Chip, of the Flying U/Chapter 8
It was Sunday, the second day after the dance. The boys were scattered, for the day was delicious—one of those sweet, soft days which come to us early in May. Down in the blacksmith shop Chip was putting new rowels into his spurs and whistling softly to himself while he worked.
The Little Doctor had gone with him to visit Silver that morning, and had not hurried away, but had leaned against the manger and listened while he told her of the time Silver, swimming the river when it was “up,” had followed him to the Shonkin camp when Chip had thought to leave him at home. And they had laughed together over the juvenile seven and the subsequent indignation of the mothers who, with the exception of “Mary,” had bundled up their offspring and gone home mad. True, they had none of them thoroughly understood the situation, having only the version of the children, who accused the Little Doctor of trying to make them eat rubber—“just cause she was mad about some little old candy.” The mystification of the others among the Happy Family, who scented a secret with a joke to it but despaired of wringing the truth from either Weary or Chip, was dwelt upon with much enjoyment by the Little Doctor.
It was a good old world and a pleasant, and Chip had no present quarrel with fate—or with anybody else. That was why he whistled.
Then voices reached him through the open door, and a laugh—her laugh. Chip smiled sympathetically, though he had not the faintest notion of the cause of her mirth. As the voices drew nearer, the soft, smooth, hated tones of Dunk Whitaker untangled from the Little Doctor’s laugh, and Chip stopped whistling. Dunk was making a good, long stay of it this time; usually he came one day and went the next, and no one grieved at his departure.
“You find them an entirely new species, of course. How do you get on with them?” said Dunk.
And the Little Doctor answered him frankly and distinctly: “Oh, very well, considering all things. They furnish me with some amusement, and I give them something quite new to talk about, so we are quits. They are a good-hearted lot, you know—but so ignorant! I don’t suppose——”
The words trailed into an indistinct murmur, punctuated by Dunk’s jarring cackle.
Chip did not resume his whistling, though he might have done so if he had heard a little more, or a little less. As a matter of fact, it was the Densons, and the Pilgreens, and the Beckmans that were under discussion, and not the Flying U cowboys, as Chip believed. He no longer smiled sympathetically.
“We furnish her with some amusement, do we? That’s good! We’re a good-hearted lot, but so ignorant! The devil we are!” He struck the rivet such a blow that he snapped one shank of his spur short off. This meant ten or twelve dollars for a new pair—though the cost of it troubled him little, just then. It was something tangible upon which to pour profanity, however, and the atmosphere grew sulphurous in the vicinity of the blacksmith shop and remained so for several minutes, after which a tall, irate cow-puncher with his hat pulled low over angry eyes left the shop and strode up the path to the deserted bunk house.
He did not emerge till the Old Man called to him to ride down to Benson’s after one of the Flying U horses which had broken out of the pasture.
Della was looking from the window when Chip rode up the hill upon the “coulee trail,” which passed close by the house. She was tired of the platitudes of Dunk, who, trying to be both original and polished, fell far short of being either and only succeeded in being extremely tiresome.
“Where’s Chip going, J. G.?” she demanded, in a proprietary tone.
“Down t’ Benson’s after a horse.” J. G. spoke lazily, without taking his pipe from his mouth.
“Oh, I wish I could go—I wonder if he’d care.” The Little Doctor spoke impulsively as was her habit.
“‘Course he wouldn’t. Hey, Chip! Hold on a minute!” The Old Man stood waving his pipe in the doorway.
Chip jerked his horse to a stand-still and half turned in the saddle.
“Dell wants t’ go along. Will yuh saddle up Concho for ’er? There’s no hurry, anyhow, you’ve got plenty uh time. Dell’s afraid one uh the kids might fall downstairs ag’in, and she’d miss the case.”
“I’m not, either,” said the Little Doctor, coming to stand by her brother; “it’s too nice a day to stay inside, and my muscles ache for a gallop over the hills.”
Chip did not look up at her; he did not dare. He felt that, if he met her eyes—with the laugh in them—he should do one of two undesirable things: he should either smile back at her, weakly overlooking the hypocrisy of her friendliness, or sneer in answer to her smile, which would be very rude and ungentlemanly.
“If you had mentioned wanting a ride I should have been glad to accompany you,” remarked Dunk, reproachfully, when Chip had ridden, somewhat sullenly, back to the stable.
“I didn’t think of it before—thank you,” said the Little Doctor, lightly, and hurried away to put on her blue riding habit with its cunning little jockey cap which she found the only headgear that would stay upon her head in the teeth of Montana wind, and which made her look-well, kissable. She was standing on the porch drawing on her gauntlets when Chip returned, leading Concho by the bridle.
“Let me help you,” begged Dunk, at her elbow, hoping till the last that she would invite him to go with them.
The Little Doctor, not averse to hiding the bitter of her medicine under a coating of sugar, smiled sweetly upon him, to the delectation of Dunk and the added bitterness of Chip, who was rapidly nearing that state of mind which is locally described as being “strictly on the fight.”
“I expect she thinks I’ll amuse her some more!” he thought, savagely, as they galloped away through the quivering sunlight.
For the first two miles the road was level, and Chip set the pace—which was, as he intended it should be, too swift for much speech. After that the trail climbed abruptly out of Flying U coulee, and the horses were compelled to walk. Then it was that Chip’s native chivalry and self-mastery were put to test.
He was hungry for a solitary ride such as had, before now, drawn much of the lonely ache out of his heart and keyed him up to the life which he must live and which chafed his spirit more than even he realized. Instead of such slender comfort, he was forced to ride beside the girl who had hurt him—so close that his knee sometimes brushed her horse—and to listen to her friendly chatter and make answer, at times, with at least some show of civility.
She was talking reminiscently of the dance.
“J. G. showed splendid judgment in his choice of musicians, didn’t he?”
Chip looked straight ahead. This was touching a sore place in his memory. A vision of Dick Brown’s vapid smile and curled up mustache rose before him.
“I’d tell a man,” he said, with faint irony.
The Little Doctor gave him a quick, surprised look and went on.
“I liked their playing so much. Mr. Brown was especially good upon the guitar.”
“Yes, of course. You know yourself, he plays beautifully.”
“Cow-punchers aren’t expected to know all these things.” Chip hated himself for replying so, but the temptation mastered him.
“Aren’t they? I can’t see why not.”
Chip closed his lips tightly to keep in something impolite.
The Little Doctor, puzzled as well as piqued, went straight to the point.
“Why didn’t you like Mr. Brown’s playing?”
“Did I say I didn’t like it?”
“Well, you—not exactly, but you implied that you did not.”
The Little Doctor gave the reins an impatient twitch.
No answer from Chip. He could think of nothing to say that was not more or less profane.
“I think he’s a very nice, amiable young man”—strong emphasis upon the second adjective. “I like amiable young men.”
“He’s going to come down here hunting next fall. J. G. invited him.”
“Yes? What does he expect to find?”
“Why, whatever there is to hunt. Chickens and—er—deer——”
By this they reached the level and the horses broke, of their own accord, into a gallop which somewhat relieved the strain upon the mental atmosphere. At the next hill the Little Doctor looked her companion over critically.
“Mr. Bennett, you look positively bilious. Shall I prescribe for you?”
“I can’t see how that would add to your amusement.”
“I’m not trying to add to my amusement.”
“If I were, there’s no material at hand. Bad-tempered young men are never amusing, to me. I like——”
“Amiable young men. Such as Dick Brown.”
“I think you need a change of air, Mr. Bennett.”
“Yes? I’ve felt, lately, that Eastern airs don’t agree with my constitution.”
Miss Whitmore grew red as to cheeks and bright as to eyes.
“I think a few small doses of Eastern manners would improve you very much,” she said, pointedly.
“Y—e-s? They’d have to be small, because the supply is very limited.”
The Little Doctor grew white around the mouth. She held Concho’s rein so tight he almost stopped.
“If you didn’t want me to come, why in the world didn’t you have the courage to say so at the start? I must say I don’t admire people whose tempers—and manners—are so unstable. I’m sorry I forced my presence upon you, and I promise you it won’t occur again.” She hesitated, and then fired a parting shot which certainly was spiteful in the extreme. “There’s one good thing about it,” she smiled, tartly, “I shall have something interesting to write to Dr. Cecil.”
With that she turned astonished Concho short around in the trail—and as Chip gave Blazes a vicious jab with his spurs at the same instant, the distance between them widened rapidly.
As Chip raced away over the prairie, he discovered a new and puzzling kink in his temper. He had been angry with the Little Doctor for coming, but it was nothing to the rage he felt when she turned back! He did not own to himself that he wanted her beside him to taunt and to hurt with his rudeness, but it was a fact, for all that. And it was a very surly young man who rode into the Denson corral and threw a loop over the head of the runaway.