Part 1 out of 7
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MERTON OF THE MOVIES
by Harry Leon Wilson
I. DIRTY WORK AT THE BORDER
II. THAT NIGHT--THE APARTMENTS OF CLIFFORD ARMYTAGE
III. WESTERN STUFF
IV. THE WATCHER AT THE GATE
V. A BREACH IN THE CITY WALLS
VI. UNDER THE GLASS TOPS
VII. "NOTHING TO-DAY, DEAR!"
VIII. CLIFFORD ARMYTAGE, THE OUTLAW
IX. MORE WAYS THAN ONE
X. OF SHATTERED ILLUSIONS
XI. THE MONTAGUE GIRL INTERVENES
XII. ALIAS HAROLD PARMALEE
XIII. GENIUS COMES INTO ITS OWN
XIV. OUT THERE WHERE MEN ARE MEN
XV. A NEW TRAIL
XVI. OF SARAH NEVADA MONTAGUE
XVII. MISS MONTAGUE USES HER OWN FACE
XVIII. "FIVE REELS--500 LAUGHS"
XIX. THE TRAGIC COMEDIAN
XX. ONWARD AND UPWARD
DIRTY WORK AT THE BORDER
At the very beginning of the tale there comes a moment of puzzled
hesitation. One way of approach is set beside another for choice,
and a third contrived for better choice. Still the puzzle persists,
all because the one precisely right way might seem--shall we say
intense, high keyed, clamorous? Yet if one way is the only right
way, why pause? Courage! Slightly dazed, though certain, let us be
on, into the shrill thick of it. So, then--
Out there in the great open spaces where men are men, a clash of
primitive hearts and the coming of young love into its own! Well had
it been for Estelle St. Clair if she had not wandered from the
Fordyce ranch. A moment's delay in the arrival of Buck Benson, a
second of fear in that brave heart, and hers would have been a fate
worse than death.
Had she not been warned of Snake le Vasquez, the outlaw--his base
threat to win her by fair means or foul? Had not Buck Benson
himself, that strong, silent man of the open, begged her to beware
of the half-breed? Perhaps she had resented the hint of mastery in
Benson's cool, quiet tones as he said, "Miss St. Clair, ma'am, I beg
you not to endanger your welfare by permitting the advances of this
viper. He bodes no good to such as you."
Perhaps--who knows?--Estelle St. Clair had even thought to trifle
with the feelings of Snake le Vasquez, then to scorn him for his
presumption. Although the beautiful New York society girl had
remained unsullied in the midst of a city's profligacy, she still
liked "to play with fire," as she laughingly said, and at the quiet
words of Benson--Two-Gun Benson his comrades of the border called
him--she had drawn herself to her full height, facing him in all her
blond young beauty, and pouted adorably as she replied, "Thank you!
But I can look out for myself."
Yet she had wandered on her pony farther than she meant to, and was
not without trepidation at the sudden appearance of the picturesque
halfbreed, his teeth flashing in an evil smile as he swept off his
broad sombrero to her. Above her suddenly beating heart she sought
to chat gayly, while the quick eyes of the outlaw took in the
details of the smart riding costume that revealed every line of her
lithe young figure. But suddenly she chilled under his hot glance
that now spoke all too plainly.
"I must return to my friends," she faltered. "They will be anxious."
But the fellow laughed with a sinister leer. "No--ah, no, the lovely
senorita will come with me," he replied; but there was the temper of
steel in his words. For Snake le Vasquez, on the border, where human
life was lightly held, was known as the Slimy Viper. Of all the evil
men in that inferno, Snake was the foulest. Steeped in vice, he
feared neither God nor man, and respected no woman. And now, Estelle
St. Clair, drawing-room pet, pampered darling of New York society,
which she ruled with an iron hand from her father's Fifth Avenue
mansion, regretted bitterly that she had not given heed to honest
Buck Benson. Her prayers, threats, entreaties, were in vain. Despite
her struggles, the blows her small fists rained upon the scoundrel's
taunting face, she was borne across the border, on over the mesa,
toward the lair of the outlaw.
"Have you no mercy?" she cried again and again. "Can you not see
that I loathe and despise you, foul fiend that you are? Ah. God in
heaven, is there no help at hand?" The outlaw remained deaf to these
words that should have melted a heart of stone. At last over the
burning plain was seen the ruined hovel to which the scoundrel was
dragging his fair burden. It was but the work of a moment to
dismount and bear her half-fainting form within the den. There he
faced her, repellent with evil intentions.
"Ha, senorita, you are a beautiful wildcat, yes? But Snake le
Vasquez will tame you! Ha, ha!" laughed he carelessly.
With a swift movement the beautiful girl sought to withdraw the
small silver-mounted revolver without which she never left the
ranch. But Snake le Vasquez, with a muttered oath, was too quick for
her. He seized the toy and contemptuously hurled it across his vile
"Have a care, my proud beauty!" he snarled, and the next moment she
was writhing in his grasp.
Little availed her puny strength. Helpless as an infant was the fair
New York society girl as Snake le Vasquez, foulest of the viper
breed, began to force his attention upon her. The creature's hot
kisses seared her defenseless cheek. "Listen!" he hissed. "You are
mine, mine at last. Here you shall remain a prisoner until you have
consented to be my wife." All seemed, indeed, lost.
"Am I too late, Miss St. Clair?"
Snake le Vasquez started at the quiet, grim voice.
"Sapristi!" he snarled. "You!"
"Me!" replied Buck Benson, for it was, indeed, no other.
"Thank God, at last!" murmured Estelle St. Clair, freeing herself
from the foul arms that had enfolded her slim young beauty and
staggering back from him who would so basely have forced her into a
distasteful marriage. In an instant she had recovered the St. Clair
poise, had become every inch the New York society leader, as she
replied, "Not too late, Mr. Benson! Just in time, rather. Ha, ha!
This--this gentleman has become annoying. You are just in time to
mete out the punishment he so justly deserves, for which I shall
pray that heaven reward you."
She pointed an accusing finger at the craven wretch who had shrunk
from her and now cowered at the far side of the wretched den. At
that moment she was strangely thrilled. What was his power, this
strong, silent man of the open with his deep reverence for pure
American womanhood? True, her culture demanded a gentleman, but her
heart demanded a man. Her eyes softened and fell before his cool,
keen gaze, and a blush mantled her fair cheek. Could he but have
known it, she stood then in meek surrender before this soft-voiced
master. A tremor swept the honest rugged face of Buck Benson as
heart thus called to heart. But his keen eyes flitted to Snake le
"Now, curse you, viper that you are, you shall fight me, by heaven!
in American fashion, man to man, for, foul though you be, I hesitate
to put a bullet through your craven heart."
The beautiful girl shivered with new apprehension, the eyes of Snake
le Vasquez glittered with new hope. He faced his steely eyed
opponent for an instant only, then with a snarl like that of an
angry beast sprang upon him. Benson met the cowardly attack with the
flash of a powerful fist, and the outlaw fell to the floor with a
hoarse cry of rage and pain. But he was quickly upon his feet again,
muttering curses, and again he attacked his grim-faced antagonist.
Quick blows rained upon his defenseless face, for the strong, silent
man was now fairly aroused. He fought like a demon, perhaps divining
that here strong men battled for a good woman's love. The outlaw was
proving to be no match for his opponent. Arising from the ground
where a mighty blow had sent him, he made a lightning-like effort to
recover the knife which Benson had taken from him.
"Have a care!" cried the girl in quick alarm. "That fiend in human
form would murder you!"
But Buck Benson's cool eye had seen the treachery in ample time.
With a muttered "Curse you, fiend that you are!" he seized the form
of the outlaw in a powerful grasp, raised him high aloft as if he
had been but a child, and was about to dash him to the ground when a
new voice from the doorway froze him to immobility. Statute-like he
stood there, holding aloft the now still form of Snake le Vasquez.
The voice from the doorway betrayed deep amazement and the
"Merton Gill, what in the sacred name of Time are you meanin' to do
with that dummy? For the good land's sake! Have you gone plumb
crazy, or what? Put that thing down!"
The newcomer was a portly man of middle age dressed in ill-fitting
black. His gray hair grew low upon his brow and he wore a parted
The conqueror of Snake le Vasquez was still frozen, though he had
instantly ceased to be Buck Benson, the strong, silent, two-gun man
of the open spaces. The irritated voice came again:
"Put that dummy down, you idiot! What you think you're doin',
anyway? And say, what you got that other one in here for, when it
ought to be out front of the store showin' that new line of gingham
house frocks? Put that down and handle it careful! Mebbe you think I
got them things down from Chicago just for you to play horse with.
Not so! Not so at all! They're to help show off goods, and that's
what I want 'em doin' right now. And for Time's sake, what's that
revolver lyin' on the floor for? Is it loaded? Say, are you really
out of your senses, or ain't you? What's got into you lately? Will
you tell me that? Skyhootin' around in here, leavin' the front of
the store unpertected for an hour or two, like your time was your
own. And don't tell me you only been foolin' in here for three
minutes, either, because when I come back from lunch just now there
was Mis' Leffingwell up at the notions counter wanting some hooks
and eyes, and she tells me she's waited there a good thutty minutes
if she's waited one. Nice goin's on, I must say, for a boy drawin'
down the money you be! Now you git busy! Take that one with the
gingham frock out and stand her in front where she belongs, and then
put one them new raincoats on the other and stand him out where he
belongs, and then look after a few customers. I declare, sometimes I
git clean out of patience with you! Now, for gosh's sake, stir your
"Oh, all right--yes, sir," replied Merton Gill, though but half
respectfully. The "Oh, all right" had been tainted with a trace of
sullenness. He was tired of this continual nagging and fussing over
small matters; some day he would tell the old grouch so.
And now, gone the vivid tale of the great out-of-doors, the wide
plains of the West, the clash of primitive-hearted men for a good
woman's love. Gone, perhaps, the greatest heart picture of a
generation, the picture at which you laugh with a lump in your
throat and smile with a tear in your eye, the story of plausible
punches, a big, vital theme masterfully handled--thrills, action,
beauty, excitement--carried to a sensational finish by the genius of
that sterling star of the shadowed world, Clifford Armytage--once
known as Merton Gill in the little hamlet of Simsbury, Illinois,
where for a time, ere yet he was called to screen triumphs, he
served as a humble clerk in the so-called emporium of Amos G.
Gashwiler--Everything For The Home. Our Prices Always Right.
Merton Gill--so for a little time he must still be known--moodily
seized the late Estelle St. Clair under his arm and "withdrew from
the dingy back storeroom. Down between the counters of the emporium
he went with his fair burden and left her outside its portals,
staring from her very definitely lashed eyes across the slumbering
street at the Simsbury post office. She was tastefully arrayed in
one of those new checked gingham house frocks so heatedly mentioned
a moment since by her lawful owner, and across her chest Merton Gill
now imposed, with no tenderness of manner, the appealing legend,
"Our Latest for Milady; only $6.98." He returned for Snake le
Vasquez. That outlaw's face, even out of the picture, was evil. He
had been picked for the part because of this face--plump, pinkly
tinted cheeks, lustrous, curling hair of some repellent composition,
eyes with a hard glitter, each lash distinct in blue-black lines,
and a small, tip-curled black mustache that lent the whole an
offensive smirk. Garbed now in a raincoat, he, too, was posed before
the emporium front, labelled "Rainproof or You Get Back Your Money."
So frankly evil was his mien that Merton Gill, pausing to regard
him, suffered a brief relapse into artistry.
"You fiend!" he muttered, and contemptuously smote the cynical face
with an open hand.
Snake le Vasquez remained indifferent to the affront, smirking
insufferably across the slumbering street at the wooden Indian
proffering cigars before the establishment of Selby Brothers,
Confectionery and Tobaccos.
Within the emporium the proprietor now purveyed hooks and eyes to an
impatient Mrs. Leffingwell. Merton Gill, behind the opposite
counter, waited upon a little girl sent for two and a quarter yards
of stuff to match the sample crumpled in her damp hand. Over the
suave amenities of this merchandising Amos Gashwiler glared
suspiciously across the store at his employee. Their relations were
still strained. Merton also glared at Amos, but discreetly, at
moments when the other's back was turned or when he was blandly
wishing to know of Mrs. Leffingwell if there would be something else
to-day. Other customers entered. Trade was on.
Both Merton and Amos wore airs of cheerful briskness that deceived
the public. No one could have thought that Amos was fearing his
undoubtedly crazed clerk might become uncontrollable at any moment,
or that the clerk was mentally parting from Amos forever in a scene
of tense dramatic value in which his few dignified but scathing
words would burn themselves unforgettably into the old man's brain.
Merton, to himself, had often told Amos these things. Some day he'd
say them right out, leaving his victim not only in the utmost
confusion but in black despair of ever finding another clerk one
half as efficient as Merton Gill.
The afternoon wore to closing time in a flurry of trade, during
which, as Merton continued to behave sanely, the apprehension of his
employer in a measure subsided. The last customer had departed from
the emporium. The dummies were brought inside. The dust curtains
were hung along the shelves of dry goods. There remained for Merton
only the task of delivering a few groceries. He gathered these and
took them out to the wagon in front. Then he changed from his store
coat to his street coat and donned a rakish plush hat.
Amos was also changing from his store coat to his street coat and
donning his frayed straw hat.
"See if you can't keep from actin' crazy while you make them
deliveries," said Amos, not uncordially, as he lighted a choice
cigar from the box which he kept hidden under a counter.
Merton wished to reply: "See here, Mr. Gashwiler, I've stood this
abuse long enough! The time has come to say a few words to you--"
But aloud he merely responded, "Yes, sir!"
The circumstance that he also had a cigar from the same box, hidden
not so well as Amos thought, may have subdued his resentment. He
would light the cigar after the first turn in the road had carried
him beyond the eagle eye of its owner.
The delivery wagon outside was drawn by an elderly horse devoid of
ambition or ideals. His head was sunk in dejection. He was gray at
the temples, and slouched in the shafts in a loafing attitude, one
forefoot negligently crossed in front of the other. He aroused
himself reluctantly and with apparent difficulty when Merton Gill
seized the reins and called in commanding tones, "Get on there, you
old skate!" The equipage moved off under the gaze of Amos, who was
locking the doors of his establishment.
Turning the first corner into a dusty side street, Merton dropped
the reins and lighted the filched cigar. Other Gashwiler property
was sacred to him. From all the emporium's choice stock he would
have abstracted not so much as a pin; but the Gashwiler cigars, said
to be "The World's Best 10c Smoke," with the picture of a dissipated
clubman in evening dress on the box cover, were different, in that
they were pointedly hidden from Merton. He cared little for cigars,
but this was a challenge; the old boy couldn't get away with
anything like that. If he didn't want his cigars touched let him
leave the box out in the open like a man. Merton drew upon the
lighted trophy, moistened and pasted back the wrapper that had
broken when the end was bitten off, and took from the bottom of the
delivery wagon the remains of a buggy whip that had been worn to
half its length. With this he now tickled the bony ridges of the
horse. Blows meant nothing to Dexter, but he could still be tickled
into brief spurts of activity. He trotted with swaying head, sending
up an effective dust screen between the wagon and a still possibly
His deliveries made, Merton again tickled the horse to a frantic
pace which continued until they neared the alley on which fronted
the Gashwiler barn; there the speed was moderated to a mild amble,
for Gashwiler believed his horse should be driven with tenderness,
and his equally watchful wife believed it would run away if given
Merton drove into the barnyard, unhitched the horse, watered it at
the half of a barrel before the iron pump, and led it into the barn,
where he removed the harness. The old horse sighed noisily and shook
himself with relief as the bridle was removed and a halter slipped
over his venerable brow.
Ascertaining that the barnyard was vacant, Merton immediately became
attentive to his charge. Throughout the late drive his attitude had
been one of mild but contemptuous abuse. More than once he had
uttered the words "old skate" in tones of earnest conviction, and
with the worn end of the whip he had cruelly tickled the still
absurdly sensitive sides. Had beating availed he would with no
compunction have beaten the drooping wreck. But now, all at once, he
was curiously tender. He patted the shoulder softly, put both arms
around the bony neck, and pressed his face against the face of
Dexter. A moment he stood thus, then spoke in a tear-choked voice:
"Good-by, old pal--the best, the truest pal a man ever had. You and
me has seen some tough times, old pard; but you've allus brought me
through without a scratch; allus brought me through." There was a
sob in the speaker's voice, but he manfully recovered a clear tone
of pathos. "And now, old pal, they're a-takin' ye from me--yes, we
got to part, you an' me. I'm never goin' to set eyes on ye agin. But
we got to be brave, old pal; we got to keep a stiff upper lip--no
cryin' now; no bustin' down."
The speaker unclasped his arms and stood with head bowed, his face
working curiously, striving to hold back the sobs.
For Merton Gill was once more Clifford Armytage, popular idol of the
screen, in his great role of Buck Benson bidding the accustomed
farewell to his four-footed pal that had brought him safely through
countless dangers. How are we to know that in another couple of
hundred feet of the reel Buck will escape the officers of the law
who have him for that hold-up of the Wallahoola stage--of which he
was innocent--leap from a second-story window of the sheriff's
office onto the back of his old pal, and be carried safely over the
border where the hellhounds can't touch him until his innocence is
proved by Estelle St. Clair, the New York society girl, whose
culture demanded a gentleman but whose heart demanded a man. How are
we to know this? We only know that Buck Benson always has to kiss
his horse good-by at this spot in the drama.
Merton Gill is impressively Buck Benson. His sobs are choking him.
And though Gashwiler's delivery horse is not a pinto, and could
hardly get over the border ahead of a sheriff's posse, the scene is
"Good-by, again, old pal, and God bless ye!" sobs Merton.
THAT NIGHT--THE APARTMENTS OF CLIFFORD ARMYTAGE
Merton Gill mealed at the Gashwiler home. He ate his supper in moody
silence, holding himself above the small gossip of the day that
engaged Amos and his wife. What to him meant the announcement that
Amos expected a new line of white goods on the morrow, or Mrs.
Gashwiler's version of a regrettable incident occurring at that
afternoon's meeting of the Entre Nous Five Hundred Club, in which
the score had been juggled adversely to Mrs. Gashwiler, resulting in
the loss of the first prize, a handsome fern dish, and concerning
which Mrs. Gashwiler had thought it best to speak her mind? What
importance could he attach to the disclosure of Metta Judson, the
Gashwiler hired girl, who chatted freely during her appearances with
food, that Doc Cummins had said old Grandma Foutz couldn't last out
another day; that the Peter Swansons were sending clear to Chicago
for Tilda's trousseau; and that Jeff Murdock had arrested one of the
Giddings boys, but she couldn't learn if it was Ferd or Gus, for
being drunk as a fool and busting up a bazaar out at the Oak Grove
schoolhouse, and the fighting was something terrible.
Scarcely did he listen to these petty recitals. He ate in silence,
and when he had finished the simple meal he begged to be excused. He
begged this in a lofty, detached, somewhat weary manner, as a man of
the world, excessively bored at the dull chatter but still the
fastidious gentleman, might have begged it, breaking into one of the
many repetitions by his hostess of just what she had said to Mrs.
Judge Ellis. He was again Clifford Armytage, enacting a polished
society man among yokels. He was so impressive, after rising, in his
bow to Mrs. Gashwiler that Amos regarded him with a kindling
"Say!" he called, as Merton in the hallway plucked his rakish plush
hat from the mirrored rack. "You remember, now, no more o' that
skylarkin' with them dummies! Them things cost money."
Merton paused. He wished to laugh sarcastically, a laugh of
withering scorn. He wished to reply in polished tones, "Skylarkin'!
You poor, dull clod, what do you know of my ambitions, my ideals?
You, with your petty life devoted to gaining a few paltry dollars!"
But he did not say this, or even register the emotion that would
justly accompany such a subtitle. He merely rejoined, "All right,
sir, I'm not going to touch them," and went quickly out. "Darned old
grouch!" he muttered as he went down the concrete walk to the
Gashwiler front gate.
Here he turned to regard the two-story brick house and the square of
lawn with a concrete deer on one side of the walk, balanced by a
concrete deer on the other. Before the gate was the cast-iron effigy
of a small Negro in fantastic uniform, holding an iron ring aloft.
The Gashwiler carriage horse had been tethered to this in the days
before the Gashwiler touring car had been acquired.
"Dwelling of a country storekeeper!" muttered Merton. "That's all
This was intended to be scornful. Merton meant that on the screen it
would be recognized as this and nothing more. It could not be taken
for the mansion of a rich banker, or the country home of a Wall
Street magnate. He felt that he had been keen in his dispraise,
especially as old Gashwiler would never get the sting of it. Clod!
Three blocks brought him to the heart of the town, still throbbing
faintly. He stood, irresolute, before the Giddings House. Chairs in
front of this hostelry were now vacant of loafers, and a clatter of
dishes came through the open windows of the dining room, where
supper was on. Farther down the street Selby Brothers, Cigars and
Confectionery, would be open; lights shone from the windows of the
Fashion Pool Parlour across the way; the City Drug Store could still
be entered; and the post office would stay open until after the mail
from No. 4 was distributed. With these exceptions the shops along
this mart of trade were tightly closed, including the Gashwiler
Emporium, at the blind front of which Merton now glanced with the
Such citizens as were yet abroad would be over at the depot to watch
No. 4 go through. Merton debated joining these sight-seers. Simsbury
was too small to be noticed by many trains. It sprawled along the
track as if it had been an afterthought of the railroad. Trains like
No. 4 were apt to dash relentlessly by it without slackening speed,
the mail bag being flung to the depot platform. But sometimes there
would be a passenger for Simsbury, and the proud train would slow
down and halt reluctantly, with a grinding of brakes, while the
passenger alighted. Then a good view of the train could be had; a
line of beautiful sleepers terminating in an observation car, its
rear platform guarded by a brass-topped railing behind which the
privileged lolled at ease; and up ahead a wonderful dining car,
where dinner was being served; flitting white-clad waiters, the
glitter of silver and crystal and damask, and favoured beings
feasting at their lordly ease, perhaps denying even a careless
glance at the pitiful hamlet outside, or at most looking out
impatient at the halt, or merely staring with incurious eyes while
awaiting their choice foods.
Not one of these enviable persons ever betrayed any interest in
Simsbury or its little group of citizens who daily gathered on the
platform to do them honour. Merton Gill used to fancy that these
people might shrewdly detect him to be out of place there--might
perhaps take him to be an alien city man awaiting a similar proud
train going the other way, standing, as he would, aloof from the
obvious villagers, and having a manner, a carriage, an attire, such
as further set him apart. Still, he could never be sure about this.
Perhaps no one ever did single him out as a being patently of the
greater world. Perhaps they considered that he was rightly of
Simsbury and would continue to be a part of it all the days of his
life; or perhaps they wouldn't notice him at all. They had been
passing Simsburys all day, and all Simsburys and all their peoples
must look very much alike to them. Very well--a day would come.
There would be at Simsbury a momentous stop of No. 4 and another
passenger would be in that dining car, disjoined forever from
Simsbury, and he with them would stare out the polished windows at
the gaping throng, and he would continue to stare with incurious
eyes at still other Simsburys along the right of way, while the
proud train bore him off to triumphs never dreamed of by natural-
He decided now not to tantalize himself with a glance at this
splendid means of escape from all that was sordid. He was still not
a little depressed by the late unpleasantness with Gashwiler, who
had thought him a crazy fool, with his revolver, his fiercely
muttered words, and his holding aloft of a valuable dummy as if to
threaten it with destruction. Well, some day the old grouch would
eat his words; some day he would be relating to amazed listeners
that he had known Merton Gill intimately at the very beginning of
his astounding career. That was bound to come. But to-night Merton
had no heart for the swift spectacle of No. 4. Nor even, should it
halt, did he feel up to watching those indifferent, incurious
passengers who little recked that a future screen idol in natty
plush hat and belted coat amusedly surveyed them. To-night he must
be alone--but a day would come. Resistless Time would strike his
Still he must wait for the mail before beginning his nightly study.
Certain of his magazines would come to-night. He sauntered down the
deserted street, pausing before the establishment of Selby Brothers.
From the door of this emerged one Elmer Huff, clerk at the City Drug
Store. Elmer had purchased a package of cigarettes and now offered
one to Merton.
"'Lo, Mert! Have a little pill?"
"No, thanks," replied Merton firmly.
He had lately given up smoking--save those clandestine indulgences
at the expense of Gashwiler--because he was saving money against his
Elmer lighted one of his own little pills and made a further
"Say, how about settin' in a little game with the gang to-night
after the store closes--ten-cent limit?"
"No, thanks," replied Merton, again firmly.
He had no great liking for poker at any limit, and he would not
subject his savings to a senseless hazard. Of course he might win,
but you never could tell.
"Do you good," urged Elmer. "Quit at twelve sharp, with one round of
"No, I guess not," said Merton.
"We had some game last night, I'll tell the world! One hand we had
four jacks out against four aces, and right after that I held four
kings against an ace full. Say, one time there I was about two-
eighty to the good, but I didn't have enough sense to quit. Hear
about Gus Giddings? They got him over in the coop for breaking in on
a social out at the Oak Grove schoolhouse last night. Say, he had a
peach on when he left here, I'll tell the world! But he didn't get
far. Them Grove lads certainly made a believer out of him. You ought
to see that left eye of his!"
Merton listened loftily to this village talk, gossip of a rural
sport who got a peach on and started something--And the poker game
in the back room of the City Drug Store! What diversions were these
for one who had a future? Let these clods live out their dull lives
in their own way. But not Merton Gill, who held aloof from their low
sports, studied faithfully the lessons in his film-acting course,
and patiently bided his time.
He presently sauntered to the post office, where the mail was being
distributed. Here he found the sight-seers who had returned from the
treat of No. 4's flight, and many of the less enterprising citizens
who had merely come down for their mail. Gashwiler was among these,
smoking one of his choice cigars. He was not allowed to smoke in the
house. Merton, knowing this prohibition, strictly enforced by Mrs.
Gashwiler, threw his employer a glance of honest pity. Briefly he
permitted himself a vision of his own future home--a palatial
bungalow in distant Hollywood, with expensive cigars in elaborate
humidors and costly gold-tipped cigarettes in silver things on low
tables. One might smoke freely there in every room.
Under more of the Elmer Huff sort of gossip, and the rhythmic clump
of the cancelling stamp back of the drawers and boxes, he allowed
himself a further glimpse of this luxurious interior. He sat on a
low couch, among soft cushions, a magnificent bearskin rug beneath
his feet. He smoked one of the costly cigarettes and chatted with a
young lady interviewer from Photo Land.
"You ask of my wife," he was saying. "But she is more than a wife--
she is my best pal, and, I may add, she is also my severest critic."
He broke off here, for an obsequious Japanese butler entered with a
tray of cooling drinks. The tray would be gleaming silver, but he
was uncertain about the drinks; something with long straws in them,
probably. But as to anything alcoholic, now--While he was trying to
determine this the general-delivery window was opened and the
interview had to wail. But, anyway, you could smoke where you wished
in that house, and Gashwiler couldn't smoke any closer to his house
than the front porch. Even trying it there he would be nagged, and
fussily asked why he didn't go out to the barn. He was a poor fish,
Gashwiler; a country storekeeper without a future. A clod!
Merton, after waiting in line, obtained his mail, consisting of
three magazines--Photo Land, Silver Screenings, and Camera. As he
stepped away he saw that Miss Tessie Kearns stood three places back
in the line. He waited at the door for her. Miss Kearns was the one
soul in Simsbury who understood him. He had confided to her all his
vast ambitions; she had sympathized with them, and her never-failing
encouragement had done not a little to stiffen his resolution at odd
times when the haven of Hollywood seemed all too distant. A certain
community of ambitions had been the foundation of this sympathy
between the two, for Tessie Kearns meant to become a scenario writer
of eminence, and, like Merton, she was now both studying and
practising a difficult art. She conducted the millinery and
dressmaking establishment next to the Gashwiler Emporium, but found
time, as did Merton, for the worthwhile things outside her narrow
She was a slight, spare little figure, sedate and mouselike, of
middle age and, to the village, of a quiet, sober way of thought.
But, known only to Merton, her real life was one of terrific
adventure, involving crime of the most atrocious sort, and contact
not only with the great and good, but with loathsome denizens of the
underworld who would commit any deed for hire. Some of her scenarios
would have profoundly shocked the good people of Simsbury, and she
often suffered tremors of apprehension at the thought that one of
them might be enacted at the Bijou Palace right there on Fourth
Street, with her name brazenly announced as author. Suppose it were
Passion's Perils! She would surely have to leave town after that!
She would be too ashamed to stay. Still she would be proud, also,
for by that time they would be calling her to Hollywood itself. Of
course nothing so distressing--or so grand--had happened yet, for
none of her dramas had been accepted; but she was coming on. It
might happen any time.
She joined Merton, a long envelope in her hand and a brave little
smile on her pinched face.
"Which one is it?" he asked, referring to the envelope.
"It's Passion's Perils." she answered with a jaunty affectation of
amusement. "The Touchstone-Blatz people sent it back. The slip says
its being returned does not imply any lack of merit."
"I should think it wouldn't!" said Merton warmly.
He knew Passion's Perils. A company might have no immediate need for
it, but its rejection could not possibly imply a lack of merit,
because the merit was there. No one could dispute that.
They walked on to the Bijou Palace. Its front was dark, for only
twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, could Simsbury muster a
picture audience; but they could read the bills for the following
night. The entrance was flanked on either side by billboards, and
they stopped before the first. Merton Gill's heart quickened its
beats, for there was billed none other than Beulah Baxter in the
ninth installment of her tremendous serial, The Hazards of Hortense.
It was going to be good! It almost seemed that this time the
scoundrels would surely get Hortense. She was speeding across a vast
open quarry in a bucket attached to a cable, and one of the
scoundrels with an ax was viciously hacking at the cable's farther
anchorage. It would be a miracle if he did not succeed in his
hellish design to dash Hortense to the cruel rocks below. Merton, of
course, had not a moment's doubt that the miracle would intervene;
he had seen other serials. So he made no comment upon the gravity of
the situation, but went at once to the heart of his ecstasy.
"The most beautiful woman on the screen," he murmured.
"Well, I don't know."
Miss Kearns appeared about to advance the claims of rival beauties,
but desisted when she saw that Merton was firm.
"None of the rest can touch her," he maintained. "And look at her
nerve! Would your others have as much nerve as that?"
"Maybe she has someone to double in those places," suggested the
screen-wise Tessie Kearns.
"Not Beulah Baxter. Didn't I see her personal appearance that time I
went to Peoria last spring on purpose to see it? Didn't she talk
about the risks she look and how the directors were always begging
her to use a double and how her artistic convictions wouldn't let
her do any such thing? You can bet the little girl is right there in
They passed to the other billboard. This would be the comedy. A
painfully cross-eyed man in misfitting clothes was doing something
supposed to be funny--pushing a lawn mower over the carpet of a
"How disgusting!" exclaimed Miss Kearns.
"Ain't it?" said Merton. "How they can have one of those terrible
things on the same bill with Miss Baxter--I can't understand it."
"Those censors ought to suppress this sort of buffoonery instead of
scenes of dignified passion like they did in Scarlet Sin," declared
Tessie. "Did you read about that?"
"They sure ought," agreed Merton. "These comedies make me tired. I
never see one if I can help it."
Walking on, they discussed the wretched public taste and the
wretched actors that pandered to it. The slap-stick comedy, they
held, degraded a fine and beautiful art. Merton was especially
severe. He always felt uncomfortable at one of these regrettable
exhibitions when people about him who knew no better laughed
heartily. He had never seen anything to laugh at, and said as much.
They crossed the street and paused at the door of Miss Kearns' shop,
behind which were her living rooms. She would to-night go over
Passion's Perils once more and send it to another company.
"I wonder," she said to Merton, "if they keep sending it back
because the sets are too expensive. Of course there's the one where
the dissipated English nobleman, Count Blessingham, lures Valerie
into Westminster Abbey for his own evil purposes on the night of the
old earl's murder--that's expensive--but they get a chance to use it
again when Valerie is led to the altar by young Lord Stonecliff, the
rightful heir. And of course Stonecliff Manor, where Valerie is
first seen as governess, would be expensive; but they use that in a
lot of scenes, too. Still, maybe I might change the locations around
to something they've got built."
"I wouldn't change a line," said Merton. "Don't give in to 'em. Make
'em take it as it is. They might ruin your picture with cheap
"Well," the authoress debated, "maybe I'll leave it. I'd especially
hate to give up Westminster Abbey. Of course the scene where she is
struggling with Count Blessingham might easily be made offensive--
it's a strong scene--but it all comes right. You remember she
wrenches herself loose from his grasp and rushes to throw herself
before the altar, which suddenly lights up, and the scoundrel is
afraid to pursue her there, because he had a thorough religious
training when a boy at Oxford, and he feels it would be sacrilegious
to seize her again while the light from the altar shines upon her
that way, and so she's saved for the time being. It seems kind of a
shame not to use Westminster Abbey for a really big scene like that,
don't you think?"
"I should say so!" agreed Merton warmly. "They build plenty of sets
as big as that. Keep it in!"
"Well, I'll take your advice. And I shan't give up trying with my
other ones. And I'm writing to another set of people--see here." She
took from her handbag a clipped advertisement which she read to
Merton in the fading light, holding it close to her keen little
eyes. "Listen! 'Five thousand photoplay ideas needed. Working girl
paid ten thousand dollars for ideas she had thought worthless. Yours
may be worth more. Experience unnecessary. Information free.
Producers' League 562, Piqua, Ohio.' Doesn't that sound encouraging?
And it isn't as if I didn't have some experience. I've been writing
scenarios for two years now."
"We both got to be patient," he pointed out. "We can't succeed all
at once, just remember that."
"Oh, I'm patient, and I'm determined; and I know you are, too,
Merton. But the way my things keep coming back--well, I guess we'd
both get discouraged if it wasn't for our sense of humour."
"I bet we would," agreed Merton. "And good-night!"
He went on to the Gashwiler Emporium and let himself into the dark
store. At the moment he was bewailing that the next installment of
The Hazards of Hortense would be shown on a Saturday night, for on
those nights the store kept open until nine and he could see it but
once. On a Tuesday night he would have watched it twice, in spite of
the so-called comedy unjustly sharing the bill with it.
Lighting a match, he made his way through the silent store, through
the stock room that had so lately been the foul lair of Snake le
Vasquez, and into his own personal domain, a square partitioned off
from the stockroom in which were his cot, the table at which he
studied the art of screen acting, and his other little belongings.
He often called this his den. He lighted a lamp on the table and
drew the chair up to it.
On the boards of the partition in front of him were pasted many
presentments of his favourite screen actress, Beulah Baxter, as she
underwent the nerve-racking Hazards of Hortense. The intrepid girl
was seen leaping from the seat of her high-powered car to the cab of
a passing locomotive, her chagrined pursuers in the distant
background. She sprang from a high cliff into the chill waters of a
storm-tossed sea. Bound to the back of a spirited horse, she was
raced down the steep slope of a rocky ravine in the Far West. Alone
in a foul den of the underworld she held at bay a dozen villainous
Asiatics. Down the fire escape of a great New York hotel she made a
perilous way. From the shrouds of a tossing ship she was about to
plunge to a watery release from the persecutor who was almost upon
her. Upon the roof of the Fifth Avenue mansion of her scoundrelly
guardian in the great city of New York she was gaining the friendly
projection of a cornice from which she could leap and again escape
death--even a fate worse than death, for the girl was pursued from
all sorts of base motives. This time, friendless and alone in
profligate New York, she would leap from the cornice to the branches
of the great eucalyptus tree that grew hard by. Unnerving
performances like these were a constant inspiration to Merton Gill.
He knew that he was not yet fit to act in such scenes--to appear
opportunely in the last reel of each installment and save Hortense
for the next one. But he was confident a day would come.
On the same wall he faced also a series of photographs of himself.
These were stills to be one day shown to a director who would
thereupon perceive his screen merits. There was Merton in the natty
belted coat, with his hair slicked back in the approved mode and a
smile upon his face; a happy, careless college youth. There was
Merton in tennis flannels, his hair nicely disarranged, jauntily
holding a borrowed racquet. Here he was in a trench coat and the cap
of a lieutenant, grim of face, the jaw set, holding a revolver upon
someone unpictured; there in a wide-collared sport shirt lolling
negligently upon a bench after a hard game of polo or something.
Again he appeared in evening dress, two straightened fingers resting
against his left temple. Underneath this was written in a running,
angular, distinguished hand, "Very truly yours, Clifford Armytage."
This, and prints of it similarly inscribed, would one day go to
unknown admirers who besought him for likenesses of himself.
But Merton lost no time in scanning these pictorial triumphs. He was
turning the pages of the magazines he had brought, his first hasty
search being for new photographs of his heroine. He was quickly
rewarded. Silver Screenings proffered some fresh views of Beulah
Baxter, not in dangerous moments, but revealing certain quieter
aspects of her wondrous life. In her kitchen, apron clad, she
stirred something. In her lofty music room she was seated at her
piano. In her charming library she was shown "Among Her Books." More
charmingly she was portrayed with her beautiful arms about the
shoulders of her dear old mother. And these accompanied an interview
with the actress.
The writer, one Esther Schwarz, professed the liveliest trepidation
at first meeting the screen idol, but was swiftly reassured by the
unaffected cordiality of her reception. She found that success had
not spoiled Miss Baxter. A sincere artist, she yet absolutely lacked
the usual temperament and mannerisms. She seemed more determined
than ever to give the public something better and finer. Her
splendid dignity, reserve, humanness, high ideals, and patient study
of her art had but mellowed, not hardened, a gracious personality.
Merton Gill received these assurances without surprise. He knew
Beulah Baxter would prove to be these delightful things. He read on
for the more exciting bits.
"I'm so interested in my work," prettily observed Miss Baxter to the
interviewer; "suppose we talk only of that. Leave out all the rest--
my Beverly Hills home, my cars, my jewels, my Paris gowns, my dogs,
my servants, my recreations. It is work alone that counts, don't you
think? We must learn that success, all that is beautiful and fine,
requires work, infinite work and struggle. The beautiful comes only
through suffering and sacrifice. And of course dramatic work
broadens a girl's viewpoint, helps her to get the real, the
worthwhile things out of life, enriching her nature with the
emotional experience of her roles. It is through such pressure that
we grow, and we must grow, must we not? One must strive for the
ideal, for the art which will be but the pictorial expression of
that, and for the emotion which must be touched by the illuminating
vision of a well-developed imagination if the vital message of the
him is to be felt.
"But of course I have my leisure moments from the grinding stress.
Then I turn to my books--I'm wild about history. And how I love the
great free out-of-doors! I should prefer to be on a simple farm,
were I a boy. The public would not have me a boy, you say"--she
shrugged prettily--"oh, of course, my beauty, as they are pleased to
call it. After all, why should one not speak of that? Beauty is just
a stock in trade, you know. Why not acknowledge it frankly? But do
come to my delightful kitchen, where I spend many a spare moment,
and see the lovely custard I have made for dear mamma's luncheon."
Merton Gill was entranced by this exposition of the quieter side of
his idol's life. Of course he had known she could not always be
making narrow escapes, and it seemed that she was almost more
delightful in this staid domestic life. Here, away from her
professional perils, she was, it seemed, "a slim little girl with
sad eyes and a wistful mouth."
The picture moved him strongly. More than ever he was persuaded that
his day would come. Even might come the day when it would be his lot
to lighten the sorrow of those eyes and appease the wistfulness of
that tender mouth. He was less sure about this. He had been unable
to learn if Beulah Baxter was still unwed. Silver Screenings, in
reply to his question, had answered, "Perhaps." Camera, in its
answers to correspondents, had said, "Not now." Then he had written
to Photo Land: "Is Beulah Baxter unmarried?" The answer had come,
"Twice." He had been able to make little of these replies,
enigmatic, ambiguous, at best. But he felt that some day he would at
least be chosen to act with this slim little girl with the sad eyes
and wistful mouth. He, it might be, would rescue her from the
branches of the great eucalyptus tree growing hard by the Fifth
Avenue mansion of the scoundrelly guardian. This, if he remembered
well her message about hard work.
He recalled now the wondrous occasion on which he had travelled the
nearly hundred miles to Peoria to see his idol in the flesh. Her
personal appearance had been advertised. It was on a Saturday night,
but Merton had silenced old Gashwiler with the tale of a dying aunt
in the distant city. Even so, the old grouch had been none too
considerate. He had seemed to believe that Merton's aunt should have
died nearer to Simsbury, or at least have chosen a dull Monday.
But Merton had held with dignity to the point; a dying aunt wasn't
to be hustled about as to either time or place. She died when her
time came--even on a Saturday night--and where she happened to be,
though it were a hundred miles from some point more convenient to an
utter stranger. He had gone and thrillingly had beheld for five
minutes his idol in the flesh, the slim little girl of the sorrowful
eyes and wistful mouth, as she told the vast audience--it seemed to
Merton that she spoke solely to him--by what narrow chance she had
been saved from disappointing it. She had missed the train, but had
at once leaped into her high-powered roadster and made the journey
at an average of sixty-five miles an hour, braving death a dozen
times. For her public was dear to her, and she would not have it
disappointed, and there she was before them in her trim driving
suit, still breathless from the wild ride.
Then she told them--Merton especially--how her directors had again
and again besought her not to persist in risking her life in her
dangerous exploits, but to allow a double to take her place at the
more critical moments. But she had never been able to bring herself
to this deception, for deception, in a way, it would be. The
directors had entreated in vain. She would keep faith with her
public, though full well she knew that at any time one of her dare-
devil acts might prove fatal.
Her public was very dear to her. She was delighted to meet it here,
face to face, heart to heart. She clasped her own slender hands over
her own heart as she said this, and there was a pathetic little
catch in her voice as she waved farewell kisses to the throng. Many
a heart besides Merton's beat more quickly at knowing that she must
rush out to the high-powered roadster and be off at eighty miles an
hour to St. Louis, where another vast audience would the next day be
breathlessly awaiting her personal appearance.
Merton had felt abundantly repaid for his journey. There had been
inspiration in this contact. Little he minded the acid greeting, on
his return, of a mere Gashwiler, spawning in his low mind a
monstrous suspicion that the dying aunt had never lived.
Now he read in his magazines other intimate interviews by other
talented young women who had braved the presence of other screen
idols of both sexes. The interviewers approached them with
trepidation, and invariably found that success had not spoiled them.
Fine artists though they were, applauded and richly rewarded, yet
they remained simple, unaffected, and cordial to these daring
reporters. They spoke with quiet dignity of their work, their
earnest efforts to give the public something better and finer. They
wished the countless readers of the interviews to comprehend that
their triumphs had come only with infinite work and struggle, that
the beautiful comes only through suffering and sacrifice. At lighter
moments they spoke gayly of their palatial homes, their domestic
pets, their wives or husbands and their charming children. They all
loved the great out-of-doors, but their chief solace from toil was
in this unruffled domesticity where they could forget the worries of
an exacting profession and lead a simple home life. All the husbands
and wives were more than that--they were good pals; and of course
they read and studied a great deal. Many of them were wild about
He was especially interested in the interview printed by Camera with
that world favourite, Harold Parmalee. For this was the screen
artist whom Merton most envied, and whom he conceived himself most
to resemble in feature. The lady interviewer, Miss Augusta Blivens,
had gone trembling into the presence of Harold Parmalee, to be
instantly put at her ease by the young artist's simple, unaffected
manner. He chatted of his early struggles when he was only too glad
to accept the few paltry hundreds of dollars a week that were
offered him in minor parts; of his quick rise to eminence; of his
unceasing effort to give the public something better and finer; of
his love for the great out-of-doors; and of his daily flight to the
little nest that sheltered his pal wife and the kiddies. Here he
could be truly himself, a man's man, loving the simple things of
life. Here, in his library, surrounded by his books, or in the music
room playing over some little Chopin prelude, or on the lawn romping
with the giant police dog, he could forget the public that would not
let him rest. Nor had he been spoiled in the least, said the
interviewer, by the adulation poured out upon him by admiring women
and girls in volume sufficient to turn the head of a less sane young
"There are many beautiful women in the world." pursued the writer,
"and I dare say there is not one who meets Harold Parmalee who does
not love him in one way or another. He has mental brilliancy for the
intellectuals, good looks for the empty-headed, a strong vital
appeal, a magnetism almost overwhelming to the susceptible, and an
easy and supremely appealing courtesy for every woman he
Merton drew a long breath after reading these earnest words. Would
an interviewer some day be writing as much about him? He studied the
pictures of Harold Parmalee that abundantly spotted the article. The
full face, the profile, the symmetrical shoulders, the jaunty
bearing, the easy, masterful smile. From each of these he would
raise his eyes to his own pictured face on the wall above him.
Undoubtedly he was not unlike Harold Parmalee. He noted little
similarities. He had the nose, perhaps a bit more jutting than
Harold's, and the chin, even more prominent.
Possibly a director would have told him that his Harold Parmalee
beauty was just a trifle overdone; that his face went just a bit
past the line of pleasing resemblance and into something else. But
at this moment the aspirant was reassured. His eyes were pale, under
pale brows, yet they showed well in the prints. And he was slightly
built, perhaps even thin, but a diet rich in fats would remedy that.
And even if he were quite a little less comely than Parmalee, he
would still be impressive. After all, a great deal depended upon the
acting, and he was learning to act.
Months ago, the resolution big in his heart, he had answered the
advertisement in Silver Screenings, urging him to "Learn Movie
Acting, a fascinating profession that pays big. Would you like to
know," it demanded, "if you are adapted to this work? If so, send
ten cents for our Ten-Hour Talent-Prover, or Key to Movie-Acting
Aptitude, and find whether you are suited to take it up."
Merton had earnestly wished to know this, and had sent ten cents to
the Film Incorporation Bureau, Station N, Stebbinsville, Arkansas.
The Talent-Prover, or Key to Movie-Acting Aptitude, had come; he had
mailed his answers to the questions and waited an anguished ten
days, fearing that he would prove to lack the required aptitude for
this great art. But at last the cheering news had come. He had every
aptitude in full measure, and all that remained was to subscribe to
the correspondence course.
He had felt weak in the moment of his relief from this torturing
anxiety. Suppose they had told him that he wouldn't do? And he had
studied the lessons with unswerving determination. Night and day he
had held to his ideal. He knew that when you did this your hour was
bound to come.
He yawned now, thinking, instead of the anger expressions he should
have been practising, of the sordid things he must do to-morrow. He
must be up at five, sprinkle the floor, sweep it, take down the dust
curtains from the shelves of dry goods, clean and fill the lamps,
then station outside the dummies in their raiment. All day he would
serve customers, snatching a hasty lunch of crackers and cheese
behind the grocery counter. And at night, instead of twice watching
The Hazards of Hortense, he must still unreasonably serve late
customers until the second unwinding of those delectable reels.
He suddenly sickened of it all. Was he not sufficiently versed in
the art he had chosen to practise? And old Gashwiler every day
getting harder to bear! His resolve stiffened. He would not wait
much longer--only until the savings hidden out under the grocery
counter had grown a bit. He made ready for bed, taking, after he had
undressed, some dumb-bell exercises that would make his shoulders a
trifle ire like Harold Parmalee's. This rite concluded, he knelt by
his narrow cot and prayed briefly.
"Oh, God, make me a good movie actor! Make me one of the best! For
Saturday proved all that his black forebodings had pictured it--a
day of sordid, harassing toil; toil, moreover, for which Gashwiler,
the beneficiary, showed but the scantest appreciation. Indeed, the
day opened with a disagreement between the forward-looking clerk and
his hide-bound reactionary. Gashwiler had reached the store at his
accustomed hour of 8:30 to find Merton embellishing the bulletin
board in front with legends setting forth especial bargains of the
day to be had within.
Chalk in hand, he had neatly written, "See our new importation of
taffetas, $2.59 the yard." Below this he was in the act of putting
down, "Try our choice Honey-dew spinach, 20 cts. the can." "Try our
Preferred Chipped Beef, 58 cts. the pound."
He was especially liking that use of "the." It sounded modern. Yet
along came Gashwiler, as if seeking an early excuse to nag, and
"Why don't you say 'a yard,' 'a can,' 'a pound'?" he demanded
harshly. "What's the sense of that there 'the' stuff? Looks to me
like just putting on a few airs. You keep to plain language and our
patrons'll like it a lot better." Viciously Merton Gill rubbed out
the modern "the" and substituted the desired "a."
"Very well," he assented, "if you'd rather stick to the old-
fashioned way; but I can tell you that's the way city stores do it.
I thought you might want to be up to date, but I see I made a great
"Humph!" said Gashwiler, unbitten by this irony. "I guess the old
way's good enough, long's our prices are always right. Don't forget
to put on that canned salmon. I had that in stock for nearly a year
now--and say it's twenty cents 'a' can, not 'the' can. Also say it's
a grand reduction from thirty-five cents."
That was always the way. You never could please the old grouch. And
so began the labour that lasted until nine that night. Merton must
count out eggs and weigh butter that was brought in. He must do up
sugar and grind coffee and measure dress goods and match silks; he
must with the suavest gentility ask if there would not be something
else to-day; and he must see that babies hazardously left on
counters did not roll off.
He lived in a vortex of mental confusion, performing his tasks
mechanically. When drawing a gallon of kerosene or refolding the
shown dress goods, or at any task not requiring him to be genially
talkative, he would be saying to Miss Augusta Blivens in far-off
Hollywood, "Yes, my wife is more than a wife. She is my best pal,
and, I may also add, my severest critic."
There was but one break in the dreary monotony, and that was when
Lowell Hardy, Simsbury's highly artistic photographer, came in to
leave an order for groceries. Lowell wore a soft hat with rakish
brim, and affected low collars and flowing cravats, the artistic
effect of these being heightened in his studio work by a purple
velvet jacket. Even in Gashwiler's he stood out as an artist. Merton
received his order, and noting that Gashwiler was beyond earshot
bespoke his services for the following afternoon.
"Say, Lowell, be on the lot at two sharp to-morrow, will you? I want
to shoot some Western stuff--some stills."
Merton thrilled as he used these highly technical phrases. He had
not read his magazines for nothing.
Lowell Hardy considered, then consented. He believed that he, too,
might some day be called to Hollywood after they had seen the sort
of work he could turn out. He always finished his art studies of
Merton with great care, and took pains to have the artist's
signature entirely legible. "All right, Mert, I'll be there. I got
some new patent paper I'll try out on these."
"On the lot at two sharp to shoot Western stuff," repeated Merton
"Right--o!" assented Lowell, and returned to more prosaic studio
The day wore itself to a glad end. The last exigent customer had
gone, the curtains were up, the lights were out, and at five minutes
past nine the released slave, meeting Tessie Kearns at her front
door, escorted her with a high heart to the second show at the Bijou
Palace. They debated staying out until after the wretched comedy had
been run, but later agreed that they should see this, as Tessie
keenly wished to know why people laughed at such things. The antics
of the painfully cross-eyed man distressed them both, though the
mental inferiors by whom they were surrounded laughed noisily.
Merton wondered how any producer could bring himself to debase so
great an art, and Tessie wondered if she hadn't, in a way, been
aiming over the public's head with her scenarios. After all, you had
to give the public what it wanted. She began to devise comedy
elements for her next drama.
But The Hazards of Hortense came mercifully to soothe their
annoyance. The slim little girl with a wistful smile underwent a
rich variety of hazards, each threatening a terrible death. Through
them all she came unscathed, leaving behind her a trail of
infuriated scoundrels whom she had thwarted. She escaped from an
underworld den in a Chicago slum just in the nick of time, cleverly
concealing herself in the branches of the great eucalyptus tree that
grew hard by, while her maddened pursuers scattered in their search
for the prize. Again she was captured, this time to be conveyed by
aeroplane, a helpless prisoner and subject to the most fiendish
insults by Black Steve, to the frozen North. But in the far Alaskan
wilds she eluded the fiends and drove swiftly over the frozen wastes
with their only dog team. Having left her pursuers far behind, she
decided to rest for the night in a deserted cabin along the way.
Here a blizzard drove snow through the chinks between the logs, and
a pack of fierce wolves besieged her. She tried to bar the door, but
the bar was gone. At that moment she heard a call. Could it be Black
Steve again? No, thank heaven! The door was pushed open and there
stood Ralph Murdock, her fiance. There was a quick embrace and words
of cheer from Ralph. They must go on.
But no, the wind cut like a knife, and the wolves still prowled. The
film here showed a running insert of cruel wolves exposing all their
fangs. Ralph had lost his rifle. He went now to put his arm through
the iron loops in place of the missing bar. The wolves sought to
push open the door, but Ralph's arm foiled them.
Then the outside of the cabin was shown, with Black Steve and his
three ugly companions furtively approaching. The wolves had gone,
but human wolves, ten thousand times more cruel, had come in their
place. Back in the cabin Ralph and Hortense discovered that the
wolves had gone. It had an ugly look. Why should the wolves go?
Ralph opened the door and they both peered out. There in the shadow
of a eucalyptus tree stood Black Steve and his dastardly crew. They
were about to storm the cabin. All was undoubtedly lost.
Not until the following week would the world learn how Hortense and
her manly fiance had escaped this trap. Again had Beulah Baxter
striven and suffered to give the public something better and finer.
"A wonder girl," declared Merton when they were again in the open.
"That's what I call her--a wonder girl. And she owes it all to hard,
unceasing struggle and work and pains and being careful. You ought
to read that new interview with her in this month's Silver
"Yes, yes, she's wonderful," assented Tessie as they strolled to the
door of her shop. "But I've been thinking about comedy. You know my
new one I'm writing--of course it's a big, vital theme, all about a
heartless wife with her mind wholly on society and bridge clubs and
dancing and that sort of dissipation, and her husband is Hubert
Glendenning, a studious young lawyer who doesn't like to go out
evenings but would rather play with the kiddies a bit after their
mother has gone to a party, or read over some legal documents in the
library, which is very beautifully furnished; and her old school
friend, Corona Bartlett, comes to stay at the house, a very
voluptuous type, high coloured, with black hair and lots of
turquoise jewellery, and she's a bad woman through and through, and
been divorced and everything by a man whose heart she broke, and
she's become a mere adventuress with a secret vice--she takes
perfume in her tea, like I saw that one did--and all her evil
instincts are aroused at once by Hubert, who doesn't really care
deeply for her, as she has only a surface appeal of mere sensuous
beauty; but he sees that his wife is neglecting him and having an
affair with an Italian count--I found such a good name for him,
Count Ravioli--and staying out with him until all hours; so in a
moment of weakness he gives himself to Corona Bartlett, and then
sees that he must break up his home and get a divorce and marry
Corona to make an honest woman of her; but of course his wife is
brought to her senses, so she sees that she has been in the wrong
and has a big scene with Corona in which she scorns her and Corona
slinks away, and she forgives Hubert his one false step because it
was her fault. It's full of big situations, but what I'm wondering--
I'm wondering if I couldn't risk some comedy in it by having the
faithful old butler a cross-eyed man. Nothing so outrageous as that
creature we just saw, but still noticeably cross-eyed. Do you think
it would lighten some of the grimmer scenes, perhaps, and wouldn't
it be good pathos to have the butler aware of his infirmity and
knowing the greatest surgeons in the world can't help him?"
"Well," Merton considered, "if I were you I shouldn't chance it. It
would be mere acrobatic humour. And why do you want any one to be
funny when you have a big gripping thing of love and hate like that?
I don't believe I'd have him cross-eyed. I'd have him elderly and
simple and dignified. And you don't want your audience to laugh, do
you, when he holds up both hands to show how shocked he is at the
way things are going on in that house?"
"Well, maybe I won't then. It was just a thought. I believe you have
the right instinct in those matters, Merton. I'll leave him as he
"Good-night, then," said Merton. "I got to be on the lot to-morrow.
My camera man's coming at two. Shooting some Western stuff."
"Oh, my! Really?"
Tessie gazed after him admiringly. He let himself into the dark
store, so lately the scene of his torment, and on the way to his
little room stopped to reach under the grocery counter for those
hidden savings. To-night he would add to them the fifteen dollars
lavished upon him by Gashwiler at the close of a week's toil. The
money was in a tobacco pouch. He lighted the lamp on his table,
placed the three new bills beside it and drew out the hoard. He
would count it to confirm his memory of the grand total.
The bills were frayed, lacking the fresh green of new ones; weary
looking, with an air of being glad to rest at last after much
passing from hand to hand as symbols of wealth. Their exalted
present owner tenderly smoothed cut several that had become
crumpled, secured them in a neat pile, adding the three recently
acquired five-dollar bills, and proceeded to count, moistening the
ends of a thumb and finger in defiance of the best sanitary
teaching. It was no time to think of malignant bacteria.
By his remembered count he should now be possessed of two hundred
and twelve dollars. And there was the two-dollar bill, a limp, gray
thing, abraded almost beyond identification. He placed this down
first, knowing that the remaining bills should amount to two hundred
and ten dollars. Slowly he counted, to finish with a look of blank,
hesitating wonder. He made another count, hastily, but taking
greater care. The wonder grew. Again he counted, slowly this time,
so that there could be no doubt. And now he knew! He possessed
thirty-three dollars more than he had thought. Knowing this was
right, he counted again for the luxury of it. Two hundred and forty-
five obvious dollars!
How had he lost count? He tried to recall. He could remember taking
out the money he had paid Lowell Hardy for the last batch of
Clifford Armytage stills--for Lowell, although making professional
rates to Merton, still believed the artist to be worth his hire--and
he could remember taking some more out to send to the mail-order
house in Chicago for the cowboy things; but it was plain that he had
twice, at least, crowded a week's salary into the pouch and
It was a pleasurable experience; it was like finding thirty-three
dollars. And he was by that much nearer to his goal; that much
sooner would he be released from bondage; thirty-three dollars
sooner could he look Gashwiler in the eye and say what he thought of
him and his emporium. In his nightly prayer he did not neglect to
render thanks for this.
He dressed the next morning with a new elation. He must be more
careful about keeping tab on his money, but also it was wonderful to
find more than you expected. He left the storeroom that reeked of
kerosene and passed into the emporium to replace his treasure in its
hiding place. The big room was dusky behind the drawn front
curtains, but all the smells were there--the smell of ground coffee
and spices at the grocery counter, farther on, the smothering smell
of prints and woolens and new leather.
The dummies, waiting down by the door to be put outside, regarded
each other in blank solemnity. A few big flies droned lazily about
their still forms. Merton eyed the dusty floor, the gleaming
counters, the curtains that shielded the shelves, with a new
disdain. Sooner than he had thought he would bid them a last
farewell. And to-day, at least, he was free of them--free to be on
the lot at two, to shoot Western stuff. Let to-morrow, with its old
round of degrading tasks, take care of itself.
At 10:30 he was in church. He was not as attentive to the sermon as
he should have been, for it now occurred to him that he had no
stills of himself in the garb of a clergyman. This was worth
considering, because he was not going to be one of those one-part
actors. He would have a wide range of roles. He would be able to
play anything. He wondered how the Rev. Otto Carmichael would take
the request for a brief loan of one of his pulpit suits. Perhaps he
was not so old as he looked; perhaps he might remember that he, too,
had once been young and fired with high ideals. It would be worth
trying. And the things could be returned after a brief studio
session with Lowell Hardy. He saw himself cast in such a part, the
handsome young clergyman, exponent of a muscular Christianity. He
comes to the toughest cattle town in all the great Southwest,
determined to make honest men and good women of its sinning
derelicts. He wins the hearts of these rugged but misguided souls.
Though at first they treat him rough, they learn to respect him, and
they call him the fighting parson. Eventually he wins the hand in
marriage of the youngest of the dance-hall denizens, a sweet young
girl who despite her evil surroundings has remained as pure and good
as she is beautiful.
Anyway, if he had those clothes for an hour or two while the artist
made a few studies of him he would have something else to show
directors in search of fresh talent.
After church he ate a lonely meal served by Metta Judson at the
Gashwiler residence. The Gashwilers were on their accustomed Sabbath
visit to the distant farm of Mrs. Gashwiler's father. But as he ate
he became conscious that the Gashwiler influence was not wholly
withdrawn. From above the mantel he was sternly regarded by a tinted
enlargement of his employer's face entitled Photographic Study by
Lowell Hardy. Lowell never took photographs merely. He made
photographic studies, and the specimen at hand was one of his most
daring efforts. Merton glared at it in free hostility--a clod, with
ideals as false as the artist's pink on his leathery cheeks! He
hurried his meal, glad to be relieved from the inimical scrutiny.
He was glad to be free from this and from the determined recital by
Metta Judson of small-town happenings. What cared he that Gus
Giddings had been fined ten dollars and costs by Squire Belcher for
his low escapade, or that Gus's father had sworn to lick him within
an inch of his life if he ever ketched him touching stimmilints
He went to the barn, climbed to the hayloft, and undid the bundle
containing his Buck Benson outfit. This was fresh from the mail-
order house in Chicago. He took out almost reverently a pair of
high-heeled boots with purple tops, a pair of spurs, a gay shirt, a
gayer neckerchief, a broad-brimmed hat, a leather holster, and--most
impressive of all--a pair of goatskin chaps dyed a violent maroon.
All these he excitedly donned, the spurs last. Then he clambered
down the ladder from the loft, somewhat impeded by the spurs, and
went into the kitchen. Metta Judson, washing dishes, gave a little
cry of alarm. Nothing like this had ever before invaded the
Gashwiler home by front door or back.
"Why, Mert' Gill, whatever you dressed up like that for? My stars,
you look like a cowboy or something! Well, I must say!"
"Say, Metta, do me a favour. I want to see how these things look in
a glass. It's a cowboy outfit for when I play regular Buck Benson
parts, and everything's got to be just so or the audience writes to
the magazines about it and makes fun of you."
"Go ahead," said Metta. "You can git a fine look at yourself in the
tall glass in the old lady's bedroom."
Forthwith he went, profaning a sanctuary, to survey himself in a
glass that had never reflected anything but the discreet arraying of
his employer's lady. He looked long and earnestly. The effect was
quite all he had hoped. He lowered the front of the broad-brimmed
hat the least bit, tightened his belt another notch and moved the
holster to a better line. He looked again. From feet to head he was
Then, slightly crouching, he drew his revolver from the holster and
held it forward from the hip, wrist and forearm rigidly straight.
"Throw up your hands!"
He uttered the grim words in a low tone, but one facing him would
not have been deceived by low tones. Steely-eyed, grim of face,
relentless in all his bearing, the most desperate adversary would
have quailed. Probably even Gashwiler himself would have quailed.
When Buck Benson looked and spoke thus he meant it.
He held it a long, breathless moment before relaxing. Then he
tiptoed softly from the hallowed confines of a good woman's boudoir
and clattered down the back stairs to the kitchen. He was thinking:
"I certainly got to get me another gun if I'm ever going to do Two-
Gun Benson parts, and I got to get the draw down better. I ain't
quick enough yet."
"Well, did you like your rig?" inquired Metta genially.
"Oh, it'll do for the stills we're shooting to-day," replied the
actor. "Of course I ought to have a rattlesnake-skin band on my hat,
and the things look too new yet. And say, Metta, where's the
clothesline? I want to practise roping a little before my camera man
"My stars! You're certainly goin' to be a real one, ain't you?"
She brought him the clothesline, in use only on Mondays. He re-
coiled it carefully and made a running noose in one end.
At two Lowell Hardy found his subject casting the rope at an
inattentive Dexter. The old horse stood in the yard, head down, one
foot crossed nonchalantly before the other. A slight tremor, a
nervous flickering of his skin, was all that ensued when the rope
grazed him. When it merely fell in his general neighbourhood, as it
oftener did, Dexter did not even glance up.
"Good stuff!" applauded the artist. "Now just stand that way,
holding the noose out. I want to make a study of that."
He rapidly mounted his camera on a tripod and put in a plate. The
study was made. Followed several studies of the fighting face of
Two-Gun Benson, grim and rigid, about to shoot from the hip. But
these were minor bits. More important would be Buck Benson and his
old pal, Pinto. From the barn Merton dragged the saddle, blanket,
and bridle he had borrowed from the Giddings House livery stable. He
had never saddled a horse before, but he had not studied in vain. He
seized Dexter by a wisp of his surviving mane and simultaneously
planted a hearty kick in the beast's side, with a command, "Get
around there, you old skate!" Dexter sighed miserably and got around
as ordered. He was both pained and astonished. He knew that this was
Sunday. Never had he been forced to work on this day. But he meekly
suffered the protrusion of a bit between his yellow teeth, and
shuddered but slightly when a blanket and then a heavy saddle were
flung across his back. True, he looked up in some dismay when the
girth was tightened. Not once in all his years had he been saddled.
He was used to having things loose around his waist.
The girth went still tighter. Dexter glanced about with genuine
concern. Someone was intending to harm him. He curved his swanlike
neck and snapped savagely at the shoulder of his aggressor, who
kicked him again in the aide and yelled, "Whoa, there, dang you!"
Dexter subsided. He saw it was no use. Whatever queer thing they
meant to do to him would be done despite all his resistance. Still
his alarm had caused him to hold up his head now. He was looking
much more like a horse.
"There!" said Merton Gill, and as a finishing touch he lashed the
coiled clothesline to the front of the saddle. "Now, here! Get me
this way. This is one of the best things I do--that is, so far."
Fondly he twined his arms about the long, thin neck of Dexter, who
tossed his head and knocked off the cowboy hat. "Never mind that--
it's out," said Merton. "Can't use it in this scene." He laid his
cheek to the cheek of his pet. "Well, old pal, they're takin' yuh
from me, but we got to keep a stiff upper lip. You an' me has been
through some purty lively times together, but we got to face the
music at last--there, Lowell, did you get that?"
The artist had made his study. He made three others of the same
affecting scene at different angles. Dexter was overwhelmed with
endearments. Doubtless he was puzzled--to be kicked in the ribs at
one moment, the next to be fondled. But Lowell Hardy was
enthusiastic. He said he would have some corking studies. He made
another of Buck Benson preparing to mount good old Pinto; though, as
a matter of fact, Buck, it appeared, was not even half prepared to
"Go on, jump on him now," suggested the artist. "I'll get a few more
"Well, I don't know," Merton hesitated. He was twenty-two years old,
and he had never yet been aboard a horse. Perhaps he shouldn't try
to go too far in one lesson. "You see, the old boy's pretty tired
from his week's work. Maybe I better not mount him. Say, I'll tell
you, take me rolling a cigarette, just standing by him. I darned
near forgot the cigarettes."
From the barn he brought a sack of tobacco and some brown papers. He
had no intention of smoking, but this kind of cigarette was too
completely identified with Buck Benson to be left out. Lolling
against the side of Dexter, he poured tobacco from the sack into one
of the papers. "Get me this way," he directed, "just pouring it
He had not yet learned to roll a cigarette, but Gus Giddings, the
Simsbury outlaw, had promised to teach him. Anyway, it was enough
now to be looking keenly out from under his hat while he poured
tobacco into the creased paper against the background of good old
Pinto. An art study of this pose was completed. But Lowell Hardy
craved more action, more variety.
"Go on. Get up on him," he urged. "I want to make a study of that."
"Well--"again Merton faltered--"the old skate's tired out from a
hard week, and I'm not feeling any too lively myself."
"Shucks! It won't kill him if you get on his back for a minute, will
it? And you'll want one on him to show, won't you? Hurry up, while
the light's right."
Yes, he would need a mounted study to show. Many times he had
enacted a scene in which a director had looked over the art studies
of Clifford Armytage and handed them back with the remark, "But you
seem to play only society parts, Mr. Armytage. All very interesting,
and I've no doubt we can place you very soon; but just at present
we're needing a lead for a Western, a man who can look the part and
Thereupon he handed these Buck Benson stills to the man, whose face
would instantly relax into an expression of pleased surprise.
"The very thing," he would say. And among those stills, certainly,
should be one of Clifford Armytage actually on the back of his
horse. He'd chance it.
"All right; just a minute."
He clutched the bridle reins of Dexter under his drooping chin. and
overcoming a feeble resistance dragged him alongside the watering
trough. Dexter at first thought he was wished to drink, but a kick
took that nonsense out of him. With extreme care Merton stood upon
the edge of the trough and thrust a leg blindly over the saddle.
With some determined clambering he was at last seated. His feet were
in the stirrups. There was a strange light in his eyes. There was a
strange light in Dexter's eyes. To each of them the experience was
not only without precedent but rather unpleasant.
"Ride him out in the middle here, away from that well," directed the
"You--you better lead him out," suggested the rider. "I can feel him
tremble already. He--he might break down under me."
Metta Judson, from the back porch, here came into the piece with
lines that the author had assuredly not written for her.
"Giddap, there, you Dexter Gashwiler," called Metta loudly and with
the best intentions.
"You keep still," commanded the rider severely, not turning his
head. What a long way it seemed to the ground! He had never dreamed
that horses were so lofty. "Better lead him," he repeated to his
Lowell Hardy grasped the bridle reins, and after many vain efforts
persuaded Dexter to stumble away from the well. His rider grasped
the horn of his saddle.
"Look out, don't let him buck," he called.
But Dexter had again become motionless, except for a recurrent
trembling under this monstrous infliction.
"Now, there," began the artist. "Hold that. You're looking off over
the Western hills. Atta boy! Wait till I get a side view."
"Move your camera," said the rider. "Seems to me he doesn't want to
But again the artist turned Dexter half around. That wasn't so bad.
Merton began to feel the thrill of it. He even lounged in the saddle
presently, one leg over the pommel, and seemed about to roll another
cigarette while another art study was made. He continued to lounge
there while the artist packed his camera. What had he been afraid
of? He could sit a horse as well as the next man; probably a few
little tricks about it he hadn't learned yet, but he'd get these,
"I bet they'll come out fine," he called to the departing artist.
"Leave that to me. I dare say I'll be able to do something good with
them. So long."
"So long," returned Merton, and was left alone on the back of a
horse higher than people would think until they got on him. Indeed
he was beginning to like it. If you just had a little nerve you
needn't be afraid of anything. Very carefully he clambered from the
saddle. His old pal shook himself with relief and stood once more
with bowed head and crossed forelegs.
His late burden observed him approvingly. There was good old Pinto
after a hard day's run over the mesa. He had borne his beloved owner
far ahead of the sheriff's posse, and was now securing a moment's
much-needed rest. Merton undid the riata and for half an hour
practised casting it at his immobile pet. Once the noose settled
unerringly over the head of Dexter, who still remained immobile.
Then there was the lightning draw to be practised. Again and again
the trusty weapon of Buck Benson flashed from its holster to the
damage of a slower adversary. He was getting that draw down pretty
good. From the hip with straight wrist and forearm Buck was ready to
shoot in no time at all. Throughout that villain-infested terrain
along the border he was known for his quick draw. The most desperate
of them would never molest him except they could shoot him from
behind. With his back to a wall, they slunk from the encounter.
Elated from this practice and from the memory of that one successful
rope cast, Merton became daring in the extreme. He considered
nothing less than remounting his old pal and riding, in the cool of
early evening, up and down the alley upon which the barnyard gave.
He coiled the rope and again lashed it to the left front of the
saddle. Then he curved an affectionate arm over the arched neck of
Pinto, who sighed deeply.
"Well, old pal, you and me has still got some mighty long miles to
git over between now and sunup to-morrow. I reckon we got to put a
right smart of distance between us and that pesky sheriff's posse,
but I know yuh ain't lost heart, old pal."
Dexter here tossed his head, being cloyed with these embraces, and
Two-Gun Benson caught a look in the desperate eyes of his pet which
he did not wholly like. Perhaps it would be better not to ride him
any more to-day. Perhaps it would be better not to ride him again
until next Sunday. After all, wasn't Dexter practically a wild
horse, caught up from the range and broken to saddle only that
afternoon? No use overdoing it. At this moment the beast's back
looked higher than ever.
It was the cutting remark of a thoughtless, empty-headed girl that
confirmed Merton in his rash resolve. Metta Judson, again on the
back steps, surveyed the scene with kindling eyes.
"I bet you daresn't get on him again," said Metta.
These were strong words; not words to be flung lightly at Two-Gun
"You know a lot about it, don't you?" parried Merton Gill.
"Afraid of that old skate!" murmured Metta, counterfeiting the
inflections of pity.
Her target shot her a glance of equal pity for her lack of
understanding and empty-headed banter. He stalked to the barnyard
gate and opened it. The way to his haven over the border was no
longer barred. He returned to Dexter, firmly grasped the bridle
reins under his weak chin and cajoled him again to the watering
trough. Metta Judson was about to be overwhelmed with confusion.
From the edge of the trough he again clambered into the saddle, the
new boots groping a way to the stirrups. The reins in his left hand,
he swept off his ideal hat with a careless gesture--he wished he had
had an art study made of this, but you can't think of everything at
one time. He turned loftily to Metta as one who had not even heard
her tasteless taunts.
"Well, so long! I won't be out late." Metta was now convinced that
she had in her heart done this hero a wrong.
"You better be here before the folks get back!" she warned.
Merton knew this as well as she did, but the folks wouldn't be back
for a couple of hours yet, and all he meant to venture was a ride at
sober pace the length of the alley.
"Oh, I'll take care of that!" he said. "A few miles' stiff gallop'll
be all I want." He jerked Dexter's head up, snapped the reins on his
neck, and addressed him in genial, comradely but authoritative
"Git up there, old hoss!"
Dexter lowered his head again and remained as if posing
conscientiously for the statue of a tired horse.
"Giddap, there, you old skate!" again ordered the rider.
The comradely unction was gone from his voice and the bony neck
received a smarter wallop with the reins. Dexter stood unmoved. He
seemed to be fearing that the worst was now coming, and that he
might as well face it on that spot as elsewhere. He remained deaf to
threats and entreaties alike. No hoof moved from its resting place.
"Giddap, there, you old Dexter Gashwiler!" ordered Metta, and was
not rebuked. But neither would Dexter yield to a woman's whim.
"I'll tell you!" said Merton, now contemptuous of his mount. "Get
the buggy whip and tickle his ribs."
Metta sped on his errand, her eyes shining with the lust for
torture. With the frayed end of the whip from the delivery wagon she
lightly scored the exposed ribs of Dexter, tormenting him with
devilish cunning. Dexter's hide shuttled back and forth. He whinnied
protestingly, but did not stir even one hoof.
"That's the idea," said Merton, feeling scornfully secure on the
back of this spiritless animal. "Keep it up! I can feel him coming
Metta kept it up. Her woman's ingenuity contrived new little tricks
with the instrument of torture. She would doubtless have had a
responsible post with the Spanish Inquisition. Face set, absorbed in
her evil work, she tickled the ribs crosswise and tickled between
them, up and down, always with the artist's light touch.
Dexter's frame grew tense, his head came up. Once more he looked
like a horse. He had been brave to face destruction, but he found
himself unable to face being tickled to death. If only they had
chosen some other method for his execution he would have perished
gamely, but this was exquisitely poignant--beyond endurance. He
tossed his head and stepped into a trot toward the open gate.
Metta yelled in triumph. The rider tossed his own head in rhythm to
Dexter's trot. His whole body tossed in the saddle; it was a
fearsome pace; the sensations were like nothing he had ever dreamed
of. And he was so high above the good firm ground! Dexter continued
his jolting progress to the applause of Metta. The rider tried to
command Metta to keep still, and merely bit his tongue.
Stirred to life by the tickling, Dexter now became more acutely
aware of that strange, restless burden on his back, and was inspired
to free himself from it. He increased his pace as he came to the
gate, and managed a backward kick with both heels. This lost the
rider his stirrups and left him less securely seated than he wished
to be. He dropped the reins and grasped the saddle's pommel with
He strangely seemed to consider the pommel the steering wheel of a
motor car. He seemed to be twisting it with the notion of guiding
Dexter. All might have been well, but on losing his stirrups the
rider had firmly clasped his legs about the waist of the animal.
Again and again he tightened them, and now Dexter not only looked
every inch a horse but very painfully to his rider felt like one,
for the spurs were goring him to a most seditious behavior. The mere
pace was slackened only that he might alarmingly kick and shake
himself in a manner as terrifying to the rider as it was unseemly in
one of Dexter's years.
But the thing was inevitable, because once in his remote, hot youth
Dexter, cavorting innocently in an orchard, had kicked over a hive
of busy bees which had been attending strictly to their own affairs
until that moment. After that they had attended to Dexter with a
thoroughness that had seared itself to this day across his memory.
He now sincerely believed that he had overturned another hive of
bees, and that not but by the most strenuous exertion could he
escape from their harrying. They were stinging him venomously along
his sides, biting deeper with every jump. At last he would bear his
rider safely over the border.
The rider clasped his mount ever more tightly. The deep dust of the
alley road mounted high over the spirited scene, and through it came
not only the hearty delight of Metta Judson in peals of womanly
laughter, but the shrill cries of the three Ransom children whom
Merton had not before noticed. These were Calvin Ransom, aged eight;
Elsie Ransom, aged six; and little Woodrow Ransom, aged four. Their
mother had lain down with a headache, having first ordered them to
take their picture books and sit quietly in the parlour as good
children should on a Sabbath afternoon. So they had noisily
pretended to obtain the picture books and then quietly tiptoed out
into the backyard, which was not so stuffy as the parlour.
Detecting the meritorious doings in the Gashwiler barnyard, they
perched in a row on the alley fence and had been excited spectators
from the moment that Merton had mounted his horse.
In shrill but friendly voices they had piped, "Oh, Merton Gill's a
cowboy, Merton Gill's a cowboy! Oh, looka the cowboy on the big
For of course they were motion-picture experts and would know a
cowboy when they saw one. Wide-eyed, they followed the perilous
antics of Dexter as he issued from the alley gate, and they screamed
with childish delight when the spurs had recalled to his memory that
far-off dreadful day with the busy bees. They now balanced
precariously on the alley fence, the better to trace Merton's flight
through the dust cloud. "Merton's in a runaway, Merton's in a
runaway, Merton's in a runaway!" they shrieked, but with none of the
sympathy that would have become them. They appeared to rejoice in
Merton's plight. "Merton's in a runaway," they joyously chanted.
Suddenly they ceased, frozen with a new and splendid wonder, for
their descriptive phrase was now inexact. Merton was no longer in a
runaway. But only for a moment did they hesitate before taking up
the new chant.
"Looky, looky. He's throwed Merton right off into the dirt. He's
throwed Merton right off into the dirt. Oh, looky Merton Gill right
down there in the dirt!"
Again they had become exact. Merton was right down there in the
dirt, and a frantic, flashing-heeled Dexter was vanishing up the
alley at the head of a cloud of dust. The friendly Ransom tots
leaped from the fence to the alley, forgetting on her bed of pain
the mother who supposed them to be engrossed with picture books in
the library. With one accord they ran toward the prostrate horseman,
Calvin ahead and Elsie a close second, holding the hand of little
They were presently able to observe that the fleeing Dexter had
narrowly escaped running down a motor car inopportunely turning at
that moment into the alley. The gallant animal swerved in time,
leaving the car's driver and his wife aghast at their slight margin
of safety. Dexter vanished to the right up shaded Spruce Street on a
Sabbath evening as the first call to evening worship pealed from a
neighbouring church tower.
His late rider had erected himself and was beating dust from the new
chaps and the front of the new shirt. He picked up the ideal hat and
dusted that. Underneath all the flurry of this adventure he was
still the artist. He had been set afoot in the desert by a
treacherous horse; he must find a water hole or perish with thirst.
He replaced the hat, and it was then he observed the motor car
bearing down the alley upon him.
"My good gosh!" he muttered.
The Gashwilers had returned a full two hours before their accustomed
time. The car halted beside him and his employer leaned out a warmly
"What's this mean?" he demanded.
The time was not one to tell Gashwiler what he thought of him. Not
only was there a lady present, but he felt himself at a
disadvantage. The lady saved him from an instant necessity for
"That was our new clothesline; I recognized it at once." The woman
seemed to pride herself on this paltry feat.
"What's this mean?" again demanded Gashwiler. He was now a man of
Again was Merton Gill saved from the need of instant speech, though
not in a way he would have chosen to be saved. The three Ransom
children ran up, breathless, shouting.
"Oh, Merton, here's your pistol. I found it right in the road
there." "We found your pistol right in the dirt there. I saw it
first." "You did not; I saw it first. Merton, will you let me shoot
it off, Merton? I found your pistol, didn't I, Merton? Didn't I find
it right in the road there?" The friendly tots did little step
dances while they were thus vocal.
"Be quiet, children," commanded Merton, finding a voice. But they
were not to be quelled by mere tones.
"He throwed Merton right off into the dirt, didn't he, Merton?
Merton, didn't he throw you right off into the dirt, Merton? Did he
hurt you, Merton?" "Merton, will you let me shoot it off just once--
just once, and I'll never ask again?" "He didn't either find it
first, Merton." "He throwed you off right into the dirt--didn't he
throw you right off into the dirt, Merton?"
With a harsher show of authority, or perhaps merely because he was
bearded--so unreasoning are the inhibitions of the young--Gashwiler
stilled the tumult. The dancing died. "What's this mean?" he
"We nearly had an accident," said the lady.
"What's this mean?"
An answer of sorts could no longer be delayed.
"Well, I thought I'd give Dexter a little exercise, so I saddled him
up and was going to ride him around the block, when--when these kids
here yelled and scared him so he ran away."
"Oh, what a story!" shouted the tots in unison. "What a bad story!
You'll go to the bad place," intoned little Elsie.
"I swear, I don't know what's gettin' into you," declared Gashwiler.
"Don't that horse get exercise enough during the week? Don't he like
his day of rest? How'd you like me to saddle you up and ride you
round the block? I guess you'd like that pretty well, wouldn't you?"
Gashwiler fancied himself in this bit of sarcasm, brutal though it
was. He toyed with it. "Next Sunday I'll saddle you up and ride you
round the block--see how you like that, young man."
"It was our clothesline," said the lady. "I could tell it right
With a womanish tenacity she had fastened to a minor inconsequence
of the outrage. Gashwiler became practical.
"Well, I must say, it's a pretty how-de-do, That horse'll make
straight back for the farm; we won't have any delivery horse to-
morrow. Sue, you get out; I'll go down the road a piece and see if I
can head him off."
"He turned the other way," said Merton.
"Well, he's bound to head around for the farm. I'll go up the road
and you hurry out the way he went. Mebbe you can catch him before he
gets out of town."
Mrs. Gashwiler descended from the car.
"You better have that clothesline back by seven o'clock to-morrow
morning," she warned the offender.
"Yes, ma'am, I will."
This was not spoken in a Buck Benson manner.
"And say"--Gashwiler paused in turning the car--"what you doing in
that outlandish rig, anyhow? Must think you're one o' them Wild West
cowboys or something. Huh!" This last carried a sneer that stung.
"Well, I guess I can pick out my own clothes if I want to."
"Fine things to call clothes, I must say. Well, go see if you can
pick out that horse if you're such a good picker-out."
Again Gashwiler was pleased with himself. He could play venomously
"Yes, sir," said Merton, and plodded on up the alley, followed at a
respectful distance by the Ransom kiddies, who at once resumed their
"He throwed you off right into the dirt, didn't he, Merton? Mer-tun,
didn't he throw you off right into the dirt?"
If it were inevitable he wished that they would come closer. He
would even have taken little Woodrow by the hand. But they kept far
enough back of him to require that their voices should be raised.
Incessantly the pitiless rain fell upon him--"Mer-tun, he throwed
you off right into the dirt, didn't he, Merton?"
He turned out of the alley up Spruce Street. The Ransom children
lawlessly followed, forgetting their good home, their poor, sick
mother and the rules she had laid down for their Sabbath recreation.
At every moment the shrill cry reached his burning ears, "Mer-tun,
didn't he throw you off?" The kiddies appeared to believe that
Merton had not heard them, but they were patient. Presently he would
hear and reassure them that he had, indeed, been thrown off right
into the dirt.
Now he began to meet or pass early churchgoers who would gaze at him
in wonder or in frank criticism. He left the sidewalk and sought the
centre of the road, pretending that out there he could better search
for a valuable lost horse. The Ransom children were at first in two
minds about following him, but they soon found it more interesting
to stay on the sidewalk. They could pause to acquaint the
churchgoers with a matter of common interest. "He throwed Merton off
right into the dirt."
If the people they addressed appeared to be doubting this, or to
find it not specific enough, they would call ahead to Merton to
confirm their simple tale. With rapt, shining faces, they spread the
glad news, though hurrying always to keep pace with the figure in
Spruce Street was vacant of Dexter, but up Elm Street, slowly
cropping the wayside herbage as he went, was undoubtedly Merton's
good old pal. He quickened his pace. Dexter seemed to divine his
coming and broke into a kittenish gallop until he reached the
Methodist Church. Here, appearing to believe that he had again
eluded pursuit, he stopped to graze on a carefully tended square of
grass before the sacred edifice. He was at once shooed by two
scandalized old ladies, but paid them no attention. They might
perhaps even have tickled him, for this was the best grass he had
found since leaving home. Other churchgoers paused in consternation,