Mr. Matthews, it seems, is an agent of the American Free
His method of comforting her and easing her through the first stage of black despair was unorthodox, but it was effective. Because she was too absorbed in her own misery to combat him openly, he got her started toward the Bar Nothing and away from the friends whose enervating pity was at that time the worst influence possible. He set the pace, and he set it for speed. The first mile they went at a sharp gallop that was not far from a run, and the horses were breathing heavily when he pulled up, well out of sight of the town, and turned to the girl.
There was color in her cheeks, and the dullness was gone from her eyes when she returned his glance inquiringly. The droop of her lips was no longer the droop of a weak yielding to sorrow, but rather the beginning of a brave facing of the future. Lite managed a grin that did not look forced.
"I'll make a real range hand outa you yet," he announced confidently. "You remember the roping and shooting science I taught you before you went off to school? You're going to start right in where you left off and learn all I know and some besides. I'll make a lady of you yet,--darned if I don't."
At that Jean laughed unexpectedly. Lite drew a long breath of relief.
The still loneliness of desertion held fast the clutter of sheds and old stables roofed with dirt and rotting hay. The melancholy of emptiness hung like an invisible curtain before the sprawling house with warped, weather-blackened shingles, and sagging window-frames. You felt the silence when first you sighted the ranch buildings from the broad mouth of the Lazy A coulee,--the broad mouth that yawned always at the narrow valley and the undulations of the open range, and the purple line of mountains beyond. You felt it more strongly when you rode up to the gate of barbed-wire, spliced here and there, and having an unexpected stubbornness to harry the patience of men who would pass through it in haste. You grew unaccountably depressed if you rode on past the stables and corrals to the house, where the door was closed but never locked, and opened with a squeal of rusty hinges, if you turned the brown earthenware knob and at the same instant pressed sharply with your knee against the paintless panel.
You might notice the brown spot on the kitchen door where a man had died; you might notice the brown spot, but unless you had been told the grim story of the Lazy A, you would never guess the spot was a bloodstain. Even though you guessed and shuddered, you would forget it presently in the amazement with which you opened the door beyond and looked in upon a room where the chill atmosphere of the whole place could find no lodgment.
This was Jean's room, held sacred to her own needs and uses, in defiance of the dreariness that compassed it close. A square of old rag carpet covered the center of the floor, and beyond its border the warped boards were painted a dull, pale green. The walls were ugly with a cheap, flowered paper that had done its best to fade into inoffensive neutral tints. Jean had helped, where she could, by covering the intricate rose pattern with old prints cut from magazines and with cheap, pretty souvenirs gleaned here and there and hoarded jealously. And there were books, which caught the eyes and held them even to forgetfulness of the paper.
You would laugh at Jean's room. Just at first you would laugh; after that you would want to cry, or pat Jean on her hard-muscled, capable shoulder; but if you knew Jean at all, you would not do either. First you would notice an old wooden cradle, painted blue, that stood in a corner. A button-eyed, blank-faced rag doll, the size of a baby at the fist-sucking age, was tucked neatly under the red-and-white patchwork quilt made to fit the cradle. Hanging directly over the cradle by a stirrup was Jean's first saddle,--a cheap pigskin affair with harsh straps and buckles, that her father had sent East for. Jean never had liked that saddle, even when it was new. She used to stand perfectly still while her father buckled it on the little buckskin pony she rode; and she would laugh when he picked her up and tossed her into the seat. She would throw her dad a kiss and go galloping off down the trail,--but when she was quite out of sight around the bend of the bench-land, she would stop and take the saddle off, and hide it in a certain clump of wild currant bushes, and continue her journey bareback. A kit-fox found it one day; that is how the edge of the cantle came to have that queer, chewed look.