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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 24. The Letter In The Chaps
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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 24. The Letter In The Chaps Post by :CharlesWest Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :908

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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 24. The Letter In The Chaps

CHAPTER XXIV. 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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