Chapter 16. "A Rell Old Cowpuncher"
 

The hills began to look bigger, and kind of chilly and blue in the deep places. The Kid wished that he could find some of the boys. He was beginning to get hungry, and he had long ago begun to get tired. But he was undismayed, even when he heard a coyote yap-yap-yapping up a brushy canyon. It might be that he would have to camp out all night. The Kid had loved those cowboy yarns where the teller--who was always the hero--had been caught out somewhere and had been compelled to make a "dry camp." His favorite story of that type was the story of how Happy Jack had lost his clothes and had to go naked through the breaks. It was not often that he could make Happy Jack tell him that story--never when the other boys were around. And there were other times; when Pink had got lost, down in the breaks, and had found a cabin just--in--time, with Irish sick inside and a blizzard just blowing outside, and they were mad at each other and wouldn't talk, and all they had to eat was one weenty, teenty snow-bird, till the yearling heifer came and Pink killed it and they had beefsteak and got good friends again. And there were other times, that others of the boys could tell about, and that the Kid thought about now with pounding pulse. It was not all childish fear of the deepening shadows that made his eyes big and round while he rode slowly on, farther and farther into the breaks.

He still drove the cattle before him; rather, he followed where the cattle led. He felt very big and very proud--but he did wish he could find the Happy Family! Somebody ought to stand guard, and he was getting sleepy already.

Silver stopped to drink at a little creek of clear, cold water. There was grass, and over there was a little hollow under a rock ledge. The sky was all purple and red, like Doctor Dell painted in pictures, and up the, coulee, where he had been a little while ago, it was looking kind of dark. The Kid thought maybe he had better camp here till morning. He reined Silver against a bank and slid off, and stood looking around him at the strange hills with the huge, black boulders that looked like houses unless you knew, and the white cliffs that looked--queer--unless you knew they were just cliffs.

For the first time since he started, the Kid wished guiltily that his dad was here or--he did wish the bunch would happen along! He wondered if they weren't camped, maybe, around that point. Maybe they would hear him if he hollered as loud as he could. which he did, two or three times; and quit because the hills hollered back at him and they wouldn't stop for the longest time--it was just like people yelling at him from behind these rocks.

The Kid knew, of course, who they were; they were Echo-boys, and they wouldn't hurt, and they wouldn't let you see them. They just ran away and hollered from some other place. There was an Echo-boy lived up on the bluff somewhere above the house. You could go down in the little pasture and holler, and the Echo-boy would holler back The Kid was not afraid-- but there seemed to be an awful lot of Echo-boys down in these hills. They were quiet after a minute or so, and he did not call again.

The Kid was six, and he was big for his age; but he looked very little, there alone in that deep coulee that was really more like a canyon--very little and lonesome and as if he needed his Doctor Dell to take him on her lap and rock him. It was just about the time of day when Doctor Dell always rocked him and told him stories--about the Happy Family, maybe. The Kid hated to be suspected of baby ways, but he loved these tunes, when his legs were tired and his eyes wanted to go shut, and Doctor Dell laid her cheek on his hair and called him her baby man. Nobody knew about these times-- that was most always in the bed room and the boys couldn't hear.

The Kid's lips quivered a little. Doctor Dell would be surprised when he didn't show up for supper, he guessed. He turned to Silver and to his man ways, because he did not like to think about Doctor Dell just right now.

"Well, old feller, I guess you want your saddle off, huh?" he quavered, and slapped the horse upon the shoulder . He lifted the stirrup--it was a little stock saddle, with everything just like a big saddle except the size; Daddy Chip had had it made for the Kid in Cheyenne, last Christmas--and began to undo the latigo, whistling self-consciously and finding that his lips kept trying to come unpuckered all the time, and trying to tremble just the way they did when he cried. He had no intention of crying.

"Gee! I always wanted to camp out and watch the stars," he told Silver stoutly. "Honest to gran'ma, I think this is just--simply--great! I bet them nester kids would be scared. Hunh!"

That helped a lot. The Kid could whistle better after that. He pulled of the saddle, laid it down on its side so that the skirts would not bend out of shape--oh, he had been well- taught, with the whole Happy Family for his worshipful tutors!--and untied the rope from beside the fork. "I'll have to anchor you to a tree, old-timer," he told the horse briskly. "I'd sure hate to be set afoot in this man's country!" And a minute later--"Oh, funder! I never brought you any sugar!"

Would you believe it, that small child of the Flying U picketed his horse where the grass was best, and the knots he tied were the knots his dad would have tied in his place. He unrolled his blanket and carried it to the sheltered little nook under the ledge, and dragged the bag of doughnuts and the jelly and honey and bread after it. He had heard about thievish animals that will carry off bacon and flour and such. He knew that he ought to hang his grub in a tree, but he could not reach up as far as the fox who might try to help himself, so that was out of the question.

The Kid ate a doughnut while he studied the matter out for himself. "If a coyote or a skink came pestering around me, I'd frow rocks at him," he said. So when he had finished the doughnut he collected a pile of rocks. He ate another doughnut, went over and laid himself down on his stomach the way the boys did, and drank from the little creek. It was just a chance that he had not come upon water tainted with alkali--but fate is kind sometimes.

So the Kid, trying very, very hard to act just like his Daddy Chip and the boys, flopped the blanket vigorously this way and that in an effort to get it straightened, flopped himself on his knees and folded the blanket round and round him until he looked like a large, gray cocoon, and cuddled himself under the ledge with his head on the bag of doughnuts and his wide eyes fixed upon the first pale stars and his mind clinging sturdily to his mission and to this first real, man- sized adventure that had come into his small life.

It was very big and very empty--that canyon. He lifted his yellow head and looked to see if Silver were there, and was comforted at the sight of his vague bulk close by, and by the steady kr-up, kr-up of bitten grasses.

"I'm a rell ole cowpuncher, all right," he told himself bravely; but he had to blink his eyelashes pretty fast when he said it. A "rell ole cowpuncher" wouldn't cry! He was afraid Doctor Dell would be awfully s'prised, though . . .

An unexpected sob broke loose, and another. He wasn't afraid--but . . . Silver, cropping steadily at the grass which must be his only supper, turned and came slowly toward the Kid in his search for sweeter grass-tufts. The Kid choked off the third sob and sat up ashamed. He tugged at the bag and made believe to Silver that his sole trouble was with his pillow.

"By cripes, that damn' jelly glass digs right into my ear," he complained aloud, to help along the deception. "You go back, old-timer--I'm all right. I'm a--rell--ole cowpuncher; ain't I, old-timer? We're makin' a dry-camp, just like--Happy Jack. I'm a rell--ole--" The Kid went to sleep before he finished saying it. There is nothing like the open air to make one sleep from dusk till dawn. The rell ole cowpuncher forgot his little white bed in the corner of the big bedroom. He forgot that Doctor Dell would be awfully s'prised, and that Daddy Chip would maybe be cross--Daddy Chip was cross, sometimes. The rell ole cowpuncher lay with his yellow curls pillowed on the bag of doughnuts and the gray blanket wrapped tightly around him, and slept soundly; and his lips were curved in the half smile that came often to his sleeping place and made him look ever so much like his Daddy Chip.