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WHEREIN LUCK MAKES A SPEECH
Luck stood on the platform of the Texas Cattlemen's Convention and looked down upon the work-lined, brown faces of the men whose lives had for the most part been spent out of doors. Their sober attentiveness confused him for a minute so that he forgot what he wanted to say--he, Luck Lindsay, who had faced the great audiences of Madison Square Garden and had smiled his endearing smile and made his bow with perfect poise and an eye for pretty faces; who had without a quiver faced the camera, many's the time, in difficult scenes; who had faced death more times than he could count, and what was to him worse than death,--blank failure. But these old range-men with the wind-and-sun wrinkles around their eyes, and their ready-to-wear suits, and their judicial air of sober attention,--these were to him the jury that would weigh his work and say whether it was worthy. These men--
And then one of them suddenly cleared his throat with a rasping sound like old Dave Wiswell, his dried little cowman of the picture, and embarrassment dropped from Luck like a cloak flung aside. He was here to put his work to the test; to let these men say whether The Phantom Herd was worthy to be called a great picture, one of which the West could be proud. So he pushed back his mop of hair--grayer than the hair of many here old enough to be his father--with the fiat of his palm, and looked straight into the faces of these men and said what he had to say:
"Mr. Chairman, and gentlemen of this Convention, I consider it a great privilege to be able to stand here and speak to you--a greater privilege than any of you realize, perhaps. For my heart has always been in the range-land, my people have been the people of the plains. I have to-day been honored by the hand-grip of old-timers who were riding circle, trailing long-horns, and working cattle when I was a boy in short pants.
"I have trailed herds on the pay roll of one man who remembers me here to-day, and of others who have crossed the Big Divide. I have seen the open range shrink before the coming of barbed wire and settlers. I have watched the 'long shadow' fall across God's own cattle country.
"Since I entered the motion-picture business, my one great aim and my one great dream has been to produce one real Western picture. One picture that I could present with pride to such a convention as this, and have men who have spent their lives in the cattle industry give it the stamp of their approval; one picture that would make such men forget the present and relive the old days when they were punchers all and proud of it. Such an opportunity came to me last fall and I made the most of it. I got me a bunch of real boys, and went to work on the picture I have called The Phantom Herd. From the trail-herds going north I have tried to weave into my story a glimpse of the whole history of the range critter, from the shivering, new-born calf that hit the range along with a spring blizzard, to the big, four-year-old steer prodded up the chutes into the shipping cars.
"I want you, who know the false from the real, to see The Phantom Herd and say whether I have done my work well. I finished the picture yesterday, and I have brought it down here for the purpose of asking you to honor me by accepting an invitation to a private showing of the picture this evening, here in this hall. I want you to come and bring your wives and your children with you if you can. I want you to see The Phantom Herd before it goes to the public--and to-morrow I shall face you again and accept your verdict. You know the West. You will know a Western picture when you see it. I know you know, and I want you to tell me what you think of it. Your word will be final, as far as I am concerned. Gentlemen, I hope you will all be present here to-night at eight o'clock as my guests. I thank you for your attention."
Luck went away from there feeling, and telling himself emphatically, that he had made a "rotten" talk. He had not said what he had meant to say, or at least he had not said it the way he had meant to say it. But he was too busy to dwell much upon his deficiencies as an orator; he had yet to borrow a projection machine and operator from somewhere--for, as usual, he had issued his invitation before he had definitely arranged for the exhibition, and had trusted to luck and his own efforts to be able to keep his promise.
Luck (or his own efforts) landed him within easy conversational reach of a man who was preparing to open a little theater on a side street. The seats were not in yet, but he had his machine, and he meant to operate it himself, while his wife sold tickets and his boy acted as usher,--a family combination which to Luck seemed likely to be a success. This man, when Luck made known his needs, said he was perfectly willing to "limber up" his machine and himself on The Phantom Herd, if Luck would let his wife and boy see the picture, and would pay the slight operating expenses. So that was settled very easily.
At five minutes to eight that evening all of the cattlemen and a few favored, influential citizens of El Paso whom Luck had invited personally sat waiting before the blank screen. Up in the operator's cramped quarters Luck was having a nervous chill and trying his best not to show it, and he was telling the operator to give it time enough, for the Lord's sake, and to be sure he had everything ready before he started in, and so forth, until the operator was almost as nervous as Luck himself.
"Now, look here," he cried exasperatedly at last. "You know your business, and I know mine. You're going to have me named in your write-ups as the movie-man that run this show for the convention, ain't you? And I'm going to open up a picture house next week in this town, ain't I? And I ain't going to advertise myself as a bum operator, am I? Now you vamos outa here and get down there in the audience, if you don't want me to get the fidgets and spoil something. Go on--beat it!"
Luck must have been in a strange condition, for he beat it promptly and without any retort, and slid furtively into a chair between two old range-men just as the operator's boy-usher switched off the lights. Luck's heart began to pound so that he half expected his neighbors to tell him to close his muffler,--only they were of the saddle-horse fraternity and would not have known what the phrase meant.
The Phantom Herd flashed suddenly upon the screen and joggled there dizzily, away over to one side. Luck clapped his hand to his perspiring forehead and murmured "Oh, my Gawd!" like a prayer, and shut his eyes to hide from them the desecration. He opened them to find that the caste was just flicking off and the first scene dissolving in.
The man at his left gave a long sigh and crossed his knees, and leaned back and began to chew tobacco rapidly between his worn old molars.
"Oh, a ten dollar hoss and a forty dollar saddle, I'm goin' to punchin' Texas cattle."
The sub-title dissolved slowly into a scene showing a cow-puncher (who was Weary) swinging on to his rangy cow-Horse and galloping away after the chuck-wagon just disappearing in the wake of the dust-flinging remuda. Back somewhere in the dusk of the audience, a man began to hum the tune that went with the words, and the heart of Luck Lindsay gave an exultant bound. He had used lines from "The Old Chisholm Trail" and other old-time range songs for his sub-titles, to keep the range atmosphere complete, and that cracked voice humming unconsciously told how it appealed to these men of the range.
Luck did not slide down in his seat so that his head rested on the chair-back while The Phantom Herd was being shown. Instead, he sat leaning forward, with his face white and strained, and watched for weak points and for bad photography and scenes that could have been bettered.
He saw the big trail-herd go winding away across the level, with Weary riding "point" and Happy Jack bringing up the "drag," and the others scattered along between; riding slouched in their saddles, hatbrims pulled low over eyes smarting with the dust that showed in a thin film at the head of the herd and grew thicker toward the drag, until riders and animals were seen dimly through a haze.
"My--I can just feel that dust in m' throat!" muttered the man at his right, and coughed.
Luck saw the storm come muttering up just as the cattle were bedding down for the night. He saw the lightning, and he knew that those who watched with him were straining forward. He heard some one say involuntarily: "They'll break and run, sure as hell!" and he knew that he had done that part of his work well.
He saw the night scenes he had taken in town. He almost forgot that all this was his work, so smoothly did the story steal across his senses and beguile him into half believing it was true and not a fabric which he had built with careful planning and much toil. He saw the round-up scenes; the day-herd, the cutting-out and the branding, the beef-herd driven to the shipping cars. True, those steers were not exactly prime beef,--he had caught the culls only, late in the season for these scenes--but they passed, with one audible comment that this was a poor season for beef!
"We rounded 'em up and we put 'em in the cars--"
The sub-title sang itself familiarly into the minds of the range men. More than one voice was heard to begin a surreptitious humming of the old tune, and to cease abruptly with the sudden self-consciousness of the singer.
But there was the story, growing insensibly out of the range work. Luck, more at ease now in his mind, studied it critically. There was the quarrel between old Dave and Andy, his son. He saw the old man out with his men, standing his shift of night-guard, stubbornly resisting the creeping years and his load of trouble; riding around the sleeping herd with his head sunk on his chest, meeting the younger guard twice on each complete circle, and yet never seeming to see him at all.
"Sing low to your cattle, sing low to your steers--"
The words and the scene opened wide the door of memory and let whole troops of ghosts come drifting in out of the past. The hall, Luck roused himself to notice, was very, very still; so still that the sizzling sound of the machine at the rear was distinct and oppressive.
There was the blizzard, terrible in its biting realism. There was the old cow and calf, separated from the herd, fighting in the primal instinct to preserve themselves alive,--fighting and losing. There was that other, more terrible fight for existence, the fight of the Native Son against the snow and the cold. Men drew their breath sharply when he fell and did not rise again. They shivered when the snow began to drift against his quiet body, to lodge and shift and settle, and grow higher and higher until the bank was even with his shoulders, to drift over him and make of him a white mound--And then, when Andy staggered up through the swirl, leading his horse and shouting; when he stumbled against Miguel and tried to raise him and rouse him, a sound like a groan went through the crowd.
"Close a call as I ever had was in a blizzard like that," the old man at Luck's left whispered agitatedly to Luck behind his palm, when the lights snapped on while the operator was changing for the last reel.
There was Andy, haunted and haggard, at home again with his father. There were those dissolve scenes of the "phantom herd" drifting always across the skyline whenever Andy looked out into the night or rose startled from uneasy sleep. Weird, it was,--weird and real and very terrible. And, at last, there was that wonderful camp-fire scene of the Indian girl who prayed to her gods before she went to meet her lover who was dead and could not keep the tryst. There were heart-breaking scenes where the Indian girl wandered in wild places, looking, hoping, despairing--Luck had planned every little detail of those scenes, and yet they thrilled him as though he had come to them unawares.
He did not wait after the last scene faded out slowly. He slipped quietly into the aisle and went away, while the hands of the old-timers were stinging with applause. Halfway down the block he heard it still, and his steps quickened unconsciously. They were calling his name, back there in the hall. They were all talking at once and clapping their hands and, as an interlude, shouting the name of Luck Lindsay. But Luck did not heed. He wanted to get away by himself. He did not feel as though he could say anything at all to any one, just then. He had seen his Big Picture, and he had seen that it was as big and as perfect, almost, as he had dreamed it. To Luck, at that moment, words would have cheapened it,--even the words of the old cattlemen.
He went to his hotel and straight up to his room, regardless of the fact that it would have been to his advantage to mingle with his guests and to listen to their praise. He went to bed and lay there in the dark, reliving the scenes of his story. Then, after awhile, he drifted off into sleep, his first dreamless, untroubled slumber in many a night.
By the time the Convention was assembled the next day, however, he had recovered his old spirit of driving energy. The chairman had invited him by telephone to attend the afternoon meeting, and Luck went--to be greeted by a rousing applause when he walked down the aisle to the platform where the chairman was waiting for him.
Resolutions had already been passed, the Convention as a body thanking Luck Lindsay for the privilege of seeing what was in their judgment the greatest Western picture that had ever been produced. The chairman made a little speech about the pleasure and the privilege, and presented Luck with a letter of endorsement and signed with due formality by chairman and secretary and sealed with the official seal. Attached to the letter was a copy of the vote of thanks, and you may imagine how Luck smiled when he saw that!
He stayed a little while, and during the recess which presently was called he shook hands with many an old-timer whose name stood for a good deal in the great State of Texas. Then he left them, still smiling over what he called his good luck, and wired a copy of the letter of endorsement to all the trade journals, to be incorporated in his full-page advertising. By another stroke of luck he caught most of the trade journals before their forms closed for the next issue, so that The Phantom Herd was speedily heralded throughout the profession as the first really authentic Western drama ever produced. By still another stroke of what he called luck, an Associated Press man found him out, and was pleased to ask him many questions and to make a few notes; and Luck, wise to the value of publicity, answered the questions and saw to it that the notes recorded interesting facts.
That evening Luck, feeling that he had reached the last mile-post on the road to success, hunted up a few old-timers who appealed to him most as true types of the range, and gave them a dinner in a certain place which he knew was run by an old round-up cook. There was nothing about that dinner which would have appealed to a cabaret crowd. They talked of the old days when Luck was a lad, those old-timers; they talked of trail-herds and of droughts and of floods and blizzards and range wars and the market prices of beef "on the hoof." They called in the old round-up cook and cursed him companionably as one of themselves, and remembered that more than one of them had run when he pounded the bottom of a frying pan and hollered "Come and get it!" They ate and they smoked and they talked and talked and talked, until Luck had to indulge himself in a taxi if he would not miss the eleven o'clock train north. His only regret, in spite of the fact that he was practically and familiarly broke again, was that circumstances did not permit the Happy Family to sit with him at that table. Especially did he regret not having old Applehead and the dried little man with him that night to make his gathering complete.
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