THE PHANTOM HERD
BY B. M. BOWER
Author of Chip of the Flying-U, The Flying-U's Last Stand, The Gringos, etc.
For the accuracy of certain parts of this story which deal most intimately with the business of making motion pictures, I am indebted to Buck Connor. whose name is a sufficient guarantee that all technical points are correct. His criticism, advice and other assistance have been invaluable, and I take this opportunity of expressing my appreciation and thanks for the help he has given me.
I THE INDIANS MUST GO
II "WHERE THE CATTLE ROAMED IN THOUSANDS, A-MANY A HERD AND BRAND..."
III AND THEY SIGH FOR THE DAYS THAT ARE GONE
IV THE LITTLE DOCTOR PROTESTS
V A BUNCH OF ONE-REELERS FROM BENTLY BROWN
VI VILLAINS ALL AND PROUD OF IT
VII BENTLY BROWN DOES NOT APPRECIATE COMEDY
VIII "THERE'S GOT TO BE A LINE DRAWN SOMEWHERES"
IX LEAVE IT TO THE BUNCH
X UNEXPECTED GUESTS FOR APPLEHEAD
XI JUST A FEW UNFORESEEN OBSTACLES
XII "I THINK YOU NEED INDIAN GIRL FOR PICTURE"
XIII "PAM. BLEAK MESA—CATTLE DRIFTING BEFORE WIND—"
XIV "PLUMB SPOILED, D'YUH MEAN?"
XV A LETTER FROM CHIEF BIG TURKEY
XVI "THE CHANCES IS SLIM AND GITTIN' SLIMMER"
XVII THE STORM
XVIII A FEW OF THE MINOR DIFFICULTIES
XIX WHEREIN LUCK MAKES A SPEECH
XX "SHE'S SHAPING UP LIKE A BANK ROLL"
THE INDIANS MUST GO
Luck Lindsay had convoyed his thirty-five actor-Indians to their reservation at Pine Ridge, and had turned them over to the agent in good condition and a fine humor and nice new hair hatbands and other fixings; while their pockets were heavy with dollars that you may be sure would not he spent very wisely. He had shaken hands with the braves, and had promised to let them know when there was another job in sight, and to speak a good word for them to other motion-picture companies who might want to hire real Indians. He had smiled at the fat old squaws who had waddled docilely in and out of the scenes and teetered tirelessly round and round in their queer native dances in the hot sun at his behest, when Luck wanted several rehearsals of "atmosphere" scenes before turning the camera on them.
They hated to go back to the tame life of the reservation and to stringing beads and sewing buckskin with sinew, and to gossiping among themselves of things their heavy-lidded black eyes had looked upon with such seeming apathy. They had given Luck an elaborately beaded buckskin vest that would photograph beautifully, and three pairs of heavy, beaded moccasins which he most solemnly assured them he would wear in his next picture. The smoke-smell of their tepee fires and perfumes still clung heavily to the Indian-tanned buckskin, so that Luck carried away with him an aroma indescribable and unmistakable to any one who has ever smelled it.
Just when he was leaving, a shy, big-eyed girl of ten had slid out from the shelter of her mother's poppy-patterned skirt, had proffered three strings of beads, and had fled. Luck had smiled his smile again—a smile of white, even teeth and so much good will that you immediately felt that he was your friend—and called her back to him. Luck was chief; and his commands were to be obeyed, instantly and implicitly; that much he had impressed deeply upon the least of these. While the squaws grinned and murmured Indian words to one another, the big-eye girl returned reluctantly; and Luck, dropping a hand to his coat pocket while he smiled reassurance, emptied that pocket of gum for her. His smile had lingered after he turned away; for like flies to an open syrup can the papooses had gathered around the girl.
Well, that job was done, and done well. Every one was satisfied save Luck himself. He swung up to the back of the Indian pony that would carry him through the Bad Lands to the railroad, and turned for a last look. The bucks stood hip-shot and with their arms folded, watching him gravely. The squaws pushed straggling locks from their eyes that they might watch him also. The papooses were chewing gum and staring at him solemnly. Old Mrs. Ghost-Dog, she of the ponderous form and plaid blanket that Luck had used with such good effect in the foreground of his atmosphere scenes, lifted up her voice suddenly, and wailed after him in high-keyed lament that she would see his face no more; and Luck felt a sudden contraction of the throat while he waved his hand to them and rode away.
Well, now he must go on to the next job, which he hoped would be more pleasant than this one had been. Luck hated to give up those Indians. He liked them, and they liked him,—though that was not the point. He had done good work with them. When he directed the scenes, those Indians did just what he wanted, and just the way he wanted it done; Luck was too old a director not to know the full value of such workers.
But the Acme Film Company, caught with the rest of the world in the pressure of hard times, wanted to economize. The manager had pointed out to Luck, during the course of an evening's discussion, that these Indians were luxuries in the making of pictures, and must be taken off the payroll for the good of the dividends. The manager had contended that white men and women, properly made up, could play the part of Indians where Indians were needed; whereas Indians could never be made to play the part of white men and women. Therefore, since white men and women were absolutely necessary. Why keep a bunch of Indians around eating up profits? The manager had sense on his side, of course. Other companies were making Indian pictures occasionally with not a real Indian within miles of the camera, but Luck Lindsay groaned inwardly, and cursed the necessity of economizing. For Luck had one idol, and that idol was realism. When the scenario called for twenty or thirty Indians, Luck wanted Indians,—real, smoke-tanned, blanketed bucks and squaws and papooses; not made-up whites who looked like animated signs for cigar stores and acted like,—well, never mind what Luck said they acted like.
"I can take the Injuns back," he conceded, "and worry along somehow without them. But if you want me to put on any more Western stuff, you'll have to let me weed out some of these Main Street cowboys that Clements wished on to me, and go out in the sagebrush and round up some that ain't all hair hatbands and high-heeled boots and bluff. I've got to have some whites to fill the foreground, if I give up the Injuns; or else I quit Western stuff altogether. I've been stalling along and keeping the best of the bucks in the foreground, and letting these said riders lope in and out of scenes and pile off and go to shooting soon as the camera picks them up, but with the Injuns gone, the whites won't get by.
"Maybe you have noticed that when there was any real riding, I've had the Injuns do it. And do you think I've been driving that stagecoach hell-bent from here to beyond because I'd no other way to kill time? Wasn't another darned man in the outfit I'd trust, that's why. If I take the Indians back, I've got to have some real boys." Luck's voice was plaintive, and a little bit desperate.
"Well, dammit, have your real boys! I never said you shouldn't. Weed out the company to suit yourself. You'll have to take the Injuns back; nobody else can handle the touch-me-not devils. You can lay off the company if you want to, and while you're up there pick up a bunch of cowboys to suit you. You're making good, Luck; don't take it that I'm criticizing anything you've done or the way you did it. You've been turning out the best Western stuff that goes on the screen; anybody knows that. That isn't the point. We just simply can't afford to keep those Indians any longer without retrenching on something else that's a lot more vital. You know what they cost as well as I do; you know what present conditions are. Figure it out for yourself."
"I don't have to," Luck retorted in a worried tone. "I know what we're up against. I know we ought to give them up—but I sure hate to do it! Lor-dee, but I can do things with that bunch! Remember Red Brother?" Luck was off on his hobby, the making of Indian pictures. "Remember the panoram effect I got on that massacre of the wagon train? Remember the council-of-war scene, and the close-up of Young-Dog-Howls-At-The-Moon making his plea for the lives of the prisoners? And the war dance with radium flares in the camp fires to give the light-effect? That film's in big demand yet, they tell me. I'll never be able to put over stuff like that with made-up actors, Martinson. You know I can't."
"I don't know; you're only just beginning to hit your gait, Luck," the manager soothed. "You have turned out some big stuff,—some awful big stuff; but at that you're just beginning to find yourself. Now, listen. You can have your 'real boys' you're always crying for. I can see what you mean when you pan these fellows you call Main Street cowboys. What you better do is this: Close down the company for two weeks, say. Keep on the ones you want, and let the rest out. And take these Injuns home, and then get out after your riders. Numbers and salaries we'll leave to you. Go as far as you like; it's a cinch you'll get what you want if you're allowed to go after it."
So here was Luck, arriving in due time at the railroad. He said good-by to Young-Dog-Howls-At-The-Moon who had ridden with him, and whose kingly bearing and clean-cut features and impressive pantomime made him a popular screen-Indian, and sat down upon a baggage truck to smoke a cigarette while he waited for the westbound train.
Young-Dog-Howls-At-The-Moon he watched meditatively until that young man had bobbed out of sight over a low hill, the pony Luck had ridden trailing after at the end of the lead-rope. Luck's face was sober, his eyes tired and unsmiling. He had done that much of his task: he had returned the Indians, and automatically wiped a very large item of expense from the accounts of the Acme Film Company. He did not like to dwell, however, on the cost to his own pride in his work.
The next job, now that he was actually face to face with it, looked not so simple. He was in a country where, a few years before, his quest for "real boys"—as he affectionately termed the type nearest his heart—would have been easy enough. But before the marching ranks of fence posts and barbed wire, the real boys had scattered. A more or less beneficent government had not gathered them together, and held them apart from the changing conditions, as it had done with the Indians. The real boys had either left the country, or had sold their riding outfits and gone into business in the little towns scattered hereabouts, or else they had taken to farming the land where the big herds had grazed while the real boys loafed on guard.
Luck admitted to himself that in the past two years, even, conditions had changed amazingly. Land was fenced that had been free. Even the reservation was changed a little. He threw away that cigarette and lighted another, and turned aggrievedly upon a dried little man who came up with the open expectation of using the truck upon which Luck was sitting uncomfortably. There was the squint of long looking against sun and wind at a far skyline in the dried little man's face. There was a certain bow in his legs, and there were various other signs which Luck read instinctively as he got up. He smiled his smile, and the dried little man grinned back companionably.
"Say, old-timer, what's gone with all the cattle and all the punchers?" Luck demanded with a mild querulousness.
The dried little man straightened from the truck handles and regarded Luck strangely.
"My gorry, son, plumb hazed off'n this section the earth, I reckon. Farmers and punchers, they don't mix no better'n sheep and cattle. Why, I mind the time when—"
The train was late, anyway, and the dried little man sat down on the truck, and fumbled his cigarette book, and began to talk. Luck sat down beside him and listened, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and a cold cigarette in his fingers. It was not of this part of the country that the dried little man talked, but of Montana, over there to the west. Of northern Montana in the days when it was cowman's paradise; the days when round-up wagons started out with the grass greening the hilltops, and swung from the Rockies to the Bear Paws and beyond in the wide arc that would cover their range; of the days of the Cross L and the Rocking R and the Lazy Eight,—every one of them brand names to glisten the eyes of old-time Montanans.
"Where would you go to find them boys now?" the dried little man questioned mournfully. "The Rocking R's gone into sheep, and the old boys have all left. The Cross L moved up into Canada, Lord knows how they're making out; I don't. Only outfit in northern Montana I know that has hung together at all is the Flying U. Old man Whitmore, he's hangin' on by his eyewinkers to what little range he can, and is going in for thoroughbreds. Most of his boys is with him yet, they tell me—"
"What they doing? Still riding?" Luck let out a long breath and lighted his cigarette. A little flare of hope had come into his eyes.
"Riding—yes, what little there is to do. Ranching a little too, and kicking about changed times, same as I'm doing. Last time I saw that outfit they was riding, you bet!" The dried little man chuckled, "That was in Great Falls, some time back. They was all in a contest, and pulling down the money, too. I was talking to old man Whitmore all one evening. He was telling me—"
From away out yonder behind a hill came the throaty call of the coming train. The dried little man jumped up, mumbled that it did beat all how time went when yuh got to talking over old days, and hustled two trunks out of the baggage room. Luck got his grip out of the office, settled himself into his coat, and took a last, long pull at the cigarette stub before he threw it away. It was not much of a clue that he had fallen upon by chance, but Luck was not one to wait until he was slapped in the face with a fact. He had intended swinging back through Arizona, where in certain parts cattle still were wild enough to bunch up at sight of a man afoot. His questioning of the dried little man had not been born of any concrete purpose, but of the range man's plaint in the abstract. Still—
"Say, brother, what's the Flying U's home town?" he called after the dried little man with his amiable, Southern drawl.
"Huh? Dry Lake. Yuh taking this train?"
"So long—taking it for a ways, yes." Luck hurried down to where a kinky-haired porter stood apathetically beside the steps of his coach. Dry Lake? He had never heard of the place, but he could find out from the railroad map or the conductor. He swung his grip into the waiting hand of the porter and went up the steps hurriedly. He meant to find out where Dry Lake was, and whether this train would take him there.
"WHERE THE CATTLE ROAMED IN THOUSANDS, A-MANY A HERD AND BRAND ..."—Old Range Song.
If you are at all curious over the name to which Luck Lindsay answered unhesitatingly,—his very acceptance of it proving his willingness to be so identified,—I can easily explain. Some nicknames have their origin in mystery; there was no mystery at all surrounding the name men had bestowed upon Lucas Justin Lindsay. In the first place, his legal cognomen being a mere pandering to the vanity of two grandfathers who had no love for each other and so must both be mollified, never had appealed to Luck or to any of his friends. Luck would have been grateful for any nickname that would have wiped Lucas Justin from the minds of men. But the real reason was a quirk in Luck's philosophy of life. Anything that he greatly desired to see accomplished, he professed to leave to chance. He would smile his smile, and lift his shoulders in the Spanish way he had learned in Mexico and the Philippines, and say: "That's as luck will have it. Quien sabe?" Then he would straightway go about bringing the thing to pass by his own dogged efforts. Men fell into the habit of calling him Luck, and they forgot that he had any other name; so there you have it, straight and easily understandable.
As luck would have it, then,—and no pun intended, please,—he found himself en route to Dry Lake without any trouble at all; a mere matter of one change of trains and very close connections, the conductor told him. So Luck went out and found a chair on the observation platform, and gave himself up to his cigar and to contemplation of the country they were gliding through. What he would find at Dry Lake to make the stop worth his while did not worry him; he left that to the future and to the god Chance whom he professed to serve. He was doing his part; he was going there to find out what the place held for him. If it held nothing but a half dozen ex-cow-punchers hopelessly tamed and turned farmers, why, there would probably be a train to carry him further in his quest. He would drop down into Wyoming and Arizona and New Mexico,—just keep going till he did find the men he wanted. That was Luck's way.
The shadows grew long and spread over the land until the whole vast country lay darkling under the coming night. Luck went in and ate his dinner, and came back again to smoke and stare and dream. There was a moon now that silvered the slopes and set wide expanses shimmering.
Luck, always more or less a dreamer, began to people the plain with the things that had been but were no more: with buffalo and with Indians who camped on the trail of the big herds. He saw their villages, the tepees smoke-grimed and painted with symbols, some of them, huddled upon a knoll out there near the timber line. He heard the tom-toms and he saw the rhythmic leaping and treading, the posing and gesturing of the braves who danced in the firelight the tribal Buffalo Dance.
After that he saw the coming of the cattle, driven up from the south by wind-browned, saddle-weary cowboys who sang endless chanteys to pass the time as they rode with their herds up the long trail. He saw the cattle humped and drifting before the wind in the first blizzards of winter, while gray wolves slunk watchfully here and there, their shaggy coats ruffled by the biting wind. He saw them when came the chinook, a howling, warm wind from out the southwest, cutting the snowbanks as with a knife that turned to water what it touched, and laying bare the brown grass beneath. He saw the riders go out with the wagons to gather the lank-bodied, big-kneed calves and set upon them the searing mark of their owner's iron.
Urged by the spell of the dried little man's plaintive monologue, the old range lived again for Luck, out there under the moon, while the train carried him on and on through the night.
What a picture it all would make—the story of those old days as they had been lived by men now growing old and bent. With all the cheap, stagy melodrama thrown to one side to make room for the march of that bigger drama, an epic of the range land that would be at once history, poetry, realism!
Luck's cigar went out while he sat there and wove scene after scene of that story which should breathe of the real range land as it once had been. It could be done—that picture. Months it would take in the making, for it would swing through summer and fall and winter and spring. With the trail-herd going north that picture should open—the trail-herd toiling over big, unpeopled plains, with the riders slouched in their saddles, hat brims pulled low over eyes that ached with the glare of the sun and the sweep of wind, their throats parched in the dust cloud flung upward from the marching, cloven hoofs. Months it would take in the making,—but sitting there with the green tail-lights switching through cuts and around low hills and out over the level, Luck visioned it all, scene by scene. Visioned the herd huddled together in the night while the heavens were split with lightning, and the rain came down in white-lighted streamers of water. Visioned the cattle humped in the snow, tails to the biting wind, and the riders plodding with muffled heads bent to the drive of the blizzard, the fine snow packing full the wrinkles in their sourdough coats.
It could be done. He, Luck Lindsay, could do it; in his heart he knew that he could. In his heart he felt that all of these months—yes, and years—of picture-making had been but a preparation for this great picture of the range. All these one-reel pioneer pictures had been merely the feeble efforts of an apprentice learning to handle the tools of his craft, the mental gropings of his mind while waiting for this, his big idea. His work with the Indians was the mere testing and trying of certain photographic effects, certain camera limitations. He felt like an athlete taught and trained and tempered and just stepping out now for the big physical achievement of his life.
He grew chilled as the night advanced, but he did not know that he was cold. He was wondering, as a man always wonders in the face of an intellectual birth, why this picture had not come to him before; why he had gone on through these months and years of turning out reel upon reel of Western pictures, with never once a glimmering of this great epic of the range land; why he had clung to his Indians and his one-reel Indian pictures with now and then a three-reel feature to give him the elation of having achieved something; why he had left them feeling depressedly that his best work was in the past; why he had looked upon real range-men as a substitute only for those lean-bodied bucks and those fat, stupid-eyed squaws and dirty papooses.
With the spell of his vision deep upon his soul, Luck sat humiliated before his blindness. The picture he saw as he stared out across the moonlit plain was so clean-cut, so vivid, that he marvelled because he had never seen it until this night. Perhaps, if the dried little man had not talked of the old range—
Luck took a long breath and flung his cigar out over the platform rail. The dried little man? Why, just as he stood he was a type! He was the Old Man who owned this herd that should trail north and on through scene after scene of the picture! No make-up needed there to stamp the sense of reality upon the screen. Luck looked with the eye of his imagination and saw the dried little man climbing, with a stiffness that could not hide his accustomedness, into the saddle. He saw him ride out with his men, scattering his riders for the round-up; the old cowman making sharper the contrast of the younger men, fixing indelibly upon the consciousness of those who watched that this same dried little man had grown old in the saddle; fixing indelibly the fact that not in a day did the free ranging of cattle grow to be one of the nation's great industries.
Of a sudden Luck got up and stood swaying easily to the motion of the car while he took a long, last look at the moon-bathed plain where had been born his great, beautiful picture. He stretched his arms as does one who has slept heavily, and went inside and down to the beginning of the narrow aisle where were kept telegraph forms in their wooden-barred niches in the wall. He went into the smoking compartment and wrote, with a sureness that knew no crossed-out words, a night letter to the dried little man who had sat on the baggage truck and talked of the range. And this is what went speeding back presently to the dried little man who slept in a cabin near the track and dreamed, perhaps, of following the big herds:
Baggage man, Sioux, N.D.
Report at once to me at Dry Lake. Can offer you good position Acme Film Company, good salary working in big Western picture. Small part, some riding among real boys who know range life. Want you bad as type of cowman owning cattle in picture. Salary and expenses begin when you show up. For references see Indian Agent.
LUCK LINDSAY, Dry Lake, Mont.
If you count, you will see that he ran eight words over the limit of the flat rate on night letters, but he would have over-run the limit by eighty words just as quickly if he had wanted to say so much. That was Luck's way. Be it a telegram, instructions to his company, or a quarrel with some one who crossed him, Luck said what he wanted to say—and paid the price without blinking.
I don't know what the dried little man thought when the operator handed him that message the next morning; but I can tell you in a few words what he did: He arrived in Dry Lake just two trains behind Luck.
Luck did not sleep that night. He lay in his berth with the shade pushed up as high as it would go, and stared out at the tamed plain, and perfected the details of his Big Picture. Into the spell of the range he wove a story of human love and human hate and danger and trouble. So it must be, to carry his message to the world who would look and marvel at what he would show them in the drama of silence. He had not named his picture yet. The name would come in its own good time, just as the picture had come when the time for its making was ripe.
The next day he did not talk with the men whose elbows he touched in the passing intimacy of travel; though Luck was a companionable soul who was much given to talking and to seeing his listeners grow to an audience,—an appreciative audience that laughed much while they listened and frowned upon interruption. Instead, he sat silent in his seat, since on this train there was no observation car, and he stared out of the window without seeing much of what passed before his eyes, and made notes now and then, and covered all the margins of his time-table with figures that had to do with film. Once, I know, he blackened his two front teeth with pencil tappings while he visualized a stampede and the probable amount of footage it would require, and debated whether it should be "shot" with two cameras or three to get scenes from different angles. A stampede it should be,—a real stampede of fear-frenzied range cattle in the mad flight of terror; not a bunch of galloping tame cows urged to foreground by shouting and rock-throwing from beyond the side lines of the scene. It would be hard to get, and it could not be rehearsed before the camera was turned on it. Luck decided that it should be shot from three angles, at least, and if he could manage it he would have a "panoram" of the whole thing from a height.
The porter came apologetically with his big whisk broom and told Luck that they would all presently be gazing at Dry Lake, or words which carried that meaning. So Luck permitted himself to be whisked from a half dollar while his thoughts were "in the field" with his camera men and company, shooting a real stampede from various angles and trying to manage so that the dust should not obscure the scene. After a rain—of course! Just after a soaking rain, he thought, while he gathered up his time-table and a magazine that held his precious figures, and followed the porter out to the vestibule while the train slowed.
It was in this mood that Luck descended to the Dry Lake depot platform and looked about him. He had no high expectation of finding here what he sought. He was simply making sure, before he left the country behind him, that he had not "overlooked any bets." His mind was open to conviction even while it was prepared against disappointment; therefore his eyes were as clear of any prejudice as they were of any glamour. He saw things as they were.
On the side track, then, stood a string of cars loaded with wool, as his nose told him promptly. Farms there were none, but that was because the soil was yellow and pebbly and barren where it showed in great bald spots here and there; you would not expect to raise cabbages where a prairie dog had to forage far for a living. Behind the depot, the prairie humped a huge, broad shoulder of bluff wrinkled along the forward slope of it like the folds of a full fashioned skirt. There, too, the soil was bare,—clipped to the very grass roots by hundreds upon hundreds of hungry sheep whose wool, very likely, was crowding those cars upon the siding. Luck wasted neither glances nor thought upon the scene. Dry Lake was like many, many other outworn "cow towns" through which he had passed; changed without being bettered; all of the old life taken out of it in the process of its taming.
He threw his grip into the waiting, three-seated spring wagon that served as a hotel bus, climbed briskly after it, and glanced ahead to where he saw the age-blackened boards of the stockyards. Cattle—and then came the sheep. So runs the epitaph of the range, and it was written plainly across Dry Lake and its surroundings.
They went up a dusty trail and past the yawning wings of the stockyards where a bunch of sheep blatted now in the thirst of mid-afternoon. They stopped before the hotel where, in the old days, many a town-hungry puncher had set his horse upon its haunches that he might dismount in a style to match his eagerness. Luck climbed out and stood for a minute looking up and down the sandy street that slept in the sun and dreamed, it may be, of rich, unforgotten moments when the cow-punchers had come in off the range and stirred the sluggish town to a full, brief life with their rollicking. Across the street was Rusty Brown's place, with its narrow porch deserted of loafers and its windows blinking at the street with a blankness that belied the things they had looked upon in bygone times.
A less experienced man than Luck would have been convinced by now that here was no place to go seeking "real boys." But Luck had been a range man himself before he took to making motion pictures; he knew range towns as he knew men,—which was very well indeed. He looked, as he stood there, not disgusted but mildly speculative. Two horses were tied to the hitching rail before Rusty Brown's place. These horses bore saddles and bridles, and, if you know the earmarks, you can learn a good deal about a rider just by looking at his outfit. Neither saddle was new, but both gave evidence of a master's pride in his gear. They were well-preserved saddles. They had the conservative swell of fork that told Luck almost to a year how old they were. One, he judged, was of California make, or at least came from the extreme southwest of the cattle country. It had a good deal of silver on it, and the tapideros were almost Mexican in their elaborateness. The bridle on that horse matched the saddle, and the headstall was beautiful with silver kept white and clean. The rope coiled and tied beside the saddle fork was of rawhide. (Luck did not need to cross the street to be sure of these details; observation was a part of his profession.) The other saddle was the kind most favored on the northern range. Short, round skirts, open stirrups, narrow and rimmed with iron. Stamped with a two-inch border of wild rose design, it pleased Luck by its very simplicity. The rope was a good "grass" rope worn smooth and hard with much use.
Luck flipped a match stub out into the dust of the street, tilted his small Stetson at an angle over his eyes, went over to the horses, and looked at their brands which had been hidden from him. One was a Flying U, and the other bore a blurred monogram which he did not trouble to decipher. He turned on his heels and went into Rusty's place.
On his way to the bar he cast an appraising glance around the room and located his men. Here, too, a less experienced man might have blundered. One, known to his fellows as the Native Son, would scarcely be mistaken; his dress, too, evidently matched the silver-trimmed saddle outside. But Andy Green, in blue overalls turned up five inches at the bottom, and somewhat battered gray hat and gray chambray shirt, might have been almost any type of outdoor man. Certain it is that few strangers would have guessed that he was one of the best riders in that part of the State.
Luck bought a couple of good cigars, threw away his cigarette and lighted one, set the knuckles of his left hand upon his hip, and sauntered over to the pool table where the two men he wanted to meet were languidly playing out their third string. He watched them for a few minutes, smiled sympathetically when Andy Green made a scratch and swore over it, and backed out of the way of the Native Son, who sprawled himself over the table corner and did not seem to know or to care how far the end of his cue reached behind him.
Luck did not say a word to either; but Andy, noting the smile of sympathy, gave him a keenly attentive glance as he came up to that end of the table to empty a corner pocket. He fished out the four and the nine, juggled them absently in his hand, and turned and looked at Luck again, straight and close. Luck once more smiled his smile.
"No, I don't believe you know me, brother," he said, answering Andy's unspoken thought. "I'd have remembered you if I'd ever met you. You may have seen me in a picture somewhere."
"By gracious, are you the little fellow that drove a stage coach and six horses down off a grade—"
"That's my number, old-timer." Luck's smile widened to a grin. That had been a hair-lifting scene, and Andy Green was not the first stranger to walk up and ask him if he had driven that stage coach and six horses down off a mountain grade into a wide gulch to avoid being held up and the regulation box of gold stolen. It was probably the most spectacular thing Luck had ever done. "Got down that bank fine as silk," he volunteered companionably, "and then when I'd passed camera and was outa the scene, by thunder, I tangled up with a deep chuck-hole that was grown over with weeds, and like to have broken my fool neck. How's that for luck?" He took the cigar from his lips and smiled again with half-closed, measuring eyes. "Yes, sir, I just plumb spoiled one perfectly good Concord coach, and would have been playing leading corpse at a funeral, believe me, if I hadn't strapped myself to the seat for that drive off the grade. As it was, I hung head down and cussed till one of the boys cut me loose. Where did you see the picture?"
"Me? Up in the Falls. Say, I'm glad to meet you. Luck Lindsay's your name, ain't it? I remember you were called that in the picture. Mine's Green, Andy Green,—when folks don't call me something worse. And this is Miguel Rapponi, a whole lot whiter than he sounds. What, for Lordy sake, you wasting time on this little old hasbeen burg for? Take it from me, there ain't anything left here but dents in the road and a brimstone smell. We're all plumb halter-broke and so tame we—"
"You look all right to me, brother," Luck told him in that convincing tone he had.
"Well, same to you," Andy retorted with a frank heartiness he was not in the habit of bestowing upon strangers. "I feel as if I'd worked with you. Pink was with me when we saw that picture, and we both hollered 'Go to it!' right out loud, when you gathered up the ribbons and yanked off the brake and went off hell-popping and smiling back over your shoulder at us. It was your size and that smile of yours that made me remember you. You looked like a kid when you mounted to the boot; and you drove down off smiling, and you had one helanall of a trip, and you drove off that grade looking like you was trying to commit suicide and was smiling still when you pulled up at the post-office. By gracious, I—"
Luck gave a little chuckle deep in his throat. "I did all that smiling the day before I drove off the grade," he confessed, looking from one to the other. "I don't guess I'd have smiled quite so sweet, maybe, if I'd waited."
"Is that the way you make moving pictures, hind-side-foremost?" Andy, his back to the table, lifted himself over the rim to a comfortable seat and began to make himself a cigarette.
"Yes, or both ways from the middle, just as it happens." Luck was always ready to talk pictures. "In that stage-driver picture I made all the scenes before I made that drive,—for two reasons. Biggest one was that I wanted to be sure of having it all made, in case something went wrong on that feature drive; get me? Other was plain, human bullheadedness. Some of the four-flushers I was cursed with in the company,—because they were cheap and I had to balance up what I was paying the Injuns,—they kept eyeing that bluff where I said I'd come down with the coach, and betting I wouldn't, and talking off in corners about me just stalling. I just let 'em sweat. I made the start, and I made the finish. I drove right to where I looked down off the pinnacle—remember?—and saw the outlaw gang at the foot of the grade; I made all the 'dissolves,' and where I went back and captured 'em and brought 'em in to camp. But I didn't drive off the grade into the gulch till last thing, as luck would have it. Good thing, too. That old coach was sure some busted, and I wasn't doing any more smiles till I grew some hide."
Andy Green licked his cigarette and let his honest gray eyes wander from Luck to the darkly handsome face of the Native Son. "Sounds most as exciting as holding down a homestead, anyway. Don't you think so, Mig? And say! It's sure a pity we can't put off some things in real life till we get all set and ready to handle 'em!"
"That's right." Luck's face sobered as the idea caught his imagination. "That's dead right; how well I know it!"
Andy smoked and swung his feet and regarded Luck with interest. "It's against my religious principles to go poking my nose into the other fellow's business," he said after a minute, "but I'm wondering if there's anything in this God-forsaken country to bring a fellow like you here deliberate. I'm wondering if you meant to stop, or if you just leaned too far out the car window on your way through town."
For a half minute Luck looked up at him. He had expected a preparatory winning of the confidence of the men whom he sought. He had planned to lead up gradually to his mission, in case he found his men. But in that half minute he threw aside his plan as a weak, puerile wasting of time, and he answered Andy Green truthfully.
"No, I didn't fall off the train," he drawled. "I just grabbed my grip and beat it when they told me where I was. I'm out on a still hunt for some real boys. Some that can ride and shoot and that know cow-science so well they don't have to glad up in cowboy clothes and tie red bandanna bibs on to make folks think they're range broke."
"And yet you're wasting time in this tame little granger wart on the map!"
"No, not wasting time," smiled Luck serenely. "A little old trunk-juggler up the trail told me about the Flying U outfit that is still sending their wagons out when the grass gets green. I stopped off to give the high-sign to the boys, and say howdy, and swap yarns, and maybe haze some of 'em gently into camp. I wanted to see if the Flying U has got any real ones left."
Andy Green looked eloquently at the Native Son. "Now, what do you know about that, Mig?" he breathed softly behind a mouthful of smoke. "Wanting to rope him out a few from the Flying U bunch. Say! Have you got a real puncher amongst that outfit of long-haired hayseeds?"
The Native Son shook his head negligently and gave Luck a velvet-eyed glance of friendly pity.
"If there is, he's ranging deep in the breaks and never shows up at shipping time," he averred. "I've never seen one myself. They've got one that—what would you call Big Medicine, if you wanted to name him quick and easy, Andy?"
Andy frowned. "What I'd call him had best not be named in this God-fearing little hamlet," he responded gloomily. "I sure would never name him in the day I talked about cow-punchers that's ever dug sand outa their eyes on trail-herd."
The Native Son, still with the velvet-eyed look of pity, turned to Luck. "Andy's right," he sighed. "They've got one that takes spells of talking deliriously about when he punched cows in Coconino County; but I guess there's nothing to it."
"You say you was told that the Flying U outfit has got some real ones?" Andy eyed Luck curiously and with some of the Native Son's pity. "Just in a general way, what happens to folks that lie to you deliberate, when you meet 'em again? I'd like," he added, "to know about how sorry to feel for that baggage humper when you see him—after meeting the Flying U bunch."
The soul of Luck Lindsay was singing an impromptu doxology, but the face of him—so well was that face trained to do his bidding—became tinged with disgust and disappointment. With two "real boys" he was talking; he knew them by the unconscious range vernacular and the perfect candor with which they lied to him about themselves. But not so much as a gleam of the eye betrayed to them that he knew.
"So that's why he went off grinning so wide," he mused aloud. "I was sure caught then with my gun at home on the piano. I might have known better than to look for the real thing here, though you fellows have a few little marks that haven't worn off yet."
"Me? Why, I'm a farmer, and I'm married, and I'm in a deuce of a stew because my spuds is drying up on me and no way to get water on 'em without I carry it to 'em in a jug," disclaimed Andy Green hastily. "All I know about punchers I learned from seeing picture shows when I go to town. Now, Mig, here—".
"Oh, don't go and reveal all of my guilty past," protested the Native Son. "Those three days I spent at a wild-west carnival show have about worked outa my system. I'm still trying to wear out the clothes I won off some of the boys in a crap game," he explained to Luck apologetically, "but my earmarks won't outlast the clothes, believe me."
Luck thoughtfully flicked the ash collar off his cigar. "It won't be any use then to go out to the Flying U, I suppose," he observed tentatively, his eyes keen for their changing expressions. "I may as well take the next train out, I reckon, and drift on down into Arizona and New Mexico. I know about where some real punchers range—but I thought there was no harm in looking up the pedigree of this Flying U outfit. I'm sure some obliged to you boys for heading me off." Back of his eyes there was a laugh, but Andy Green and the Native Son were looking queerly at each other and did not see it there.
"Oh, well, now you're this close, you wouldn't be losing anything by going on out to the ranch, anyway," Andy recanted guardedly. "Come to think of it, there's one regular old-time ranger out there. They call him Slim. He's sure a devil on a horse—Slim is. I'd forgot about him when I spoke. He's a ranger, all right."
Luck knew very well that Andy Green had used the word "ranger" with the deliberate attempt to appear ignorant of the terminology of the range. A cow-puncher comes a long way from being a ranger, as every one knows. A ranger is a man of another profession entirely.
"It used to be a real cattle ranch, they tell me," added the Native Son artfully. "We live out near there, and if you wanted to ride out—"
Luck appeared undecided. He sucked at his cigar, and he blew out the smoke thoughtfully, and contemplated the toe of one neat, tan shoe. Just plain acting, it was; just a playing of his part in the little game they had started. Better than if they had boasted of their range knowledge and their prowess in the saddle did Luck know that the dried little man had told him the truth. He knew that at the Flying U he would find a remnant of the old order of things. He would find some real boys, if these two were a fair sample of the bunch. That they lied to him about themselves and their fellows was but a sign that they accepted him as one of their breed. He looked them over with gladdened eyes. He listened to the unconscious tang of the range that was in their talk. These two farmers? He could have laughed aloud at the idea.
"Well, I might get some atmosphere ideas," he said at last. "If you don't mind having me trail along—"
"Glad to have yuh!" came an instant duet.
"And if I can scare up a horse—"
"Oh, we'll look after that. You can come right on out with us. The boys'll be plumb tickled to death to meet you."
"Are they all farmers, same as you—these boys you mention?" Luck looked up into Andy's eyes when he asked the question.
Andy grinned. "Farmers, yes—same as us!" he said ambiguously and picked up his gloves as he turned to lead the way out.
AND THEY SIGH FOR THE DAYS THAT ARE GONE
Just when Luck's new acquaintances first forgot to carry on their whimsical pretense of knowing little of range matters, neither of them could have told afterwards. They left town with the tacit understanding between them that they were going to have some fun with the Happy Family and with this likable little man of the movies. They rode out between long lines of hated barbed wire stretched taut, and they lied systematically and consistently to Luck Lindsay about themselves and their fellows and their particular condition of servitude to fate.
But somewhere along the trail they forgot to carry on the deception; and only Luck could have told why they forgot, and when they forgot, and how it was that, ten miles or so out from town, the two were telling how the Flying U had fought to save itself from extinction; how the "bunch" had schemed and worked and had in a measure succeeded in turning aside the tide of immigration from the Flying U range. Big issues they talked of as they rode three abreast through the warm haze of early fall; and as they talked, Luck's mind visioned the tale vividly, and his eyes swept the fence-checkered upland with a sympathetic understanding.
"Right here," said Andy at last, when they came up to a gate set across the trail, "right here is where we drawed the line—and held it. Now, half of those shacks you see speckled around are empty. The rest hold nesters too poor to get outa the country. One or two, that had a little money, have stuck and gone into sheep. But from here on to Dry Creek there's nothing ranging but the Flying U brand. Not much—compared to what the old range used to be—but still it keeps things going. We throwed a dam across the coulee, up there next the hills, and there's some fair hay land we're putting water on. We have to winter-feed practically everything these days. The range just nicely keeps the stock from snow to snow. I've got pitchfork callouses on my hands I never will outgrow if I was to fall heir to a billion dollars and never use my hands again for fifty years except to feed myself. It takes work, believe me! And if there's anything on earth a puncher hates worse than work, it's some other kind of work.
"At the Flying U," he went on, looking at Luck pensively, "you'll see the effect of too many people moved into the range country. If there's anything more distressing than a baby left without a mother, it's a bunch of cow-punchers that's outlived their range. Ain't that right?"
"Sure it's right!" Luck's sympathy was absolutely sincere. "How well I know it! Barbed wire scraped me outa the saddle in Wyoming—barbed wire and sheep. All there is left for a fellow is to forget it and start a barber shop or a cigar stand, or else make pictures of the old days, the way I've been doing. You can get a little fun out of making pictures of what used to be your everyday life. You can step up on a horse and go whoopin' over the hills and kinda forget it ain't true." A wistfulness was in Luck's tone. "You pick out the big minutes from the old days—that had a whole lot of dust and sun and thirst and hunger in between, when all's said—you pick out the big minutes, and you bring them to life again, and sort of push them up close together and leave out most of the hardships. That's why so many of the old boys drift into pictures, I reckon. They try to forget themselves in the big minutes."
The two who rode with him were silent for a space. Then the Native Son spoke drily: "About the biggest minutes we get now come about meal times."
"Oh, we can get down in the breaks on round-up time and kinda forget the world's fenced clear 'way round it with barb-wire," Andy bettered the statement. "But round-up gets shorter every year."
"My next picture," Luck observed artfully and yet with a genuine desire to unbosom himself a little to these two who would understand, "my next picture is going to be different. It's going to have a crackajack story in it, of course, but it will have something more than a story. I'm going to start it off with a trail herd coming up from Texas. You know—like it was when we were kids. I'm going to show those cattle trailing along tired—and footsore, some of them—and a drag strung out behind for a mile. I'm going to show the punchers tired and hungry, and riding half asleep in the saddle. And with that for a starter, I'm going to show the real range; the real range—get that, boys? I'm going to cut clean away from regulation moving-picture West; clear out away from posses chasing outlaws all over a ten-acre location. I'm going to find me a real old cow-ranch; or if I can't find one, by thunder I'm going to make me one. I'm sick of piling into a machine and driving out into Griffith Park and hunting a location for shooting scrapes to take place in. I know a place where I could produce stuff that would make people talk about it for a month after. Maybe the buildings would need some doctoring, but there's sure some round-pole corrals that would make your mouth water."
"We used to have some," sighed Andy, "at the Flying U. But they kinda went to pieces, and Chip's been replacing them with plank. By gracious, you don't see many round-pole corrals any more, come to think of it. There's remains, scattered around over the country."
"The West—the real honest-to-goodness, twelve-months-in-the-year West," Luck went on riding his hobby, "has been mighty little used in films. Ever notice that? It's all gone to shooting, and stealing the full product of all the gold mines in the world, and killing off more bad men than the Lord ever sent a flood to punish. For film purposes, the West consists of one part beautiful maiden in distress, three parts bandit, and two parts hero. Mix these to taste with plenty of swift action and gun-smoke, and serve with bandits all dead or handcuffed and beautiful maiden and hero in lover's embrace on top. That's your film West, boys—and how well I know it!" Luck stopped to light a cigarette and to heave a sigh. "I've been building film West to order for four years now, and more. Only fun I've had, and the best work I've done, I did with a bunch of Indians I've just taken back to their reservation. For the rest, it's mostly bunk."
"Not that stage-driver picture," Andy dissented. "There wasn't any bunk about that, old-timer. That was some driving!"
"Some driving, yes. Sure, it was. It was darned good driving, but the same old story doctored up a little. Same old shipment of gold, same old bandits lying in wait, same old hero doing stunts. I ought to know," he added with a grin. "I wrote the story and did the stunts myself."
"Well, they were some stunts!" admired Andy with unusual sincerity.
Luck waved aside the compliment and went back to his hobby. "Yes, but the West isn't just a setting for stunts. I've got my story—here," and he tapped his forehead, which was broad and full and not too high. "I'm going to fire my camera man and get a better one, and I'm going to round me up a bunch of real boys that can get into the story and live it so well they won't need to do any acting,—boys that can stand a panoram on their work in the saddle. I've been getting by with a bunch of freaks that think they're real riders if they can lope a horse up-grade without falling off backwards. Most of my direction of those actorines has been knowing to a hair how much footage to give 'em without showing how raw their work is.
"They say the public demands a certain grade of rottenness in Western films, but I never believed that, down deep in my heart. I believe the public stands for that stuff because they don't see any better. This four-reeler I've got in mind will sure open the eyes of some producers—or I'll buy me a five-acre tract in Burbank and raise string beans for a living."
"I've got a patch of string beans," sighed the Native Son, "that I've been sitting up nights with. I don't know what ails the cussed things. Some kind of little green bug chews on them soon as my back is turned. They ought to be ripe by now—and they aren't through blossoming. Don't go into beans, amigo."
Luck looked at him and laughed. The Native Son, in black and white Angora chaps and cream-colored shirt and silver-filigreed hatband as ornamental touches to his attire, did not look like a man who was greatly worried over his crop of string beans while he rode with a negligent grace away from a glowing sunset. But in these days the West is full of incongruities.
"Oh, shut up about them beans!" implored Andy Green with a bored air. "It's water they want; and a touch of the hoe now and then. You leave 'em for a month at a time and then go back and wonder why you can't pick a hatful off 'em. Same as the rest of us have been ranching," he added ruefully, turning to Luck. "With the best intentions in the world, the Lord never meant us fellers for farmers, and that's a fact. We'll drop a hoe any time of day or night to get out riding after stock. Of course, we didn't take up our claims with the idea of settling down and riding a hoe handle the rest of our lives. If we had, I guess maybe we'd have done a little better at it."
"We did what we started out to do," the Native Son pointed out lazily: "We saved the range—what little there is to save—and we kept a lot of poor yaps from starving to death on that land, didn't we?" He smiled slowly. "If I hadn't gotten gay and planted those beans," he added, "I'd be feeling fine over it. A girl gave me a handful of pinto beans and asked me to plant them—I did hoe them," he defended tardily to Andy. "I hoed them the day before the Fourth. You know I did. Same time you hoed those lemon-colored spuds of yours."
Luck let them wrangle humorously over their agricultural deficiencies, and drifted off into open-eyed dreaming. Into his picture he began to fit these two speculatively, with a purely tentative adjustment of their personalities to his requirements. They were arguing about which of the two was the worst farmer; but Luck, riding alongside them, was seeing them slouched in their saddles and riding, bone-tired, with a shuffling trail-herd hurrying to the next watering place. He was seeing them galloping hard on the flanks of a storm-lashed stampede, with cunningly placed radium flares lighting the scene brilliantly now and then. He was seeing these two plodding, heads bent, into the teeth of a blizzard. He was seeing...
"I'll have to ride home to the missus now," Andy announced the second time before Luck heard him.
"Mig will take you on down to the home ranch, and after supper I'll ride over. So long."
He swung away from them upon a faintly beaten trail, looked back once to grin and wave his hand, and touched his horse with the spurs. Luck stared after him thoughtfully, but he did not put his thoughts into words. He had been trained in the hard school of pictures. He had learned to hold his tongue upon certain matters, such as his opinion of a man's personal attributes, or criticism of his appearance, or anything which might be repeated, maliciously or otherwise, to that man. He did not say to Miguel Rapponi, for instance, what he thought of Andy Green as a man or a rider. He did not mention him at all. He had learned in bitterness how idle gossip may eat away the efficiency of a whole company.
For that reason, and also because his mind was busy with his plans and the best means of carrying them out, the two rode almost in silence to the hill that shut the Flying U coulee away from the world. Luck gave a long sigh and muttered "Great!" when the whole coulee lay spread before them. Then his quick glances took in various details of the ranch and he sighed again, from a different emotion.
"It must have been a great place twenty years ago," he amended his first unqualified enthusiasm.
"Why twenty years ago?" The Native Son gave him a quick, half-resentful glance.
"Twenty years ago there wasn't so much barb-wire trimming," Luck explained from the viewpoint of the trained producer of Western pictures. "You couldn't place a camera anywhere now for a long shot across the coulee without bringing a fence into the scene. And the log stables are too old, and the new ones too new." He pulled up and stared long at the sweep of hills beyond, and the wide spread of the meadow and the big field farther up stream, and at the lazy meandering of Flying U creek with its willow fringe just turning yellow with the first touch of autumn. He looked at the buildings sprawled out below him.
"When that log house was headquarters for the ranch, and the round-pole corrals were the only fences on the place," he said; "when those old sheds held the saddle horses on cold nights, and the wagons were out from green grass to snowfall, and the boys laid around all winter, just reportin' regular at grub-pile and catching up on sleep they'd lost in the summer—Lor-dee, what a place it must have been!"
There was something in his tone that brought the Native Son for an instant face to face with the Flying U in the old days when all the range was free. So, with faces sober, because the old days were gone and would never any more return, they rode down the grade and up to the new stable that was a monument to the dead past, even though it might also be a sign-post pointing to present prosperity. And in this wise came Luck Lindsay to the Flying U and was made welcome.
THE LITTLE DOCTOR PROTESTS
The Little Doctor stepped out upon the porch with the faint tracing of a frown upon her smooth forehead, and with that slight tightening of the lips which to her family meant determination; disapproval sometimes, tense moments always.
She stood for a minute looking down toward the stables, and the wind that blew down the coulee seized upon the scant folds of her skirt, and flapped them impishly against the silken-clad ankles that were exceedingly good to look upon,—since fashion has now made it quite permissible to look upon ankles. Her lips did not relax with the waiting. Her frown grew a trifle more pronounced.
"Mr. Lindsay?" with a rising inflection.
Luck turned his head, saw her standing there, waved his hand to show that he heard, and started toward her with that brisk, purposeful swing to his walk that goes with an energetic disposition. The Little Doctor waited, and watched him, and did not relax a muscle from her determined attitude. Poor little Luck Lindsay hurried, so as not to keep her standing there in the wind, and, not knowing just what was before him, he smiled his smile as he came up to her.
I should have said, poor Little Doctor. She tried to keep her frown and the fixed idea that went with it, but she was foolish enough to look down into Luck's face and into his eyes with their sunny friendliness, and at the smile, where the friendliness was repeated and emphasized. Before she quite knew what she was doing, the Little Doctor smiled back. Still, she owned a fine quality of firmness.
"Come in here. I want to have it out with you, and be done," she said, and turned to open the door.
"Sounds bad, but I'm yours to command," Luck retorted cheerfully, and went up the steps still smiling. He liked the Little Doctor. She was his kind of woman. He felt that she would make a good pal, and he knew how few women are qualified for open comradeship. He cast a side glance at the kitchen window where the Kid stood with a large slice of bread and chokecherry jam balanced on his palm, and on his face a look of mental distress bordered with more jam. Luck nodded and waved his hand, and went in where the Little Doctor stood waiting for him with a certain ominous quiet in her manner. Luck shook back his heavy mane of hair that was graying prematurely, squared his shoulders, and then held out his hand meekly, palm upward. Boys learn that pose in school, you know.
"Oh, for pity's sake! If you go and make me laugh—and I am mad enough at you, Luck Lindsay, to—to blister that palm! If you weren't any bigger than Claude, I'd shake you and stand you in a corner on one foot."
"Listen. Shake me, anyway. I believe I'd kinda like it. And while I'm standing in the corner—on one foot—you can tell me all you're mad at me for."
The Little Doctor looked at him, bit her lip, and then found that her eyes were blurred so that his face seemed to waver and grow dim. And Luck Lindsay, because he saw the tears, laid a hand on her shoulder, and pushed her ever so gently into a chair.
"Tell me what's worrying you. If it's anything that I have done, I'll have one of the boys take me out and shoot me; it's what I would deserve. But I certainly can't think of anything—"
"Do you know that you have filled little Claude's mind up with stories about moving pictures till he's just crazy? He told me just now that he's going with you when you go back, and act in your company. And if I won't let him go, he said, he'd run away and 'hit a freight-train outa Dry Lake,' and get to California, anyway. And—he'd do it, too! He's perfectly awful when he gets an idea in his head. I know he's spoiled—all the boys pet him so—"
"Wait. Let's get this thing straight. Do you think for one minute, Mrs. Bennett, that I'd coax the Kid away? Say, that hurts—to have you believe that of me." There was no smile anywhere on Luck's face now. His eyes were as pained as his voice sounded.
Once more the Little Doctor weakened before him. She believed what he said, though five minutes before she had believed exactly the opposite. In her mind she had accused him of coaxing the Kid. She had fully intended accusing him of it to his face.
"I don't mean coax, perhaps. But—"
"Listen. If the Kid has got that notion, I'm more sorry than you can guess. Of course, I think pictures and I talk pictures; I admit I make them in my sleep. And the boys are interested. Those that are going back with me and those that are not are always sicking me at the subject. I admit that I sick easy," he added with a whimsical lightening of the eyes. "And the Kid and I are pals. I like him, Mrs. Bennett. He's got the stuff in him to make a real man—and I wouldn't call him spoiled, exactly. He's always been with grown-ups, and his mind has developed away ahead of the calendar; you see what I mean? He's nine, he tells me—"
"Only eight. He always tries to make himself older than he is," the Little Doctor corrected quickly.
"Well, he's some boy! And kids somehow take to me; I guess it's because I'm always chumming with them. He's been taking in everything that has been said; I could see that. But I surely never talked to him in the way you mean."
The Little Doctor looked at him and hesitated; but she was a frank young woman, and she could not help speaking her mind. "You mustn't take it personally at all," she said, "if I tell you that I am disappointed in the boys; in Andy and Rosemary especially, because they ought to appreciate the little home they have made, and stay with it. One sort of expects Pink and Big Medicine and Weary to do outlandish things. They haven't really grown up, and they never will. But I am disappointed, just the same, that they should want to go performing around and shooting blank cartridges and making clowns of themselves for moving pictures. Still, that's their own business, of course, if they want to be silly enough to do it. But now little Claude has taken the fever—and I wish, Mr. Lindsay, you could do something to—" She stopped, but not because what she said was hurting Luck's feelings. She did not know that she hurt him at all.
"It seems to be worse, in your estimation, than exposing the Kid to yellow fever," Luck observed quietly.
"Well, of course you can understand that I should not want a boy of mine to—to be all taken up with the idea of acting cowboy parts for a moving picture."
"Still, there are some fairly decent people in the business," Luck pointed out still more quietly, and got upon his feet. He had no smile now for the Little Doctor, though he was still gentle in his manner. "I see what you mean, Mrs. Bennett. I understand you perfectly. I shall do what I can to repair the damage to the Kid's character and ideals, and I want to thank you for coming to me in this matter. Otherwise I might have gone against your wishes without knowing that I was doing so." For two breaths or three he held her glance with something that looked out of his eyes; the Little Doctor did not know what it was. "You see, Mrs. Bennett, you don't quite understand what you are talking about," he added. "You have not had the opportunity to understand, of course. But I agree with you that the Kid's place is at home, and I shall certainly have a talk with him."
He moved to the door, laid a fine, well-kept hand upon the knob, and looked at her with a faint smile that had behind it a good deal that puzzled the Little Doctor. "Don't worry one minute," he said, dropping his punctilious politeness of the minute before, and becoming again the intensely human Luck Lindsay. "I 'heap sabe.' I've certainly corrupted the morals and ambitions of some of the boys—looking at it the way you do—but I promise to check the devastation right where it's at, and save your only son." He turned then and went out.
The Little Doctor paid him the tribute of hurrying to the window where she could watch him go down the path. In his walk, in the set of his head, there was still something that puzzled her. She hoped that he was not offended, and she thankfully remembered a good deal that she had left unsaid. She saw him turn and beckon, and then wait until the Kid had joined him from the kitchen. She saw the greeting he gave the Kid, and the adoration on the Kid's face when he looked up at Luck. The two went away together, and the Little Doctor watched them dubiously. What if the Kid should run away? He had done it once, and it was well within the probabilities that he might do it again, if this present obsession of his were not handled just right. The Kid, she had long ago discovered, could not be driven,—and there were times when he could not be coaxed.
Luck had been just three days at the Flying U. In those three days he had fitted himself into the place so well that even old Patsy, the cook, called him "Look" as easily as though he had been doing it for years; and Patsy, you must know, was fast acquiring the querulousness of an old age that does not sweeten with the passing years. Patsy had discovered that Luck liked his eggs fried on both sides, and thereafter he painstakingly turned three eggs bottomside up in the frying pan every morning; three and no more, though Cal Emmett remarked pointedly that he had always liked his eggs fried and flopped.
Three days, and the Old Man frequently left his big, soft-cushioned chair, and went slowly down to the bunk-house whence came much laughter, and listened to the stories that Luck told so well,—with one arm around the unashamed Kid, very likely, while he talked.
True, they had ranches of their own, those boys of the Flying U. But if you wanted to find them in a hurry, it were wise to ride first into Flying U coulee. That was headquarters, and that was home and always would be; even Andy Green, who was happily married, brought his wife and stayed there days at a time, with small excuse for the coming.
In three days, then, Luck had chosen his men from among the Happy Family, and had convinced them that their future welfare and happiness depended upon their going back with him to Los Angeles. In three days he had accomplished a good deal; but then, Luck was in the habit of crowding his days with achievement of one sort or another. As a matter of fact, the third day he had looked upon as one given solely to the pleasure of staying at the Flying U while the boys completed their arrangements for leaving with him. He had done all that he had planned to do, and he was in a very good humor with the world, or he had been until the Little Doctor had made his pride writhe under her innocent belittlement of his vocation. To have her boy work in pictures would be a calamity in her eyes; in Luck's eyes it would be an honor, provided he did the right kind of work in the right kind of pictures.
Luck's own personal opinion, however, did not weigh in this case. He had promised the Little Doctor that he would erase the impression he had made upon the Kid's too vivid imagination; so he led him to a retired place where they would be sheltered from the wind by a great stack of alfalfa hay, and he began in this wise:
"Old-timer, you're the luckiest boy I've seen in all my travels,—growing up here on the Flying U, with a mother like you've got, and a dad like Chip, and a ranch like this to get the swing of while you're growing; so that in another five years I expect you'll be running it yourself, and your folks will be larking around having the good time they've earned while they were raising you. I'll bet—"
"So Doctor Dell went and got around you, did she? I knew that was why she called you into the sett'n room. Forget it, Luck." The Kid spat manfully into the trodden hay, and pushed his small-size Stetson back so that his curls showed, and set his feet as far apart as was comfortable. "I knew she would," he added with weary wisdom in his tone. "Doctor Dell can get around anybody when she takes a notion."
Luck held his face from smiling. He looked surprised, and disappointed in the Kid, and sorry for the Kid's parents. At least, he made the Kid feel that he was thinking all these things, which proves how well one may master the art of facial expression. He did not say a word; therefore he put the Kid upon the defensive and set his young wits to devising arguments in his favor.
"A woman never knows when a fellow begins to grow up. Doctor Dell is the nicest girl in the world, but she needn't think I'm a baby yet. I can ride a buckin' horse, and I went on round-up last spring—and made a hand, too! I can swing a rope as good as any of the bunch; you seen me whirl a loop and jump through it, and there's more stunts than that I can do—it was dinner time, so I had to quit before I showed you." The Kid paused. He had not yet produced any effect whatever upon that surprised, pitying, disappointed look in Luck's face, and the Kid began to feel worried.
"Well, I was just bluffing when I said I'd run away—if she told you that." He stopped; the look was still there, only it now seemed to have contempt added to it. "I don't say I know more'n anybody on the ranch, and I don't say I'm boss of the ranch yet. I do what they tell me, even when I know there ain't any sense in it. I humor Doctor Dell a whole lot!" Could he never get that look off Luck's face? The Kid searched his soul anxiously. You couldn't go on arguing with that kind of a look; it made you feel like you'd been stealing sheep. "Oh, well, if you won't talk to a feller—" The Kid did not turn away quite soon enough to hide the quiver of his lips. Luck reached out and took a small, grimy hand and pulled the Kid nearer; near enough so that his arm could go around the Kid's quivering body. He held him close, and the Kid did not struggle. He dropped his face against Luck's shoulder, and began to fight back his tears.
"Listen, pardner," said Luck softly, one hand caressing the Kid's cheek. "You and I ought to sabe each other better than most folks, because we're pals. Now, I want you to go with me a heap more than you want to go; just tuck that away in your mind where you won't lose it. I want you, but I wouldn't have you without Doctor Dell's free and willing consent. I need you for my pal; and I could teach you a lot that would be useful to you. But they need you a whole lot worse than I do. They've been taking care of you and loving you and planning for you all these eight years, just watching you grow, and being proud of you because you're what they want you to be: husky and healthy and good all the way through. You couldn't go off and leave them now; it wouldn't be right. And, pard, you need them even worse than they need you. I know,—because I had to grow up without any one to love me and look after me; and believe me, old pal, it isn't any cinch. It's just pure luck that I didn't get killed off or go bad. Now, I'd be good to you, if I had you with me, and so would the boys; but we couldn't take the place of Doctor Dell and Daddy Chip.
"I've talked pictures too much to you. I didn't know how it was hitting you, or how much you wanted to go. But listen. If I had the chance you've got here,—if I had a ranch like this, and cattle, and horses, and a father and mother and uncle like you've got,—I never would look a camera in the eye again as long as I live. That's straight, old-timer. Why, I'm working my head off trying to get enough ahead so that I can have a ranch of my own! So I can slap a saddle on a horse that carries my brand, and ride out after my cattle, and haze them into my corral; so I can have a home that is mine. I never did have one, pardner,—not since I was a heap smaller than you are now,—and a home of his own is what every man wants most, down deep in his heart.
"It looks fine to be traveling around, and making moving pictures. It is fine if you are cut out for that kind of work, and have got to be working for somebody else to get your start. But remember, pard, I am working and scheming and planning to get just what you've got already. You, a kid eight years old, stand right where I'd give all I've got to stand. You'll own your own ranch and your own home. You've got folks that love you—not because you hand out the pay envelope on a certain day of the week, but because you belong to them, and they belong to you. Kid, I'm thirty-two years old—and I've never known what that felt like. I have never known what it was like to have some one plan for me and with me, unless they were paid for it."
The Kid stood very still. "You could live here," he lifted his head to say gravely after a little silence that was full of thought. "This can be your home. You can be one of the Happy Family. We'd like to have you."
There was something queer in Luck's voice when he murmured a reply. There was something in his face which no one but the Kid had ever seen. The Kid's arm crept around Luck's neck, and tightened there and stayed. Luck's hand went up to the curls and hovered there caressingly. And they talked, in tones lowered to the cadence of deep-hidden hopes and longings revealed in sacred confidence.
The Little Doctor, shamelessly eavesdropping because she was a mother fighting for her fledgling, tiptoed away from the corner of the stack, and went back to the house, wiping her eyes frequently with the corner of her handkerchief that was not embroidered. She went into her room and stayed there a long while, and before she came out she had recourse to rosewater and talcum and other first aids to swollen eyelids.
Whatever she may have thought, whatever she may have overheard beyond what has been recorded, her manner toward Luck was so unobtrusively tender that Chip looked at her once or twice with a puzzled, husbandly frown. Also, the Kid felt something special in his Doctor Dell's good-night kiss; something he did not understand at all, since he had not yet told her that he was going to be a good boy and stay at home and take care of her and the ranch.
A BUNCH OF ONE-REELERS FROM BENTLY BROWN
The Manager of the Acme Film Company cleared his throat with a rasping noise that sounded very loud, coming as it did after fifteen minutes of complete silence. Luck, smoking a cigarette absent-mindedly by the window while he stared out across two vacant lots to a tawdry apartment house,—and saw a sage-covered plain instead of what was before his eyes,—started from his daydream and glanced at Martinson inquiringly. "Well, what do you think of it?" he asked.
Martinson cleared his throat again, and shuffled the typed sheets in his hands. "Seems to lack action, don't it?" he hazarded reluctantly. "Of course, this is a rough draft; I realize that. I suppose you'll strengthen up the plot, later on. Chance for some good cattle-stealing complications, I should think. But I'd boil it down to two reels, Luck, if I were you. There's a lot of atmosphere you couldn't get, anyway—"
"I can get every foot of that atmosphere," Luck put in crisply.
"Oh, I suppose—but you don't want that much. Too expensive, where it doesn't carry the action along. I'd put in some dance-hall scenes; you haven't enough interiors. Make your lead a victim of card sharps, why don't you, and have his sister come there after him? You could get some great dramatic action—have her meet the heavy there—"
"After the tried-and-tested recipe. Sure, Mart! We can take the middle out of that Her-Brother's-Honor film and use that; and if you're afraid the public may recognize it, we'll run it backwards. Or we can mix it with some Western-Girl's-Romance film, or take—"
"Now, Luck, wait a minute. Wait-a-minute!" Martinson's hand went up in the approved gesture of stopping another's speech. "You can give it an original twist. You know you can; you always have."
Luck swore, accustomed though he was to the makeshifts of the business. The street cars had stopped running the night before, while he was still hammering that scenario out on the typewriter; the street cars had stopped running, and the steam heat had been turned off in the hotel where he lived, and he had finished with an old Mexican serape draped about his person for warmth. But his enthusiasm had not cooled, though his room grew chill. He had gone to bed when the typing was done, and had dreamed scene after scene vividly while he slept. Still glowing with the pride of creation, he had read the script while his breakfast coffee had cooled, and he had been the first man in the office, so eager was he to share his secret and see Martinson's eyes gleam with impatience to have the story filmed.
Knowing this, you will know also why he swore. Martinson thrust out his under lip at the oath, and tossed the script neatly into the clear space on the desk. "Oh, if that's the way you feel about it!" His tone was trenchant. "Sorry I offered any suggestions. There are some good bits, if they're worked up right, and I naturally supposed you wanted my opinion."
"I did. I never saw you square up to anything but the same old dime-novel West before. I wanted to see how it would hit you."
"Well, it don't." Martinson waited a minute while that sunk in. When he spoke again, his manner was that of a man who has dismissed a disagreeable subject, and has taken up important business.
"We've made quite a haul since you left. A bunch of one-reelers from Bently Brown. You'll eat 'em up, Luck,—all those stories of his featuring the adventures of the XY cowboys. You've read 'em; everybody has, according to him. They'll be cheap to put on, because the same sets and the same locations will do for the lot. Same cast, too. He blew in here temporarily hard up and wanting to unload, and we got the whole series for next to nothing." He opened a desk drawer, and took out a bundle of folded scripts tied with a dingy blue tape. Martinson was a matter-of-fact man; he really did not understand just how much Luck's new story meant to its author. If he had, he surely would not have been quite so brisk and so frankly elated over that untidy lot of Bently Brown scenarios.
"I had all the synopses numbered and put on top here," he went on, "so you can run them over and see what they're like. A small company will do, Luck. That's one point that struck me. Two or three die, on an average, in the first four hundred feet of every story; so you can double a lot. I've had Clements go over them and start the carpenters on the street set where most of the exterior action takes place; we're behind on releases, you know, and these ought to be rushed. You'd better go over and see how he's making out; you may want to make some changes."
Luck hesitated so long that Martinson was on the edge of withdrawing the proffered scripts. But he took them finally, and ran his eye disparagingly over the titles. "Bently Brown!" he said, as though he were naming something disagreeable. "I'm to film Bently Brown's blood-and-battle stuff, am I?" He grinned, with the corners of his mouth tipped downward so that you never would have suspected it of ever producing Luck's famous smile. "I might turn them into comedy," he suggested. "I expect I could get a punch by burlesquing—"
"Punch!" Martinson pushed his chair back impetuously. "Punch? Why, my godfrey, man, that stuff's all punch!"
Luck curved a palm over his too-expressive mouth while he skimmed the central idea from two or three synopses. Martinson watched him uneasily. Martinson claimed to keep one finger pressed firmly upon the public pulse—wherever that may be found—and to be ever alert for its warning flutterings. Martinson claimed to know a great deal about what the public liked in the way of moving pictures. He believed in Luck's knowledge of the West, but he did not believe that the public would stand for the real West at all; the public, he maintained, wanted its West served hot and strong and reeking with the smoke of black powder. So—
"Well, the market demands that sort of thing," he declared, arguing against that curved palm and the telltale wrinkles around Luck's eyes. "It's all tommyrot, of course. I don't say it's good; I say it's the stuff that goes. We're here to make what the public will pay to look at." Martinson, besides keeping his finger on the public pulse and attending to the marketing of the Acme wares and watching that expenses did not run too high, found a little time in which to be human. "I know, Luck," the human side of him observed sympathetically; "it's just made-to-order melodrama, but business is simply rotten, old man. We've just got to release films the market calls for. There's no art-for-art's-sake in the movie business, and you know it. Now, personally, I like that scenario of yours—"
"Forget it!" said Luck crisply, warning him off the subject. To make the warning keener-edged, he lifted the typed sheets over which he had worked so late the night before, glanced at the top one, gave a snort, and tore them twice down the length of them with vicious twists of his fingers. He did not mean to be spectacular; he simply felt that way at that particular moment, and he indulged the impulse to destroy something. He dropped the fragments into Martinson's waste basket, picked up the bundle of scripts and his hat, and went out with his mouth pulled down at the corners and with his neck pretty stiff.
He went swinging across the studio yard and on past the great stage where the carpenters halted their work while they greeted him, and looked after him and spoke of him when he had passed. Early idlers—extras with high hopes and empty pockets—sent him wistful glances which he did not see at all; though he did see Andy Green and his wife (who had been Rosemary Allen). These two stood hesitating just within the half-open, high board gate fifty yards away. Luck waved his hand and swerved toward them.
"Howdy! Where's the rest of the bunch?" he called out as they hurried up to him. Whereupon the group of extras were sharp bitten by the envy of these two strangers, spoken to so familiarly by Luck Lindsay.
"Do you know, I feel sure the boys are being held in the lost-child place at the police station!" Rosemary Green, twinkled her brown eyes at him from between strands of crinkly brown hair. "I had tags all fixed, with name, age, owner's address and all that, and I was going to hang them around the boys' necks with pale blue ribbon—pale blue would be so becoming! But do you know, I couldn't find them! I feel worried. I should hate to waste thirty-nine cents worth of pale blue ribbon. I can't wear it myself; it makes me look positively swarthy." Rosemary Green had a most captivating way of saying swarthy.
The corners of Luck's mouth came up instantly. "We'll have to send out scouting parties. I need that bunch of desperadoes. Let's look over by the corrals. I've got to go over and see what kind of a street set they're knocking together, anyway.
"Hello! I have sure-enough crying need for all you strays," he exclaimed five minutes later, when they came upon the Flying TJ boys standing disconsolately at the head of the street "set" upon which carpenters were hammering and sawing and painters were daubing. Luck's eyes chilled as he took in the stereotyped "Western" crudeness of the set.
"Well, we sure need you—and need you bad," Pink retorted. "We want to know what town was peeled so they could set the rind up like that and call it a street? Between you and me, Luck, it don't look good to me, back or front. You walk into what claims to be a saloon, and come out on a view of the hills. They tell me the bar of that imitation saloon is away over there on that platform, and they say the bottles are all full of tea. That right?"
Luck nodded gloomily. "Soon as they get the set up, it's going to be your privilege to come boiling out of that saloon, shooting two guns, Pink," he prophesied. "You'll have the fun of killing half a dozen boys that come down from this end shooting as they ride." He put his cigarette between his lips and began to untie the dingy blue tape that bound the scenarios together.
"Ever read any of Bently Brown's stories? They wished a bunch of them on to me while I was gone and couldn't defend myself," he said, as one who breaks bad news. "I'm certainly sorry about this, boys. It's a long way from what I brought you out here to do; and if you want to, you can call the deal off and go home. Rip-snorting, rotten melodrama—cheap as ice in Alaska. Stuff I hate—because it's the stuff that cheapens the West in pictures."
"What about our range picture?" Andy Green began anxiously.
Luck choked back an oath because of Andy's wife. "Ah—they're married to the idea that this rot is what sells best. They don't know what a real Western picture is: they never saw one. And they're afraid to take a chance. I was in hopes—but Mart's the big chief, you know. He'd gone and loaded up with this trash, and so he couldn't see my story at all. I get his viewpoint, all right; he's keen to pry off some real money, and he's afraid to experiment with new tools. But it does seem pretty raw to put you boys working on this cheap studio stuff after getting you out here to do something worth while."
"We're to stay right here, then?" Weary spoke the question that was in the minds of all of them.
"That's the present outlook," Luck confessed with bitterness. "I don't need real country for this junk. I was all primed to show him where I'd have to take my company to New Mexico, but I didn't say anything about it when he sprung this Bently Brown business. This will all be made right here at the studio and out in Griffith Park."
Down deep in Luck's heart there was a hurt he would not reveal to any one. It was built partly of disappointment and an honest dislike for doing unworthy work; it had in it also some personal chagrin at being compelled to put the Happy Family at work in the very class of pictures he had often ridiculed in his talk with them, after bringing them all the way from Montana so that he might produce his big range picture. He stood looking somberly at the set which Clements had planned to save time—and therefore dollars—for the Acme Company. He thought of his range story, as it had first grown out of the night away up there in the plains country; he thought of how he had hurried so that he might the sooner make the vision a reality; how he had talked of it confidently to these men who had listened with growing enthusiasm and interest, until his vision had become their vision, his hopes their hopes.
They had left the Flying U and come with him to help make that big picture of the range. By their eager talk they had helped him to strengthen certain scenes; they had even suggested new, original material as they told of this adventure and that accident, and argued—as was their habit—ever scenes and situations. That was why Andy had spoken of it as their picture. That was why they were here; that was what had brought them early to the studio. And in his hand he held a half dozen or more of those cheap, lurid stories he had always despised; they must let the public see their faces in these impossible, illogical situations, or they must go back and call Luck Lindsay names to salve their disappointment.
The dried little man—whose name was Dave Wiswell—came walking curiously up the fresh-made "street," his sharp eyes taking in the falsity of the whole row of shack-houses that had no backs; bald behind as board fences, save where two-by-fours braced them from falling. He saw the group standing before a wall that purported to be the front of a bank (which would be robbed with much bloodshed in the second scenario) and he hurried a little. Luck scowled at him preoccupiedly, nodded a good morning, and turned abruptly to the others.