Chip, of the Flying U/Chapter 14

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“You don’t mind, do you?” The Little Doctor was visibly uneasy.

“Mind what?” Chip’s tone was one of elaborate unconsciousness. “Mind Dunk’s selling the picture for you? Why should I? It’s yours, you know.”

“I think you have some interest in it yourself,” she said, without looking at him. “You don’t think I mean to—to——

“I don’t think anything, except that it’s your picture, and I put in a little time meddling with your property for want of something else to do. All I painted doesn’t cover one quarter of the canvas, and I guess you’ve done enough for me to more than make up. I guess you needn’t worry over that cow and calf—you’re welcome to them both; and if you can get a bounty on those five wolves, I’ll be glad to have you. Just keep still about my part of it.”

Chip really felt that way about it, after the first dash of wounded pride. He could never begin to square accounts with the Little Doctor, anyhow, and he was proud that he could do something for her, even if it was nothing more than fixing up a picture so that it rose considerably above mediocrity. He had meant it that way all along, but the suspicion that she was quite ready to appropriate his work rather shocked him, just at first. No one likes having a gift we joy in bestowing calmly taken from our hands before it has been offered. He wanted her to have the picture for her very own—but—but—He had not thought of the possibility of her selling it, or of Dunk as her agent. It was all right, of course, if she wanted to do that with it, but—— There was something about it that hurt, and the hurt of it was not less, simply because he could not locate the pain.

His mind fidgeted with the subject. If he could have saddled Silver and gone for a long gallop over the prairie land, he could have grappled with his rebellious inner self and choked to death several unwelcome emotions, he thought. But there was Silver, crippled and swung uncomfortably in canvas wrappings in the box stall, and here was himself, crippled and held day after day in one room and one chair—albeit a very pleasant room and a very comfortable chair—and a gallop as impossible to one of them as to the other.

“I do wish——” The Little Doctor checked herself abruptly, and hummed a bit of coon song.

“What do you wish?” Chip pushed his thoughts behind him, and tried to speak in his usual manner.

“Nothing much. I was just wishing Cecil could see ‘The Last Stand.’”

Chip said absolutely nothing for five minutes, and for an excellent reason. There was not a single thought during that time which would sound pretty if put into words, and he had no wish to shock the Little Doctor.

After that day a constraint fell upon them both, which each felt keenly and neither cared to explain away. “The Last Stand” was tacitly dismissed from their conversation, of which there grew less and less as the days passed.

Then came a time when Chip strongly resented being looked upon as an invalid, and Johnny was sent home, greatly to his sorrow.

Chip hobbled about the house on crutches, and chafed and fretted, and managed to be very miserable indeed because he could not get out and ride and clear his brain and heart of some of their hurt—for it had come to just that; he had been compelled to own that there was a hurt which would not heal in a hurry.

It was a very bitter young man who, lounging in the big chair by the window one day, suddenly snorted contempt at a Western story he had been reading and cast the magazine—one of the Six Leading—clean into the parlor where it sprawled its artistic leaves in the middle of the floor. The Little Doctor was somewhere—he never seemed to know just where, nowadays—and the house was lonesome as an isolated peak in the Bad Lands.

“I wish I had the making of the laws. I’d put a bounty on all the darn fools that think they can write cowboy stories just because they rode past a roundup once, on a fast train,” he growled, reaching for his tobacco sack. “Huh! I’d like to meet up with the yahoo that wrote that rank yarn! I’d ask him where he got his lack of information. Huh! A cow-puncher togged up like he was going after the snakiest bronk in the country, when he was only going to drive to town in a buckboard! ‘His pistol belt and dirk and leathern chaps’—oh, Lord; oh, Lord! And spurs! I wonder if he thinks it takes spurs to ride a buckboard? Do they think, back East, that spurs grow on a man’s heels out here and won’t come off? Do they think we sleep in ’em, I wonder?” He drew a match along the arm of the chair where the varnish was worn off. “They think all a cow-puncher has to do is eat and sleep and ride fat horses. I’d like to tell some of them a few things that they don’t——

“I’ve brought you a caller, Chip. Aren’t you glad to see him?” It was the Little Doctor at the window, and the laugh he loved was in her voice and in her eyes, that it hurt him to meet, lately.

The color surged to his face, and he leaned from the window, his thin, white hand outstretched caressingly.

“I’d tell a man!” he said, and choked a little over it. “Silver, old boy!”

Silver, nickering softly, limped forward and nestled his nose in the palm of his master.

“He’s been out in the corral for several days, but I didn’t tell you—I wanted it for a surprise,” said the Little Doctor. “This is his longest trip, but he’ll soon be well now.”

“Yes; I’d give a good deal if I could walk as well as he can,” said Chip, gloomily.

“He wasn’t hurt as badly as you were. You ought to be thankful you can walk at all, and that you won’t limp all your life. I was afraid for a while, just at first——

“You were? Why didn’t you tell me?” Chip’s eyes were fixed sternly upon her.

“Because I didn’t want to. It would only have made matters worse, anyway. And you won’t limp, you know, if you’re careful for a while longer. I’m going to get Silver his sugar. He has sugar every day.”

Silver lifted his head and looked after her inquiringly, whinnied complainingly, and prepared to follow as best he could.

“Silver—oh, Silver!” Chip snapped his fingers to attract his attention. “Hang the luck, come back here! Would you throw down your best friend for that girl? Has she got to have you, too?” His voice grew wistfully rebellious. “You’re mine. Come back here, you little fool—she doesn’t care.”

Silver stopped at the corner, swung his head and looked back at Chip, beckoning, coaxing, swearing under his breath. His eyes sought for sign of his goddess, who had disappeared most mysteriously. Throwing up his head, he sent a protest shrilling through the air, and looked no more at Chip.

“I’m coming, now be still. Oh, don’t you dare paw with your lame leg! Why didn’t you stay with your master?”

“He’s no use for his master, any more,” said Chip, with a hurt laugh. “A woman always does play the—mischief, somehow. I wonder why? They look innocent enough.”

“Wait till your turn comes, and perhaps you’ll learn why,” retorted she.

Chip, knowing that his turn had come, and come to tarry, found nothing to say.

“Beside,” continued the Little Doctor, “Silver didn’t want me so much—it was the sugar. I hope you aren’t jealous of me, because I know his heart is big enough to hold us both.”

She stayed a long half hour, and was so gay that it seemed like old times to listen to her laugh and watch her dimples while she talked. Chip forgot that he had a quarrel with fate, and he also forgot Dr. Cecil Granthum, of Gilroy, Ohio—until Slim rode up and handed the Little Doctor a letter addressed in that bold, up-and-down writing that Chip considered a little the ugliest specimen of chirography he had ever seen in his life.

“It’s from Cecil,” said the Little Doctor, simply and unnecessarily, and led Silver back down the hill.

Chip, gazing at that tiresome bluff across the coulee, renewed his quarrel with fate.