Jean did not tell Lite about the footsteps. She was afraid that he might insist upon her giving up staying at the Lazy A. Lite did not approve of it, anyway, and it would take very little encouragement in the way of extra risk to make him stubborn about it. Lite could be very obstinate indeed upon occasion, and she was afraid he might take a stubborn streak about this, and perhaps ride over every night to make sure she was all right, or do something equally unnecessary and foolish.
She did not know Lite as well as she imagined, which is frequently the case with the closest of friends. As a matter of fact, Jean had never spent one night alone on the ranch, even though she did believe she was doing so. Lite had a homestead a few miles away, upon which he was supposed to be sleeping occasionally to prove his good faith in the settlement. Instead of spending his nights there, however, he rode over and slept in the gable loft over the old granary, where no one ever went; and he left every morning just before the sky lightened with dawn. He did not know that Jean was frightened by the sound of footsteps, but he had heard the man ride up to the stable and dismount, and he had followed him to the house and watched him through the uncurtained windows, and had kept his fingers close to his gun all the while. Jean did not dream of anything like that; but Lite, going about his work with the easy calm that marked his manner always, was quite as puzzled over the errand of the night-prowler as was Jean herself.
For three years Lite had lain aside the mystery of the footprints on the kitchen floor on the night after the inquest, as a puzzle he would probably never solve. He had come to remember them as a vagrant incident that carried no especial meaning. But now they seemed to carry a new significance,--if only he could get at the key. For three years he had gone along quietly, working and saving all he could, and looking after Jean in an unobtrusive way, believing that Aleck was guilty,-- and being careful to give no hint of that belief to any one. And now Jean herself seemed to be leading him unconsciously face to face with doubt and mystery. It tantalized him. He knew the prowler, and for that reason he was all the more puzzled. What had he wanted or expected to find? Lite was tempted to face the man and ask him; but on second thought he knew that would be foolish. He would say nothing to Jean. He thanked the Lord she slept soundly! and he would wait and see what happened.
Jean herself was thoughtful all that day, and was slow to lighten her mood or her manner even when Gil Huntley rode beside her to location and talked enthusiastically of the great work she was doing for a beginner, and of the greater work she would do in the future, if only she took advantage of her opportunities.
"It can't go on like this forever," he told her impressively for the second time, before he was sure of her attention and her interest. "Think of you, working extra under a three-day guarantee! Why, you're what's making the pictures! I had a letter from a friend of mine; he's with the Universal. He'd been down to see one of our pictures,--that first one you worked in. You remember how you came down off that bluff, and how you roped me and jerked me down off the bank just as I'd got a bead on Lee? Say! that picture was a RIOT! Gloomy says he never saw a picture get the hand that scene got. And he wanted to know who was doubling for Gay, up here. You see, he got next that it was a double; he knows darned well Gay never could put over that line of stuff. The photography was dandy,--Pete's right there when it comes to camera work, anyway,--and that run down the bluff, he said, had people standing on their hind legs even before the rope scene. You could tell it was a girl and no man doubling the part. Gloomy says everybody around the studio has begun to watch for our releases, and go just to see you ride and rope and shoot. And Gay gets all the press-notices! Say, it makes me sick!" He looked at Jean wistfully.
"The trouble is, you don't realize what a raw deal you're getting," he said, with much discontent in his tone. "As an extra, you're getting fine treatment and fine pay; I admit that. But the point is, you've no business being an extra. Where you belong is playing leads. You don't know what that means, but I do. Burns is just using you to boost Muriel Gay, and I say it's the rawest deal I ever saw handed out in the picture game; and believe me, I've seen some raw deals!"
"Now, now, don't get peevish, Gil." Jean's drawl was soft, and her eyes were friendly and amused. So far had their friendship progressed. "It's awfully dear of you to want to see me a real leading lady. I appreciate it, and I won't take off that lock of hair I said I'd take when I shoot you in the foreground. Burns wants a real thrilling effect close up, and he's told me five times to remember and keep my face turned away from the camera, so they won't see it isn't Gay. If I turn around, there will have to be a re-take, he says; and you won't like that, Gil, not after you've heard a bullet zip past your ear so close that it will fan your hair. Are--aren't you afraid of me, Gil?"
"Afraid of you?" Gil's horse swung closer, and Gil's eyes threatened the opening of a tacitly forbidden subject.