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VIC SHOULD WORRY
Wise man or fool, Peter had taken the one way to impress obedience upon Helen May. Had he urged and argued and kept on living, Helen May could have brought forth reasons and arguments, eloquence even, to combat him. But Peter had taken the simple, unanswerable way of stating his wishes, opening the way to their accomplishment, and then quietly lying back upon his pillow and letting death take him beyond reach of protest.
For days Helen May was numb with the sudden dropping of Life's big responsibilities upon her shoulders. She could not even summon energy enough to call Vic to an accounting of his absences from the house. Until after the funeral Vic had been subdued, going around on his toes and looking at Helen May with wide, solemn eyes and lips prone to trembling. But fifteen years is the resilient age, and two days after Peter was buried, Vic asked her embarrassedly if she thought it would look right for him to go to the ball game. He had to do something, he added defensively.
"Oh, I guess so; run along," Helen May had told him absently, without in the least realizing what it was he had wanted to do. After that Vic went his way without going through the ceremony of asking her consent, secure in the knowledge of her indifference.
The insurance company for which she had worked set in motion the wheels that would eventually place in her hands the three thousand dollars for which Peter had calmly given his life. She hated the money. She wanted to tell her dad how impossible it was for her to use a cent of it. Yet she must use it. She must use it as he had directed, because he had died to open the way for her obedience. She must take Vic, against his violent young will, she suspected, and she must go to that claim away off there somewhere in the desert, and she must live in the open--and raise goats! For there was a certain strain of Peter's simplicity in the nature of his daughter. His last scrawled advice was to her a command which she must obey as soon as she could muster the physical energy for obedience.
"What do I know about goats!" she impatiently asked her empty room one morning after a night of fantastic dreams. "They eat tin cans and paper, and Masonic candidates ride them, and they stand on high banks and look silly, and have long chin whiskers and horns worn back from their foreheads. But as to raising them--what are they good for, for heaven's sake?"
"Huh? Say, what are you mumbling about?" Vic, it happened, was awake, and Helen May's door was ajar.
"Oh, nothing." Then the impulse of speech being strong in her, Helen May pulled on a kimono and went out to where Vic lay curled up in the blankets on the couch. "We've got to go to New Mexico, Vic, and, live on that land dad bought the rights to, and raise goats!"
"Yes, we have--not!"
"We have. Dad said so. We've got to do it, Vic. I expect we'd better start as soon as the insurance is paid, and that ought to be next week. Malpais is the name of the darned place. Inez Garcia says Malpais means bad country. I asked her when she was here yesterday. I expect it does, though you can't tell about Inez. She's tricky about translating stuff; she thinks it's funny to fake the meaning of things. But I expect it's true; it sounds like that."
"I should worry," Vic yawned, with the bland triteness of a boy who speaks mostly in current catch phrases. "I've got a good chance for a juvenile part in that big five-reeler Walt's going to put on. Fat chance anybody's got putting me to herding goats! That New Mexico dope got my number the first time dad sprung it. Not for mine!"
Helen May sat down on the arm of a Mission chair, wrapped her kimono around her thin figure, and looked at Vic from under her lashes. Besides raising goats and living out in the open, she was to make a man of Vic. She did not know which duty appalled her most, or which animal seemed to her the more intractable.
"We've got to do it," she said simply. "I don't like it either, but that doesn't matter. Dad planned that way for us."
Vic sat up crossly, groping for the top button of his pajama coat. His long hair was tousled in front and stood straight up at the back, and his lids were heavy yet with sleep. He looked very young and very unruly, and as though several years of grace were still left to Helen May before she need trouble herself about his manhood.
"Not for mine," he repeated stubbornly. "You can go if you want to, but I'm going to stay in pictures." No film star in the city could have surpassed Vic's tone of careless assurance. "Listen! Dad was queer along towards the last. You know that yourself. And just because he had a nutty idea of a ranch somewhere, is no reason why we should drop everything--"
"We've got to do it, and you needn't fuss, because you've got to go along. I expect we can study up--on goats." Her voice shook a little, for she was close to tears.
"Well, I'm darned if you ain't as nutty as dad was! Of course, he was old and sick, and there was plenty of excuse for him to slop down along towards the last. Now, listen! My idea is to get a nifty bungalow out there handy to the studios, and both of us to go into pictures. We can get a car; what I want is a speedy, sassy little boat that can travel. Well, and listen. We'll have plenty to live on till we both land in stock. I've got a good chance right now to work into a comedy company; they say my grin screens like a million dollars, and when it comes to making a comedy getaway I'm just geared right, somehow, to pull a laugh. That college picture we made got me a lot of notice in the projection room, and I was only doing mob stuff, at that. But I stood out. And Walt's promised me a fat little bit in this five-reeler. I'll land in stock before the summer's half over!
"And you can land with some good company if you just make a stab at it. Your eyes and that trick of looking up under your eyebrows are just the type for these sob leads, and you've got a good photographic face: a good face for it," he emphasized generously. "And your figure couldn't be beat. Believe me, I know. You ought to see some of them Janes--and at that, they manage to get by with their stuff. A little camera experience, under a good director that would bring out your good points--I was going to spring the idea before, but I knew dad wouldn't stand for it."
"But we've got to go and live on that claim. We've got to."
Vic's face purpled. "Say, are you plumb bugs? Why--" Vic gulped and stuttered. "Say, where do you get that stuff? You better tie a can to it, sis; it don't get over with me. I'm for screen fame, and I'm going to get it too. Why, by the time I'm twenty, I'll betcha I can pull down a salary that'll make Charlie Chaplin look like an extra! Why, my grin--"
"Your grin you can use on the goats," Helen May quelled unfeelingly. "I only hope it won't scare the poor things to death. You needn't argue about it--as if I was crazy to go! Do you think I want to leave Los Angeles, and everybody I know, and everything I care about, and go to New Mexico and live like a savage, and raise goats? I'd rather go to jail, if you ask me. I hate the very thought of a ranch, Vic Stevenson, and you know I do. But that doesn't matter a particle. Dad--"
"I told you dad was crazy!" Vic's tone was too violent for grief. His young ambitions were in jeopardy, and even his dad's death must look unimportant alongside the greater catastrophe that threatened. "Do you think, for gosh sake, the whole family's got to be nutty just because he was sick and got a queer streak?"
"You've no right to say that. Dad--knew what he was doing."
"Aw, where do you get that dope?" Vic eyed her disgustedly, and with a good deal of condescension. "If you had any sense, you'd knew he was queer for days before it happened. I noticed it, all right, and if you didn't--"
Helen May did not say anything at all. She got up and went to her room and came back with Peter's last, pitiful letter. She gave it to Vic and sat down again on the arm of the Mission chair and waited, looking at him from, under her lashes, her head tilted forward.
Vic was impressed, impressed to a round-eyed silence. He knew his dad's handwriting, and he unfolded the sheet and read what Peter had written.
"I found that letter in--his hand--that morning." Helen May tried to keep her voice steady. "You mustn't tell any one about it, Vic. They mustn't know. But you see, he--after doing that to get the money for me, why--you see, Vic, we've got to go there. And we've got to make good. We've got to."
There must have been a little of Peter's disposition in Vic, too. He lay for several minutes staring hard at a patch of sunlight on the farther wall. I suppose when one is fifteen the ambition to be a movie star dies just as hard as does later the ambition to be president of the United States.
"You see, don't you, Vic?" Helen May watched him nervously.
"Well, what do you think I am?" Vic turned upon her with a scowl. "You might have said it was for your health. You wasn't playing fair. You--you kept saying it was to raise goats!"
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