Chip, of the Flying U/Chapter 12
The Last Stand.”
To use a trite expression and say that Chip “fought his way back to health” would be simply stating a fact and stating it mildly. He went about it much as he would go about gentling a refractory broncho, and with nearly the same results.
His ankle, however, simply could not be hurried or bluffed into premature soundness, and the Little Doctor was at her wits’ end to keep Chip from fretting himself back into fever, once he was safely pulled out of it. She made haste to explain the bit of overheard conversation, which he harped on more than he dreamed, when his head went light in that first week, and so established a more friendly feeling between them.
Still, there was a certain aloofness about him which she could not conquer, try as she might. Just so far they were comrades—beyond, Chip walked moodily alone. The Little Doctor did not like that overmuch. She preferred to know that she fairly understood her friends and was admitted, sometimes, to their full confidence. She did not relish bumping her head against a blank wall that was too high to look over or to climb, and in which there seemed to be no door.
To be sure, he talked freely, and amusingly, of his adventures and of the places he had known, but it was always an impersonal recital, and told little of his real self or his real feelings. Still, when she asked him, he told her exactly what he thought about things, whether his opinion pleased her or not.
There were times when he would sit in the old Morris chair and smoke and watch her make lacey stuff in a little, round frame. Battenberg, she said it was. He loved to see her fingers manipulate the needle and the thread, and take wonderful pains with her work—but once she showed him a butterfly whose wings did not quite match, and he pointed it out to her. She had been listening to him tell a story of Indians and cowboys and with some wild riding mixed into it, and—well, she used the wrong stitch, but no one would notice it in a thousand years. This, her argument.
“You’ll always know the mistake’s there, and you won’t get the satisfaction out of it you would if it was perfect, would you?” argued Chip, letting his eyes dwell on her face more than was good for him.
The Little Doctor pouted her lips in a way to tempt a man all he could stand, and snipped out the wing with her scissors and did it over.
So with her painting. She started a scene in the edge of the Bad Lands down the river. Chip knew the place well. There was a heated discussion over the foreground, for the Little Doctor wanted him to sketch in some Indian tepees and some squaws for her, and Chip absolutely refused to do so. He said there were no Indians in that country, and it would spoil the whole picture, anyway. The Little Doctor threatened to sketch them herself, drawing on her imagination and what little she knew of Indians, but something in his eyes stayed her hand. She left the easel in disgust and refused to touch it again for a week.
She was to spend a long day with Miss Satterly, the schoolma’am, and started off soon after breakfast one morning.
“I hope you’ll find something to keep you out of mischief while I’m gone,” she remarked, with a pretty, authoritative air. “Make him take his medicine, Johnny, and don’t let him have the crutches. Well, I think I shall hide them to make sure.”
“I wish to goodness you had that picture done,” grumbled Chip. “It seems to me you’re doing a heap of running around, lately. Why don’t you finish it up? Those lonesome hills are getting on my nerves.”
“I’ll cover it up,” said she.
“Let it be. I like to look at them.” Chip leaned back in his chair and watched her, a hunger greater than he knew in his eyes. It was most awfully lonesome when she was gone all day, and last night she had been writing all the evening to Dr. Cecil Granthum—damn him! Chip always hitched that invective to the unknown doctor’s name, for some reason he saw fit not to explain to himself. He didn’t see what she could find to write about so much, for his part. And he did hate a long day with no one but Johnny to talk to.
He craned his neck to keep her in view as long as possible, drew a long, discontented breath and settled himself more comfortably in the chair where he spent the greater part of his waking hours.
“Hand me the tobacco, will you, kid?”
He fished his cigarette book from his pocket. “Thanks!” He tore a narrow strip from the paper and sifted in a little tobacco.
“Now a match, kid, and then you’re done.”
Johnny placed the matches within easy reach, shoved a few magazines close to Chip’s elbow, and stretched himself upon the floor with a book.
Chip lay back against the cushions and smoked lazily, his eyes half closed, dreaming rather than thinking. The unfinished painting stood facing him upon its easel, and his eyes idly fixed upon it. He knew the place so well. Jagged pinnacles, dotted here and there with scrubby pines, hemmed in a tiny basin below—where was blank canvas. He went mentally over the argument again, and from that drifted to a scene he had witnessed in that same basin, one day—but that was in the winter. Dirty gray snow drifts, where a chinook had cut them, and icy side hills made the place still drearier. And the foreground—if the Little Doctor could get that, now, she would be doing something!—ah! that foreground. A poor, half-starved range cow with her calf which the round-up had overlooked in the fall, stood at bay against a steep cut bank. Before them squatted five great, gaunt wolves intent upon fresh beef for their supper. But the cow’s horns were long, and sharp, and threatening, and the calf snuggled close to her side, shivering with the cold and the fear of death. The wolves licked their cruel lips and their eyes gleamed hungrily—but the eyes of the cow answered them, gleam for gleam. If it could be put upon canvas just as he had seen it, with the bitter, biting cold of a frozen chinook showing gray and sinister in the slaty sky——
“Huh?” Johnny struggled reluctantly back to Montana.
“Get me the Little Doctor’s paint and truck, over on that table, and slide that easel up here.”
Johnny stared, opened his mouth to speak, then wisely closed it and did as he was bidden. Philosophically he told himself it was Chip’s funeral, if the Little Doctor made a kick.
“All right, kid.” Chip tossed the cigarette stub out of the window. “You can go ahead and read, now. Lock the door first, and don’t you bother me—not on your life.”
Then Chip plunged headlong into the Bad Lands, so to speak.
A few dabs of dirty white, here and there, a wholly original manipulation of the sky—what mattered the method, so he attained the result? Half an hour, and the hills were clutched in the chill embrace of a “frozen chinook” such as the Little Doctor had never seen in her life. But Johnny, peeping surreptitiously over Chip’s shoulder, stared at the change; then, feeling the spirit of it, shivered in sympathy with the barren hills.
“Hully gee,” he muttered under his breath, “he’s sure a corker t’ paint cold that fair makes yer nose sting.” And he curled up in a chair behind, where he could steal a look, now and then, without fear of detection.
But Chip was dead to all save that tiny basin in the Bad Lands—to the wolves and their quarry. His eyes burned as they did when the fever held him; each cheek bone glowed flaming red.
As wolf after wolf appeared with what, to Johnny, seemed uncanny swiftness, and squatted, grinning and sinister, in a relentless half circle, the book slipped unheeded to the floor with a clatter that failed to rouse the painter, whose ears were dulled to all else than the pitiful blat of a shivering, panic-stricken calf whose nose sought his mother’s side for her comforting warmth and protection.
The Countess rapped on the door for dinner, and Johnny rose softly and tiptoed out to quiet her. May he be forgiven the lies he told that day, of how Chip’s head ached and he wanted to sleep and must not be disturbed, by strict orders of the Little Doctor. The Countess, to whom the very name of the Little Doctor was a fetich, closed all intervening doors and walked on her toes in the kitchen, and Johnny rejoiced at the funeral quiet which rested upon the house.
Faster flew the brush. Now the eyes of the cow glared desperate defiance. One might almost see her bony side, ruffled by the cutting north wind, heave with her breathing. She was fighting death for herself and her baby—but for how long? Already the nose of one great, gray beast was straight uplifted, sniffing, impatient. Would they risk a charge upon those lowered horns? The dark pines shook their feathery heads hopelessly. A little while perhaps, and then——
Chip laid down the brush and sank back in the chair. Was the sun so low? He could do no more—yes, he took up a brush and added the title: “The Last Stand.”
He was very white, and his hand shook. Johnny leaned over the back of the chair, his eyes glued to the picture.
“Gee,” he muttered, huskily, “I’d like t’ git a whack at them wolves once.”
Chip turned his head until he could look at the lad’s face. “What do you think of it, kid?” he asked, shakily.
Johnny did not answer for a moment. It was hard to put what he felt into words. “I dunno just how t’ say it,” he said, gropingly, at last, “but it makes me want t’ go gunnin’ fer them wolves b’fore they hamstring her. It—well—it don’t seem t’ me like it was a pitcher, somehow. It seems like the reel thing, kinda.”
Chip moved his head languidly upon the cushion.
“I’m dead tired, kid. No, I’m not hungry, nor I don’t want any coffee, or anything. Just roll this chair over to the bed, will you? I’m—dead-tired.”
Johnny was worried. He did not know what the Little Doctor would say, for Chip had not eaten his dinner, or taken his medicine. Somehow there had been that in his face that had made Johnny afraid to speak to him. He went back to the easel and looked long at the picture, his heart bursting with rage that he could not take his rifle and shoot those merciless, grinning brutes. Even after he had drawn the curtain before it and stood the easel in its accustomed place, he kept lifting the curtain to take another look at that wordless tragedy of the West.