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Half a mile she galloped, and met Lite coming home. She glanced over her shoulder before she pulled Pard down to a walk, and Lite's greeting, as he turned and rode alongside her, was a question. He wanted to know what was the matter with her. He listened with his old manner of repression while she told him, and he made no comment whatever until she had finished.
"You must have made him pretty sore," he said dispassionately. "I don't think myself that you ought to stay over to the ranch alone. Why don't you do as he says?"
"And go back to the Bar Nothing?" Jean shivered a little. "Nothing could make me go back there! Lite, you don't understand. He acted like a crazy man; and I hadn't said anything to stir him up like that. He was--Lite, he scared me! I couldn't stay on the ranch with him. I couldn't be in the same room with him."
"You can't go on staying at the Lazy A," Lite told her flatly.
"There's no other place where I'd stay."
"You could," Lite pointed out, "stay in town and go back and forth with the rest of the bunch. It would be a lot better, any way you look at it."
"It would be a lot worse. There's my book; I wouldn't have any chance to write on that. And there's the expense. I'm saving every nickel I possibly can, Lite, and you know what for. And there's the bunch--I see enough of them during working hours. I'd go crazy if I had to live with them. Lite, they've put me in playing leads! I'm to get a hundred dollars a week! Just think of that! And Burns says that I'll have to go back to Los Angeles with them when they go this fall, because the contract I signed lasts for a year."
She sighed. "I rode over to tell you about it. It seemed to be good news, when I left home. But now, it's just a part of the black tangle that life's made up of. Aunt Ella started things off by telling me what a disgrace it is for me to work in these pictures. And Uncle Carl--" She shivered in spite of herself. "I just can't understand Uncle Carl's going into such a rage. It was--awful."
Lite rode for some distance before he lifted his head or spoke. Then he looked at Jean, who was staring straight ahead and seeing nothing save what her thoughts pictured.
He did not say a word about her going to Los Angeles.
He was the bottled-up type; the things that hit him hardest he seldom mentioned, so by that rule it might be inferred that her going hit hard. But his voice was normally calm, and his tone was the tone of authority, which Jean knew very well, and which nearly always amused her because she firmly believed it to be utterly useless.
He said in the tone of an ultimatum: "If you're bound to stay at the ranch, you've got to have somebody with you. I'll ride in and get Hepsy Atwood in the morning. You're getting thin. I don't believe you take time to cook enough to eat. You can't work on soda crackers and sardines. The old lady won't charge much to come and stay with you. I'll come over after I'm through work to-morrow and help her get things looking a little more like living."
"You'll do nothing of the sort." Jean looked at him mutinously. "I'm all right just as I am. I won't have her, Lite. That's settled."
"Sure, it's settled," Lite agreed, with more than his usual pertinacity. "I'll have her out here by noon, and a supply of real grub. How are you fixed for bedding?"
"I won't have her, I tell you. You're always trying to make me do things I won't do. Don't be silly."
"Sure not." Lite shifted in the saddle with the air of a man who rides at perfect ease with himself and with the world. "She'll likely have plenty of bedding of her own," he meditated, after a brief silence.
"Lite, if you haul Hepsibah out here, I'll send her back!"
"I'll haul her out," said Lite in a tone of finality, "but you won't send her back." He paused. "She ain't much protection, maybe," he remarked somewhat enigmatically, "but it'll beat staying alone nights. You--you can't tell who might come prowling around the place."
"What do you mean? Do you know about--" Jean caught herself on the verge of betrayal.
"You want to keep your gun handy. Just on general principles," Lite remonstrated. "You can't tell; it's away off from everywhere."
"I won't have Hepsy Atwood. Haven't I enough to drive me mad, without her?"
"Is there anybody else that you'd rather have?" Lite looked at her speculatively.
"No, there isn't. I won't have anybody. It would be a nuisance having some old lady in the house gabbling and gossiping. I'm not the least bit afraid, except,-- I'm not afraid, and I like to be alone. I won't have her, Lite."
Lite said no more about it until they reached the house, huddled lonesomely against the barren bluff, its windows staring black into the dusk. Jean did not seem to expect Lite to dismount, but he did not wait to see what she expected him to do. In his most matter- of-fact manner he dismounted and turned his horse, still saddled, into the stable with Pard. He preceded Jean up the path, and went into the kitchen ahead of her; lighted a match and found the lamp, and set its flame to brightening the dingy room.
Jean had not done much in the way of making that part of the house more attractive. She used the kitchen to cook in, because the stove was there, and the dishes. She had spread an old braided rug over the brown stain on the floor, and she ate in her own room with the door shut.
Without being told, Lite seemed to know all about her secret aversion to the kitchen. He took up the lamp and went now on a tour of inspection through the house. Jean followed him, wondering a little, and thinking that this was the way that mysterious stranger came and prowled at night, except that he must have used matches to light the way, or a candle, since the lamp seemed never to be disturbed. Lite went into all the rooms and held the lamp so that its brightness searched out all the corners. He looked into the small, stuffy closets. He stood in the middle of her father's room and seemed to meditate deeply, while Jean stood in the doorway and watched him inquiringly. He came back finally to the kitchen and looked into the cupboard, as though he was taking an inventory of her supply of provisions.
"You might cook me some supper, Jean," he said, when he had put the lamp on the table. "I see you've got eggs and bacon. I'm pretty hungry,--for a man that had his dinner six or seven hours ago."
Jean cooked supper, and they ate together in the kitchen. It did not seem so gruesome with Lite there, and she told him some funny things that had happened in her work, and mimicked Robert Grant Burns with an accuracy of manner and tone that would have astonished that pompous person a good deal and flattered him not at all. She almost recovered her spirits under the stimulus of Lite's presence, and she quite forgot that he had threatened her with Hepsibah Atwood.
But when he had wiped the dishes and had taken up his hat to go, Lite proved how tenaciously his mind could hold to an idea, and how even Jean could not quite match him for stubbornness.
"That mattress in the little bedroom looks all right," he said. "I'll pack it outside before I go, so it will have all day to-morrow out in the sun. I'll have Hepsy bring her own bedding. Well--so long."
Jean would have sworn in perfect good faith that Lite led his horse out of the stable, mounted it, and rode away to the Bar Nothing. He did mount and ride away as far as the mouth of the coulee. But that night he spent in the loft over the shop, and he did not sleep five minutes during the night. Most of the time he spent leaning against his rolled bedding, smoking and gazing at the silent house where Jean slept. You may interpret that as you will.
Jean did not see or hear anything more of him, until about four o'clock the next afternoon, when he drove calmly up to the house and deposited Hepsibah Atwood upon the kitchen steps. He did not wait for Jean to order them away. He hurried the unloading, released the wagon brake, and drove off. So Jean, coming from the spring behind the house, really got her first sight of him as he went rattling down to the gate.
Jean stood and looked after him, twitched her shoulders in a mental yielding of the point for the time being, and said "How-da-do" to the old lady.
She was not so old, as years go; fifty-five or thereabouts. And she could have whispered into Lite's ear without standing on her toes or asking him to bend his head. Lite was a tall man, at that. She had gray hair that was frizzy around her brows and at the back of her neck, and she had an Irish disposition without the brogue to go with it.
The first thing she did was to find an axe and chop a lot of fence-posts into firewood, as easily as Lite himself could have done it, and in other ways proceeded to make herself very much at home. The next day she dipped the spring almost dry, and used up all the soap in the house; and for three days went around with her skirts tucked up and her arms bare and the soles of her shoes soggy from wet floors. Jean kept out of her way, but she owned to herself that, after all, it was not unpleasant to come home tired and not have to cook a solitary supper and eat it in silent meditation.
The third night after Hepsy's arrival, Jean awoke to hear a man's furtive footsteps in her father's room. This was the fifth time that the prowler had come in the night, and custom had dulled her fear a little. She had not reached the point yet of getting up to see who it was and what he wanted. It was much easier to lie perfectly still with her six-shooter gripped in her hand and wait for him to go. Beyond stealthily trying her door and finding it fastened on the inside, he had never shown any disposition to invade her room
To-night was as all other nights when he came and made that mysterious search, until he went into the little bedroom where slept Hepsibah Atwood. Jean listened to the faint creaking of old boards which told her that he was approaching Hepsy's room, and she wondered if Hepsy would hear him. Hepsy did hear him. There was a squeak of the old bedstead that told how a hundred and seventy-two pounds of indignant womanhood was rising to do battle.
"Who's that? Git outa here, or I'll smash you!" There was no fear but a great deal of determination in Hepsy's voice, and there was the sound of her bare feet spatting on the floor.
The man's footsteps retreated hurriedly. Jean heard the kitchen door open and slam shut with a shrill squeal of its rusty hinges, and the sound of a man running down the path. She heard Hepsy muttering threats while she followed to the door and looked out, and she heard the muttering continue while Hepsy returned to bed.
It was very comforting. Jean tucked her gun under her pillow, laughed to herself for having shuddered under the blankets at the sound of a man so easily put to flight, and went to sleep feeling quite secure and for the first time really glad that Hepsibah Atwood was in the house.
She listened the next morning to Hepsy's colorful account of the affair, but she did not tell Hepsy that the man had been there before. She did not even tell her that she had heard the disturbance, and was lying with her gun in her hand ready to shoot if he came into her room. For a girl as frank and outspoken as was Jean, she had almost as great a talent as Lite for holding her tongue.
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