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Sometime in the night Jean awoke to hear footsteps in the corridor outside her room. She sat up with a start, and her right hand went groping for her gun. Just for the moment she thought that she was in her room at the Lazy A, and that the night-prowler had come and was beginning his stealthy search of the house.
Then she heard some one down in the street call out a swift sentence in Spanish, and get a laugh for an answer. She remembered that she was in Nogales, within talking distance of Mexico, and that she had found Art Osgood, and that he did not behave like a fugitive murderer, but like a friend who was anxious to help free her father.
The footsteps went on down the hall,--the footsteps of Lite, who had come and stood for a minute outside her door to make sure that all was quiet and that she slept. But Jean, now that she knew where she was, lay wide awake and thinking. Suddenly she sat up again, staring straight before her.
That letter,--the letter Art had taken to her father, the letter he had read and put in the pocket of his chaps! Was that what the man had been hunting for, those nights when he had come searching in that secret, stealthy way? She did not remember ever having looked into the pocket of her father's chaps, though they had hung in her room all those three years since the tragedy. Pockets in chaps were not, as a general thing, much used. Men carried matches in them sometimes, or money. The flap over her dad's chap-pocket was buttoned down, and the leather was stiff; perhaps the letter was there yet.
She got up and turned on the light, and looked at her watch. She wanted to start then, that instant, for Los Angeles. She wanted to take her dad's chaps out of her trunk where she had packed them just for the comfort of having them with her, and she wanted to look and see if the letter was there still. There was no particular reason for believing that this was of any particular importance, or had any bearing whatever upon the crime. But the idea was there, and it nagged at her.
Her watch said that it was twenty-five minutes after two o'clock. The train, Lite had told her, would leave for Tucson at seven-forty-five in the morning. She told herself that, since it was too far to walk, and since she could not start any sooner by staying up and freezing, she might just as well get back into bed and try to sleep.
But she could not sleep. She kept thinking of the letter, and trying to imagine what clue it could possibly give if she found it still in the pocket. Carl had sent it, Art said. A thought came to Jean which she tried to ignore; and because she tried to ignore it, it returned with a dogged insistence, and took clearer shape in her mind, and formed itself into questions which she was compelled at last to face and try to answer.
Was it her Uncle Carl who had come and searched the house at night, trying to find that letter? If it were her uncle, why was he so anxious to find it, after three years had passed? What was in the letter? If it had any bearing whatever upon the death of Johnny Croft, why hadn't her dad mentioned it? Why hadn't her Uncle Carl said something about it? Was the letter just a note about some ranch business? Then why else should any one come at night and prowl all through the house, and never take anything? Why had he come that first night?
Jean drew in her breath sharply. All at once, like a flashlight turned upon a dark corner of her mind, she remembered something about that night. She remembered how she had told her Uncle Carl that she meant to prove that her dad was innocent; that she meant to investigate the devious process by which the Lazy A ranch and all the stock had ceased to belong to her or her father; that she meant to adopt sly, sleuth-like methods; she remembered the very words which she had used. She remembered how bitter her uncle had become. Had she frightened him, somehow, with her bold declaration that she would not "let sleeping dogs lie" any longer? Had he remembered the letter, and been uneasy because of what was in it? But what could be in it, if it were written at least a day before the terrible thing had happened?
She remembered her uncle's uncontrolled fury that evening when she had ridden over to see Lite. What had she said to cause it? She tried to recall her words, and finally she did remember saying something about proving that her own money had been paying for her "keep" for three years. Then he had gone into that rage, and she had not at the time seen any connection between her words and his raving anger. But perhaps there was a connection. Perhaps--
"Oh, my goodness!" she exclaimed aloud. She was remembering the telegram which she had sent him just before she left Los Angeles for Nogales. "He'll just simply go wild when he gets that wire!" She recalled now how he had insisted all along that Art Osgood knew absolutely nothing about the murder; she recalled also, with an uncanny sort of vividness, Art's manner when he had admitted for the second time that the letter had been from Carl. She remembered how he had changed when he found that her father was being punished for the crime.
She did not know, just yet, how all these tangled facts were going to work out. She had not yet come to the final question that she would presently be asking herself. She felt sure that her uncle knew more,-- a great deal more,--about Johnny Croft's death than he had appeared to know; but she had not yet reached the point to which her reasonings inevitably would bring her; perhaps her mind was subconsciously delaying the ultimate conclusion.
She got up and dressed; unfastening her window, she stepped out on the veranda. The street was quiet at that time in the morning. A sentry stood on guard at the corner, and here and there a light flared in some window where others were wakeful. But for the most part the town lay asleep. Over in what was really the Mexican quarter, three or four roosters were crowing as if they would never leave off. The sound of them depressed Jean, and made her feel how heavy was the weight of her great undertaking,--heavier now, when the end was almost in sight, than it had seemed on that moonlight night when she had ridden over to the Lazy A and had not the faintest idea of how she was going to accomplish any part of her task which she had set herself. She shivered, and turned back to get the gay serape which she had bought from an old Mexican woman when they were coming out of that queer restaurant last evening.
When she came out again, Lite was standing there, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a post.
"You'd better get some sleep, Jean," he reproved her when she came and stood beside him. "You had a pretty hard day yesterday; and to-day won't be any easier. Better go back and lie down."
Jean merely pulled the serape snugger about her shoulders and sat down sidewise upon the railing. "I couldn't sleep," she said. "If I could, I wouldn't be out here; I'd be asleep, wouldn't I? Why don't you go to bed yourself?"
"Ah-h, Art's learned to talk Spanish," he said drily. "I got myself all worked up trying to make out what he was trying to say in his sleep, and then I found out it wasn't my kinda talk, anyway. So I quit. What's the matter that you can't sleep?"
Jean stared down at the shadowy street. A dog ran out from somewhere, sniffed at a doorstep, and trotted over into Mexico and up to the sentry. The sentry patted it on the head and muttered a friendly word or two. Jean watched him absently. It was all so peaceful! Not at all what one would expect, after seeing pictures of all those refugees and all those soldiers fighting, and the dead lying in the street in some little town whose name she could not pronounce correctly.
"Did you hear Art tell about taking a letter to dad the day before?" she asked abruptly. "He wasn't telling the truth, not all the time. But somehow I believe that was the truth. He said dad stuck it in the pocket of his chaps. I believe it's there yet, Lite. I don't remember ever looking into that pocket. And I believe--Lite, I never said anything about it, but somebody kept coming to the house in the night and hunting around through all the rooms. He never came into my room, so I--I didn't bother him; but I've wondered what he was after. It just occurred to me that maybe--"
"I never could figure out what he was after, either," Lite observed quietly.
"You?" Jean turned her head, so that her eyes shone in the light of a street lamp while she looked up at him. "How in the world did you know about him?"
Lite laughed drily. "I don't think there's much concerns you that I don't know," he confessed. "I saw him, I guess, every time he came around. He couldn't have made a crooked move,--and got away with it. But I never could figure him out exactly."
Jean looked at him, touched by the care of her that he had betrayed in those few words. Always she had accepted him as the one friend who never failed her, but lately,--since the advent of the motion-picture people, to be exact,--a new note had crept into his friendship; a new meaning into his watching over her. She had sensed it, but she had never faced it openly. She pulled her thoughts away from it now.
"Did you know who he was?"
It was like Jean to come straight to the point. Lite smiled faintly; he knew that question would come, and he knew that he would have to answer it.
"Sure. I made it my business to know who he was."
"Who was it, Lite?"
Lite did not say. He knew that question was coming also, but he did not know whether he ought to answer it.
"It was Uncle Carl, wasn't it?"
Lite glanced down at her quickly. "You're a good little guesser."
"Then it was that letter he was after." She was silent for a minute, and then she looked at her watch. "And I can't get at those chaps before to-morrow!" She sighed and leaned back against the post.
"Lite, if it was worth all that hunting for, it must mean something to us. I wonder what it can be; don't you know?"
"No," said Lite slowly, "I don't. And it's something a man don't want to do any guessing about."
This, Jean felt, was a gentle reproof for her own speculations upon the subject. She said no more about the letter.
"I sent him a telegram," she informed Lite irrelevantly, "saying I'd located Art and was going to take him back there. I wonder what he thought when he got that!"
Lite turned half around and stared down at her. He opened his lips to speak, hesitated, and closed them without making a sound. He turned away and stared down into the street that was so empty. After a little he glanced at his own watch, with the same impulse Jean had felt. The hours and minutes were beginning to drag their feet as they passed.
"You go in," he ordered gently, "and lie down. You'll be all worn out when the time comes for you to get busy. We don't know what's ahead of us on this trail, Jean. Right now, it's peaceful as Sunday morning down in Maine; so you go in and get some sleep, while you have a chance, and stop thinking about things. Go on, Jean. I'll call you plenty early; you needn't be afraid of missing the train."
Jean smiled a little at the tender, protective note of authority in his voice and manner. Whether she permitted it or not, Lite would go right on watching over her and taking care of her. With a sudden desire to please him, she rose obediently. When she passed him, she reached out and gave his arm a little squeeze.
"You cantankerous old tyrant," she drawled in a whisper, "you do love to haze me around, don't you? Just to spite you, I'll do it!" She went in and left him standing there, smoking and leaning against the post, calm as the stars above. But under that surface calm, the heart of Lite Avery was thumping violently. His arm quivered still under the thrill of Jean's fingers. Your bottled-up souls are quick to sense the meaning in a tone or a touch; Jean, whether she herself knew it or not, had betrayed an emotion that set Lite's thoughts racing out into a golden future. He stood there a long while, staring out upon the darkness, his eyes shining.
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