H. Pottle, E. A. Brinkley, John C. Jennings, George W.
On the floor that Jean had scrubbed till it was so white, a man lay dead, stretched upon his back. His eyes stared vacantly straight up at the ceiling, where a single cobweb which Jean had not noticed swayed in the air-current Lite set in motion with the opening of the door. On the floor, where it had dropped from his hand perhaps when he fell, a small square piece of gingerbread lay, crumbled around the edges. Tragic halo around his head, a pool of blood was turning brown and clotted. Lite shivered a little while he stared down at him.
In a minute he lifted his eyes from the figure and looked around the small room. The stove shone black in the sunlight which the open door let in. On the table, covered with white oilcloth, the loaf of gingerbread lay uncovered, and beside it lay a knife used to cut off the piece which the man on the floor had not eaten before he died. Nothing else was disturbed. Nothing else seemed in the least to bear any evidence of what had taken place.
Lite's thoughts turned in spite of him to the man who had ridden from the coulee as though fiends had pursued. The conclusion was obvious, yet Lite loyally rejected it in the face of reason. Reason told him that there went the slayer. For this dead man was what was left of Johnny Croft, the Crofty of whom Jim had gossiped not more than half an hour before. And the gossip had been of threats which Johnny Croft had made against the two Douglas brothers,--big Aleck, of the Lazy A, and Carl, of the Bar Nothing ranch adjoining.
Suicide it could scarcely be, for Crofty was the type of man who would cling to life; besides, his gun was in its holster, and a man would hardly have the strength or the desire to put away his gun after he has shot himself under one eye. Death had undoubtedly been immediate. Lite thought of these things while he stood there just inside the door. Then he turned slowly and went outside, and stood hesitating upon the porch. He did not quite know what he ought to do about it, and so he did not mean to be in too great a hurry to do anything; that was Lite's habit, and he had always found that it served him well.
If the rider had been fleeing from his crime, as was likely, Lite had no mind to raise at once the hue and cry. An hour or two could make no difference to the dead man,--and you must remember that Lite had for six years called this place his home, and big Aleck Douglas his friend as well as the man who paid him wages for the work he did. He was half tempted to ride away and say nothing for a while. He could let it appear that he had not been at the house at all and so had not discovered the crime when he did. That would give Aleck Douglas more time to get away. But there was Jean, due at any moment now. He could not go away and let Jean discover that gruesome thing on the kitchen floor. He could not take it up and hide it away somewhere; he could not do anything, it seemed to him, but just wait.
He went slowly down the path to the stable, his chin on his chest, his mind grappling with the tragedy and with the problem of how best he might lighten the blow that had fallen upon the ranch. It was unreal,--it was unthinkable,--that Aleck Douglas, the man who met but friendly glances, ride where he might, had done this thing. And yet there was nothing else to believe. Johnny Croft had worked here on the ranch for a couple of months, off and on. He had not been steadily employed, and he had been paid by the day instead of by the month as was the custom. He had worked also for Carl Douglas at the Bar Nothing; back and forth, for one or the other as work pressed. He was too erratic to be depended upon except from day to day; too prone to saddle his horse and ride to town and forget to return for a day or two days or a week, as the mood seized him or his money held out.
Lite knew that there had been some dispute when he had left; he had claimed payment for more days than he had worked. Aleck was a just man who paid honestly what he owed; he was also known to be "close- fisted." He would pay what he owed and not a nickel more,--hence the dispute. Johnny had gone away seeming satisfied that his own figures were wrong, but later on he had quarreled with Carl over wages and other things. Carl had a bad temper that sometimes got beyond his control, and he had ordered Johnny off the ranch. This was part of the long, full-detailed story Jim had been telling. Johnny had left, and he had talked about the Douglas brothers to any one who would listen. He had said they were crooked, both of them, and would cheat a working-man out of his pay. He had come back, evidently, to renew the argument with Aleck. With the easy ways of ranch people, he had gone inside when he found no one at home,-- hungry, probably, and not at all backward about helping himself to whatever appealed to his appetite. That was Johnny's way,--a way that went unquestioned, since he had lived there long enough to feel at home. Lite remembered with an odd feeling of pity how Johnny had praised the first gingerbread which Jean had baked, the day after her arrival; and how he had eaten three pieces and had made Jean's cheeks burn with confusion at his bold flattery.
He had come back, and he had helped himself to the gingerbread. And then he had been shot down. He was lying in there now, just as he had fallen, and his blood was staining deep the fresh-scrubbed floor. And Jean would be coming home soon. Lite thought it would be better if he rode out to meet her, and told her what had happened, so that she need not come upon it unprepared. There was nothing else that he could bring himself to do, and his mood demanded action of some sort; one could not sit down at peace with a fresh tragedy like that hanging over the place.