Chip, of the Flying U/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII.

When a Maiden Wills.


It was Dunk who drove to meet the train, next day, and it was an extremely nervous young woman who met Senator Blake upon the porch. Chip sprawled in the hammock on the east porch, out of sight.

The senator was a little man whose coat did not fit, and whose hair was sandy and sparse, and who had keen, twinkling blue eyes which managed to see a great deal more than one would suspect from the rest of his face. He pumped the Little Doctor’s hand up and down three times and called her “My dear young lady.” After the first ten minutes, the Little Doctor’s spirits rose considerably and her heart stopped thumping so she could hear it. She remembered what Weary had told her—that “Old Blake won’t be hard to throw.” She no longer feared the senator, but she refused to speculate upon what Chip might do. He seemed more approachable to-day, but that did not count—probably he was only reflecting Weary’s sunshine, and would freeze solid the minute——

“And so you are the mysterious genius who has set the Butte critics by the ears!” chuckled the senator. “They say your cloud treatment is all wrong, and that your coloring is too bold—but directly they forget all that and wonder which wolf will make the first dash, and how many the cow will put out of business before she goes under herself. Don’t be offended if I say that you look more capable of portraying woolly white lambs at play than ravening wolves measuring the strength of their quarry. I must confess I was looking for the—er—man behind that brush.”

“I told the senator coming out that it was a lady he would have to make terms with. He would hardly believe it,” smiled Dunk.

“He needn’t believe it,” said the Little Doctor, much more calmly than she felt. “I don’t remember ever saying that I painted ‘The Last Stand.’”

Dunk threw up his head and looked at her sharply.

“Genius is certainly modest,” he said, with a laugh that was not nice to hear.

“In this case, the genius is unusually modest,” assented she, getting rather white. “Unfortunately for myself, senator, I did not paint the ‘ravening wolves’ which caught your fancy. It would be utterly beyond my brush.”

A glimmering of the truth came to Dunk, and his eyes narrowed.

“Who did paint it for you? Your friend, Chip?”

The Little Doctor caught her breath at the venomous accent he employed, and the Old Man half rose from his chair. But Della could fight her own battles. She stood up and faced Dunk, tight-lipped and proud.

“Yes, Mr. Whitaker, my friend, Mr. Bennett, of whose friendship I am rather proud, painted the best part of ‘The Last Stand.’”

“Senator Blake must forgive my being misled by your previous statement that the picture was yours,” sneered Dunk.

“I made no previous statement, Mr. Whitaker.” The Little Doctor’s tone was sweetly freezing. “I said that the picture which I had begun was finished, and I invited you all to look at it. It was your misfortune that you took too much for granted.”

“It’s a mistake to take anything for granted where a woman is concerned. At the same time I shouldn’t be blamed if I take it for granted Chip——

“Suppose you say the rest to me, Dunk,” suggested Chip from the doorway, where he leaned heavily upon his cane. “It begins to look as though I held a hand in this game.”

Dunk wheeled furiously upon him.

“You’re playing a high hand for a forty-dollar man,” he grated, “and you’ve about reached your limit. The stakes are beyond your reach, my friend.”

Chip went white with anger at the thrust, which struck deeper than Dunk knew. But he stood his ground.

“Ye—es? Wait till the cards are all turned.” It turned him sick, though, the emptiness of the boast. It was such a pitiful, ghastly bluff—for the cards were all against him, and he knew it. A man in Gilroy, Ohio, would take the trick which decided the game. Hearts were trumps, and Dr. Cecil Granthum had the ace.

The little senator got out of his chair and faced Chip tactfully.

“Kid Bennett, you rascal, aren’t you going to shake hands?” His own was outstretched, waiting.

Chip crowded several hot words off his tongue, and gave up his hand for a temporary pump handle.

“How do you do, Blake? I didn’t think you’d remember me.”

“You didn’t? How could I help it? I can feel the cold of the water yet, and your rope settling over my shoulders. You never gave me a chance to say ‘God bless you’ for that; you just coiled up your rope—swearing all the time you did it, because it was wet—and rode off, dripping like a muskrat. What did you do it for?”

“I was in a hurry to get back to camp,” grinned Chip, sinking into a chair. “And you weren’t a senator then.”

“It would have been all the same if I had been, I reckon,” responded the senator, shaking Chip’s hand again. “Well, well! So you are the genius—that sounds more likely. No offense, Miss Whitmore. Do you remember that picture you drew with charcoal on a piece of pine board? It stands on the mantel in my library, and I always point it out to my friends as the work of a young man with a future. And you painted ‘The Last Stand!’ Well, well! I think I’ll have to send the price up another notch, just to get even with you for swearing at me when my lungs were so full of water I couldn’t swear back!”

While he talked he was busy unwrapping the picture which he had brought with him, and he reminded the Little Doctor of a loquacious peddler opening his pack. He was much more genial and unpretentious since Chip entered the room, and she wondered why. She wanted to ask about that reference to the water, but he stood the painting against the wall, just then, and she forgot everything but that.

Chip’s eyes clung to the scene greedily. After all, it was his—and he knew in his heart that it was good. After a minute he limped into his room and brought “The Spoils of Victory,” and stood it beside “The Last Stand.”

“A—h-h!” The senator breathed the word deep in his throat and fell silent. Even the Old Man leaned forward in his chair that he might see the better. The Little Doctor could not see anything, just then, but no one noticed anything wrong with her eyes, for they were all down in the Bad Lands, watching an old range cow defend her calf.

“Bennett, do the two go together?” asked the senator, at last.

“I don’t know—I painted it for Miss Whitmore,” said Chip, a dull glow in his cheeks.

The Little Doctor glanced at him quickly, rather startled, if the truth be known.

“Oh, that was just a joke, Mr. Bennett. I would much rather have you paint me another one—this one makes me want to cry—and a doctor must forego the luxury of tears. I have no claim upon either of them, Mr. Blake. It was like this. I started ‘The Last Stand,’ but I only had the background painted, and one day while I was gone Mr. Bennett finished it up—and it is his work that makes the picture worth anything. I let it pass as mine, for the time, but I never intended to wear the laurel crown, really. I only borrowed it for a little while. I hope you can make Mr. Bennett behave himself and put his brand on it, for if he doesn’t it will go down to posterity unsigned. This other—‘The Spoils of Victory’—he cannot attempt to disown, for I was away at Great Falls when he painted it, and he was here alone, so far as help of any kind is concerned. Now do make him be sensible!”

The senator looked at Chip, then at the Little Doctor, chuckled and sat down on the couch.

“Well, well! Kid Bennett hasn’t changed, I see. He’s just as ornery as he ever was. And you’re the mysterious, modest genius! How did you come out after that dip into the old Missouri?” he asked, abruptly. “You didn’t take cold, riding in those wet clothes, I hope?”

“I? No, I was all right. I stopped at that sheep camp and borrowed some dry clothes.” Chip was very uncomfortable. He wished Blake wouldn’t keep bringing up that affair, which was four years old and quite trivial, in his opinion. It was a good thing Dunk pulled out when he saw he’d got the worst of it, or there’d have been trouble, most likely. And Blake——

The senator went on, addressing the others.

“Do you know what this young fellow did, four years ago this last spring? I tried to cross the river near my place in a little boat, while the water was high. Bennett, here, came along and swore that a man with no more sense than I had ought to drown—which was very true, I admit. I had just got out a nice little distance for drowning properly, when a tree came bobbing along and upset my boat, and Kid Bennett, as we called him then, rode in as far as he could—which was a great deal further than was safe for him—and roped me, just as he would have roped a yearling. Ha! ha! I can see him yet, scowling at me and whirling the loop over his head ready to throw. A picture of that, now! When he had dragged me to the bank he used some rather strong language—a cowboy does hate to wet his rope—and rode off before I had a chance to thank him. This is the first time I’ve seen him since then.”

Chip got very red.

“I was young and foolish, those days, and you weren’t a senator,” he repeated, apologetically.

“My being a senator wouldn’t have mattered at all. They’ve been changing your name, over this side the river, I see. How did that happen?”

Again Chip was uncomfortable.

“We’ve got a cook that is out of sight when it comes to Saratoga chips, and I’m a fiend for them, you see. The boys got to calling me Saratoga Chip, and then they cut it down to Chip and stuck to it.”

“I see. There was a fellow with you over there—Davidson. What has become of him?”

“Weary? He works here, too. He’s down in the bunk house now, I guess.”

“Well, well! Let’s go and hunt him up—and we can settle about the pictures at the same time. You seem to be crippled. How did that happen? Some dare-devil performance, I expect.”

The senator smiled reassuringly at the Little Doctor and got Chip out of the house and down in the bunk house with Weary, and whatever means he used to make Chip “behave himself,” they certainly were a success. For when he left, the next day, he left behind him a check of generous size, and Chip was not so aloof as he had been with the Little Doctor, and planned with her at least a dozen pictures which he meant to paint some time.

There was one which he did paint at once, however—though no one saw it but Della. It was the picture of a slim young woman with gray eyes and an old felt hat on her head, standing with her fingers tangled in the mane of a chestnut horse.

If there was a heartache in the work, if the brush touched the slim figure caressingly and lingered wistfully upon the face, no one knew but Chip, and Chip had learned long ago to keep his own counsel. There were some thoughts which he could not whisper into even Silver’s ear.