Chapter 15. The Kid Has Ideas of His Own
 

The Old Man sat out in his big chair on the porch, smoking and staring dully at the trail which led up the bluff by way of the Hog's Back to the benchland beyond. Facing him in an old, cane rocking chair, the Honorable Blake smoked with that air of leisurely enjoyment which belongs to the man who knows and can afford to burn good tobacco and who has the sense to, burn it consciously, realizing in every whiff its rich fragrance. The Honorable Blake flicked a generous half-inch of ash from his cigar upon a porch support and glanced shrewdly at the Old Man's abstracted face.

"No, it wouldn't do," he observed with the accent of a second consideration of a subject that coincides exactly with the first. "It wouldn't do at all. You could save the boys time, I've no doubt--time and trouble so far as getting the cattle back where they belong is concerned. I can see how they must be hampered for lack of saddle-horses, for instance. But--it wouldn't do, Whitmore. If they come to you and ask for horses don't let them have them. They'll manage somehow--trust them for that. They'll manage--" "But doggone it, Blake, it's for--"

"Sh-sh--" Blake held up a warning hand. "None of that, my dear Whitmore! These young fellows have taken claims in--er-- good faith." His bright blue eyes sparkled with a sudden feeling. "In the best of good faith, if you ask me. I--admire them intensely for what they have started out to do. But-- they have certain things which they must do, and do alone. If you would not thwart them in accomplishing what they have set out to do, you must go carefully; which means that you must not run to their aid with your camp-wagons and your saddle- horses, so they can gather the cattle again and drive them back where they belong. You would not be helping them. They would get the cattle a little easier and a little quicker-- and lose their claims."

"But doggone it, Blake, them boys have lived right here at the Flying U--why, this has been their home, yuh might say. They ain't like the general run of punchers that roam around, workin' for this outfit and for that; they've stuck. Why, doggone it, what they done here when I got hurt in Chicago and they was left to run themselves, why, that alone puts me under obligations to help 'em out in this scrape. Anybody could see that. Ain't I a neighbor? Ain't neighbors got a right to jump in and help each other? There ain't no law agin--"

"Not against neighbors--no." Blake uncrossed his perfectly trousered legs and crossed them the other way, after carefully avoiding any bagging tendency. "But this syndicate- -or these contestants--will try to prove that you are not a neighbor only, but a--backer of the boys in a land-grabbing scheme. To avoid--"

"Well, doggone your measly hide, Blake, I've told you fifty times I ain't! "The Old Man sat forward in his chair and shook his fist unabashed at his guest. "Them boys cooked that all up amongst themselves, and went and filed on that land before ever I knowed a thing about it. How can yuh set there and say I backed 'em? And that blonde Jezebel--riding down here bold as brass and turnin' up her nose at Dell, and callin' me a conspirator to my face!"

"I sticked a pin in her saddle blanket, Uncle Gee-gee. I'll bet she wished she'd stayed away from here when her horse bucked her off." The Kid looked up from trying to tie a piece of paper to the end of a brindle kitten's switching tail, and smiled his adorable smile--that had a gap in the middle.

"Hey? You leave that cat alone or he'll scratch yuh. Blake, if you can't see--"

"He! He's a her and her name's Adeline. Where's the boys, Uncle Gee-gee?"

"Hey? Oh, away down in the breaks after their cattle that got away. You keep still and never mind where they've gone." His mind swung back to the Happy Family, combing the breaks for their stock and the stock of the nesters, with an average of one saddlehorse apiece and a camp outfit of the most primitive sort--if they had any at all, which he doubted. The Old Man had eased too many roundups through that rough country not to realize keenly the difficulties of the Happy Family.

"They need horses," he groaned to Blake, "and they need help. If you knowed the country and the work as well as I do you'd know they've got to have horses and help. And there's their claims--fellers squatting down on every eighty--four different nesters fer every doggoned one of the bunch to handle! And you tell me I got to set here and not lift a hand. You tell me I can't put men to work on that fence they want built. You tell me I can't lend 'em so much as a horse!"

Blake nodded. "I tell you that, and I emphasize it," he assured the other, brushing off another half inch of ash from his cigar. "If you want to help those boys hold their land, you must not move a finger."

"He's wiggling all of 'em!" accused the Kid sternly, and pointed to the Old Man drumming irritatedly upon his chair arms. "He don't want to help the boys, but I do. I'll help 'em get their cattle, Mr. Blake. I'm one of the bunch anyway. I'll lend 'em my string."

"You've been told before not to butt in to grownup talk," his uncle reproved him irascibly. "Now you cut it out. And take that string off'n that cat!" he added harshly. "Dell! Come and look after this kid! Doggone it, a man can't talk five minutes--"

The Kid giggled irrepressibly. "That's one on you, old man. You saw Doctor Dell go away a long time ago. Think she can hear yuh when she's away up on the bench?"

"You go on off and play!" commanded the Old Man. "I dunno what yuh want to pester a feller to death for--and say! Take that string off'n that cat!"

"Aw gwan! It ain't hurting the cat. She likes it." He lifted the kitten and squeezed her till she yowled. "See? She said yes, she likes it."

The Old Man returned to the trials of the Happy Family, and the Kid sat and listened, with the brindle kitten snuggled uncomfortably, head downward in his arms.

The Kid had heard a good deal, lately, about the trials of his beloved "bunch." About the "nesters" who brought cattle in to eat up the grass that belonged to the cattle of the bunch. The Kid understood that perfectly--since he had been raised in the atmosphere of range talk. He had heard about the men building shacks on the claims of the Happy Family--he understood that also; for he had seen the shacks himself, and he had seen where there had been slid down hill into the bottom of Antelope Coulee. He knew all about the attack on Patsy's cabin and how the Happy Family had been fooled, and the cattle driven off and scattered. The breaks-- he was a bit hazy upon the subject of breaks. He had heard about them all his life. The stock got amongst them and had to be hunted out. He thought--as nearly as could be put in words--that it must be a place where all the brakes grow that are used on wagons and buggies. These were of wood, therefore they must grow somewhere. They grew where the Happy Family went sometimes, when they were gone for days and days after stock. They were down there now--it was down in the breaks, always--and they couldn't round up their cattle because they hadn't horses enough. They needed help, so they could hurry back and slide those other shacks off their claims and into Antelope Coulee where they had slid the others. On the whole, the Kid had a very fair conception of the state of affairs. Claimants and contestants--those words went over his head. But he knew perfectly well that the nesters were the men that didn't like the Happy Family, and lived in shacks on the way to town, and plowed big patches of prairie and had children that went barefooted in the furrows and couldn't ride horses to save their lives. Pilgrim kids, that didn't know what "chaps" were--he had talked with a few when he went with Doctor Dell and Daddy Chip to see the sick lady.

After a while, when the Honorable Blake became the chief speaker and leaned forward and tapped the Old Man frequently on a knee with his finger, and used long words that carried no meaning, and said contestant and claimant and evidence so often that he became tiresome, the Kid slid off the porch and went away, his small face sober with deep meditations.

He would need some grub--maybe the bunch was hungry without any camp-wagons. The Kid had stood around in the way, many's the time, and watched certain members of the Happy Family stuff emergency rations into flour sacks, and afterwards tie the sack to their saddles and ride off. He knew all about that, too.

He hunted up a flour sack that had not had all the string pulled out of it so it was no longer a sack but a dish-towel, and held it behind his back while he went cautiously to the kitchen door. The Countess was nowhere in sight--but it was just as well to make sure. The Kid went in, took a basin off the table, held it high and deliberately dropped it on the floor. It, made a loud bang, but it did not elicit any shrill protest from the Countess; therefore the Countess was nowhere around. The Kid went in boldly and filled his four-sack so full it dragged on the floor when he started off.

At the door he went down the steps ahead of the sack, and bent his small back from the third step and pulled the sack upon his shoulders. It wobbled a good deal, and the Kid came near falling sidewise off the last step before he could balance his burden. But he managed it, being the child of his parents and having a good deal of persistence in his makeup; and he went, by a roundabout way, to the stable with the grub-sack bending him double. Still it was not so very heavy; it was made bulky by about two dozen fresh-made doughnuts and a loaf of bread and a jar of honey and a glass of wild- currant jelly and a pound or so of raw, dried prunes which the Kid called nibblin's because he liked to nibble at them, like a prairie dog at a grass root.

Getting that sack tied fast to the saddle after the saddle was on Silver's back was no easy task for a boy who is six, even though he is large for his age. Still, being Chip's Kid and the Little Doctor's he did it--with the help of the oats box and Silver's patient disposition.

There were other things which the bunch always tied on their saddles; a blanket, for instance, and a rope. The Kid made a trip to the bunk-house and pulled a gray blanket off Ole's bed, and spent a quarter of an hour rolling it as he had seen the boys roll blankets The oats box, with Silver standing beside it, came in handy again. He found a discarded rope and after much labor coiled it crudely and tied it beside the saddle-fork.

The Kid went to the door, stood beside it and leaned away over so that he could peek out and not be seen Voices came from the house--the voice of the Old Man; to be exact, high- pitched and combative. The Kid looked up the bluff, and the trail lay empty in the afternoon sun. Still, he did not like to take that trail. Doctor Dell might come riding down there almost any minute. The Kid did not want to meet Doctor Dell just right then.

He went back, took Silver by the bridle reins and led him out of the barn and around the corner where he could not be seen from the White House. He thought he had better go down the creek, and out through the wire gate and on down the creek that way. He was sure that the "breaks" were somewhere beyond the end of the coulee, though he could not have explained why he was sure of it. Perhaps the boys, in speaking of the breaks, had unconsciously tilted heads in that direction.

The Kid went quickly down along the creek through the little pasture, leading Silver by the reins. He was terribly afraid that his mother might ride over the top of the hill and see him and call him back. If she did that, he would have to go, of course. Deliberate, open disobedience had never yet occurred to the Kid as a moral possibility. If your mother or your Daddy Chip told you to come back, you had to come; therefore he did not want to be told to come. Doctor Dell had told him that he could go on roundup some day--the Kid had decided that this was the day, but that it would be foolish to mention the decision to anyone. People had a way of disagreeing with one's decisions--especially Doctor Dell, she always said one was too little. The Kid thought he was getting pretty big, since he could stand on something and put the saddle on Silver his own self, and cinch it and everything; plenty big enough to get out and help the bunch when they needed help.

He did not look so very big as he went trudging down alongside the creek, stumbling now and then in the coarse grass that hid the scattered rocks. He could not keep his head twisted around to look under Silver's neck and watch the hill trail, and at the same time see where he was putting his feet. And if he got on Silver now he would be seen and recognized at the first glance which Doctor Dell would give to the coulee when she rode over the brow of the hill. Walking beside Silver's shoulder , on the side farthest from the bluff, he might not be seen at all; Doctor Dell might look and think it was just a horse walking along the creek his own self.

The Kid was extremely anxious that he should not be seen. The bunch needed him. Uncle Gee-gee said they needed help. The Kid thought they would expect him to come and help with his "string", He helped Daddy Chip drive the horses up from the little pasture, these days; just yesterday he had brought the whole bunch up, all by his own self, and had driven them into the big corral alone, and Daddy Chip had stood by the gate and watched him do it. Daddy Chip had lifted him down from Silver's back, and had squeezed him hard, and had called him a real, old cowpuncher. The Kid got warm all inside him when he, thought of it.

When a turn in the narrow creek-bottom hid him completely from the ranch buildings and the hill trail, the Kid led Silver alongside a low bank, climbed into the saddle. Then he made Silver lope all the way to the gate.

He had some trouble with that gate. It was a barbed wire gate, such as bigger men than the Kid sometimes swear over. It went down all right, but when he came to put it up again, that was another matter. He simply had to put it up before he could go on. You always had to shut gates if you found them shut--that was a law of the range which the Kid had learned so long ago he could not remember when he had learned And there was another reason--he did not want em to know he had passed that way, if they took a notion to call him back. So he worked and he tugged and he grew so red in the face it looked as if he were choking. But he got the gate up and the wire loop over the stake--though he had to hunt up an old piece of a post to stand on, and even then had to stand on his toes to reach the loop--since he was Chip's Kid and the Little Doctor's.

He even remembered to scrape out the tell-tale prints of his small feet in the bare earth there, and the prints of Silver's feet where he went through. Yarns he had heard the Happy Family tell, in the bunk-house on rainy days, had taught him these tricks. He was extremely thorough in all that he did--being a good deal like his dad--and when he went the grass, no one would have suspected that he had passed that way.

After a while he left that winding creek-bottom and climbed a long ridge. Then he went down hill and pretty soon he climbed another hill that made old Silver stop and rest before he went on to the top. The Kid stood on the top for a few minutes and stared wistfully out over the tumbled mass of hills, and deep hollows, and hills, and hill and hills--till he could not see where they left off. He could not see any of the bunch; but then, he could not see any brakes growing anywhere, either. The bunch was down in the brakes--he had heard that often enough to get it fixed firmly in his mind. Well, when he came to where the brakes grew--and he would know them, all right, when he saw them!--he would find the bunch. He thought they'd be s'prised to see him ride up! The bunch didn't know that he could drive stock all his own self, and that he was a real, old cowpuncher now. He was a lot bigger. He didn't have to hunt such a big rock, or such a high bank, to get on Silver now. He thought he must be pretty near as big as Pink, any way. They would certainly be s'prised!

The brakes must be farther over. Maybe he would have to go over on the other side of that biggest hill before he came to the place where they grew. He rode unafraid down a steep, rocky slope where Silver picked his way very, very carefully, and sometimes stopped and smelt of a ledge or a pile of rocks, and then turned and found some other way down.

The Kid let him choose his path--Daddy Chip had taught him to leave the reins loose and let Silver cross ditches and rough places where he wanted to cross. So Silver brought him safely down that hill where even the Happy Family would have hesitated to ride unless the need was urgent.

He could not go right up over the next hill--there was a rock ledge that was higher than his head when he sat on Silver. He went down a narrow gulch--ah, an awfully narrow gulch! Sometimes he was afraid Silver was too fat to squeeze through; but Silver always did squeeze through somehow. And still there were no brakes growing anywhere. Just choke- cherry trees, and service-berries, and now and then a little flat filled with cottonwoods and willows--familiar trees and bushes that he had known all his six years of life.

So the Kid went on and on, over hills or around hills or down along the side of hill. But he did not find the Happy Family, and he did not find the brakes. He found cattle that had the Flying U brand--they had a comfortable, homey look. One bunch he drove down a wide coulee, hazing them out of the brush and yelling "Hy-ah!" at them, just the way the Happy Family yelled. He thought maybe these were the cattle the Happy Family were looking for; so he drove them ahead of him and didn't let one break back on him and he was the happiest Kid in all Montana with these range cattle, that had the Flying U brand, galloping awkwardly ahead of him down that big coulee.