Chip, of the Flying U/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII.

Art Critics.


It was late the next forenoon when the Little Doctor, feeling the spirit of artistic achievement within her, gathered up brushes and paints for a couple hours’ work. Chip, sitting by the window smoking a cigarette, watched her uneasily from the tail of his eye. Looking back to yesterday’s “spasm,” as he dubbed it mentally, he was filled with a great and unaccountable shyness. What had seemed so real to him then he feared to-day to face, as trivial and weak.

He wanted to cry “Stop!” when she laid hand to the curtain, but he looked, instead, out across the coulee to the hills beyond, the blood surging unevenly through his veins. He felt when she drew the cloth aside; she stopped short off in the middle of telling him something Miss Satterly had said—some whimsical thing—and he could hear his heart pounding in the silence which followed. The little, nickel alarm clock tick-tick-ticked with such maddening precision and speed that Chip wanted to shy a book at it, but his eyes never left the rocky bluff opposite, and the clock ticked merrily on.

One minute—two—the silence was getting unbearable. He could not endure another second. He looked toward her; she stood, one hand full of brushes, gazing, white-faced, at “The Last Stand.” As he looked, a tear rolled down the cheek nearest him and compelled him to speech.

“What’s the matter?” His voice seemed to him rough and brutal, but he did not mean it so.

The Little Doctor drew a long, quivering breath.

“Oh, the poor, brave thing!” she said, in a hushed tone. She turned sharply away and sat down.

“I expect I spoiled your picture, all right—but I told you I’d get into mischief if you went gadding around and left me alone.”

The Little Doctor stealthily wiped her eyes, hoping to goodness Chip had not seen that they had need of wiping.

“Why didn’t you tell me you could paint like that?” She turned upon him fiercely. “Here you’ve sat and looked on at me daubing things up—and if I’d known you could do better than—” Looking again at the canvas she forgot to finish. The fascination of it held her.

“I’m not in the habit of going around the country shouting what I don’t know,” said Chip, defensively. “You’ve taken heaps of lessons, and I never did. I just noticed the color of everything, and—oh, I don’t know—it’s in me to do those things. I can’t help trying to paint and draw.”

“I suppose old Von Heim would have something to say of your way of doing clouds—but you got the effect, though—better than he did, sometimes. And that cow—I can see her breathe, I tell you! And the wolves—oh, don’t sit there and smoke your everlasting cigarettes and look so stoical over it! What are you made of, anyway? Can’t you feel proud? Oh, don’t you know what you’ve done? I—I’d like to shake you—so now!”

“Well, I don’t much blame you. I knew I’d no business to meddle. Maybe, if you’ll touch it up a little——

“I’ll not touch a brush to that. I—I’m afraid I might kill the cow.” She gave a little, hysterical laugh.

“Don’t you think you’re rather excitable—for a doctor?” scoffed Chip, and her chin went up for a minute.

“I’d like t’ kill them wolves,” said Johnny, coming in just then.

“Turn the thing around, kid, so I can see it,” commanded Chip, suddenly. “I worked at it yesterday till the colors all ran together and I couldn’t tell much about it.”

Johnny turned the easel, and Chip, looking, fell silent. Had his hand guided the brush while that scene grew from blank canvas to palpitating reality? Verily, he had “builded better than he knew.” Something in his throat gripped, achingly and dry.

“Did anybody see it yesterday?” asked the Little Doctor.

“No—not unless the kid——

“I never said a word about it,” denied Johnny, hastily and vehemently. “I lied like the dickens. I said you had headache an’ was tryin’ t’ sleep it off. I kep’ the Countess teeterin’ around on her toes all afternoon.” Johnny giggled at the memory of it.

“Well, I’m going to call them all in and see what they say,” declared she, starting for the door.

“I don’t think you will,” began Chip, rebelliously, blushing over his achievement like a girl over her graduation essay. “I don’t want to be——

“Well, we needn’t tell them you did it,” suggested she.

“Oh, if you’re willing to shoulder the blame,” compromised Chip, much relieved. He hated to be fussed over.

The Little Doctor regarded him attentively a moment, smiled queerly to herself and stood back to get a better view of the painting.

“I’ll shoulder the blame—and maybe claim the glory. It was mine in the first place, you know.” She watched him from under her lashes.

“Yes, it’s yours, all right,” said Chip, readily, but something went out of his face and lodged rather painfully in the deepest corner of his heart. He ignored it proudly and smiled back at her.

“Do such things really happen, out here?” she asked, hurriedly.

“I’d tell a man!” said Chip, his eyes returning to the picture. “I was riding through that country last winter, and I came upon that very cow, just as you see her there, in that same basin. That’s how I came to paint it into your foreground; I got to thinking about it, and I couldn’t help trying to put it on canvas. Only, I opened up on the wolves with my six-shooter, and I got two; that big fellow ready to howl, there, and that one next the cut-bank. The rest broke out down the coulee and made for the breaks, where I couldn’t follow. They——

“Say? Old Dunk’s comin’,” announced Johnny, hurrying in. “Why don’t yuh let ‘im see the pitcher an’ think all the time the Little Doctor done it? Gee, it’d be great t’ hear ‘im go on an’ praise it up, like he always does, an’ not know the diffrunce.”

“Johnny, you’re a genius,” cried she, effusively. “Don’t tell a soul that Chip had a brush in his hand yesterday, will you? He—he’d rather not have anyone know he did anything to the painting, you see.”

“Aw, I won’t tell,” interrupted Johnny, gruffly, eying his divinity with distrust for the first time in his short acquaintance with her. Was she mean enough to claim it really? Just at first, as a joke, it would be fun, but afterward, oh, she wouldn’t do a thing like that!

“Don’t you bring Dunk in here,” warned Chip, “or things might happen. I don’t want to run up against him again till I’ve got two good feet to stand on.”

Their relation was a thing to be watched over tenderly, since Chip’s month of invalidism. Dunk had notions concerning master and servant, and concerning Chip as an individual. He did not fancy occupying the back bedroom while Chip reigned in his sunny south room, waited on, petted (Dunk applied the term petted) and amused indefatigably by the Little Doctor. And there had been a scene, short but exceeding “strenuous,” over a pencil sketch which graphically portrayed an incident Dunk fain would forget—the incident of himself as a would-be broncho fighter, with Banjo, of vigilante fame, as the means of his downfall—physical, mental and spiritual. Dunk might, in time, have forgiven the crippled ankle, and the consequent appropriation of his room, but never would he forgive the merciless detail of that sketch.

“I’ll carry easel and all into the parlor, and leave the door open so you can hear what they all say,” said the Little Doctor, cheerfully. “I wish Cecil could be here to-day. I always miss Cecil when there’s anything especial going on in the way of fun.”

“Yes?” answered Chip, and made himself another cigarette. He would be glad when he could hobble out to some lonely spot and empty his soul of the profane language stored away opposite the name of Dr. Cecil Granthum. There is so little comfort in swearing all inside, when one feels deeply upon a subject.

“It’s a wonder you wouldn’t send for him if you miss him that bad,” he remarked, after a minute, hoping the Little Doctor would not find anything amiss with his tone, which he meant should be cordial and interested—and which evinced plenty of interest, of a kind, but was curiously lacking in cordiality.

“I did beg, and tease, and entreat—but Cecil’s in a hospital—as a physician, you understand, not as a patient, and can’t get off just yet. In a month or two, perhaps——

Dinner, called shrilly by the Countess, interrupted her, and she flitted out of the room looking as little like a lovelorn maiden as she did like a doctor—which was little indeed.

“She begged, and teased, and entreated,” repeated Chip, savagely to himself when the door closed upon her, and fell into gloomy meditation, which left him feeling that there was no good thing in this wicked world—no, not one—that was not appropriated by some one with not sense enough to understand and appreciate his blessing.

After dinner the Little Doctor spoke to the unsuspecting critics.

“That picture which I started a couple of weeks ago is finished at last, and I want you good people to come and tell me what you think of it. I want you all—you, Slim, and Louise, you are to come and give your opinion.”

“Well, I don’t know the first thing about paintin’,” remonstrated the Countess, coming in from the kitchen.

The Old Man lighted his pipe and followed her into the parlor with the others, and Slim rolled a cigarette to hide his embarrassment, for the rôle of art critic was new to him.

There was some nervousness in the Little Doctor’s manner as she set the easel to her liking and drew aside the curtain. She did not mean to be theatrical about it, but Chip, watching through the open door, fancied so, and let his lip curl a trifle. He was not in a happy frame of mind just then.

A silence fell upon the group. The Old Man took his pipe from his mouth and stared.

The cheeks of the Little Doctor paled and grew pink again. She laughed a bit, as though she would much rather cry.

“Say something, somebody, quick!” she cried, when her nerves would bear no more.

“Well, I do think it’s awfully good, Dell,” began the Countess.

“By golly, I don’t see how you done that without seein’ it happen,” exclaimed Slim, looking very dazed and mystified.

“That’s a Diamond Bar cow,” remarked J. G., abstractedly. “That outfit never does git half their calves. I remember the last time I rode through there last winter, that cow—doggone it, Dell, how the dickens did you get that cow an’ calf in? You must a had a photograph t’ work from.”

“By golly, that’s right,” chimed in Slim. “That there’s the cow I had sech a time chasin’ out uh the bunch down on the bottom. I run her till I was plum sick, an’ so was she, by golly. I’d know her among a thousand. Yuh got her complete—all but the beller, an’, by golly, yuh come blame near gittin’ that, too!” Slim, always slow and very much in earnest, gradually became infused with the spirit of the scene. “Jest look at that ole gray sinner with his nose r’ared straight up in the air over there! By golly, he’s callin’ all his wife’s relations t’ come an’ help ’em out. He’s thinkin’ the ole Diamon’ Bar’s goin’ t’ be one too many fer ‘em. She shore looks fighty, with ‘er head down an’ ‘er eyes rollin’ all ways t’ oncet, ready fer the first darn cuss that makes a crooked move! An’ they know it, too, by golly, er they wouldn’t hang back like they’re a-doin’. I’d shore like t’ be cached behind that ole pine stub with a thirty—thirty an’ a fist full uh shells—I’d shore make a scatteration among ‘em! A feller could easy——

“But, Slim, they’re nothing but paint!” The Little Doctor’s eyes were shining.

Slim turned red and grinned sheepishly at the others.

“I kinda fergot it wasn’t nothin’ but a pitcher,” he stammered, apologetically.

“That is the gist of the whole matter,” said Dunk. “You couldn’t ask for a greater compliment, or higher praise, than that, Miss Della. One forgets that it is a picture. One only feels a deep longing for a good rifle. You must let me take it with me to Butte. That picture will make you famous among cattlemen, at least. That is to say, out West, here. And if you will sell it I am positive I can get you a high price for it.”

The eyes of the Little Doctor involuntarily sought the Morris chair in the next room; but Chip was looking out across the coulee, as he had a habit of doing lately, and seemed not to hear what was going on in the parlor. He was indifference personified, if one might judge from his outward appearance. The Little Doctor turned her glance resentfully to her brother’s partner.

“Do you mean all that?” she demanded of him.

“I certainly do. It is great, Miss Della. I admit that it is not quite like your other work; the treatment seems different, in places, and—er—stronger. It is the best picture of the kind that I have ever seen, I think. It holds one, in a way——

“By golly, I bet Chip took a pitcher uh that!” exclaimed Slim, who had been doing some hard thinking. “He was tellin’ us last winter about ridin’ up on that ole Diamon’ Bar cow with a pack uh wolves around her, an’ her a-standin’ ’em off, an’ he shot two uh the wolves. Yes, sir; Chip jest about got a snap shot of ‘em.”

“Well, doggone it! what if he did?” The Old Man turned jealously upon him. “It ain’t everyone that kin paint like that, with nothin’ but a little kodak picture t’ go by. Doggone it! I don’t care if Dell had a hull apurn full uh kodak pictures that Chip took—it’s a rattlin’ good piece uh work, all the same.”

“I ain’t sayin’ anything agin’ the pitcher,” retorted Slim. “I was jest wonderin’ how she happened t’ git that cow down s’ fine, brand ’n all, without some kind uh pattern t’ go by. S’ fur ’s the pitcher goes, it’s about as good ’s kin be did with paint, I guess. I ain’t ever seen anything in the pitcher line that looked any natcherler.”

“Well, I do think it’s just splendid!” gurgled the Countess. “It’s every bit as good ’s the one Mary got with a year’s subscription t’ the Household Treasure fer fifty cents. That one’s got some hounds chasin’ a deer and a man hidin’ in the bushes, sost yuh kin jest see his head. It’s an awful purty pitcher, but this one’s jest as good. I do b’lieve it’s a little bit better, if anything. Mary’s has got some awful nice, green grass, an’ the sky’s an awful purty blue—jest about the color uh my blue silk waist. But yuh can’t expect t’ have grass an’ sky like that in the winter, an’ this is more of a winter pitcher. It looks awful cold an’ lonesome, somehow, an’ it makes yuh want t’ cry, if yuh look at it long enough.”

The critics stampeded, as they always did when the Countess began to talk.

“You better let Dunk take it with him, Dell,” was the parting advice of the Old Man.