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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 5. Jean Rides Into A Small Adventure
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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 5. Jean Rides Into A Small Adventure Post by :msmonline Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2219

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Jean Of The Lazy A - Chapter 5. Jean Rides Into A Small Adventure

CHAPTER V. JEAN RIDES INTO A SMALL ADVENTURE

At the mouth of the coulee, she turned to the left instead of to the right, and so galloped directly away from the Bar Nothing ranch, down the narrow valley known locally as the Flat, and on to the hills that invited her with their untroubled lights and shadows and the deep scars she knew for canyons.

There were no ranches out this way. The land was too broken and too barren for anything but grazing, so that she felt fairly sure of having her solitude unspoiled by anything human. Solitude was what she wanted. Solitude was what she had counted upon having in that little room at the Lazy A; robbed of it there, she rode straight to the hills, where she was most certain of finding it.

And then she came up out of a hollow upon a little ridge and saw three horsemen down in the next coulee. They were not close enough so that she could distinguish their features, but by the horses they rode, by the swing of their bodies in the saddles, by all those little, indefinable marks by which we recognize acquaintances at a distance, Jean knew them for strangers. She pulled up and watched them, puzzled for a minute at their presence and behavior.

When first she discovered them, they were driving a small bunch of cattle, mostly cows and calves, down out of a little "draw" to the level bottom of the narrow coulee. While she watched, herself screened effectually by a clump of bushes, she saw one rider leave the cattle and gallop out into the open, stand there looking toward the mouth of the coulee, and wave his hand in a signal for the others to advance. This looked queer to Jean, accustomed all her life to seeing men go calmly about their business upon the range, careless of observation because they had nothing to conceal. She urged Pard a little nearer, keeping well behind the bushes still, and leaned forward over the saddle horn, watching the men closely.

Their next performance was enlightening, but incredibly bold for the business they were engaged in. One of the three got off his horse and started a little fire of dry sticks under a convenient ledge. Another untied the rope from his saddle, widened the loop, swung it twice over his head and flipped it neatly over the head of a calf.

Jean did not wait to see any more than that; she did not need to see any more to know them for "rustlers." Brazen rustlers, indeed, to go about their work in broad daylight like that. She was not sure as to the ownership of the calf, but down here was where the Bar Nothing cattle, and what few were left of the Lazy A, ranged while the feed was good in the spring, so that the probabilities were that this theft would strike rather close home. Whether it did or not, Jean was not one to ride away and leave range thieves calmly at work.

She turned back behind the bushy screen, rode hastily along the ridge to the head of the little coulee and dismounted, leading Pard down a steep bank that was treacherous with loose shale. The coulee was more or less open, but it had convenient twists and windings; and if you think that Jean failed to go down it quietly and unseen, that merely proves how little you know Jean.

She hurried as much as she dared. She knew that the rustlers would be in something of a hurry themselves, and she very much desired to ride on them unawares and catch them at that branding, so that there would be no shadow of a doubt of their guilt. What she would do after she had ridden upon them, she did not quite know.

So she came presently around the turn that revealed them to her. They were still fussing with the calf,--or it may have been another one,--and did not see her until she was close upon them. When they did see her, she had them covered with her 38-caliber six-shooter, that she usually carried with her on the chance of getting a shot at a coyote or a fox or something like that.

The three stood up and stared at her, their jaws sagging a little at the suddenness of her appearance, and their eyes upon the gun. Jean held it steady, and she had all the look of a person who knew exactly what she meant, and who meant business. She eyed them curiously, noting the fact that they were strangers, and cowboys,--though of a type that she had never seen on the range. She glanced sharply at the beaded, buckskin jacket of one of them, and the high, wide-brimmed sombrero of another.

"Well," she said at length, "turn your backs, you've had a good look at me. Turn--your--backs, I said. Now, drop those guns on the ground. Walk straight ahead of you till you come to that bank. You needn't look around; I'm still here."

She leaned a little, sending Pard slowly forward until he was close to the six-shooters lying on the ground. She glanced down at them quickly, and again at the men who stood, an uneasy trio, with their faces toward the wall, except when they ventured a glance sidewise or back at her over one shoulder. She glanced at the cattle huddled in the narrow mouth of the "draw" behind them, and saw that they were indeed Bar Nothing and Lazy A stock. The horses the three had been riding she did not remember to have seen before.

Jean hesitated, not quite knowing what she ought to do next. So far she had acted merely upon instincts born of her range life and training; the rest would not be so easy. She knew she ought to have those guns, at any rate, so she dismounted, still keeping the three in line with her own weapon, and went to where the revolvers lay on the ground. With her boot toe she kicked them close together, and stooped and picked one up. The last man in the line turned toward her protestingly, and Jean fired so close to his head that he ducked.

"Believe me, I could kill the three of you if I wanted to, before you could turn around," she informed them calmly, "so you had better stand still till I tell you to move." She frowned down at the rustler's gun in her hand. There was something queer about that gun.

"Hey, Burns," called the man in the middle, without venturing to turn his head, "come out of there and explain to the lady. This ain't in the scene!"

"Oh, yes, it is!" a voice retorted chucklingly. "You bet your life this is in the scene! Lowry's been pamming it all in; don't you worry about that!" Jean was startled, but she did not lower her gun from its steady aiming at the three of them. It was just some trick, very likely, meant to throw her off her guard. There were more than the three, and the fourth man probably had her covered with a gun. But she would not turn her head toward his voice, for all that.

"The gentleman called Burns may walk out into the open and explain, if he can," she announced sharply, her eyes upon the three whom she had captured so easily.

She heard the throaty chuckle again, from somewhere to the left of her. She saw the three men in front of her look at each other with sickly grins. She felt that the whole situation was swinging against her,--that she had somehow blundered and made herself ridiculous. It never occurred to her that she was in any particular danger; men did not shoot down women in that country, unless they were drunk or crazy, and the man called Burns had sounded extremely sane, humorous even. She heard a rattle of bushes and the soft crunching of footsteps coming toward her. Still she would not turn her head, nor would she lower the gun; if it was a trick, they should not say that it had been successful.

"It's all right, sister," said the chuckling voice presently, almost at her elbow. "This isn't any real, honest-to-John bandit party. We're just movie people, and we're making pictures. That's all." He stopped, but Jean did not move or make any reply whatever, so he went on. "I must say I appreciate the compliment you paid us in taking it for the real dope, sister--"

"Don't call me sister again." Jean flashed him a sidelong glance of resentment. "You've already done it twice too often. Come around in front where I can see you, if you're what you claim to be."

"Well, don't shoot, and I will," soothed the chuckling voice. "My, my, it certainly is a treat to see a real, live Prairie Queen once. Beats making them to order--"

"We'll omit the superfluous chatter, please." Jean looked him over and tagged him mentally with one glance. He did not look like a rustler,--with his fat good-nature and his town-bred personality, and his gray tweed suit and pigskin puttees, and the big cameo ring on his manicured little finger, and his fresh-shaven face as round as the sun above his head and almost as cheerful. Perfectly harmless, but Jean would not yield to the extent of softening her glance or her manner one hundredth of a degree. The more harmless these people, the more ridiculous she had made herself appear.

The chuckly one grinned and removed his soft gray hat, held it against his generous equator, and bowed so low as to set him puffing a little afterward. His eyes, however, appraised her shrewdly.

"Omitting all superfluous chatter, as you suggest, I am Robert Grant Burns, of the Great Western Film Company. These men are also members of that company. We are here for the purpose of making Western pictures, and this little bit of unlawful branding of stock which you were flattering enough to mistake for the real thing, is merely a scene which we were making." He was about to indulge in what he would have termed a little "kidding" of the girl, but wisely refrained after another shrewd reading of her face.

Jean looked at the three men, who had taken it for granted that they might leave their intimate study of the clay bank and were coming toward her. She looked at the gun she had picked up from the ground,--being loaded with blank cartridges was what had made it look so queer!--and at Robert Grant Burns of the Great Western Film Company, who had put on his hat again and was studying her the way he was wont to study applicants for a position in his company.

"Did you get permission to haze our cattle around like this?" she asked abruptly, to hide how humiliated she really felt.

"Why--no. Just for a few scenes, I did not consider it necessary." Plainly, the chuckly Mr. Burns was taken at a disadvantage.

"But it is necessary. Don't make the mistake, Mr. Burns, of thinking this country and all it contains is at the disposal of any chance stranger, just because we do not keep it under lock and key. You are making rather free with another man's personal property, when you use my uncle's cattle for your rustling scenes."

"Your uncle? Well, I shall be very glad to make some arrangement with your uncle, if that is customary."

"Why the doubt? Are you in the habit of walking into a man's house, for instance, and using his kitchen to make pictures without permission? Has it been your custom to lead a man's horses out of his stable whenever you chose, and use them for race pictures?"

"No, no--nothing like that. Sorry to have infringed upon your property-rights, I am sure." Mr. Burns did not sound so chuckly now; but that may have been because the three picture-rustlers were quite openly pleased at the predicament of their director. "It never occurred to me that--"

"That the cattle were not as free as the hills?" The quiet voice of Jean searched out the tenderest places in the self-esteem of Robert Grant Burns. She tossed the blank-loaded gun back upon the ground and turned to her horse. "It does seem hard to impress it upon city people that we savages do have a few rights in this country. We should have policemen stationed on every hilltop, I suppose, and 'No Trespassing' signs planted along every cow-trail. Even then I doubt whether we could convince some people that we are perfectly human and that we actually do own property here."

While she drawled the last biting sentences, she stuck her toe in the stirrup and went up into the saddle as easily as any cowpuncher in the country could have done. Robert Grant Burns stood with his hands at his hips and watched her with the critical eye of the expert who sees in every gesture a picture, effective or ineffective, good, bad, or merely so--so. Robert Grant Burns had never, in all his experience in directing Western pictures, seen a girl mount a horse with such unconscious ease of every movement.

Jean twitched the reins and turned towards him, looking down at the little group with unfriendly eyes. "I don't want to seem inhospitable or unaccommodating, Mr. Burns," she told him, "but I fear that I must take these cattle back home with me. You probably will not want to use them any longer."

Mr. Burns did not say whether she was right or wrong in her conjecture. As a matter of fact, he did want to use them for several more scenes; but he stood silent while Jean, with a chilly bow to the four of them, sent Pard up the rough bank of the little gulley. Rather, he made no reply to Jean, but he waved his three rustlers back, retreating himself to where the bank stopped them. And he turned toward the bushes that had at first hidden him from Jean, waved his hand in an imperative gesture, and called guardedly through cupped palms. "Take that! All you can get of it!" Which goes far to show why he was considered one of the best directors the Great Western Film Company had in its employ.

So Jean unconsciously made a picture which caused the eyes of Robert Grant Burns to glisten while he watched. She ignored the men who had so fooled her, and took down her rope that she might swing the loop of it toward the cattle and drive them back across the gulley and up the coulee toward home. Cattle are stubborn things at best, and this little bunch seemed determined to seek the higher slopes. Put upon her mettle because of that little audience down below,--a mildly jeering audience at that, she imagined,--Jean had need of her skill and her fifteen years or so of experience in handling stock.

She swung her rope and shouted, weaving back and forth across the gulley, with little lunging rushes now and then to head off an animal that tried to bolt past her up the hill. She would not have glanced toward Robert Grant Burns to save her life, and she did not hear him saying:

"Great! Great stuff! Get it all, Pete. By George, you can't beat the real thing, can you? 'J get that up-hill dash? Good! Now panoram the drive up the gulley--get it ALL, Pete--turn as long as you can see the top of her hat. My Lord! You wouldn't get stuff like that in ten years. I wish Gay could handle herself like that in the saddle, but there ain't a leading woman in the business to-day that could put that over the way she's doing it. By George! Say, Gil, you get on your horse and ride after her, and find out where she lives. We can't work any more now, anyway; she's gone off with the cattle. And, say! You don't want to let her get a sight of you, or she might take a shot at you. And if she can shoot the way she rides--good night!"

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