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The Kid--Chip's Kid and the Little Doctor's--was six years old and big for his age. Also he was a member in good standing of the Happy Family and he insisted upon being called Buck outside the house; within it the Little Doctor insisted even more strongly that he answer to the many endearing names she had invented for him, and to the more formal one of Claude, which really belonged to Daddy Chip.
Being six years old and big for his age, and being called Buck by his friends, the Happy Family, the Kid decided that he should have a man's-sized horse of his own, to feed and water and ride and proudly call his "string." Having settled that important point, he began to cast about him for a horse worthy his love and ownership, and speedily he decided that matter also.
Therefore, he ran bareheaded up to the blacksmith shop where Daddy Chip was hammering tunefully upon the anvil, and delivered his ultimatum from the door way.
"Silver's going to be my string, Daddy Chip, and I'm going to feed him myself and ride him myself and nobody else can touch him 'thout I say they can."
"Yes?" Chip squinted along a dully-glowing iron bar, laid it back upon the anvil and gave it another whack upon the side that still bulged a little.
"Yes, and I'm going to saddle him myself and everything. And I want you to get me some jingling silver spurs like Mig has got, with chains that hang away down and rattle when you walk." The Kid lifted one small foot and laid a grimy finger in front of his heel by way of illustration.
"Yes?" Chip's eyes twinkled briefly and immediately became intent upon his work.
"Yes, and Doctor Dell has got to let me sleep in the bunk-house with the rest of the fellers. And I ain't going to wear a nightie once more! I don't have to, do I, Daddy Chip? Not with lace on it. Happy Jack says I'm a girl long as I wear lace nighties, and I ain't a girl. Am I, Daddy Chip?"
"I should say not!" Chip testified emphatically, and carried the iron bar to the forge for further heating.
"I'm going on roundup too, tomorrow afternoon." The Kid's conception of time was extremely sketchy and had no connection whatever with the calendar. "I'm going to keep Silver in the little corral and let him sleep in the box stall where his leg got well that time he broke it. I 'member when he had a rag tied on it and teased for sugar. And the Countess has got to quit a kickin' every time I need sugar for my string. Ain't she, Daddy Chip? She's got to let us men alone or there'll be something doing!"
"I'd tell a man," said Chip inattentively, only half hearing the war-like declaration of his offspring--as is the way with busy fathers.
"I'm going to take a ride now on Silver. I guess I'll ride in to Dry Lake and get the mail--and I'm 'pletely outa the makings, too."
"Uh-hunh--a--what's that? You keep off Silver. He'll kick the daylights out of you, Kid. Where's your hat? Didn't your mother tell you she'd tie a sunbonnet on you if you didn't keep your hat on? You better hike back and get it, young man, before she sees you."
The Kid stared mutinously from the doorway. "You said I could have Silver. What's the use of having a string if a feller can't ride it? And I can ride him, and he don't kick at all. I rode him just now, in the little pasture to see if I liked his gait better than the others. I rode Banjo first and I wouldn't own a thing like him, on a bet. Silver'll do me till I can get around to break a real one."
Chip's hand dropped from the bellows while he stared hard at the Kid. "Did you go down in the pasture and--Words failed him just then.
"I'd tell a man I did!" the Kid retorted, with a perfect imitation of Chip's manner and tone when crossed. "I've been trying out all the darned benchest you've got--and there ain't a one I'd give a punched nickel for but Silver. I'd a rode Shootin' Star, only he wouldn't stand still so I could get onto him. whoever broke him did a bum job. The horse I break will stand, or I'll know the reason why. Silver'll stand, all right. And I can guide him pretty well by slapping his neck. You did a pretty fair job when you broke Silver," the Kid informed his father patronizingly.
Chip said something which the Kid was not supposed to hear, and sat suddenly down upon the stone rim of the forge. It had never before occurred to Chip that his Kid was no longer a baby, but a most adventurous man-child who had lived all his life among men and whose mental development had more than kept pace with his growing body. He had laughed with the others at the Kid's quaint precociousness of speech and at his frank worship of range men and range life. He had gone to some trouble to find a tractable Shetland pony the size of a burro, and had taught the Kid to ride, decorously and fully protected from accident.
He and the Little Doctor had been proud of the Kid's masculine traits as they manifested themselves in the management of that small specimen of horse flesh. That the Kid should have outgrown so quickly his content with Stubby seemed much more amazing than it really was. He eyed the Kid doubtfully for a minute, and then grinned.
"All that don't let you out on the hat question," he said, evading the real issue and laying stress upon the small matter of obedience, as is the exasperating habit of parents. "You don't see any of the bunch going around bareheaded. Only women and babies do that."
"The bunch goes bareheaded when they get their hats blowed off in the creek," the Kid pointed out unmoved. "I've seen you lose your hat mor'n once, old timer. That's nothing." He sent Chip a sudden, adorable smile which proclaimed him the child of his mother and which never failed to thrill Chip secretly,--it was so like the Little Doctor. "You lend me your hat for a while, dad," he said. "She never said what hat I had to wear, just so it's a hat. Honest to gran'ma, my hat's in the creek and I couldn't poke it out with a stick or anything. It sailed into the swimmin' hole. I was goin' to go after it," he explained further, "but--a snake was swimmin --and I hated to 'sturb him."
Chip drew a sharp breath and for one panicky moment considered imperative the hiring of a body-guard for his Kid.
"You keep out of the pasture, young man!" His tone was stern to match his perturbation. "And you leave Silver alone--"
The Kid did not wait for more. He lifted up his voice and wept in bitterness of spirit. Wept so that one could hear him a mile. Wept so that J. G. Whitmore reading the Great Falls Tribune on the porch, laid down his paper and asked the world at large what ailed that doggoned kid now.
"Dell, you better go see what's wrong," he called afterwards through the open door to the Little Doctor, who was examining a jar of germ cultures in her "office." "Chances is he's fallen off the stable or something--though he sounds more mad than hurt. If it wasn't for my doggoned back--"
The Little Doctor passed him hurriedly. When her man-child wept, it Needed no suggestion from J. G. or anyone else to send her flying to the rescue. So presently she arrived breathless at the blacksmith shop' and found Chip within, looking in urgent Need of reinforcements, and the Kid yelling ragefully beside the door and kicking the log wall with vicious boot-tees.
"Shut up now or I'll spank you!" Chip was saying desperately when his wife appeared. "I wish you'd take that Kid and tie him up, Dell," he added snappishly. "Here he's been riding all the horses in the little pasture--and taking a chance on breaking his neck! And he ain't satisfied with Stubby--he thinks he's entitled to Silver!"
"Well, why not? There, there, honey--men don't cry when things go wrong--"
"No--because they can take it out in cussing!" wailed the Kid." I wouldn't cry either, if you'd let me swear all I want to!"
Chip turned his back precipitately and his shoulders were seen to shake. The Little Doctor looked shocked.
"I want Silver for my string!" cried the Kid, artfully transferring his appeal to the higher court. "I can ride him--'cause I have rode him, in the pasture; and he never bucked once or kicked or anything. Doggone it, he likes to have me ride him! He comes a-runnin' up to me when I go down there, and I give him sugar. And then he waits till I climb on his back, and then we chase the other horses and play ride circle He wants to be my string!" Something in the feel of his mother's arm around his shoulder whispered hope to the Kid. He looked up at her with his most endearing smile. "You come down there and I'll show you," he wheedled. "We're pals. And I guess you wouldn't like to have the boys call you Tom Thumb, a-ridin' Stubby. He's nothing but a five-cent sample of a horse. Big Medicine says so. I--I'd rather walk than ride Stubby. And I'm going on roundup. The boys said I could go when I get a real horse under me--and I want Silver. Daddy Chip said 'yes' I could have him. And now he's Injun-giver. Can't I have him, Doctor Dell?"
The gray-blue eyes clashed with the brown. "It wouldn't hurt anything to let the poor little tad show us what he can do," said the gray-blue eyes.
"Oh--all right," yielded the brown, and their owner threw the iron bar upon the cooling forge and began to turn down his sleeves. "Why don't you make him wear a hat?" he asked reprovingly. "A little more and he won't pay any attention to anything you tell him. I'd carry out that sunbonnet bluff, anyway, if I were you."
"Now, Daddy Chip! I 'splained to you how I lost my hat," reproached the Kid, clinging fast to the Little Doctor's hand.
"Yes--and you 'splained that you'd have gone into that deep hole and drowned--with nobody there to pull you out--if you hadn't been scared of a water snake," Chip pointed out relentlessly.
"I wasn't 'zactly scared," amended the Kid gravely. "He was havin' such a good time, and he was swimmin' around so--comf'table--and it wasn't polite to 'sturb him. Can't I have Silver?"
"We'll go down and ask Silver what he thinks about it," said the Little Doctor, anxious to make peace between her two idols. "And we'll see if Daddy Chip can get the hat. You must wear a hat, honey; you know what mother told you--and you know mother keeps her word."
"I wish dad did," the Kid commented, passing over the hat question. "He said I could have Silver, and keep him in a box stall and feed him my own self and water him my own self and nobody's to touch him but me."
"Well, if daddy said all that--we'll have to think it over, and consult Silver and see what he has to say about it."
Silver, when consulted, professed at least a willingness to own the Kid for his master. He did indeed come trotting up for sugar; and when he had eaten two grimy lumps from the Kid's grimier hand, he permitted the Kid to entice him up to a high rock, and stood there while the Kid clambered upon the rock and from there to his sleek back. Ho even waited until the Kid gathered a handful of silky mane and kicked him on the ribs; then he started off at a lope, while the Kid risked his balance to cast a triumphant grin--that had a gap in the middle--back at his astonished parents.
"Look how the little devil guides him!" exclaimed Chip surrenderingly. "I guess he's safe enough old Silver seems to sabe he's got a kid to take care of. He sure would strike a different gait with me! Lord how the time slides by; I can't seem to get it through me that the Kid's growing up."
The Little Doctor sighed a bit. And the Kid, circling grandly on the far side of the little pasture, came galloping back to hear the verdict. It pleased him--though he was inclined to mistake a great privilege for a right that must not be denied. He commanded his Daddy Chip to open the gate for him so he could ride Silver to the stable and put him in the box stall; which was a superfluous kindness, as Chip tried to point out and failed to make convincing.
The Kid wanted Silver in the box stall, where he could feed him and water him his own self. So into the box stall Silver reluctantly went, and spent a greater part of the day with his head stuck out through the window, staring enviously at his mates in the pasture.
For several days Chip watched the Kid covertly whenever his small feet strayed stableward; watched and was full of secret pride at the manner in which the Kid rose to his new responsibility. Never did a "string" receive the care which Silver got, and never did rider sit more proudly upon his steed than did the Kid sit upon Silver. There seemed to be practically no risk--Chip was amazed at the Kid's ability to ride. Besides, Silver was growing old--fourteen years being considered ripe old age in a horse. He was more given to taking life with a placid optimism that did not startle easily. He carried the Kid's light weight easily, and he had not lost all his springiness of muscle. The Little Doctor rode him sometimes, and loved his smooth gallop and his even temper; now she loved him more when she saw how careful he was of the Kid. She besought the Kid to be careful of Silver also, and was most manfully snubbed for her solicitude.
The Kid had owned Silver for a week, and considered that he was qualified to give advice to the Happy Family, including his Daddy Chip, concerning the proper care of horses. He stood with his hands upon his hips and his feet far apart, and spat into the corral dust and told Big Medicine that nobody but a pilgrim ever handled a horse the way Big Medicine was handling Deuce. Whereat Big Medicine gave a bellowing haw-haw-haw and choked it suddenly when he saw that the Kid desired him to take the criticism seriously.
"All right, Buck," he acceded humbly, winking openly at the Native Son. "I'll try m'best, old-timer. Trouble with me is, I never had nobody to learn me how to handle a hoss."
"Well, you've got me, now," Buck returned calmly. "I don't ride my string without brushing the hay out of his tail. There's a big long hay stuck in your horse's tail." He pointed an accusing finger, and Big Medicine silently edged close to Douce's rump and very carefully removed the big, long hay. He took a fine chance of getting himself kicked, but he did not tell the Kid that.
"That all right now, Buck?" Big Medicine wanted to know, when he had accomplished the thing without accident.
"Oh, it'll do," was the frugal praise he got. "I've got to go and feed my string, now. And after a while I'll water him. You want to feed your horse always before you water him, 'cause eatin' makes him firsty. You 'member that, now."
"I'll sure try to, Buck," Big Medicine promised soberly, and watched the Kid go striding away with his hat tilted at the approved Happy-Family angle and his small hands in his pockets. Big Medicine was thinking of his own kid, and wondering what he was like, and if he remembered his dad. He waved his hand in cordial farewell when the Kid looked back and wrinkled his nose in the adorable, Little-Doctor smile he had, and turned his attention to Deuce.
The Kid made straight for the box stall and told Silver hello over the half door. Silver turned from gazing out of the window, and came forward expectantly, and the Kid told him to wait a minute and not be so impatience Then he climbed upon a box, got down a heavy canvas nose-bag with leather bottom, and from a secret receptacle behind the oats box he brought a paper bag of sugar and poured about a teacupful into the bag. Daddy Chip had impressed upon him what would be the tragic consequences if he fed oats to Silver five times a day. Silver would die, and it would be the Kid that killed him. Daddy Chip had not said anything about sugar being fatal, however, and the Countess could not always stand guard over the sugar sack. So Silver had a sweet taste in his mouth twelve hours of the twenty-four, and was getting a habit of licking his lips reminiscently during the other twelve.
The Kid had watched the boys adjust nose bags ever since he could toddle. He lugged it into the stall, set it artfully upon the floor and let Silver thrust in his head to the eyes: then he pulled the strap over Silver's neck and managed to buckle it very securely. He slapped the sleek neck afterward as his Daddy Chip did, hugged it the way Doctor Dell did, and stood back to watch Silver revel in the bag.
"'S good lickums?" he asked gravely, because he had once heard his mother ask Silver that very question, in almost that very tone.
At that moment an uproar outside caught his youthful attention. He listened a minute, heard Pink's voice and a shout of laughter, and ran to see what was going on; for where was excitement, there the Kid was also, as nearly in the middle of it as he could manage. His going would not have mattered to Silver, had he remembered to close the half-door of the stall behind him; even that would not have mattered, had he not left the outer door of the stable open also.
The cause of the uproar does not greatly matter, except that the Kid became so rapturously engaged in watching the foolery of the Happy Family that he forgot all about Silver. And since sugar produces thirst, and Silver had not smelled water since morning, he licked the last sweet grain from the inside of the nose bag and then walked out of the stall and the stable and made for the creek--and a horse cannot drink with a nose bag fastened over his face. All he can do, if he succeeds in getting his nose into the water, is to drown himself most expeditiously and completely.
Silver reached the creek unseen, sought the deepest hole and tried to drink. Since his nose was covered with the bag ho could not do so but he fussed and splashed and thrust his head deeper until the water ran into the bag from the top. He backed and snorted and strangled, and in a minute he fell. Fortunately he struggled a little, and in doing so he slid backward down the bank so that his head was up the slope a and the water ran out of the bag, which was all that saved him.
He was a dead horse, to all appearances at least, when Slim spied him and gave a yell to bring every human being on the ranch at a run. The Kid came with the rest, gave one scream and hid his face in the Little Doctor's skirts, and trembled so that his mother was more frightened for him than for the horse, and had Chip carry him to the house where he could not watch the first-aid efforts of the Happy Family.
They did not say anything, much. By their united strength they pulled Silver up the bank so that his limp head hung downward. Then they began to work over him exactly as if he had been a drowned man, except that they did not, of course, roll him over a barrel. They moved his legs backward and forward, they kneaded his paunch, they blew into his nostrils, they felt anxiously for heart-beats. They sweated and gave up the fight, saying that it was no use. They saw a quiver of the muscles over the chest and redoubled their efforts, telling one another hopefully that he was alive, all right. They saw finally a quiver of the nostrils as well, and one after another they laid palms upon his heart, felt there a steady beating and proclaimed the fact profanely.
They pulled him then into a more comfortable position where the sun shone warmly and stood around him in a crude circle and watched for more pronounced symptoms of recovery, and sent word to the Kid that his string was going to be all right in a little while.
The information was lost upon the Kid, who wept hysterically in his Daddy Chip's arms listen to anything they told him. He had seen Silver stretched out dead, with his back in the edge of the creek and his feet sprawled at horrible angles, and the sight obsessed him and forbade comfort. He had killed his string; nothing was clear in his mind save that, and he screamed with his face hidden from his little world.
The Little Doctor, with anxious eyes and puckered eyebrows, poured something into a teaspoon and helped Chip fight to get it down the Kid's throat. And the Kid shrieked and struggled and strangled, as is the way of kids the world over, and tried to spit out the stuff and couldn't, so he screamed the louder and held his breath until he was purple, and his parents were scared stiff. The Old Man hobbled to the door in the midst of the uproar and asked them acrimoniously why they didn't make that doggoned Kid stop his howling; and when Chip, his nerves already strained to the snapping point, told him bluntly to get out and mind his own business, he hobbled away again muttering anathemas against the whole outfit.
The Countess rushed in from out of doors and wanted to know what under the shinin' sun was the matter with that kid, and advised his frantic parents to throw water in his face. Chip told her exactly what he had told the Old Man, in exactly the same tone; so the Countess retreated, declaring that he wouldn't be let to act that way if he was her kid, and that he was plumb everlastingly spoiled.
The Happy Family heard the disturbance and thought the Kid was being spanked for the accident, which put every man of them in a fighting humor toward Chip, the Little Doctor, the Old Man and the whole world. Pink even meditated going up to the White House to lick Chip--or at least tell him what he thought of him--and he had plenty of sympathizers; though they advised him half-heartedly not to buy in to any family mixup.
It was into this storm centre that Andy Green rode headlong with his own burden of threatened disaster.
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