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"THE CHANCES IS SLIM AND GITTIN' SLIMMER"
"Must be going to snow," Weary observed with a sly twinkle, "'cause Paddy cat has got his tail brustled up bigger than a trapped coon."
"Aw, that's because Shunky Cheestely chased him all the way up from the corral a minute ago," Happy Jack explained the phenomenon. "I betcher he swaps ends some uh these times and gives that dog the s'prise of his life. He come purty near makin' a stand t'night."
"We-ell, when he does turn on that thar mongrel purp, they's goin' to be some dawg scattered around over the premises--now I'm tellin' yuh!" Applehead cocked his eye toward Annie-Many-Ponies and nodded his head in solemn warning. "He's takin' a mighty long chance, every time he turns that thar trick uh chasin' Compadre all over the place; and them that thinks anything uh that thar dawg--"
"I betcher it's goin' to snow, all right," Happy Jack interrupted the warning. "Chickydees was swarmin' all over the place, t'day."
"We-ell, now, yuh don't want to go too much on them chickydees," Applehead dissented. "Change uh wind'll set them flockin' and chirpin'. Ain't ary flake uh snow in the wind t'day, fur's I kin smell--and I calc'late I kin smell snow fur's the next one."
"Oh, let's not talk about snow; that's getting to be a painful subject on this ranch," Rosemary pleaded, while she placed twelve pairs of steel knives and forks on the long, white-oilcloth-covered table.
"'Painful subject' is right," Luck stated grimly, glancing up from the endless figuring and scribbling which seemed to occupy all his time indoors that was not actually given over to eating and sleeping. "If you don't begin to smell snow pretty quick, Applehead, I can see where The Phantom Herd don't have any phantom herd." The corners of his mouth quirked upward, though his smile was becoming almost a stranger to his face.
"We-ell, I dunno's you can blame me because it don't snow. I can't make it snow if it takes a notion not to snow--"
"Oh, come and eat, and never mind the snow," called Rosemary impatiently.
"We've got to mind the snow--or we don't eat much longer!" Luck laid aside his papers with the tired gesture which betrays heavy anxiety. "The whole punch of the picture depends on that blizzard and what it leads up to. It's getting close to March,--this is the twentieth of February,--and the Texas Cattleman's Convention meets the first of April. I've got to have the picture done by then, so as to show it and get their endorsement as a body, in order to boost the sales up where they belong."
"Mamma!" Weary looked up at him, open-eyed. "How long have you had that notion in your head,--showing the picture to the Cattlemen's Convention? I never heard of it."
"I might say quite a few things you haven't heard me say before," Luck retorted, so harassed that he never knew how sharp a snub he had given. "I've had that in mind from the start; ever since I read when and where the convention would meet this spring. We've got to have that blizzard, and we've got to have it before many more days."
"Oh, well, we'll have it," Rosemary soothed, as she would have comforted a child. "I just know March will come in like a roaring lion! Have some beans. They're different, to-night. I cooked them with plain salt pork instead of bacon. You can't imagine what a difference it makes!"
Luck was on the point of snapping out something that would have hurt her feelings. He did not want baby-soothing. It did not comfort him in the least to have her assure him that it would snow, when he knew she had absolutely no foundation for such an assurance. But just before he spoke, he remembered how bravely she had been smiling at hardships that would have broken the spirit of most women, so he took the beans and smiled at her, and did not speak at all.
Trouble, that month, was riding Luck hard. The blizzard that was absolutely vital to his picture-plot seemed as remote as in June. Other storms had come to delay his work without giving him the benefit of any spectacular effect. There had been days of whooping wind, when even the saddle strings popped in the air like whiplashes, and he could not "shoot" interior scenes because he could not shelter his stage from the wind, and everything blew about in a most maddening manner to one who is trying, for instance, to portray the calmness of a ranch-house kitchen at supper time.
There had been days of lowering clouds which brought nothing but exasperating little flurries of what Applehead called "spit snow,"--flurries that passed before Luck could get ready for a scene. There had been one terrific sand storm which had nearly caught them in the open. But Applehead had warned them, and Luck, fortunately for them all, had heeded the warning. They had reached shelter just before the full force of the storm had struck them, and for six hours the air was a hell of sand in violent flight through the air. For six hours they could not see as far as the stable, and the rooms were filled with an impalpable haze of dust which filtered through minute crevices under the roof and around the doors and windows.
Luck, when that storm broke, was worried over his negative drying in the garret, until he had hurried up the ladder to see what might be done. He had found the film practically dry, and had carried it down in much relief to his dark room which, being light-proof, was also practically dust-proof.
There had been other vexations, but there had been fine, clear days as well. Luck had used those fine days to their full capacity for yielding him picture-light. Could he have been certain of getting his "blizzard stuff" now, he would have left but his one load of financial worry. That was a heavy one, but he felt he could carry it with a better grace if only he could be sure that his picture would be completed in time.
"Pass the beans, Luck," Pink broke into his abstraction. "Seems like I've had beans before, this week, but I'll try them another whirl, anyway."
"Ever try syrup on 'em?" old Dave Wiswell looked up from his plate to inquire. "Once you git to likin' 'em that way, they go pretty good for a change."
Pink, anxious for variety in the monotonous menu, but doubtful of the experiment, poured a teaspoon of syrup over a teaspoon of beans, conveyed the mixture to his mouth, and made a hurried trip to the door. "Say! was that a joke?" he demanded, when he returned grimacing to his place.
"Joke? No, ain't no joke about that," the dried little man testified earnestly. "Once you git to likin' 'em that way--"
Pink scowled suspiciously. "I'll take mine straight," he said, and sent a resentful glance at Annie-Many-Ponies who was tittering behind her palm.
"I calc'late I better beef another critter," Applehead suggested pacifically. "Worst of it is, the cattle's all so danged pore they ain't much pickin' left on their bones after the hide's skun off. If that blizzard ever does come, Luck's shore goin' to have all the pore-cow atmosphere he wants!"
To Luck their talk, good-humored though it was, hurt him like a blow upon bruised flesh. For their faith in him they were eating beans three times a day with laughter and jest to sweeten the fare. For their faith in him they were riding early and late, enduring hardships and laughing at them. If he failed, he knew that they would hide their disappointment under some humorous phase of the failure;--if they could find one. He could not tell them how close he was to failure. He could not tell them in plain words how much hung upon the coming of that storm in time for him to reach the cowmen at their convention. Their ignorance of the profession kept them from worrying much about it; their absolute confidence in his knowledge let them laugh at difficulties which held him awake when they were sleeping.
But for all that he went doggedly ahead, trusting in luck theoretically while he overlooked nothing that would make for success. While Applehead sniffed the air and shook his head, Luck was doing everything he could think of to keep things going steadily along to a completion of the production.
He made all of his "close-ups," his inserts, and sub-titles. He cut negative by his continuity sheet at night after the others were all in bed, and pigeon-holed the scenes ready for joining. He ordered what "positive" he would need, and he arranged for his advertising matter. All his interior scenes, save the double-exposure "vision" scenes, were done by the fifteenth of March,--March which had not come in like a roaring lion, as Rosemary had predicted with easy optimism, but which had been nerve-wrackingly lamblike to the very middle of the month.
With a dogged persistence in getting ready for the fulfilment of his hopes, he ordered tanks and printer for the final work of getting his stuff ready for the market. He had at best a crudely primitive outfit, though he saw his bank balance dwindle and dwindle to a most despairingly small sum. And still it did not snow nor show any faint promise of snow.
"Well," he remarked grimly one morning, when the boys asked him at breakfast about his plans, "you can go back to bed, for all I care. I've done everything I can do--till we get that snowstorm. All we can do now is sit tight and trust to luck."
"What day uh the month is this?" Applehead wanted to know. His face was solemn with his responsibility as a weather prophet.
"The twentieth day of March," Luck replied, with the air of one who has the date branded deep on his consciousness.
"Twentieth uh March--hm-mm? We-ell, now, I have knowed it to storm, and storm hard, after this time uh year. But comin' the way she did last fall, 'n' all this here wind 'n' bluster 'n' snowin' on the Zandias and never comin' no further down, I calc'late the chances is slim, boy--'n' gittin' slimmer every day, now I'm tellin' yuh!"
"Well, say! Ain't yuh got a purty fair pitcher the way she stands?" Big Medicine inquired aggressively. "Seems t' me we've done enough ridin' and actin', by cripes, t' make half a dozen pitchers better'n what I've ever saw."
"That isn't the point." Luck's voice was lifeless, with a certain dogged combativeness that had come into it during the last two months. "We've got to have that storm. This isn't going to be any make-shift affair. We've got some good film, yes. But it's like starting a funny story and being choked off before you get to the laugh in it. We've got to have that storm, I tell you!" His eyes challenged them harshly to dispute his statement.
"Well, darn it, have your storm, then. I'm willin'," Big Medicine bellowed with ill-timed facetiousness. "Pink, you run and git Luck a storm; git him a good big one, guaranteed to last 'im four days or money refunded. You git one--"
"Listen, Bud." Luck stood suddenly before Big Medicine, quivering with nervous rage. "Don't joke about this. There's no joke in this at all. No one with any brains can see anything funny in having failure stare him in the face. Twelve of us have put every ounce of our best work and our best patience and every dollar we possess in the world into this venture. I've worked day and night on this picture. I've worked you boys in weather that wasn't fit for a dog to be out in. I've seen Rosemary Green slaving in this dark little hole of a kitchen because we can't afford a cook for the outfit. You've all been dead game--I'll hand it to you for that--every white chip has gone into the pot. If we fail we'll have to borrow carfare to get outa here. And here's Applehead. We've used his ranch, we've used his house and his horses and himself; we've killed his cattle for beef, by ----! And we've got just that one chance--the chance of a storm--for winning out. One chance, and that chance getting slimmer every day, as he says. No--there's no joke in this; or if there is, I've lost my appetite for comedy. I can't laugh." He stopped as suddenly as he had begun his rapid speech, caught up his hat, and went out alone into the soft morning sunlight. He left silence behind him,--a stunned silence that was awkward to break.
"It's a perfect shame!" Rosemary said at last, and her lips were trembling. "He's just about crazy--and I know he hasn't slept a wink, lately, just from worrying."
"I calc'late that's about the how of it," Applehead agreed, rubbing his chin nervously. "He lays awful still, last few weeks, and that thar's a bad sign fer him. And I ain't heerd 'im talkin' in his sleep lately, either. Up till lately he made more pitchers asleep than he done awake. Take it when things was movin' right along, Mis' Green, 'n' Luck was shore talkative, now I'm tellin' yuh!"
"My father, he got one oncle," Annie-Many-Ponies spoke up unexpectedly from her favorite corner. "Big Medicine man. Maybe I write one letter, maybe Noisy-Owl he come, make plenty storm. Noisy-Owl, he got awful strong medicine for make storm come."
"Well, by cripes, yuh better send for 'im then!" Big Medicine advised gruffly, and went out.
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