Bad News





Andy Green, that honest-eyed young man whom everyone loved, but whom

not a man believed save when he was indulging his love for more or less

fantastic flights of the imagination, pulled up on the brow of Flying U

coulee and stared somberly at the picture spread below him. On the porch

of the White House the hammock swung gently under the weight of the

Little Doctor, who pushed her shipper-toe mechanically against a post

support at regular intervals while she read.



On the steps the Kid was crawling laboriously upward, only to descend

again quite as laboriously when he attained the top. One of the boys was

just emerging from the blacksmith shop; from the build of him Andy knew

it must be either Weary or Irish, though it would take a much closer

observation, and some familiarity with the two to identify the man more

exactly. In the corral were a swirl of horses and an overhanging cloud

of dust, with two or three figures discernible in the midst, and away

in the little pasture two other figures were galloping after a fleeing

dozen of horses. While he looked, old Patsy came out of the messhouse,

and went, with flapping flour-sack apron, to the woodpile.



Peaceful it was, and home-like and contentedly prosperous; a little

world tucked away in its hills, with its own little triumphs and

defeats, its own heartaches and rejoicings; a lucky little world,

because its triumphs had been satisfying, its defeats small, its

heartaches brief, and its rejoicings untainted with harassment or guilt.

Yet Andy stared down upon it with a frown; and, when he twitched the

reins and began the descent, he sighed impatiently.



Past the stable he rode with scarcely a glance toward Weary, who shouted

a casual "Hello" at him from the corral; through the big gate and up the

trail to the White House, and straight to the porch, where the Little

Doctor flipped a leaf of her magazine and glanced at him with a smile,

and the Kid turned his plump body upon the middle step and wrinkled his

nose in a smile of recognition, while he threw out an arm in welcome,

and made a wobbling effort to get upon his feet.



Andy smiled at the Kid, but his smile did not reach his eyes, and faded

almost immediately. He glanced at the Little Doctor, sent his horse past

the steps and the Kid, and close to the railing, so that he could lean

and toss the mail into the Little Doctor's lap. There was a yellow

envelope among the letters, and her fingers singled it out curiously.

Andy folded his hands upon the saddle-horn and watched her frankly.



"Must be from J. G.," guessed the Little Doctor, inserting a slim finger

under the badly sealed flap. "I've been wondering if he wasn't going

to send some word--he's been gone a week--Baby! He's right between

your horse's legs, Andy! Oh-h--baby boy, what won't you do next?" She

scattered letters and papers from her lap and flew to the rescue. "Will

he kick, Andy? You little ruffian." She held out her arms coaxingly from

the top of the steps, and her face, Andy saw when he looked at her, had

lost some of its color.



"The horse is quiet enough," he reassured her. "But at the same time I

wouldn't hand him out as a plaything for a kid." He leaned cautiously

and peered backward.



"Oh--did you ever see such a child! Come to mother, Baby!" Her voice was

becoming strained.



The Kid, wrinkling his nose, and jabbering unintelligibly at her, so

that four tiny teeth showed in his pink mouth, moved farther backward,

and sat down violently under the horse's sweat-roughened belly. He

wriggled round so that he faced forward, reached out gleefully, caught

the front fetlocks, and cried "Dup!" while he pulled. The Little Doctor

turned white.



"He's all right," soothed Andy, and, leaning with a twist of his slim

body, caught the Kid firmly by the back of his pink dress, and lifted

him clear of danger. He came up with a red face, tossed the Kid into the

eager arms of the Little Doctor, and soothed his horse with soft words

and a series of little slaps upon the neck. He was breathing unevenly,

because the Kid had really been in rather a ticklish position; but the

Little Doctor had her face hidden on the baby's neck and did not see.



"Where's Chip?" Andy turned to ride back to the stable, glancing toward

the telegram lying on the floor of the porch; and from it his eyes went

to the young woman trying to laugh away her trembling while she scolded

adoringly her adventurous man-child. He was about to speak again, but

thought better of it, and sighed.



"Down at the stables somewhere--I don't know, really; the boys can tell

you. Mother's baby mustn't touch the naughty horses. Naughty horses hurt

mother's baby! Make him cry!"



Andy gave her a long look, which had in it much pity, and rode away.

He knew what was in that telegram, for the agent had told him when he

hunted him up at Rusty Brown's and gave it to him; and the horse of Andy

bore mute testimony to the speed with which he had brought it to the

ranch. Not until he had reached the coulee had he slackened his pace.

He decided, after that glance, that he would not remind her that she

had not read the telegram; instead, he thought he ought to find Chip

immediately and send him to her.



Chip was rummaging after something in the store-house, and, when Andy

saw him there, he dismounted and stood blotting out the light from

the doorway. Chip looked up, said "Hello" carelessly, and flung an old

slicker aside that he might search beneath it. "Back early, aren't you?"

he asked, for sake of saying something.



Andy's attitude was not as casual as he would have had it.



"Say, maybe you better go on up to the house," he began diffidently. "I

guess your wife wants to see yuh, maybe."



"Just as a good wife should," grinned Chip. "What's the matter? Kid fall

off the porch?"



"N-o-o--I brought out a wire from Chicago. It's from a doctor

there--some hospital. The--Old Man got hurt. One of them cussed

automobiles knocked him down. They want you to come."



Chip had straightened up and was hooking at Andy blankly. "If you're

just--"



"Honest," Andy asserted, and flushed a little. "I'll go tell some one to

catch up the team--you'll want to make that 11:20, I take it." He added,

as Chip went by him hastily, "I had the agent wire for sleeper berths on

the 11:20 so--"



"Thanks. Yes, you have the team caught up, Andy." Chip was already well

on his way to the house.



Andy waited till he saw the Little Doctor come hurriedly to the end of

the porch overlooking the pathway, with the telegram fluttering in her

fingers, and then led his horse down through the gate and to the stable.

He yanked the saddle off, turned the tired animal into a stall, and went

on to the corral, where he leaned elbows on a warped rail and peered

through at the turmoil within. Close beside him stood Weary, with his

loop dragging behind him, waiting for a chance to throw it over the head

of a buckskin three-year-old with black mane and tail.



"Get in here and make a hand, why don't you?" Weary bantered, his eye

on the buckskin. "Good chance to make a 'rep' for yourself, Andy.

Gawd greased that buckskin--he sure can slide out from under a rope as

easy--"



He broke off to flip the hoop dexterously forward, had the reward of

seeing the buckskin dodge backward, so that the rope barely flicked him

on the nose, and drew in his rope disgustedly. "Come on, Andy--my hands

are up in the air; I can't land him--that's the fourth throw."



Andy's interest in the buckskin, however, was scant. His face was sober,

his whole attitude one of extreme dejection.



"You got the tummy-ache?" Pink inquired facetiously, moving around so

that he got a fair look at his face.



"Naw--his girl's went back on him!" Happy Jack put in, coiling his rope

as he came up.





"Oh, shut up!" Andy's voice was sharp with trouble. "Boys, the Old

Man's--well, he's most likely dead by this time. I brought out a

telegram--"



"Go on!" Pink's eyes widened incredulously. "Don't you try that kind of

a load, Andy Green, or I'll just about--"



"Oh, you fellows make me sick!" Andy took his elbows off the rail and

stood straight. "Dammit, the telegram's up at the house--go and read it

yourselves, then!"



The three stared after him doubtfully, fear struggling with the caution

born of much experience.



"He don't act, to me, like he was putting up a josh," Weary stated

uneasily, after a minute of silence. "Run up to the house and find out,

Cadwalloper. The Old Man--oh, good Lord!" The tan on Weary's face took a

lighter tinge. "Scoot--it won't take but a minute to find out for sure.

Go on, Pink."



"So help me Josephine, I'll kill that same Andy Green if he's lied about

it," Pink declared, while he climbed the fence.



In three minutes he was back, and before he had said a word, his face

confirmed the bad news. Their eyes besought him for details, and he

gave them jerkily. "Automobile run over him. He ain't dead, but they

think--Chip and the Little Doctor are going to catch the night train.

You go haze in the team, Happy. And give 'em a feed of oats, Chip said."



Irish and Big Medicine, seeing the three standing soberly together

there, and sensing something unusual, came up and heard the news in

stunned silence. Andy, forgetting his pique at their first disbelief,

came forlornly back and stood with them.



The Old Man--the thing could not be true! To every man of them his

presence, conjured by the impending tragedy, was almost a palpable

thing. His stocky figure seemed almost to stand in their midst;

he looked at them with his whimsical eyes, which had the radiating

crows-feet of age, humor and habitual squinting against sun and wind;

the bald spot on his head, the wrinkling shirt-collar that seldom knew

a tie, the carpet slippers which were his favorite footgear because they

were kind to his bunions, his husky voice, good-naturedly complaining,

were poignantly real to them at that moment. Then Irish mentally

pictured him lying maimed, dying, perhaps, in a far-off hospital among

strangers, and swore.



"If he's got to die, it oughta be here, where folks know him and--where

he knows--" Irish was not accustomed to giving voice to his deeper

feelings, and he blundered awkwardly over it.



"I never did go much on them darned hospitals, anyway," Weary observed

gloomily. "He oughta be home, where folks can look after him. Mam-ma! It

sure is a fright."



"I betche Chip and the Little Doctor won't get there in time," Happy

Jack predicted, with his usual pessimism. "The Old Man's gittin' old--"



"He ain't but fifty-two; yuh call that old, consarn yuh? He's younger

right now than you'll be when you're forty."



"Countess is going along, too, so she can ride herd on the Kid," Pink

informed then. "I heard the Little Doctor tell her to pack up, and

'never mind if she did have sponge all set!' Countess seemed to think

her bread was a darned sight more important than the Old Man. That's the

way with women. They'll pass up--"



"Well, by golly, I like to see a woman take some interest in her own

affairs," Slim defended. "What they packin' up for, and where they

goin'?" Slim had just ridden up to the group in time to overhear Pink's

criticism.



They told him the news, and Slim swallowed twice, said "By golly!" quite

huskily, and then rode slowly away with his head bowed. He had worked

for the Flying U when it was strictly a bachelor outfit, and with the

tenacity of slow minds he held J. G. Whitmore, his beloved "Old Man,"

as but a degree lower than that mysterious power which made the sun to

shine--and, if the truth were known, he had accepted him as being quite

as eternal. His loyalty adjusted everything to the interests of the

Flying U. That the Old Man could die--the possibility stunned him.



They were a sorry company that gathered that night around the long table

with its mottled oil-cloth covering and benches polished to a glass-like

smoothness with their own vigorous bodies. They did not talk much about

the Old Man; indeed, they came no nearer the subject than to ask Weary

if he were going to drive the team in to Dry Lake. They did not talk

much about anything, for that matter; even the knives and forks seemed

to share the general depression of spirits, and failed to give forth the

cheerful clatter which was a daily accompaniment of meals in that room.



Old Patsy, he who had cooked for J. G. Whitmore when the Flying U

coulee was a wilderness and the brand yet unrecorded and the irons

unmade--Patsy lumbered heavily about the room and could not find his

dish-cloth when it was squeezed tight in one great, fat hand, and

unthinkingly started to fill their coffee cups from the tea-kettle.



"Py cosh, I vould keel der fool vot made her first von of der

automo-beels, yet!" he exclaimed unexpectedly, after a long silence, and

cast his pipe vindictively toward his bunk in one corner.



The Happy Family looked around at him, then understandingly at one

another.



"Same here, Patsy," Jack Bates agreed. "What they want of the damned

things when the country's full uh good horses gits me."



"So some Yahoo with just sense enough to put goggles on to cover up

his fool face can run over folks he ain't good enough to speak to, by

cripes!" Big Medicine glared aggressively up and down the table.



Weary got up suddenly and went out, and Slim followed him, though his

supper was half-uneaten.



"This goin' to be hard on the Little Doctor--only brother she's got,"

they heard Happy Jack point out unnecessarily; and Weary, the equable,

was guilty of slamming the door so that the whole building shook, by way

of demonstrating his dislike of speech upon the subject.



They were a sorry company who waved hands at the Little Doctor and

the Kid and the Countess, just when the afterglow of a red sunset

was merging into the vague, purple shadows of coming dusk. They stood

silent, for the most part, and let them go without the usual facetious

advice to "Be good to yourselves," and the hackneyed admonition to Chip

to keep out of jail if he could. There must have been something very

wistful in their faces, for the Little Doctor smiled bravely down upon

then from the buggy seat, and lifted up the Kid for a four-toothed smile

and an ecstatic "Bye!" accompanied by a vigorous flopping of hands,

which included then all.



"We'll telegraph first thing, boys," the Little Doctor called back, as

the rig chucked into the pebbly creek crossing. "We'll keep you posted,

and I'll write all the particulars as soon as I can. Don't think the

worst--unless you have to. I don't." She smiled again, and waved her

hand hastily because of the Kid's contortions; and, though the smile

had tears close behind it, though her voice was tremulous in spite of

herself, the Happy Family took heart from her courage and waved their

hats gravely, and smiled back as best they could.



"There's a lot uh cake you boys might just as well eat up," the Countess

called belatedly. "It'll all dry out, if yuh don't--and there ain't no

use wastin' it--and there's two lemon pies in the brown cupboard, and

what under the shinin' sun--" The wheels bumped violently against a

rock, and the Happy Family heard no more.





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