Buck Parvin and the Movies/Author! Author!
DAVID SELIGMAN, vice-president of the Titan Company and a prince in the moving-picture realm, had reached his position of eminence solely by reason of his ability to keep abreast of the times. No other branch of industry has developed with such astounding rapidity, but the changes, as they came, found David in step with the drum-beat of progress.
"Do something new, and do it first!" was his motto; and he clung to it, though he drove directors to the point of emotional insanity. From his office on Fifth Avenue, in New York, he kept an eagle eye on the field, and if he could not always be the standard bearer he was seldom far behind the flag as it moved forward.
A film pioneer, he had watched the evolution of the moving picture from the days of its very raw infancy, when anything that could be thrown on a screen was good enough to get the money, and the cost of photography was the largest item of expense. Then the novelty wore off and audiences began to demand something more than a plotless jumble of pictures. David took thought and issued a proclamation to his managers and directors.
"We've got to quit making up these picture plays as we go along," said he. "Up to now we have been getting away with it, because people didn't believe it possible to make photographs that move; but they come to see 'em and are satisfied. The game is getting too big for the bunk stuff; the public won't stand for a film without a story in it. Art—that's what they want; and we'll give it to 'em. Let's have real plays and real actors from now on."
Company payrolls doubled and trebled, actors were enticed from the stage, and scenario departments came into existence. Art entered into the making of moving-picture films, and this sufficed for many years; but original ideas became scarce, competition grew keen and the flag moved again.
"Names!" said David Seligman. "That's what they want now; good stories by regular writers and names to carry 'em. Some of the other fellows have been dramatizing novels and getting away with it—old moth-eaten novels tat are out of date. A dead writer is no business. Me for one that's alive!"
A few days later Seligman touched an electric button and summoned his secretary, Marco Lazarus.
"You don't read much fiction—novels—do you, Marco?" he began.
"Where would I get any time to read?" asked Marco.
"You should take time," said David reprovingly. "You got your nights to yourself."
"A good musical comedy show is better than any book, " said Marco with the air of one dismissing a subject.
"So you think," said David. "Now this book here"—he touched a flaring cloth-bound volume as he spoke—"which was written by a party named Peckinpaw—Marcellus M. Peckinpaw—maybe you never even heard the name of it—eh?"
Marco shook his head.
"The name of it is 'The Lure of the West,'" said Seligman. "I am surprised at you, Marco. It's a best seller and they advertise it everywhere, like a circus. Everybody is talking about it. I read it the other night and I don't wonder at it at all. It's got more action than a dog fight. In every chapter there is shooting.... Do you know any authors, Marco?"
"I seen one once at a theater," said Marco, "but nobody could have told it to look at him."
"Did you think maybe he would carry a pen behind his ear?" asked Seligman. "Now this Marcellus M. Peckinpaw is a little man with glasses and a cough. If you ask me I would say he is absolutely the extreme end of the limit."
"How do you know he is?"
"Didn't I have him to dinner last night at the Astor? And didn't I sign him up for the moving-picture rights to his novel? Five thousand dollars it cost me before he would do business at all. And what do you think this party insists we shall do?"
"How should I know?" Authors and their ways were beyond Marco.
"I had to write it in the contract that he must be consulted about making the picture; and that, Marco, was a compromise. What this Marcellus M. Peckinpaw wanted was that we should let him take full charge and do the directing himself—and he never saw the inside of a studio in his life. Think of that for nerve! He says that we are liable to spoil the atmosphere of the book!"
"Atmosphere! What's that?"
"I don't know exactly, but in this case I think it is mostly gunpowder and cowboys and Indians. All the Indians I ever saw had plenty of atmosphere. You couldn't stay in the same room with one."
"Huh!" said Marco scornfully. "For five thousand dollars he should worry about a little thing like atmosphere!"
"Just what I told him—absolutely; but he would not sign any other way. He was going away mad and I had to meet his terms. I am paying his expenses to Los Angeles. I will advise Montague about the atmosphere, and Montague will get along with him somehow."
"Montague will be sore," prophesied Marco.
"Montague is always sore at this office," said David. "He kicks more than all the other directors we got ; but he also delivers the goods. I sent him a night letter that he should get the book and read it and have a five-reel scenario ready when this Peckinpaw gets out there.... Would you like to read the book, Marco?"
"I'd rather see the picture," was the cautious reply.
"So would I," said Seligman. "Montague will make improvements on the story. He always does. "What I can't understand is how a man living in New Jersey knows so much about cowboys and Indians. The book is full of *em, Marco!"
"There ain't no Indians in New Jersey," said the secretary skeptically.
"Not outside of Princeton," said Seligman; "but this Peckinpaw, now, he knows regular Indians—feathers and yellow paint. He told me so. And he writes about a cowboy so natural that you almost see him. With everybody reading the book and talking about it, a five-reeler should get the money."
"Montague will be sore," repeated Marco. "You know he thinks he shall be the whole pig or none."
"Take a letter," said David. "You see, Marco, in order to land this Marcellus M. Peckinpaw I had to let him think that Montague would be a kind of office boy to him. I will explain to Montague that he must humor the fellow as much as possible. They will fix it somehow."
Ben-Leslie and Buck Parvin, property man and moving-picture cowpuncher, were loafing in the shade outside the Titan Company's studio building, smoking brown-paper cigarettes and exchanging reminiscences.
"And so I told him," said Buck, "pretty much what I thought of him. 'You are the most ignorant guy I ever saw in my life,' I says. 'You don't know nothing and always will; and you ought to be careful or the hawgs will eat you up. You come round here telling me my business and some day I will get annoyed and hit you. I don't like your shape, your feet don't track, and there's something wrong with that wart on top of your shoulders.' 'You mean my head?' he says, kind of sore. *Head!' I says. 'Don't kid yourself, Percival! That ain't no head. Your neck just naturally growed out and haired over.' And that was how it started. He picked up a whippletree——"
Buck's narrative suffered an interruption in the shape of a small, narrow-shouldered gentleman, at sight of whom Buck's eyes and mouth opened and remained fixed in a combination stare and gape.
The stranger wore a slate-colored corduroy riding suit, reinforced with leather; pigskin puttees; a broad gray sombrero, very new and stiff as to crown and brim; a soft white shirt; a flowing tie, and immense round spectacles with heavy rims of dark tortoise-shell. His features were mild enough, but the spectacles imparted to his countenance somewhat the look of a startled ground owl.
"I—I beg your pardon," said the stranger, enunciating very clearly and peering at Buck's chaps and green silk shirt; "I beg your pardon, but perhaps you can inform me where I shall find a Mister—Mister——" He paused and, fumbling in an inner pocket, drew out an envelope, glanced at it and resumed: "Oh, yes—a Mr. James Montague. I have a letter of introduction to him."
"Straight ahead, first turning to the left and down the hall," said Leslie.
"Thanks very much," said the stranger, and entered the building. Ben and Buck exchanged amused glances.
"Name it and you can have it," said Ben.
"Thanks very much, old chap," mimicked Buck, "but I ain't collected any curios since I was a kid. Did you pipe that make-up? And I bet I saw something that you missed: The little sucker had a handkerchief up his sleeve an' a watch strapped on his wrist. He did, on the level!"
"And I saw something that you missed," said Leslie. "I got a slant at that envelope and it was from the New York office—old man Seligman's private stationery."
"No! Maybe the high boss is tryin' to saw off a comedian on Jim. Or maybe this is a shipment to the animal farm, Ben. Him and that long-nosed anteater ought to be great little pals—eh?"
Ben thumped his knee, with a sudden exclamation.
"I've got him pegged, Buck! You know that five-reel Western picture that Jim has been working on for a week—the one he's making over from a novel? Remember how he was cussing round here about Seligman shipping the author out to help us put it on? Well, this is the fellow. Jim has been expecting him."
"That little billy-owl!" said Buck. "Get out!"
"I'll bet you the drinks. The round eye-glasses tipped his mitt. Authors wear 'em because they think it gives 'em that literary look."
"Him—write a Western novel?" scoffed Buck. "Why, where would he get it? It can't be done!"
In this Buck was mistaken. It had been done. Marcellus M. Peckinpaw—for it was indeed that renowned genius—had written a Western novel and a best seller. Western critics—crude fellows of the baser sort, no doubt—had hinted that Mr. Peckinpaw's knowledge of the noble savage had been gleaned from the works of Mr. Fenimore Cooper. They had also pointed out that his cowpunchers conversed in a dialect unknown on land or sea; but these innuendoes were unfair as well as unkind.
Marcellus M. Peckinpaw knew his West and freely admitted it whenever possible. He had made one trip from ocean to ocean; men have written volumes on less. True, it was warm and dusty in the Pullman after the train left Kansas City and the curtains had been down during the daylight part of the journey; but, in spite of this slight drawback, Mr. Peckinpaw had managed to see a great deal of the sandy Southwest.
At Albuquerque, for instance, he had spent a fascinating half hour in careful inspection of the wooden-faced, pottery-peddling aborigines. The Indians had also inspected Mr. Peckinpaw; so the benefits, if any, had been mutual.
He had lingered one whole week in a tourist hotel on the Pacific Coast, dressing for dinner each evening and absorbing local color and atmosphere. Then, returning home by another route, he had seen the broad-hatted and bow-legged sons of Wyoming; in fact, had even spoken with one on the depot platform at Green River.
Nor was this all—far from it! "The Lure of the West" had been written under direct inspiration.
Mr. Peckinpaw, commissioned to do a magazine article dealing with the various places of amusement in the city of New York, had visited a Wild West Show in Madison Square Garden. The press agent of the establishment, scenting high-class publicity, had taken Mr. Peckinpaw below stairs to view the West at close range.
He had seen real Indians, feathered and smeared with ochre, reclining on bales of hay. He had been introduced to Chief Singing Mule, and had grasped the hand that had grasped the hand of the late lamented Sitting Bull. He had the press agent's word for it. He had seen a mangy buffalo; had heard a cowpuncher from Springfield, Massachusetts, warble the opening stanza of "The Cowboy's Lament"; had made obeisance before the sole surviving scout of the plains—and the very next week the first chapter of "The Lure of the West" had been written. It was a great novel. If there be doubters let them ask for a copy of Mr. Peckinpaw's royalty statement and thereafter hold their peace.
Mr. James Montague, himself a genius whose fame as a producing director girdled the globe, took a pipe out of his mouth to greet the distinguished visitor. It cannot be said that Montague was in a pleasant frame of mind. For four days he had wrestled mightily with "The Lure of the West," endeavoring to stretch it into five reels; and the things he had said about Mr. Seligman and Mr. Peckinpaw came hot from his heart.
After the usual polite nothings, during which the men took stock of each other, Mr. Peckinpaw came abruptly to business.
"I presume you are ready to begin the—er—photography, Mr. Montague," said he. "My time is limited. I should like to finish by Saturday night, if possible."
"By Saturday night!" ejaculated the amazed director. "Holy Moses, man! Saturday night! How long do you think it takes to put on a five-reel feature?"
"I haven't the slightest idea, I'm sure," said Mr. Peckinpaw, stifling a yawn. "It's merely a matter of turning a crank, isn't it!"
Montague threw himself back in his chair and howled until the windows rattled.
"Merely a matter of turning a crank!" he said after recovering his breath. "That's good! That's immense! Say, look at this pile of typewritten pages, will you? That's only a piece of the scenario—just a beginning. Then, when everything else is fixed, I'll have to move the entire company out into the hills and pitch a camp. We may have to stay there a couple of weeks, getting the location stuff. After that we'll come back here and make the studio scenes. By Saturday night! If we have a lot of luck we may get through with it in a month! It'll take a week to get the extra people together."
"It seems a long time," said Mr. Peckinpaw; "but why bother with all these things?" He pointed to the typewritten pages. "Why can't you start at the beginning of the book and work through, chapter by chapter? That would seem to be the simplest way."
Montague 's pipe sagged in his mouth and he stared hard at his visitor.
"Say, are you trying to kid me?" he demanded.
"Most certainly not. I was merely offering a suggestion."
"Oh, that was a suggestion, was it? I thought it was a joke. Well, Mr. Peckinpaw, I haven't the time just now to explain why all this preliminary work is necessary to the making of a moving picture. You can take it from me that laying out the ground plan of a five-reel feature is quite some job. It's not a thing you can go at hit or miss. I'll call on you at your hotel this evening and we'll go over the scenario together as far as I've got. Meantime, you might look round the plant and amuse yourself."
"But," said Mr. Peckinpaw, stiffening slightly, "Mr. Seligman told me I was to superintend this work. I have a copy of my contract at the hotel. Mr. Seligman said——"
"Dave is a great kidder," said Montague. "What he meant was that you should assist with your ideas as to the way the scenes should be played, and all that sort of thing. I'll be glad to have your suggestions when we get to the acting; but this mechanical work must be done first. You can't help me with it because you're not a moving-picture director. You're an author."
Something in the way Montague pronounced the last word brought a flush to Mr. Peckinpaw's sallow cheeks.
"My contract " he began.
"Yes, yes," said Montague soothingly; "I'll look at your contract this evening. If there is anything in it about your succeeding me as director of this company——"
"I didn't say that!" snapped Mr. Peckinpaw, nettled. "Mr. Seligman told me——"
"I wouldn't believe Dave Seligman under oath. Greatest kidder in the world! But we can thresh that out this evening. Meantime, this junk"—Montague's hand fell lightly on a copy of "The Lure of the West" as he spoke; it may have been an accident—"must be licked into shape. If it was up to me I'd only make a one-reel picture out of the book. Where did you say you were stopping?"
Mr. Peckinpaw gave the name of his hotel and rose to go.
"One thing I shall certainly insist on," said he firmly, "I wish to select the actors. I am a believer in type, Mr. Montague."
"You've got nothing on me," was the rejoinder. "Picking types is one of the best things I do. I'm noted for it."
"Now, for instance," said Mr. Peckinpaw, to whom no remarks were quite as important as his own, "there is the character of Shining Cloud, my young Indian chief. I shall require the perfect Indian type—high cheek bones, prominent nose, and—er—all that sort of thing. I positively will not permit a white man to play Shining Cloud. I must have an Indian."
"Calm yourself!" said Montague. "I've got the very man you want. His name is Peter Lone Wolf; he's a full-blooded Oglala Sioux, and he's about the typiest type of Indian that you most ever saw. He can act too. See you later. Good-day!"
At eleven o'clock that night Mr. Montague stepped out of the elevator into the lobby of the hotel that had the honor of housing Mr. Marcellus M. Peckinpaw. He walked straight to the telegraph desk, scribbled a message on a night-letter blank, flung it at the operator and marched out, his heels clattering on the tiled floor.
Ten minutes later Mr. Peckinpaw appeared and hurried to the telegraph desk. After considerable thought he also composed a message. The next morning Mr. David Seligman chuckled as he handed two telegrams to Marco Lazarus, who read as follows:
What have I ever done to you that I should have a nut like Peckinpaw wished on me? If you want to turn this studio over to pin-headed authors you can count me out. Wire him to mind his own business.
Situation here extremely difficult. M. seems disposed to question terms of contract—even suggests adding characters and incidents not in book and altering plot. Will never consent to this! Wish to avoid open clash if possible. What do you advise?
M. M. Peckinpaw.
"I knew you would start something!" said Marco. "How are you going to straighten it out?"
David Seligman grinned and winked at his secretary.
"I am a diplomat," said he. "I wired 'em both to hurry up with the picture. Only loafers have time for fighting."
Mr. Seligman's telegrams produced the desired effect, and the open clash which Mr. Peckinpaw dreaded was averted by a narrow margin. Montague found it wise to drop the subject of certain changes his experience told him were necessary to the success of the picture; and the author, believing he had carried his point, became, as Montague remarked, almost human in spots.
The dove of peace found the director's small office more crowded than usual, because Mr. Peckinpaw insisted on having a table in one corner, where he toiled manfully at something Jimmy Montague was pleased to call the character scenario. He gravely assured the author that this was of the utmost importance.
"Of course, Peckinpaw, I get an idea from reading the book what these folks ought to be like," explained Montague, "but I don't want to trust my own judgment. You created these characters and it stands to reason you know 'em better than anybody else. Write everything out in full—how you think these people ought to look and walk and talk. The more I have to work on, the better."
"And, if you'll believe me," said Montague to Charlie Jennings, his assistant, "he fell for it! It keeps the little devil out of mischief; he lets me alone and he actually thinks he's helping me! He's writing his fool head off. Yesterday he wanted me to read nine pages about that Injun of his!"
"Shining Cloud?" asked Jennings, who had found it necessary to read "The Lure of the "West."
"That's the bird—Shining Cloud. He says that all the people who wrote him letters about the book were stuck on the Injun. Some of 'em said he was the noblest character in fiction."
"On the level, Jim," said Jennings, "do you think this fellow ever saw a regular Indian in all his life?"
"Darned if I know! Judging by the book I'd say he hadn't. He'll see one this morning, though. Peter Lone Wolf is just finishing up that Western picture for the Alpha Company down the street. He's going to come over in all his make-up. Peckinpaw is daffy to see him; he's afraid Peter won't come up to the plans and specifications of Shining Cloud. You know, Charlie, this little shrimp has been patted on the back so much about his book that he 's come to think that those characters of his are real! He talks about Shining Cloud as though he was alive."
It was on this very morning that Mr. Peckinpaw ceased his labors to offer another suggestion.
"Mr. Montague, I believe I have found the very man to play Deep Creek Jordan, the cowboy lover," said he.
"So-o?" from Montague, with a rising inflection.
"It's that chap who hangs round here all the time—typical Westerner—quaint sort of individual. He wears a green shirt and——"
"Oh, Buck Parvin! He can't play Deep Creek—that 's a part for the leading man. Buck can ride and do stunts, but he's no actor. Never will be. Jack La Rue is the fellow. He'll not only look Deep Creek but he'll play him like a streak. Jack is some lover—take it from me!"
"I'm sorry," said Peckinpaw. "You see, in a way I had promised the part to this Buck, as you call him."
"Been making friends with Buck, have you?"
"Rather! We had quite a chat yesterday. He was telling me some of his experiences among the Indians—quite thrilling they were."
"I'll bet!" said Montague dryly.
"He has read my book," said Peckinpaw, "and he asked for an autographed copy. I rather suspect he intends making a present to a lady. Women seem to prize autographed copies. He says——"
What else Mr. Parvin said is not known, for the door of the director's office swung open and a tremendous and imposing figure entered. It was Peter Lone Wolf, moving-picture Indian, all six feet of him bravely decked out in buckskin, beads and feathers. Mr. Peckinpaw, taken entirely by surprise, gazed on this colorful vision of savagery and made a noise like a frightened duck.
"Hello, Peter!" said Montague.
The young Indian nodded his head slightly in acknowledgment of the salutation and the feathers of his towering war bonnet swept the ceiling. He did not speak, but Mr. Peckinpaw did.
"Wonderful! Magnificent! What a noble bearing! What expression! He is the living image of Shining Cloud—by heaven, he is Shining Cloud! Does—does he understand English, Mr. Montague?"
Montague did not answer; he was watching the Indian. Peter Lone Wolf turned his head slowly and looked down at the little author as an eagle might look at a linnet. His grave and beady scrutiny took in every visible detail of Mr. Peckinpaw's attire, and was focused at last on the large round spectacles. Mr. Peckinpaw experienced the sensation of shriveling physically; he felt himself growing smaller and smaller under that piercing regard. Some unidentified instinct prompted him to back into the corner of the room, but those unwinking eyes held him captive. He could not move hand or foot, but he did manage to hunch one shoulder.
Peter Lone Wolf seemed to swell and grow larger. His head lifted; his chin thrust itself forward. Then, still staring at Mr. Peckinpaw, he folded his arms on his chest and broke the silence with a terrific grunt, which seemed to come from the very soles of his moccasins:
Mr. Peckinpaw's heart fluttered against his ribs and, ostrich-wise, he closed his eyes; but as nothing happened to him he opened them again in time to witness a dignified and majestic exit. Peter Lone Wolf, his arms still folded on his chest and his eyes on Mr. Peckinpaw to the last, backed slowly out of the room and departed, grunting at every stride.
"Well," said Montague, "how do you like my Indian?"
"Superb! Glorious!" Mr. Peckinpaw was recovering from a nervous chill and was chatteringly voluble. "What native grace! What insolent pride! Why, the man might have been a king, the way he looked at me! And he positively makes one feel his physical superiority! I wish I might have talked with him in his own tongue—gotten his viewpoint on life and what it means to him. There must be a mind behind such eyes! And what a wonderful face—so stern and sad, and yet so brave! All the sorrows of a vanishing people are written on it; all the records of a hopeless struggle against a superior race.... But are we a superior race, Mr. Montague? Are we? Where have we a specimen to match this magnificent savage in physique, in simple dignity, in—in——"
Not having his Dictionary of Synonyms handy, Mr. Peckinpaw stranded, gasping. Montague bent his shaking shoulders over his work, but said nothing.
Later Mr. Peckinpaw found pleasure in emptying himself of sensations and adjectives for the benefit of Buck Parvin, who listened soberly enough, but with eyes dangerously bright and twinkling.
"Civilization," said Mr. Peckinpaw in conclusion, "has never produced such a type. It cannot!"
"And a darn' good thing!" said Buck. "Listen to me! I know this Injun—knew his ole daddy too. He was Chief Curly Wolf. You remember him, don't you?"
"The—the name is familiar," said Mr. Peckinpaw. "I cannot quite place him."
"That's funny—and you made a study of Injuns too! Ever heard of Sitting Bull?"
Here Mr. Peckinpaw was on established ground. Eagerly he spoke of the intimate relations with Chief Singing Mule and the hand that had grasped the hand of Sitting Bull.
"Well," said Buck, "Curly Wolf was the guy that put the Bull in Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull got all the press notices, but the Injun that deserved the credit was Curly Wolf. He was the worst ole murdering cutthroat that ever turned a rancher inside out to see what made him tick! Him and Sitting Bull was as close as two fingers on a glove; and, if it hadn't been for this Curly Wolf, Sitting Bull would have been as tame as a nanny goat. Curly Wolf used to rib him up to commit all them meannesses and then go along with him to see that he didn't weaken. Sitting Bull wouldn't no more think of going on the warpath without his pardner than he'd fly to the moon!... Kind of unfortunate about this Peter Lone Wolf; but, seeing who his daddy was, I reckon he comes honestly by it."
"Comes honestly by what?" asked Mr. Peckinpaw, all ears.
"Why, his habits. Every so often he goes sort of bug—crazy; paints himself for war; gives the death yell, and wants to butcher somebody like his daddy did. He was born while his family was up in the Little Big Horn country pulling off the Custer Massacre. Maybe that's got something to do with the spells he takes."
"Prenatal influence unquestionably," mured Mr. Peckinpaw.
"Hey? Well, whatever it is, it comes on him just so often, same as a periodical souse. Sometimes he gives warning; sometimes the only warning you get is the death yell. I see you mention the death yell in your book, so you know about it."
"Does he ever—hurt anybody?" asked Mr. Peckinpaw timidly.
"Well, no—he don't seem to aim to torture 'em none; his notion is to kill outright," was the reassuring answer.
"As to that," said Buck judicially, "some say he has and some say he hasn't. It depends on whether you count Mexicans. Some do and some don't. It's all a matter of how you're raised. Personally, myself, I never seen him get that far. We gener'ly rope an' hawg-tie him before he gets a good start. In a day or so it wears off and he's all right again. I thought I'd tell you, so you wouldn't go pesticating round him too much. He ain't very strong for Easterners; it was an Easterner that filled his daddy full of buckshot."
"Why, he's dangerous!" said Mr. Peckinpaw. "He has the homicidal mania!"
"He's got all that," said Buck cheerfully. "The best way is to keep an eye on him all the time. If you hear him cut loose with that war whoop of his don't stop to ask any questions. Fade right away while your hair is on your head. Why, he even tried to scalp me once!"
"He did! What did you do?"
"Busted him on the head with the butt of my gun. I'd have shot him—I wanted to—but Montague wouldn't let me. The Injun was working in the picture and it wasn't finished yet. And say, speaking of Montague"—Buck paused and his embarrassment was quite evident—"speaking of Montague, I'd like to ask a favor of you."
"Anything at all. Buck," said Peckinpaw.
"I wish you wouldn't tell him that I tipped off this Peter proposition to you. He—he didn't want you to know or else he'd have told you himself. If Jim should find out that I done it—good-by. Buck, that's all! He'd fire me in a minute."
"I promise you I won 't mention it to a soul!" said Mr. Peckinpaw earnestly. "Not a soul!"
"Thanks," said Buck. "I'll kind of keep an eye on this Lone Wolf, and if I see any signs of it coming on I'll tell you the first one."
"I wish you would, Buck,*' said Mr. Peckinpaw. "You won't forget?"
"You bet I won't! You've called me Buck; so I'm going to call you Marcellus. No; I reckon I'll call you Marsh for short. Is that all right?"
"Call me anything you like," said Mr. Peckinpaw, "but watch that Indian!" That night the author of "The Lure of the West" did not rest well. He dreamed of Peter Lone Wolf and gory scalps, and waked to find himself in a cold sweat.
It was early evening at the field headquarters of the Titan Company. It had once been a deserted ranch house—lonely buildings lying at the foot of the low California hills—but now horses whickered in the corrals, lanterns flashed in the barn, men and women sat under the great oaks or moved about the porch; and from the kitchen came tempting odors telling of ham and eggs and coffee.
Tents were pitched in the yard and the meadow beyond; and in one of them a celebrated author sulked and waited for the dinner call, while in another and larger tent James Montague swore softly as he checked off the list of scenes made that day. He swore because the list was shorter than it should have been—and there was a reason.
Charlie Jennings entered the director's tent; but, seeing that his chief was in a savage humor, he held his tongue. Montague finished his work, threw the papers into the table drawer, slammed it shut and looked up.
"Where is he, Charlie?"
"In his tent."
"Well, I wish he'd stay there!" said Montague. "I'm getting good and sick of his nonsense. I thought, from the way he acted after the first run-in we had, he was going to show a little sense about the changes I've made in his story; but ever since we've been here it's fuss, fuss, fuss! He's as persistent as a mosquito."
"You can slap a mosquito," said Jennings.
"Yes; and I'll slap this New Jersey pest if he doesn't let me alone!" said the exasperated director. "I've got the entire company and two hundred extra people out here, forty miles from nowhere, under heavy expense, and Peckinpaw seems to think I haven't got a thing to do but argue with him! The little runt! Here I give him the finest Western outfit that ever went on location—more Indians, more cowpunchers and more prairie schooners than we've ever used before—and he doesn't even know it! And he's holding up an outfit of this size to quibble about things not being in his damned book!
"I've told him a thousand times—you've heard me, Charlie—that I can't make a good five-reeler out of the book as it stands. I've explained why we have to put in stunt stuff; I might as well talk to an Indian squaw about eugenics or deliver a stump speech to a hitching post! He doesn't get any part of it and he argues right back to the point where he started—it ain't in the book; and that settles it for him. Now to-day, when we were working in the canon, he ran right in front of the camera to give La Rue a bawling out—and La Rue was playing the scene exactly as I told him to play it. We had to make it over again; and when I asked him whether he didn't know any better than to run in front of the camera he batted his eyes at me and said that La Rue was doing something that wasn't in the book."
"When do you pull the burning-barn stunt?" asked Jennings.
"To-morrow; and I suppose there'll be an awful row over it. Peckinpaw will have a fit. I told him yesterday when I caught him running through my script that if there wasn't a burning barn in his book there should have been. He nearly went through the ceiling—told me I didn't know anything about art. To-day he was threatening to sue us for damages and hold up the film in the courts. I guess he overlooked the little joker in his contract about 'a suitable film production.' Maybe he's only trying to run a sandy on me; but he's got me nagged till I'm almost off my nut, and he's driving the actors crazy with his continual butting in."
"All but Peter," said Jennings. "He lays off of Shining Cloud, I notice. For some reason or other he won't go within gunshot of the Injun; and if Peter comes into the dining-room while he's there Peckinpaw gets up and goes out."
"Peter got his goat the first time he saw him—that's why. I wish I had it. Confound Dave Seligman! He shipped me an elephant that went crazy in the middle of a picture and I stood for it; he sent me some nice tame wolves which bit everybody that worked with 'em, and I stood for that; but if he sends me any more temperamental authors I'm through! There's a limit to what a man can stand!"
"Ain't it the truth!" said Buck Parvin, at the tent flap. He had heard part of the conversation. "There's a limit to how much cold a man can stand, Jim. I want some more blankets. I like to froze to death last night."
"Go steal 'em from the extra people," said the director. "What do you think I've got here—a general store?"
"Say," remarked Buck, still lingering, "little Marshie is kind of gumming the cards, ain't he? I got a new girl now and she ain't used to me being away like this. Somebody'll win her from me while we're fussing with this author. Can't you invite him to take a walk and not come back?"
"I wish I could," said Montague. "He won't even take a day off to go trout fishing, he's so afraid I'll slip over something that ain't in the book!"
"Do you want him to leave this place?" asked Buck.
"Do I! I'd give a thousand dollars to have him away from here to-morrow while we pull the barn fire."
"Make it a hundred, Jim—make it fifty and mean it—and you're on!" said Buck.
"The fifty goes," said Montague; "but Peckinpaw won't. He'll stick!"
"Bet you next week's salary!" said Buck.
"I won't rob you," said the director. "The only way he'll leave is in a box. He's just that stubborn in his narrow way!"
"He'll go," said Buck. "Little Marshie will go away from here of his own accord. He'll likely stay away all day and there won't be any comeback at you. That's good enough, ain't it?"
"Too good to be true!" said Jennings.
"Wait and see if it is," chuckled Buck.
"Don't you get him hurt!" warned Montague.
"Who, Marshie? My little pal? Why, I wouldn't harm a splinter on his head! He's going to put me in his next book. Then maybe Seligman will buy the movie rights. I'll play the lead; Marshie will come out and help us put it on, and——"
Here a boot whizzed past Buck's head and he withdrew, laughing. It was nearly dark by this time, but there was light enough for him to make out a tall figure pacing up and down under the oaks.
"Pete, ole boy," said the cowpuncher to himself, "I wonder how game you are? I reckon the best way to find out is to ask you."
Marcellus M. Peckinpaw rose from his cot when the sun was streaking the east with gold. All about him was perfect peace and there was a great quietness; Mr. Peckinpaw was the one disturbing note in the symphony of the dawn, for as he rose he girded himself for war.
He had spent the larger portion of the night in thinking up many cutting things he would say to James Montague, and he could scarcely wait to give them tongue. What? Butcher his inspired work to please low-browed ten-cent audiences! Sacrifice his art to pander to the depraved taste of the rabble? Not if he died for it! At any cost that barn should not burn. It had not burned in the book.
Mr. Peckinpaw stepped out of his tent and looked on the sleeping camp. To a man with eyes and imagination, the sight was worth while.
First, there were the tents of the regular members of the company — soldier tents, pitched with military precision. Indeed, they were later to serve as the tents of General Crook's command, and even the feeblest imagination might easily have peopled them with cavalrymen; but this eye-witness was not thinking of tents—he was thinking of a barn.
Beyond and toward the meadow, looming white and ghostly in the half light, were the prairie schooners—those huge, lumbering vehicles that rutted the Overland Trail in the fifties and sixties. They were drawn up in a circle, after the fashion of emigrant trains in the Indian country, and under the curving canvas tops men and women were sleeping. Here again imagination might have helped—might have suggested that these people were pioneers, sleeping with their guns at their sides in fear of an Indian attack. Imagination might have done this; but Mr. Peckinpaw knew that the sleepers were extra people, earning three dollars a day and drawing two dollars more as a traveling allowance. A little knowledge can be a deadly thing.
At the lower end of the meadow, close to the running stream, were the tepees of the Indian village, their smoke-blackened tops rising sharp against the dawn. Hobbled ponies—shaggy, wiry little brutes—grazed near by. Lean dogs prowled among the tepees, snarling over scraps of bacon rind. A fat squaw, a papoose strapped on her back, waddled into view and knelt on the ground. It was Four Ax Handles, spouse of Chief Spotted Elk, building the morning fire exactly as her maternal ancestors had built fires on the plains before the white man came. The ascending smoke hung, a thin blue ribbon, in the quiet air.
An emigrant train, an Indian village, a soldiers' camp, a typical ranch house and outbuildings; corrals full of horses and long-horned cattle; a wonderful background of sage-covered hills—and Marcellus M. Peckinpaw, celebrated author of Western fiction, saw only the stage setting of a film drama! There was no kindly soul to tell him that the scenery and the properties were real, and that these people, though actors, were actually living the lives of the characters they assumed before the camera. There was no one to tell him this; had there been, it might have passed unheeded, for Mr. Peckinpaw was thinking of a barn and seeing himself in the attitude of a Casabianca.
Perhaps this was a pity, for, in that brief space before the camp woke and took on its all too evident flavor of theatricism, the atmosphere and true romance of a vanished frontier were there before him. The West that he had never seen—the West that Wister knew and Remington left to us on canvas—lived again in those few moments, to vanish, like a ghost, with the rising of the sun. Mr. Peckinpaw saw but did not understand. He compared the scene unfavorably with the basement of Madison Square Garden and rehearsed the speeches with which he would rebuke a presumptuous director.
From the barn and corrals came a faint and drowsy Yip-yip-yip-e-e-e! The first moving-picture cowpuncher was astir and the illusion was fading fast—would soon be gone. The real cowpuncher takes no special pride and sees no virtue in sleeping on baled hay—he will have a comfortable bed or know why; but his film brother, who never knew the range, covers himself with a horse blanket, uses his saddle for a pillow, and boasts inordinately of the toughness of his fiber.
From the back yard of the ranch house came a steady whacking sound. The cook's assistant was chopping wood for the breakfast fire. An extra man rolled out of a prairie schooner and saluted the day with a succession of resounding yells. Chief Spotted Elk came out of his tepee, glanced shrewdly at the sky and, squatting in the doorway, proceeded to paint his face, like the dependable moving-picture actor he was. Almost immediately the corrals swarmed with cowpunchers grooming and saddling their horses. Jack La Rue, the leading man, thrust his head into the open and bawled to Jennings, who was seated on a camp-stool in front of his tent, making up his face for the part of the cattle baron.
"Oh, Charlie! What clothes do I put on first?"
"Your puncher outfit," answered Jennings; "and you'd better leave off your chaps. It'll be easier for you to jump out of the barn loft without 'em."
"Jump out of the barn loft!" Mr. Peckinpaw drew himself up to five feet three inches of bristling indignation. There was nothing in the book about Deep Creek Jordan's jumping out of a barn loft! What new outrage was this?
Mr. Peckinpaw was the first man in the dining-room at the ranch house. He had formed the habit of breakfasting early because he had noticed that Peter Lone Wolf breakfasted late. Peter was a privileged Indian. He shared a tent with Buck Parvin and took his meals in the house with the leading people. He never went near the tepee village unless in the performance of a scene, and he utterly ignored the men and women of his race.
Mr. Peckinpaw had studiously avoided the Indian since Buck's warning, but the Indian had not avoided him. A dozen times a day the author looked up to find that steady, beady stare on him, boring through him—a calm and incurious but, nevertheless, disconcerting regard. It seemed to Mr. Peckinpaw that the Indian took a certain solemn pleasure in making him uncomfortable; and in the presence of Peter Lone Wolf the author's clothes felt too large for him and uncertain tremors traveled up and down his spine. This had happened once at breakfast and Mr. Peckinpaw had resolved that it should never happen again. Under certain circumstances a knife, or even a fork, might become a deadly weapon. An alarm clock, a five-dollar bill to the cook, and the risk of eating in the same room with a homicidal maniac had been averted.
Mr. Peckinpaw was buttering his wheat cakes when Buck Parvin entered and, bending over him, whispered hoarsely:
"Look out, Marsh!"
"Look out for what?" asked Mr. Peckinpaw, with a sinking sensation where his appetite should have been.
"For the Injun! He was yipping a little bit in his sleep last night. He said something about Owlface—that's what he calls you. It's a bad sign and I thought you ought to know."
Mr. Peckinpaw dropped knife, fork and appetite with a crash.
"Does—does he begin that way?" He found some difficulty in pronouncing his words, for his mouth had gone suddenly dry.
"Sometimes he does," said Buck.
"Don't leave him for a minute!" pleaded Mr. Peckinpaw. "I—I rely on you, Buck."
"I sure'll watch him like a hawk," was the reply.
Mr. Peckinpaw looked at his wheat cakes, picked up his knife, dropped it again, and, rising, hurried from the room. Buck finished the wheat cakes, regarding them as the spoils of war. Then he drank three cups of coffee, rolled a cigarette and strolled out in search of Mr. Peckinpaw. The author was nowhere to be found.
"So soon?" thought Buck. "Why, this is too easy!"
James Montague, tousle-headed and unshaved, appeared in the open and glanced at the sky.
"Not a cloud!" said he. "We ought to get a lot of work done if that little pest will only let me alone."
"Morning, Jim!" said Buck. "Got that fifty handy?"
"What fifty?" asked Montague. "Oh, I remember. No such luck. Peckinpaw will never miss this chance to make trouble."
"All the same, the fifty goes?" questioned the cowpuncher.
"Sure—but there's no chance."
An hour later Ben Leslie and his assistants swarmed through the barn, planting smoke pots and red fire. In a dark corner they came on the distinguished author of "The Lure of the West." He had been hiding behind a grain bin.
"What are these things for?" he asked.
"Fire picture," said Ben. "Better get outside; you can't see it from here. It'll be worth while too.... All set, boys? Smoke her up good when you get the word!"
Fear is a compelling motive; but so is a sacred duty to one's art. The titanic struggle between them was a short one; it left Mr. Peckinpaw weak and shaking but resolved. With all the firmness he could muster, which was not enough to keep his knees from trembling under him, Marcellus M. Peckinpaw marched out of the barn and confronted the entire company just as Montague was giving his final instructions to the actors.
"Jack, you make the jump from the loft window," said he. "It's an easy one and I've had the ground spaded up and straw spread on it. Come straight down, with your hands over your head. Then run——"
Mr. Peckinpaw cleared his throat and moistened his lips with his tongue.
"Mr. Montague, " said he, "I cannot permit this. I will not permit this!" He addressed the director, but his wandering eye took note of Peter Lone Wolf slipping into the dressing tent. Buck Parvin was at his heels; and at sight of the cowpuncher, faithful to his trust, Mr. Peckinpaw took heart and courage. "I—I forbid you to do this!" he said.
"Oh, see here now, " cajoled Montague; "this is childish, Peckinpaw! Ridiculous! I am making this picture."
"You are making a picture, but you are not making it from my book. I object—I must object—to these unwarrantable liberties! The picture is to be advertised in my name. I am responsible to the public for this production. My name guarantees it. My contract reads——" He quoted copious extracts from that legal document.
The actors looked at each other and grinned; it was Montague's trouble—not theirs. The director lost his temper and raged—the author lost his temper and raved; and they raged and raved together up and down in front of the camera while the assembled multitude looked on.
"Ah-h, quit chewin' the rag and let's get busy!" pleaded Charlie Dupree, the camera man. Then, under his breath: "Go on, boss! Paste him one for me!"
"It's an outrage!" spluttered the author. "It's a breach of contract! I appeal to you all—to your sense of what is fair and right! You know this man is taking liberties with the text! You have read the book——"
"Yes," interrupted Montague, with a sneer; "they've read the book—I made 'em do it. They think as much of your book as I do. They know that unless we stiffen this picture with stunt stuff it won't stand up—it won't be any better than your damned book—and that means it'll be rotten! Now will you get out of the way and let me go on with this scene!"
"I will not!" screamed Mr. Peckinpaw, fairly dancing with rage. "I know my rights and I will stand here and fight to the last! I will not move from this spot! I dare you to touch me! I'll sue—— "
Clear and high above Mr. Peckinpaw's agitated tenor there arose a startling and ear-piercing howl, soaring in a succession of wild ululations and ending in a long-drawn whoop. The author paused, his bold defiance dying to a rattle in his throat; his chin sagged, and he turned a chalky face toward the dressing tent in time to see Buck Parvin burst into the open, running, terror in his bulging eyes.
The flaps of the tent were dashed aside and Peter Lone Wolf leaped into view, yelling as he came. Naked, save for a breech-clout, moccasins and streaming war bonnet, streaked and splashed with all the colors of the rainbow, a butcher's knife in one hand and a tomahawk in the other, he was indeed an eye-filling, nerve-paralyzing spectacle; and—horror of horrors!—he was heading straight for Mr. Peckinpaw!
Moving-picture people are trained to grasp the action of a scene without loss of time, and this probably explains why Mr. Peckinpaw had a few yards the worst of the general start. In the midst of a frenzied stampede of cowpunchers, actors, extra people and one director, a single figure remained rooted to the spot—Charlie Dupree, true to tradition, did not desert his beloved camera; but he clung to it for support.
"Run, Marsh!" yelled Buck. "For the love of Mike, hump yourself! He's got 'em again—and he's after you!"
And Marsh ran. Two men were in a position to witness his amazing burst of speed. Charlie Dupree afterward declared that the celebrated author ran the first mile in nothing flat. Buck Parvin said he lowered all world's records up to ten miles. The truth may lie somewhere between the two statements. It is certain the author was almost immediately swallowed up by the nearest canon, distant some two hundred yards. Later he was seen passing over a low ridge half a mile away, his short legs flying like drumsticks. They had need to fly, for ten feet behind him loped Peter Lone Wolf; and the wind brought back the echoes of his terrible death yell.
"What is it all about?" asked James Montague, crawling out from under a prairie schooner. "Is Peter pickled, or what?" Then he saw Buck Parvin smiling at him—a meaning and virtuous smile.
"You owe me fifty, Jim," said Buck.
"You darned fool!" yelled Montague. "Why didn't you tell me what was coming off? Don't you know I've got a weak heart?"
Black dark hung over the encampment, but in the director's tent there was a light. This much was observed by one who peered through the brush at the edge of the clearing. With halting steps and many pauses for listening, he drew near; voices came to him and the click and rattle of poker chips.
The reader is a good guesser; he knows we have here a celebrated author returning from a journey into the hills. Mr. Peckinpaw's clothes were torn and dirty; he had lost his hat; his hair was matted with burs; his face was scratched, and he walked with two separate and distinct limps—one for each leg. He was about to lift the tent flap when he heard a voice that gave him pause. Buck Parvin, his friend and protector, was speaking:
"As a writer he may be a joke—I'm no judge; but as a runner—say, what would he do to one of them Marathons? Put an Injun behind him and he'd run first, second and third—that's all! I'll bet he ran so far that it'll take him a month to walk back. You reckon he'll want to sue somebody for this?"
"No chance!" This was Montague speaking. "Don't you think he knows how much fun the newspapers can have with this story! An author chased by one of his own creations! No; he'll never tell that on a witness stand. They'd kid him to death. He won 't sue!"
"The modern Frankenstein, eh?" A third voice took up the strain—a deep, vibrant voice, which Mr. Peckinpaw told himself he had never heard before. "Yes, that would make fairly good reading. Somehow it isn't the fellow's manner that I object to, offensive as it is. He doesn't know any better! Some communities turn out creatures of his sort by the gross—and it takes a gross of 'em to make a man. Peckinpaw is as God made him, and I excuse a great deal on that account; but I do hold him criminally liable for that piffling book. I read it when it first came out. That it sold at all is proof of the decline of our literary standards; that it became a best seller is a fearful indictment against public taste. I can excuse lack of plot; I can wink at ignorance of subject matter; I can even read a Western novel with Fenimore Cooper Indians in it—but sheer, bad workmanship is where I draw the line! Peckinpaw is a pitiful little literary hack. What he mistakes for attainments are the cheap tricks of the penny-a-liner, and his sentence construction is vile. He has been taught not to split his infinitives, but as for the rest—phew!... Gentlemen, I will now crack this pot for a large shining dollar. Come in, Buck! Faint heart never filled a spade flush, which is the best thing I learned at Harvard."
Mr. Peckinpaw's face flushed painfully in the darkness and his hand fell away from the tent flap; but it returned again. At any cost he must know who dared call Marcellus M. Peckinpaw a pitiful little literary hack. Cautiously he moved the canvas a fraction of an inch and applied his eye to the aperture. Three men were sitting at the table. Two of them he had recognized by their voices. The third man was speaking again.
"Ah, Buck! That's a bad habit you have—trying to beat threes with a four flush. It has been done, but in the long run the practice is ruinous."
The man who was speaking—the owner of the deep, vibrant voice and Harvard prejudice against poor literary workmanship—was none other than Peter Lone Wolf, moving-picture Indian.
Mr. Peckinpaw gulped and stole quietly away in the darkness.
The next morning the distinguished author returned to civilization in one of the company's automobiles. He explained to James Montague that he had washed his hands of the movies, once and for all time.
Peter Lone Wolf, feathered and painted within an inch of his life, waiting to play a scene with Miss Manners, the leading woman, watched Mr. Peckinpaw's departure with the changeless expression of his race.
"I think he is on to us. Buck," said Peter. "I tried the hypnotic eye on him again this morning, but there was nothing doing. I even woofed a few woofs and stamped my foot, but he only glared at me. He looked as though he wanted to stick out his tongue. I have lost my power over him. I wonder why!"
"Well," said Buck, "even Rip Van Winkle had to wake up some time."
"I have had a lot of fun with him," said the Indian, rising and stretching himself, "and I shall miss him. It was worth the strain of playing the wild and untutored savage—on and otf, as it were.... By the way, Buck, if we ever get that fifty out of Montague, how do we split it?"
"Fifty-fifty,'* was the prompt answer.
"And I ran five miles and howled myself hoarse!" murmured Peter Lone Wolf. "It just shows that the Indian always gets the worst of it from the white man.... Yes, Mr. Montague! Coming!