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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Phantom Herd - Chapter 14. "Plumb Spoiled, D' Yuh Mean?"
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The Phantom Herd - Chapter 14. 'Plumb Spoiled, D' Yuh Mean?' Post by :samuraiwarrior Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3372

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The Phantom Herd - Chapter 14. "Plumb Spoiled, D' Yuh Mean?"


Luck came out of the dark room with the still, frozen, look of a trouble that has gone too deep for words. Annie-Many-Ponies eyed him aslant and straightway placed the hottest, juiciest piece of steak on his plate, and poured his coffee even before she poured for old Dave Wiswell, whom she favored as being an old acquaintance of the Pine Ridge country.

Once when her father, old chief Big Turkey, had broken his leg and refused to have a doctor attend him, and had said that he would die if his "son" did not make his leg well, Luck had looked as he looked now. Still, he had set chief Big Turkey's leg so well that it grew straight and strong again. Annie-Many-Ponies might be primitive as to her nature and untutored as to her mind, but she could read the face of her brother Wagalexa Conka swiftly and surely. Something was very bad in his heart. Annie-Many-Ponies searched her soul for guilt, remembered the smile she had given to Ramone Chavez whom Wagalexa Conka did not like, and immediately she became humbled before her chief.

Shunka Chistala--which is Sioux for little dog--she banished into the cold, and hardened her heart, against his whining. It is true that Wagalexa Conka had not forbidden her to have the little dog in the house, but in his displeasure he might make the dog an excuse for scolding her and for taking the part of Rosemary, who hated dogs in the house, and who was trying, by every ingratiating means known to woman, to make a friend of Compadre. Rosemary was a white woman and the wife of Wagalexa Conka's friend; Annie-Many-Ponies was an Indian girl, not even of the same race as her brother Wagalexa Conka. And although her vanity might lead her to believe herself and her smile the cause of Luck's mask-like displeasure, she had no delusions as to which side he would take in an argument between herself and Shunka Chistala on the one side, and Rosemary and Compadre on the other; and in the back of her mind lived always the fear that Wagalexa Conka might refuse to let her stay and work for him in pictures.

Therefore Annie-Many-Ponies crouched humbly before the rock fireplace, until Luck missed her at the table and told her to come and eat; she came as comes a dog who has been beaten, and slid into her place as noiselessly as a shadow,--humility being the heritage of her sex and race.

No one talked at all. Even Rosemary seemed depressed and made no attempt to stir the Happy Family to their wonted cheerfulness. They were worn out from their long day that had been filled with real hardships as well as work. In the general silence, Luck's deeper gloom seemed consistent and only to be expected; for hard as the others had worked, he had worked harder. His had been the directing brain; his hand had turned the camera crank, lest Bill Holmes, not yet familiar with his duties, might fail where failure would be disaster. He had endured the cold and the storm, tramping back and forth in the snow, planning, directing, doing literally the work of two men. Annie-Many-Ponies alone knew that exhaustion never brought just that look into Luck's face. Annie-Many-Ponies knew that something was very bad in Luck's heart. She knew, and she trembled while she ate with a precise attention to her table manners lest he chide her openly before them all.

"How long do you think this storm will last, Applehead?" Luck asked, when he had walked heavily over to the fireplace for his smoke, and had drawn a match sharply along the rough face of a rock.

"We-ell, she's showin' some signs uh clearin' up to-night," Applehead stated with careful judgment, because he felt that Luck's question had much to do with Luck's plans, and was not a mere conversational bait. "Wind, she's shiftin', er was, when I come in to supper. She shore come down like all git-out ever since she started, and I calc'late she's about stormed out. I look fer sun all day to-morrer, boy." This last in a tone of such manifest encouragement that Luck snorted. (Back by the table in the kitchen, Annie-Many-Ponies paused in her piling of plates and listened breathlessly. She knew that particular sound. Wagalexa Conka would presently reveal what was bad in his heart.)

"That would be my luck, all right," her chief stated pessimistically.

"What's the matter with the sun, now?" Big Medicine boomed reprovingly. "Comin' in, you said you had your blizzard stuff, and now if the sun'd jest come out, by cripes, you'd be singin' songs uh thanksgivin'--er words to that effect. Honest to gran'ma, there's folks that'd kick if--"

"But I haven't got my blizzard stuff," Luck stated, harshly because of the effort to speak at all. "All that negative I took to-day is chuck full of 'static.'"

Annie-Many-Ponies, out in the kitchen, dropped a granite-iron plate, but the others merely stared at Luck uncomprehendingly.

"Well, say, by cripes! What's statics?" demanded Big Medicine pugnaciously, as though he meant to ward off from his mind the realization of some new misfortune.

Luck's lips twitched in the faint impulse toward a smile that would not come. "Statics," he explained, "is that branch of mechanics that relates to bodies held at rest by the forces acting on them. In other words, it is electricity in a stationary charge, the condition being produced by friction, or induction. In other words--"

"In other words," Big Medicine supplied glumly, "I can shut up and mind my own business. I get yuh, all right!"

"Nothing like that, Bud," Luck corrected more amiably, warmed a little by the sympathy he knew would follow close upon the heels of understanding. "Static is a technical word used a good deal in motion-picture photography. In this case it was caused, I think, by the difference of temperature in the metal parts of the camera and negative, and the weather outside the camera box. I've been keeping it here in the house where it's warm, and I took it out into the cold and started work--_sabe_? And the grinding of the bearings, and the action of the film on the race plate, generated static electricity in tiny flashes which lighted up the interior of the camera and light-exposed the negative, as it was passing from one magazine to another. When it's developed, these flashes show up in contrasty lights, like tiny grape vines; I can show you that part; I've got about a mile of it, more or less, there in the dark room."

"Plumb spoiled, d' yuh mean?" Big Medicine asked, his voice hushed before the catastrophe.

"Plumb spoiled." Luck threw his cigarette stub viciously into the blaze. "All that drifting herd, all that panoram of Andy and Miguel--all--everything I took to-day, with the exception of those last scenes with the cow and calf. The one where the cow is down and the snow drifting over her, and the calf huddled there by the carcass,--that's dandy. Camera and negative were cold as the outside air by that time. That one scene will stand out big; it's got an awful big punch, provided I had the stuff leading up to it, which I haven't got."

"Hell!" said Andy softly, voicing the dismay of them all.

Presently old Applehead unlimbered himself from his chair and went out into the cold and darkness. When he came back, ribbing his knuckles for warmth, he stood before the fireplace and ruminated dispiritedly before he spoke.

"Ain't ary hope of it blizzardin' to-morrer, boy," he broke his silence reluctantly, "'less the wind changes, which she don't act to me like she's got ary notion of doin'; she's shore goin' to blind ye with sun to-morrer, now I'm tellin' yuh."

"Well, there won't be any more static in my film," Luck declared with sudden decision, and carried his camera outside. When he returned Applehead eyed him solicitously.

"We-ell, this ain't but the middle uh November, yuh want to recollect," he said. "We're liable to have purtier storms 'n what this here one was, 'fore winter's over. Cattle'll be in worse condition, too,--ribs stickin' out so'st you kin count 'em a mile off 'n' more. Way winter's startin' in, wouldn't s'prise me a mite if we had storms all through till spring opens up."

Luck knew the old man was trying in his crude way to encourage him, but he made no reply, and Applehead relapsed into drowsy meditation over his pipe. The boys, yawning sleepily, trailed off to bed in the Ketch-all cabin. Rosemary and Annie-Many-Ponies, having finished washing the dishes and tidying the kitchen, came through the room on their way to bed, Annie-Many-Ponies cunningly hiding the little black dog behind her skirts. Rosemary frowned at the two and went to the door and called Compadre; but the blue cat, scenting a dog in the house, meowed his regrets and would not come.

"I'll take 'im down with me," said Applehead, rising stiffly. "He cain't take no comfort in the house no more--not till he spunks up and licks that thar dawg a time er two. Comin', Luck?" he added, waiting at the door. But Luck was staring into the fire and did not seem to hear him, so Applehead went off alone to where the Happy Family were already creeping thankfully into their hard bunks.

The house grew still; so still that Luck could hear the wind whispering in the chimney, coming from the quarter which meant clearing weather. He sighed, flung more wood on the coals to drive back the chill of the night, and got out his scenario and some sheets of blank paper and a pencil. He had sold his typewriter when he was raising money for this trip, and he was inclined now to regret it. But he sharpened the pencil, laid a large-surfaced "movie" magazine across his knees, and prepared to revise his scenario to meet his present limitations.

With a good thousand feet of film spoiled through no real fault of his own, and with the expenses he knew he must meet looming inexorably before him, he simply could not afford a leading woman. Therefore, he must change his story, making it a "character" lead instead of the conventional hero and heroine theme. Chance--he called it luck--had sent him Annie-Many-Ponies, who "Wants no monies." He must change his story so that she would fit into it as the necessary feminine element, but he was discouraged enough that night to tell himself that, just as he had her placed and working properly, the Indian Agent or her father, old Big Turkey, would probably demand her immediate return. In his despondent mood he had no faith in his standing with the Indians or in the letter he had written to the Agent. His "one best bet", as he put it, was to make her scenes as soon as possible, before they had time to reach him with a letter; therefore he must reconstruct his scenario immediately, so that he could get to work in the morning, whatever the weather.

He read the script through from beginning to end, and his heart went heavy in his chest. He did not want to change one scene of that Big Picture. Just as it stood it seemed to him perfect in its way. It had the bigness of the West when the West was young. It had the red blood of courage, the strength of achievement, the sweetness of a great love. It was, in short, Luck's biggest, best work. Still, without a woman to play that lead--

Luck sighed and dampened his pencil on his tongue and drew a heavy line through the scene where "Marian" first appeared in the story. It hurt him like drawing a hot wire across his hand. It was his first real compromise, his first step around an obstacle in his path rather than his usual bold jump over it. He looked at the pencil mark and considered whether he could not send for a girl young in the profession, who would be satisfied with her transportation and thirty or forty dollars a week while she stayed. He could make all her scenes and send her back. But a little mental arithmetic, coupled with the cold fact that he did not know of any young woman who was capable of doing the work he required and would yet be satisfied with a small salary, killed that new-born hope. He drew a line through the next scene where the girl appeared.

When he had quite blotted the girl from his story, he was appalled at the gap he must fill in the continuity and in the theme. He had left old Dave Wiswell, his dried little cattleman, a childless old man--or else a "squaw" man whose squaw has, presumably, died before the story began. Somehow he could not "see" his cattleman as one who would set aside the barrier of race and take a squaw for his wife. He could not see Annie-Many-Ponies as anything save what she was--a beautiful young savage with an odd adornment of civilized speech and some of the civilized customs, it is true, but a savage for all that. He did not want to spoil her by portraying her as a half-caste in his picture.

He must make his story a man's story, with the full interest centered about the man's hopes, his temptations, his achievements. The woman--Annie, as he saw the woman now--must be of secondary interest. He laid his head against the chair back in his favorite attitude for uninterrupted thought, and stared into the fire. In this way he had stared out into the night of the Dakota prairie; at first brooding in discontent because things were not as he would have them, then drifting into dreams of what he would like; then weaving his dreams together and creating a something complete in itself. So had he created his Big Picture,--the picture which was already beginning to live in the narrow strips of negative. A few hundred feet of that negative were even dry and filed away ready for cutting; unimportant scenes, to be sure, with all of his "big stuff" yet to be produced. His mind went methodically over the completed scenes, judging each one separately, seeking some change of plot that would yet permit these scenes to be used. From there his thought drifted to the day's work in the blizzard,--the day's work that had been lost because of atmospheric conditions. Blizzard stuff he must have, he told himself stubbornly. Not only was that a phase of the range which he must portray if his picture were to be complete; he must have it to lead the story up to that tragic, pitifully eloquent scene which had come out clear and photographically perfect,--the scene of the old cow's struggle against the storm and of her final surrender, too weak to match her puny strength against the furies of wind and snow and cold. That scene would live long in the minds of those who saw it; that scene alone would lift his picture above the dead level of mediocrity. But he must have another blizzard....

His eyelids drooped low over his tired eyes; through their narrowing opening he stared at the yellow glow of the fire. Only half awake, he dreamed of the herd drifting down that bleak hillside, with Andy and the Native Son riding doggedly after them. Only half awake, his story changed, grew indistinct, clarified in stray scenes, held aloof from him, grew and changed, and was another story. And always in the background of his mind went that drifting herd. Sometimes snow-whitened, their backs humped in the wind, their heads lowered and swaying weakly from side to side, the cattle marched and marched before him, sometimes obscured by the blackness of night, a vague procession of moving shadows; sometimes revealed suddenly when the lightning split the blackness. Like a phantom herd--

"The phantom herd!" Aloud he cried the words. "_The Phantom Herd_!" He sat up straight in his chair. Here was his title, for which his mind had groped so long and could not grasp. His title--

"What--that you, Luck?" Andy Green's voice came sleepily from the next room. "What yuh want?"

"I've got my title!" Luck called back, his voice exultant. "And I've got my story, too! Get up, Andy, and let me tell you the plot!"

Whereupon Andy proved himself a real friend and an unselfish one. He felt as if getting up out of bed was the final, supreme torture under which a man may live; but he got up, for there was something in Luck's voice that thrilled him even through the clogging sleep-hunger. Presently he was sitting in his trousers and socks and shirt, sleepy-eyed beside Luck.

"Shoot it outa your system," he mumbled, and began feeling stupidly for his cigarette papers. "_E--a-ough!_" he yawned, if so inarticulate a sound may be spelled. "I knew you'd have to work your story over," he said, more normal of tone after the yawn. And he added bluntly, "Rosemary's one grand little woman--but she couldn't act if you trained her a thousand years. What's your next best bet?"

"No next best; it's _the picture this time. _The Phantom Herd_. Get that as a title?"

"Gee!" Andy softly paid tribute. Then he grinned. "By gracious, they sure didn't act to me like any phantom herd when we first headed 'em into that wind!"

"Them babies are going to march us up to a pile of real money, though," Luck asserted eagerly.

"Listen. Here's the story--the part I've changed; all the first part is the same--the trail-herd and all. You're old Dave's son, and you're wild. You quarrel, and he turns you out, thinking he'll let you rustle for yourself awhile, and maybe tame down and come back more like he wants you to be. But you don't tame that way. You throw in with Miguel, and you two turn rustlers. You hold a grudge against your dad, and you rustle from him mostly, on the plea that by rights what's his is yours--you know. Annie is Mig's sweetheart, and she's a kind of go-between--keeps you posted on what's taking place on the outside, and all that. I haven't," he explained hastily, "doped out the details yet. I'm giving you the main points I want to bring out. Well, here's the big stuff; you get a big herd together. You're holding 'em in a box canyon,--I know the spot, all right,--waiting for a chance to drive them outa the country; see? This blizzard hits, and you take advantage of it to drive the herd out under cover of the storm. But the blizzard beats you. You trail 'em along, but there's only two of you, and you can't keep 'em from swinging away from the wind. You try to hold the herd into the storm,--that's where I'll get my big storm effects,--but they swing off in spite of you. Your horses get tired; all you can do is follow the herd. Lord! I wish that stuff I took to-day wasn't spoiled! I sure would have had some big stuff there. Well, Mig's horse goes down in a drifted wash. You're trying to point the herd then, and the storm's so thick you don't miss him at first, we'll say.

"Anyway, as I've doped it out, Mig loses his life. You find him dead--whether then or later I don't know yet. The punch is this: You have been getting pretty sick of the life, and wishing you had behaved yourself and stayed with your dad. But you've been afraid of Mig. You couldn't see any chance of taking the back trail as long as he was alive to tell on you. Now he's dead. I guess maybe you better find him right there in the blizzard--hurt maybe--anyway, just about all in. You try to save him, _sabe_? You can't, though."

"I still don't see no phantom herd," observed Andy, wriggling his toes luxuriously in the warmth of the fire.

"Well, listen. You'll see it in a minute. You go back home after your pard's dead. You have a close squeak yourself, see? And the thing works on your mind. Cutting out the frills, you see things. You see a herd drifting before a storm, maybe,--a blizzard like yesterday, with your pal riding point. You try to come up with it--no herd there. You come to yourself and go back home. Then maybe some black night you're brooding before a fire like this--I can get a great firelight effect on your face, sitting like this"--Luck, actor that he was, made Andy see just how the scenes would look--"have a flare in the fire to throw the light back on you; see what I mean? And outside a thunderstorm is rolling up. A bright flash of lightning startles you. You go to the door and open it; you see the herd drifting past with Mig trailing along on his horse--black shadows, and then standing out clear in the lightning--"

"How the deuce--"

"I'll do that with 'lap dissolves' and double exposures. Lots of work that will be, and careful work, but the result will be--why, Lord! It will be immense! That herd and the lone rider haunt you till you're on the edge of being crazy. Then I'll bring out somehow that it's a nervous condition, which of course it is. And I'll bring old Dave in strong; he follows you some night, and he finds out what you're after. You tell him--make a clean breast of your rustling, see? Just unburden your mind to your dad. He's big enough to see that he isn't altogether clear of guilt himself, for sending you off the way he did. Anyway, that pulls you out of it. The phantom herd and rider pass over the sky line some night--Lord, I can see what a picture I can get out of that!--and out of your life."

"Unh-hunh--that's a heap better than your first story, Luck."

"Andy, are you boys going to talk all night?" the voice of Rosemary came plaintively from the next room.

"Here. You go back to bed," Luck generously commanded. "I just wanted to get your idea of what it sounds like. I'll block it out before I turn in. Go on, now."

So Luck wrote his new story of _The Phantom Herd that night. He had a midnight supper of warmed-over coffee and cold bean sandwiches, but he did not have any sleep. When he had finished with a last big, artistic scene that made his pulse beat faster in the writing of it, the white world outside was growing faintly pink under the rising sun.

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