. That might have been pure chance, and it might not. But Art was evidently playing fair.

A little later they came back to the Casa del Sonora, and Jean went up to her room feeling that a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Lite and Art Osgood were out on the veranda, gossiping of the range, and in Art's pocket was a month's leave of absence from his duties. Once she heard Lite laugh, and she stood with one hand full of hairpins and the other holding the brush and listened, and smiled a little. It all sounded very companionable, very care-free,--not in the least as though they were about to clear up an old wrong.

She got into bed and thumped the hard pillow into a little nest for her tired head, and listened languidly to the familiar voices that came to her mingled with confused noises of the street. Lite was on guard; he would not lose his caution just because Art seemed friendly and helpfully inclined, and had meant no treachery over in that queer restaurant. Lite would not be easily tricked. So she presently fell asleep.

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