Chapter 21. The Fight Goes On
 

It is amazing how quickly life swings back to the normal after even so harrowing an experience as had come to the Flying U. Tragedy had hovered there a while and had turned away with a smile, and the smile was reflected upon the faces and in the eyes of everyone upon whose souls had fallen her shadow. The Kid was safe, and he was well, and he had not suffered from the experience; on the contrary he spent most of his waking hours in recounting his adventures to an admiring audience. He was a real old cowpuncher. He had gone into the wilderness and he had proven the stuff that was in him. He had made "dry-camp" just exactly as well as any of the Happy Family could have done. He had slept out under the stars rolled in a blanket--and do you think for one minute that he would ever submit to lace-trimmed nighties again? If you do, ask the little Doctor what the Kid said on the first night after his return, when she essayed to robe him in spotless white and rock him, held tight in her starved arms. Or you might ask his Daddy Chip, who hovered pretty close to them both, his eyes betraying how his soul gave thanks. Or-- never mind, I'll tell you myself.

The Little Doctor brought the nightie, and reached out her two eager arms to take the kid off Chip's knees where he was perched contentedly relating his adventures with sundry hair- raising additions born of his imagination. The Kid was telling Daddy Chip about the skunk he saw, and he hated to be interrupted. He looked at his Doctor Dell and at the familiar, white garment with lace at the neck and wristbands, and he waved his hand with a gesture of dismissal.

"Aw, take that damn' thing away!" he told her in the tone of the real old cowpuncher. "When I get ready to hit the bed- ground, a blanket is all I'll need."

Lest you should think him less lovable than he really was, I must add that, when Chip set him down hastily so that he himself could rush off somewhere and laugh in secret, the Kid spread his arms with a little chuckle and rushed straight at his Doctor Dell and gave her a real bear hug.

"I want to be rocked," he told her--and was her own baby man again, except that he absolutely refused to reconsider the nightgown. "And I want you to tell me a story--about when Silver breaked his leg. Silver's a good ole scout, you bet. I don't know what I'd a done 'theut Silver. And tell about the bunch makin' a man outa straw to scare you, and the horses runned away. I was such a far ways, Doctor Dell, and I couldn't get back to hear them stories and I've most forgot about 'em. And tell about Whizzer, Doctor Dell."

The Little Doctor rocked him and told him of the old days, and she never again brought him his lace-trimmed nightie at bedtime. She never mentioned his language upon the subject, either. The Little Doctor was learning some things about her man-child, and one of them was this: When he rode away into the Badlands and was lost, other things were lost, and lost permanently; he was no longer her baby, for all he liked to be rocked. He had come back to her changed, so that she studied him amazedly while she worshipped. He had entered boldly into the life which men live, and he would never come back entirely to the old order of things. He would never be her baby; there would be a difference, even while she held him in her arms and him rocked him to sleep.

She knew that it was so, when the Kid insisted, next day, upon going home with the bunch; with Andy, rather, who was just now the Kid's particular hero. He had to help the bunch he said; they needed him, and Andy needed him and Miss Allen needed him.

"Aw, you needn't be scared, Doctor Dell," he told her shrewdly. "I ain't going to find them brakes any more. I'll stick with the bunch, cross my heart. and I'll come back tonight if you're scared 'theut me. Honest to gran'ma, I've got to go and help the bunch lick the stuffen' outa them nesters, Doctor Dell."

The Little Doctor looked at him strangely, hugged him tight-- and let him go. Chip would be with them, and he would bring the Kid home safely, and--the limitations of dooryard play no longer sufficed; her fledgling had found what his wings were for, and the nest was too little, now.

"We'll take care of him," Andy promised her understandingly. "If Chip don't come up, this afternoon, I'll bring him home myself. Don't you worry a minute about him."

"I'd tell a man she needn't!" added the Kid patronizingly.

"I suppose he's a lot safer with you boys than he is here at the ranch--unless one of us stood over him all the time, or we tied him up," she told Andy gamely. "I feel like a hen trying to raise a duck! Go on, Buck--but give mother a kiss first."

The Kid kissed her violently and with a haste that betrayed where his thoughts were, in spite of the fact that never before had his mother called him Buck.

To her it was a supreme surrender of his babyhood--to him it was merely his due. The Little Doctor sighed and watched him ride away beside Andy. "Children are such self-centred little beasts!" she told J. G. rue-fully. "I almost wish he was a girl."

"Ay? If he was a girl he wouldn't git lost, maybe, but some feller'd take him away from yuh just the same. The Kid's all right. He's just the kind you expect him to be and want him to be. You're tickled to death because he's like he is. Doggone it, Dell, that Kid's got the real stuff in him! He's a dead ringer fer his dad--that ought to do yuh."

"It does," the Little Doctor declared. "But it does seem as if he might be contented here with me for a little while-- after such a horrible time--"

"It wasn't horrible to him, yuh want to recollect. Doggone it, I wish that Blake would come back. You write to him, Dell, and tell him how things is stacking up. He oughta be here on the ground. No tellin' what them nesters'll build up next."

So the Old Man slipped back into the old channels of worry and thought, just as life itself slips back after a stressful period. The little Doctor sighed again and sat down to write the letter and to discuss with the Old Man what she should say.

There was a good deal to say. For one thing, more contests had been filed and more shacks built upon claims belonging to the Happy Family. She must tell Blake that. Also, Blake must help make some arrangement whereby the Happy Family could hire an outfit to gather their stock and the alien stock which they meant to drive back out of the Badlands. And there was Irish, who had quietly taken to the hills again as soon as the Kid returned. Blake was needed to look into that particular bit of trouble and try and discover just how serious it was. The man whom Irish had floored with a chair was apparently hovering close to death--and there were these who emphasized the adverb and asserted that the hurt was only apparent, but could prove nothing.

"And you tell 'im," directed the Old Man querulously, "that I'll stand good for his time while he's lookin' after things for the boys. And tell 'im if he's so doggoned scared I'll buy into the game, he needn't to show up here at the ranch at all; tell him to stay in Dry Lake if he wants to--serve him right to stop at that hotel fer a while. But tell him for the Lord's sake git a move on. The way it looks to me, things is piling up on them boys till they can't hardly see over the top, and something's got to be done. Tell 'im--here! Give me a sheet of paper and a pencil and I'll tell him a few things myself. Chances are you'd smooth 'em out too much, gitting 'em on paper. And the things I've got to say to Blake don't want any smoothing."

The things he wrote painfully with his rheumatic hand were not smoothed for politeness' sake, and it made the Old Man feel better to get them off his mind. He read the letter over three times, and lingered over the most scathing sentences relishfully. He sent one of his new men to town for the express purpose of mailing that letter, and he felt a glow of satisfaction at actually speaking his mind upon the subject.

Perhaps it was just as well he did not know that Blake was in Dry Lake when the letter reached his office in Helena, and that it was forwarded to the place whence it had started. Blake was already "getting a move on," and he needed no such spur as the Old Man's letter. But the letter did the Old Man a lot of good, so that it served its purpose.

Blake had no intention of handling the case from the Flying U porch, for instance. He had laid his plans quite independently of the Flying U outfit. He had no intention of letting Irish be arrested upon a trumped up charge, and he managed to send a word of warning to that hot-headed young man not to put himself in the way of any groping arm of the law; it was so much simpler than arrest and preliminary trial and bail, and all that. He had sent word to Weary to come and see him, before ever he received the Old Man's letter, and he had placed at Weary's disposal what funds would be needed for the immediate plans of the Happy Family. He had attended in person to the hauling of the fence material to their boundary line on the day he arrived and discovered by sheer accident that the stuff was still in the warehouse of the general store.

After he did all that, the Honorable Blake received the Old Man's letter, read it through slowly and afterwards stroked down his Vandyke beard and laughed quietly to himself. The letter itself was both peremptory and profane, and commanded the Honorable Blake to do exactly what he had already done, and what he intended to do when the time came for the doing.