The Little Doctor stepped out upon the porch with the faint tracing of a frown upon her smooth forehead, and with that slight tightening of the lips which to her family meant determination; disapproval sometimes, tense moments always.
She stood for a minute looking down toward the stables, and the wind that blew down the coulee seized upon the scant folds of her skirt, and flapped them impishly against the silken-clad ankles that were exceedingly good to look upon,—since fashion has now made it quite permissible to look upon ankles. Her lips did not relax with the waiting. Her frown grew a trifle more pronounced.
"Mr. Lindsay?" with a rising inflection.
Luck turned his head, saw her standing there, waved his hand to show that he heard, and started toward her with that brisk, purposeful swing to his walk that goes with an energetic disposition. The Little Doctor waited, and watched him, and did not relax a muscle from her determined attitude. Poor little Luck Lindsay hurried, so as not to keep her standing there in the wind, and, not knowing just what was before him, he smiled his smile as he came up to her.
I should have said, poor Little Doctor. She tried to keep her frown and the fixed idea that went with it, but she was foolish enough to look down into Luck's face and into his eyes with their sunny friendliness, and at the smile, where the friendliness was repeated and emphasized. Before she quite knew what she was doing, the Little Doctor smiled back. Still, she owned a fine quality of firmness.
"Come in here. I want to have it out with you, and be done," she said, and turned to open the door.
"Sounds bad, but I'm yours to command," Luck retorted cheerfully, and went up the steps still smiling. He liked the Little Doctor. She was his kind of woman. He felt that she would make a good pal, and he knew how few women are qualified for open comradeship. He cast a side glance at the kitchen window where the Kid stood with a large slice of bread and chokecherry jam balanced on his palm, and on his face a look of mental distress bordered with more jam. Luck nodded and waved his hand, and went in where the Little Doctor stood waiting for him with a certain ominous quiet in her manner. Luck shook back his heavy mane of hair that was graying prematurely, squared his shoulders, and then held out his hand meekly, palm upward. Boys learn that pose in school, you know.
"Oh, for pity's sake! If you go and make me laugh—and I am mad enough at you, Luck Lindsay, to—to blister that palm! If you weren't any bigger than Claude, I'd shake you and stand you in a corner on one foot."
"Listen. Shake me, anyway. I believe I'd kinda like it. And while I'm standing in the corner—on one foot—you can tell me all you're mad at me for."
The Little Doctor looked at him, bit her lip, and then found that her eyes were blurred so that his face seemed to waver and grow dim. And Luck Lindsay, because he saw the tears, laid a hand on her shoulder, and pushed her ever so gently into a chair.
"Tell me what's worrying you. If it's anything that I have done, I'll have one of the boys take me out and shoot me; it's what I would deserve. But I certainly can't think of anything—"
"Do you know that you have filled little Claude's mind up with stories about moving pictures till he's just crazy? He told me just now that he's going with you when you go back, and act in your company. And if I won't let him go, he said, he'd run away and 'hit a freight-train outa Dry Lake,' and get to California, anyway. And—he'd do it, too! He's perfectly awful when he gets an idea in his head. I know he's spoiled—all the boys pet him so—"
"Wait. Let's get this thing straight. Do you think for one minute, Mrs. Bennett, that I'd coax the Kid away? Say, that hurts—to have you believe that of me." There was no smile anywhere on Luck's face now. His eyes were as pained as his voice sounded.
Once more the Little Doctor weakened before him. She believed what he said, though five minutes before she had believed exactly the opposite. In her mind she had accused him of coaxing the Kid. She had fully intended accusing him of it to his face.
"I don't mean coax, perhaps. But—"
"Listen. If the Kid has got that notion, I'm more sorry than you can guess. Of course, I think pictures and I talk pictures; I admit I make them in my sleep. And the boys are interested. Those that are going back with me and those that are not are always sicking me at the subject. I admit that I sick easy," he added with a whimsical lightening of the eyes. "And the Kid and I are pals. I like him, Mrs. Bennett. He's got the stuff in him to make a real man—and I wouldn't call him spoiled, exactly. He's always been with grown-ups, and his mind has developed away ahead of the calendar; you see what I mean? He's nine, he tells me—"
"Only eight. He always tries to make himself older than he is," the Little Doctor corrected quickly.
"Well, he's some boy! And kids somehow take to me; I guess it's because I'm always chumming with them. He's been taking in everything that has been said; I could see that. But I surely never talked to him in the way you mean."
The Little Doctor looked at him and hesitated; but she was a frank young woman, and she could not help speaking her mind. "You mustn't take it personally at all," she said, "if I tell you that I am disappointed in the boys; in Andy and Rosemary especially, because they ought to appreciate the little home they have made, and stay with it. One sort of expects Pink and Big Medicine and Weary to do outlandish things. They haven't really grown up, and they never will. But I am disappointed, just the same, that they should want to go performing around and shooting blank cartridges and making clowns of themselves for moving pictures. Still, that's their own business, of course, if they want to be silly enough to do it. But now little Claude has taken the fever—and I wish, Mr. Lindsay, you could do something to—" She stopped, but not because what she said was hurting Luck's feelings. She did not know that she hurt him at all.
"It seems to be worse, in your estimation, than exposing the Kid to yellow fever," Luck observed quietly.
"Well, of course you can understand that I should not want a boy of mine to—to be all taken up with the idea of acting cowboy parts for a moving picture."
"Still, there are some fairly decent people in the business," Luck pointed out still more quietly, and got upon his feet. He had no smile now for the Little Doctor, though he was still gentle in his manner. "I see what you mean, Mrs. Bennett. I understand you perfectly. I shall do what I can to repair the damage to the Kid's character and ideals, and I want to thank you for coming to me in this matter. Otherwise I might have gone against your wishes without knowing that I was doing so." For two breaths or three he held her glance with something that looked out of his eyes; the Little Doctor did not know what it was. "You see, Mrs. Bennett, you don't quite understand what you are talking about," he added. "You have not had the opportunity to understand, of course. But I agree with you that the Kid's place is at home, and I shall certainly have a talk with him."
He moved to the door, laid a fine, well-kept hand upon the knob, and looked at her with a faint smile that had behind it a good deal that puzzled the Little Doctor. "Don't worry one minute," he said, dropping his punctilious politeness of the minute before, and becoming again the intensely human Luck Lindsay. "I 'heap sabe.' I've certainly corrupted the morals and ambitions of some of the boys—looking at it the way you do—but I promise to check the devastation right where it's at, and save your only son." He turned then and went out.
The Little Doctor paid him the tribute of hurrying to the window where she could watch him go down the path. In his walk, in the set of his head, there was still something that puzzled her. She hoped that he was not offended, and she thankfully remembered a good deal that she had left unsaid. She saw him turn and beckon, and then wait until the Kid had joined him from the kitchen. She saw the greeting he gave the Kid, and the adoration on the Kid's face when he looked up at Luck. The two went away together, and the Little Doctor watched them dubiously. What if the Kid should run away? He had done it once, and it was well within the probabilities that he might do it again, if this present obsession of his were not handled just right. The Kid, she had long ago discovered, could not be driven,—and there were times when he could not be coaxed.
Luck had been just three days at the Flying U. In those three days he had fitted himself into the place so well that even old Patsy, the cook, called him "Look" as easily as though he had been doing it for years; and Patsy, you must know, was fast acquiring the querulousness of an old age that does not sweeten with the passing years. Patsy had discovered that Luck liked his eggs fried on both sides, and thereafter he painstakingly turned three eggs bottomside up in the frying pan every morning; three and no more, though Cal Emmett remarked pointedly that he had always liked his eggs fried and flopped.
Three days, and the Old Man frequently left his big, soft-cushioned chair, and went slowly down to the bunk-house whence came much laughter, and listened to the stories that Luck told so well,—with one arm around the unashamed Kid, very likely, while he talked.
True, they had ranches of their own, those boys of the Flying U. But if you wanted to find them in a hurry, it were wise to ride first into Flying U coulee. That was headquarters, and that was home and always would be; even Andy Green, who was happily married, brought his wife and stayed there days at a time, with small excuse for the coming.
In three days, then, Luck had chosen his men from among the Happy Family, and had convinced them that their future welfare and happiness depended upon their going back with him to Los Angeles. In three days he had accomplished a good deal; but then, Luck was in the habit of crowding his days with achievement of one sort or another. As a matter of fact, the third day he had looked upon as one given solely to the pleasure of staying at the Flying U while the boys completed their arrangements for leaving with him. He had done all that he had planned to do, and he was in a very good humor with the world, or he had been until the Little Doctor had made his pride writhe under her innocent belittlement of his vocation. To have her boy work in pictures would be a calamity in her eyes; in Luck's eyes it would be an honor, provided he did the right kind of work in the right kind of pictures.
Luck's own personal opinion, however, did not weigh in this case. He had promised the Little Doctor that he would erase the impression he had made upon the Kid's too vivid imagination; so he led him to a retired place where they would be sheltered from the wind by a great stack of alfalfa hay, and he began in this wise:
"Old-timer, you're the luckiest boy I've seen in all my travels,—growing up here on the Flying U, with a mother like you've got, and a dad like Chip, and a ranch like this to get the swing of while you're growing; so that in another five years I expect you'll be running it yourself, and your folks will be larking around having the good time they've earned while they were raising you. I'll bet—"
"So Doctor Dell went and got around you, did she? I knew that was why she called you into the sett'n room. Forget it, Luck." The Kid spat manfully into the trodden hay, and pushed his small-size Stetson back so that his curls showed, and set his feet as far apart as was comfortable. "I knew she would," he added with weary wisdom in his tone. "Doctor Dell can get around anybody when she takes a notion."
Luck held his face from smiling. He looked surprised, and disappointed in the Kid, and sorry for the Kid's parents. At least, he made the Kid feel that he was thinking all these things, which proves how well one may master the art of facial expression. He did not say a word; therefore he put the Kid upon the defensive and set his young wits to devising arguments in his favor.
"A woman never knows when a fellow begins to grow up. Doctor Dell is the nicest girl in the world, but she needn't think I'm a baby yet. I can ride a buckin' horse, and I went on round-up last spring—and made a hand, too! I can swing a rope as good as any of the bunch; you seen me whirl a loop and jump through it, and there's more stunts than that I can do—it was dinner time, so I had to quit before I showed you." The Kid paused. He had not yet produced any effect whatever upon that surprised, pitying, disappointed look in Luck's face, and the Kid began to feel worried.
"Well, I was just bluffing when I said I'd run away—if she told you that." He stopped; the look was still there, only it now seemed to have contempt added to it. "I don't say I know more'n anybody on the ranch, and I don't say I'm boss of the ranch yet. I do what they tell me, even when I know there ain't any sense in it. I humor Doctor Dell a whole lot!" Could he never get that look off Luck's face? The Kid searched his soul anxiously. You couldn't go on arguing with that kind of a look; it made you feel like you'd been stealing sheep. "Oh, well, if you won't talk to a feller—" The Kid did not turn away quite soon enough to hide the quiver of his lips. Luck reached out and took a small, grimy hand and pulled the Kid nearer; near enough so that his arm could go around the Kid's quivering body. He held him close, and the Kid did not struggle. He dropped his face against Luck's shoulder, and began to fight back his tears.
"Listen, pardner," said Luck softly, one hand caressing the Kid's cheek. "You and I ought to sabe each other better than most folks, because we're pals. Now, I want you to go with me a heap more than you want to go; just tuck that away in your mind where you won't lose it. I want you, but I wouldn't have you without Doctor Dell's free and willing consent. I need you for my pal; and I could teach you a lot that would be useful to you. But they need you a whole lot worse than I do. They've been taking care of you and loving you and planning for you all these eight years, just watching you grow, and being proud of you because you're what they want you to be: husky and healthy and good all the way through. You couldn't go off and leave them now; it wouldn't be right. And, pard, you need them even worse than they need you. I know,—because I had to grow up without any one to love me and look after me; and believe me, old pal, it isn't any cinch. It's just pure luck that I didn't get killed off or go bad. Now, I'd be good to you, if I had you with me, and so would the boys; but we couldn't take the place of Doctor Dell and Daddy Chip.
"I've talked pictures too much to you. I didn't know how it was hitting you, or how much you wanted to go. But listen. If I had the chance you've got here,—if I had a ranch like this, and cattle, and horses, and a father and mother and uncle like you've got,—I never would look a camera in the eye again as long as I live. That's straight, old-timer. Why, I'm working my head off trying to get enough ahead so that I can have a ranch of my own! So I can slap a saddle on a horse that carries my brand, and ride out after my cattle, and haze them into my corral; so I can have a home that is mine. I never did have one, pardner,—not since I was a heap smaller than you are now,—and a home of his own is what every man wants most, down deep in his heart.
"It looks fine to be traveling around, and making moving pictures. It is fine if you are cut out for that kind of work, and have got to be working for somebody else to get your start. But remember, pard, I am working and scheming and planning to get just what you've got already. You, a kid eight years old, stand right where I'd give all I've got to stand. You'll own your own ranch and your own home. You've got folks that love you—not because you hand out the pay envelope on a certain day of the week, but because you belong to them, and they belong to you. Kid, I'm thirty-two years old—and I've never known what that felt like. I have never known what it was like to have some one plan for me and with me, unless they were paid for it."
The Kid stood very still. "You could live here," he lifted his head to say gravely after a little silence that was full of thought. "This can be your home. You can be one of the Happy Family. We'd like to have you."
There was something queer in Luck's voice when he murmured a reply. There was something in his face which no one but the Kid had ever seen. The Kid's arm crept around Luck's neck, and tightened there and stayed. Luck's hand went up to the curls and hovered there caressingly. And they talked, in tones lowered to the cadence of deep-hidden hopes and longings revealed in sacred confidence.
The Little Doctor, shamelessly eavesdropping because she was a mother fighting for her fledgling, tiptoed away from the corner of the stack, and went back to the house, wiping her eyes frequently with the corner of her handkerchief that was not embroidered. She went into her room and stayed there a long while, and before she came out she had recourse to rosewater and talcum and other first aids to swollen eyelids.
Whatever she may have thought, whatever she may have overheard beyond what has been recorded, her manner toward Luck was so unobtrusively tender that Chip looked at her once or twice with a puzzled, husbandly frown. Also, the Kid felt something special in his Doctor Dell's good-night kiss; something he did not understand at all, since he had not yet told her that he was going to be a good boy and stay at home and take care of her and the ranch.