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"I wish, while I'm gone, you'd paint me another picture. Will you, PLEASE?"
When a girl has big, gray eyes that half convince you they are not gray at all, but brown, or blue, at times, and a way of using them that makes a fellow heady, like champagne, and a couple of dimples that will dodge into her cheeks just when a fellow is least prepared to resist them—why, what can a fellow do but knuckle under and say yes, especially when she lets her head tip to one side a little and says "please" like that?
Chip tried not to look at her, but he couldn't help himself very well while she stood directly in front of him. He compromised weakly instead of refusing point-blank, as he told himself he wanted to do.
"I don't know—maybe I can't, again."
"Maybe you can, though. Here's an eighteen by twenty-four canvas, and here are all the paints I have in the house, and the brushes. I'll expect to see something worth while, when I return."
"Well, but if I can't—"
"Look here. Straight in the eye, if you please! Now, will you TRY?"
Chip, looking into her eyes that were laughing, but with a certain earnestness behind the laugh, threw up his hands—mentally, you know.
"Yes, I'll try. How long are you going to be gone?"
"Oh, perhaps a week," she said, lightly, and Chip's heart went heavy.
"You may paint any kind of picture you like, but I'd rather you did something like 'The Last Stand'—only better. And put your brand, as you call it, in one corner."
"You won't sell it, will you?" The words slipped out before he knew.
"No—no, I won't sell it, for it won't be mine. It's for yourself this time."
"Then there won't be any picture," said Chip, shortly.
"Oh, yes, there will," smiled the Little Doctor, sweetly, and went away before he could contradict her.
Perhaps a week! Heavens, that was seven days, and every day had at least sixteen waking hours. How would it be when it was years, then? When Dr. Cecil Granthum—(er—no, I won't. The invective attached to that gentleman's name was something not to be repeated here.) At any rate, a week was a long, long time to put in without any gray eyes or any laugh, or any dimples, or, in short, without the Little Doctor. He could not see, for his part, why she wanted to go gadding off to the Falls with Len Adams and the schoolma'am, anyway. Couldn't they get along without her? They always had, before she came to the country; but, for that matter, so had he. The problem was, how was he going to get along without her for the rest of his life? What did they want to stay a week for? Couldn't they buy everything they wanted in a day or so? And the Giant Spring wasn't such great shakes, nor the Rainbow Falls, that they need to hang around town a week just to look at them. And the picture—what was he such a fool for? Couldn't he say no with a pair of gray eyes staring into his? It seemed not. He supposed he must think up something to daub on there—the poorer the better.
That first day Chip smoked something like two dozen cigarettes, gazed out across the coulee till his eyes ached, glared morosely at the canvas on the easel, which stared back at him till the dull blankness of it stamped itself upon his brain and he could see nothing else, look where he might. Whereupon he gathered up hat and crutches, and hobbled slowly down the hill to tell Silver his troubles.
The second day threatened to be like the first. Chip sat by the window and smoked; but, little by little, the smoke took form and substance until, when he turned his eyes to the easel, a picture looked back at him—even though to other eyes the canvas was yet blank and waiting.
There was no Johnny this time to run at his beckoning. He limped about on his crutches, collected all things needful, and sat down to work.
As he sketched and painted, with a characteristic rapidity that was impatient of the slightest interruption yet patient in its perfectness of detail, the picture born of the smoke grew steadily upon the canvas.
It seemed, at first, that "The Last Stand" was to be repeated. There were the same jagged pinnacles and scrubby pines, held in the fierce grip of the frozen chinook. The same? But there was a difference, not to be explained, perhaps, but certainly to be felt. The Little Doctor's hills were jagged, barren hills; her pines were very nice pines indeed. Chip's hills were jagged, they were barren—they—were desolate; his pines were shuddering, lonely pines; for he had wandered alone among them and had caught the Message of the Wilderness. His sky was the cold, sinister sky of "The Last Stand"—but it was colder, more sinister, for it was night. A young moon hung low in the west, its face half hidden behind a rift of scurrying snow clouds. The tiny basin was shadowy and vague, the cut-bank a black wall touched here and there by a quivering shaft of light.
There was no threatening cow with lowered horns and watchful eye; there was no panic-stricken calf to whip up her flagging courage with its trust in her.
The wolves? Yes, there were the wolves—but there were more of them. They were not sitting in a waiting half circle—they were scattered, unwatchful. Two of them in the immediate foreground were wrangling over a half-gnawed bone. The rest of the pack were nosing a heap pitifully eloquent.
As before, so now they tricked the eye into a fancy that they lived. One could all but hear the snarls of the two standing boldly in the moonlight, the hair all bristly along the necks, the white fangs gleaming between tense-drawn lips. One felt tempted to brace oneself for the rush that was to come.
For two days Chip shut himself in his room and worked through the long hours of daylight, jealous of the minutes darkness stole from him.
He clothed the feast in a merciful shade which hid the repugnance and left only the pathos—two long, sharp horns which gleamed in the moonlight but were no longer threatening.
He centered his energy upon the two wolves in the foreground, grimly determined that Slim should pray for a Gatling gun when he saw them.
The third day, when he was touching up the shoulders of one of the combatants, a puff of wind blew open the door which led to the parlor. He did not notice it and kept steadily at work, painting his "brand" into a corner. Beneath the stump and its splinter he lettered his name—a thing he had never done before.
Chip jumped half out of his chair, giving his lame ankle a jolt which made him grind his teeth.
"Darn it, Chip, did YOU do that?"
"It kind of looks that way, don't it?" Chip was plainly disconcerted, and his ankle hurt.
"H—m-m." The Old Man eyed it sharply a minute. "It's a wonder you wouldn't paint in a howl or two, while you're about it. I suppose that's a mate to—doggone you, Chip, why didn't yuh tell us you painted that other one?"
"I didn't," said Chip, getting red and uncomfortable, "except the cow and—"
"Yes, except the part that makes the picture worth the paint it's done with!" snorted the Old Man. "I must say I never thought that uh Dell!"
"Thought what?" flared Chip, hotly, forgetting everything but that the Little Doctor was being censured. "It was her picture, she started it and intended to finish it. I painted on it one day when she was gone, and she didn't know it. I told her not to tell anyone I had anything to do with it. It wasn't her fault."
"Huh!" grunted the Old Man, as if he had his own opinion on that matter. "Well, it's a rattling good picture—but this one's better. Poor ole Diamond Bar—she couldn't come through with it, after all. She put up a good fight, out there alone, but she had t' go under—her an' her calf." He stood quiet a minute, gazing and gazing. "Doggone them measly wolves! Why in thunder can't a feller pump lead into 'em like he wants t'?"
Chip's heart glowed within him. His technique was faulty, his colors daring, perhaps—but his triumph was for that the greater. If men could FEEL his pictures—and they did! That was the joy of it—they did!
"Darn them snarlin' brutes, anyway! I thought it was doggone queer if Dell could dab away all her life at nice, common things that you only think is purty, an' then blossom out, all of a sudden, with one like that other was—that yuh felt all up an' down yer back. The little cheat, she'd no business t' take the glory uh that'n like she done. I'll give her thunder when she gits back."
"You won't do anything of the kind," said Chip, quietly—too quietly not to be menacing. "I tell you that was my fault—I gave her all I did to the picture, and I told her not to say anything. Do you think I don't know what I owe to her? Do you think I don't know she saved Silver's life—and maybe mine? Forty pictures wouldn't square me with the Little Doctor—not if they were a heap better than they are, and she claimed every darned one. I'm doing this, and I'll thank you not to buy in where you're not wanted. This picture is for her, too—but I don't want the thing shouted from the housetops. When you go out, I wish you'd shut the door."
The Old Man, thoroughly subdued, took the hint. He went out, and he shut the door.
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