Chapter 17. "Lost Child"
 

"Djuh find 'im?" The Old Man had limped down to the big gate and stood there bare headed under the stars, waiting, hoping- -fearing to hear the answer.

"Hasn't he showed up yet?" Chip and the Little Doctor rode out of the gloom and stopped before the gate. Chip did not wait for an answer. One question answered the other and there was no need for more. "I brought Dell home," he said. "She's about all in--and he's just as likely to come back himself as we are to run across him. Silver'll bring him home, all right. He can't be--yuh can't lose a horse. You go up to the house and lie down, Dell. I--the Kid's all right."

His voice held all the tenderness of the lover, and all the protectiveness of the husband and all the agony of a father-- but Chip managed to keep it firm and even for all that. He lifted the Little Doctor bodily from the saddle, held her very close in his arms for a minute, kissed her twice and pushed her gently through the gate.

"You better stay right here," he said authoritatively, "and rest and look after J.G. You can't do any good riding--and you don't want to be gone when he comes." He reached over the gate, got hold of her arm and pulled her towards him. "Buck up, old girl," he whispered, and kissed her lingeringly. "Now's the time to show the stuff you're made of. You needn't worry one minute about that kid. He's the goods, all right. Yuh couldn't lose him if you tried. Go up and go to bed."

"Go to bed!" echoed the Little Doctor and sardonically. J.G., are you sure he didn't say anything about going anywhere?"

"No. He was settin' there on the porch tormenting the cat." The Old Man swallowed a lump. "I told him to quit. He set there a while after that--I was talkin'' to Blake. I dunno where he went to. I was--"

"'S that you, Dell? Did yuh find 'im?" The Countess came flapping down the path in a faded, red kimono. "What under the shinin' sun's went with him, do yuh s'pose? Yuh never know what a day's got up its sleeve--'n I always said it. Man plans and God displans--the poor little tad'll be scairt plumb to death, out all alone in the dark--"

"Oh, for heaven's sake shut up!" cried the tortured Little Doctor, and fled past her up the path as though she had some hope of running away from the tormenting thoughts also. "Poor little tad, all alone in the dark,"--the words followed her and were like sword thrusts through the mother heart of her. Then Chip overtook her, knowing too well the hurt which the Countess had given with her blundering anxiety. Just at the porch he caught up with her, and she clung to him, sobbing wildly.

"You don't want to mind what that old hen says," he told her brusquely. "She's got to do just so much cackling or she'd choke, I reckon. The Kid's all right. Some of the boys have run across him by this time, most likely, and are bringing him in. He'll be good and hungry, and the scare will do him good." He forced himself to speak as though the Kid had merely fallen on the corral fence, or something like that. "You've got to make up your mind to these things," he argued, "if you tackle raising a boy, Dell. Why, I'll bet I ran off and scared my folks into fits fifty times when I was a kid."

"But--he's--just a baby!" sobbed the Little Doctor with her face pressed hard against Chip's strong, comforting shoulder.

"He's a little devil!" amended Chip fiercely. "He ought to be walloped for scaring you like this. He's just as capable of looking after himself as most kids twice his size. He'll get hungry and head for home--and if he don't know the way, Silver does; so he can't--"

"But he may have fallen and--"

"Come, now! Haven't you got any more sense than the Countess? If you insist of thinking up horrors to scare yourself with, I don't know as anybody can stop you. Dell! Brace up and quit worrying. I tell you--he's--all right!"

That did well enough--seeing the Little Doctor did not get a look at Chip's face, which was white and drawn, with sunken, haggard eyes staring into the dark over her head. He kissed her hastily and told her he must go, and that he'd hurry back as soon as he could. So he went half running down the path and passed the Countess and the Old Man without a word; piled onto his horse and went off up the hill road again.

They could not get it out of their minds that the Kid must have ridden up on the bluff to meet his mother, had been too early to meet her--for the Little Doctor had come home rather later than she expected to do--and had wandered off to visit the boys, perhaps, or to meet his Daddy Chip who was over there some where on the bench trying to figure out a system of ditches that might logically be expected to water the desert claims of the Happy Family--if they could get the water.

They firmly believed that the kid had gone up on the hill, and so they hunted for him up there. The Honorable Blake had gone to Dry Lake and taken the train for Great Falls, before ever the Kid had been really missed. The Old Man had not seen the Kid ride up the hill--but he had been sitting with his chair turned away from the road, and he was worried about other things and so might easily have missed seeing him. The Countess had been taking a nap, and she was not expected to know anything about his departure. And she had not looked into the doughnut jar--indeed, she was so upset by supper time that, had she looked, she would not have missed the doughnuts. For the same reason Ole did not miss his blanket. Ole had not been near his bed; he was out riding and searching and calling through the coulee and up toward the old Denson place.

No one dreamed that the :Kid had started out with a camp- outfit--if one might call it that--and with the intention of joining the Happy Family in the breaks, and of helping them gather their cattle. How could they dream that? How could they realize that a child who still liked to be told bedtime stories and to be rocked to sleep, should harbor such man- size thoughts and ambitions? How could they know that the Kid was being "a rell ole cowpuncher"?

That night the whole Happy Family, just returned from the Badlands and warned by Chip at dusk that the Kid was missing, hunted the coulees that bordered the benchland. A few of the nesters who had horses and could ride them hunted also. The men who worked at the Flying U hunted, and Chip hunted frantically. Chip just about worshipped that kid, and in spite of his calmness and his optimism when he talked to the Little Doctor, you can imagine the state of mind he was in.

At sunrise they straggled in to the ranch, caught up fresh horses, swallowed a cup of coffee and what food they could choke down and started out again. At nine o'clock a party came out from Dry Lake, learned that the Kid was not yet found, and went out under a captain to comb systematically through the hills and the coulees.

Before night all the able-bodied men in the country and some who were not--were searching. It is astonishing how quickly a small army will volunteer in such an emergency; and it doesn't seem to matter very much that the country seems big and empty of people ordinarily. They come from somewhere, when they're needed.

The Little Doctor--oh, let us not talk about the Little Doctor. Such agonies as she suffered go too deep for words.

The next day after that, Chip saddled a horse and let her ride beside him. Chip was afraid to leave her at the ranch-- afraid that she would go mad. So he let her ride--they rode together. They did not go far from the ranch. There was always the fear that someone might bring him in while they were gone. That fear drove them back, every hour or two. Then another fear would drive them forth again.

Up in another county there is a creek called Lost Child Creek. A child was lost--or was it two children?--and men hunted and hunted and hunted, and it was months before anything was found. Then a cowboy riding that way found--just bones. Chip knew about that creek which is called Lost Child. He had been there and he had heard the story, and he had seen the--father and had shuddered--and that was long before he had known the feeling a father has for his child. What he was deadly afraid of now was that the Little Doctor would hear about that creek, and how it had gotten its name.

What he dreaded most for himself was to think of that creek. He kept the Little Doctor beside him and away from that Job's comforter, the Countess, and tried to keep her hope alive while the hours dragged their leaden feet over the hearts of them all.

A camp was hastily organized in One Man Coulee and another out beyond Denson's place, and men went there to the camps for a little food and a little rest, when they could hold out no longer. Chip and the Little Doctor rode from camp to camp, intercepted every party of searchers they glimpsed on the horizon, and came back to the ranch, hollow-eyed and silent for the most part. They would rest an hour, perhaps. Then they would ride out again.

The Happy Family seemed never to think of eating, never to want sleep. Two days--three days--four days--the days became a nightmare. Irish, with a warrant out for his arrest, rode with the constable, perhaps--if the search chanced to lead them together. Or with Big Medicine, whom he had left in hot anger. H. J. Owens and these other claim-jumpers hunted with the Happy Family and apparently gave not a thought to claims.

Miss Allen started out on the second day and hunted through all the coulees and gulches in the neighborhood of her claim--coulees and gulches that had been searched frantically two or three times before. She had no time to make whimsical speeches to Andy Green, nor he to listen. When they met, each asked the other for news, and separated without a thought for each other. The Kid--they must find him--they must.

The third day, Miss Allen put up a lunch, told her three claim partners that she should not come back until night unless that poor child was found, and that they need not look for her before dark and set out with the twinkle all gone from her humorous brown eyes and her mouth very determined.

She met Pink and the Native Son and was struck with the change which two days of killing anxiety had made in them. True, they had not slept for forty-eight hours, except an hour or two after they had been forced to stop and eat. True, they had not eaten except in snatches. But it was not that alone which made their faces look haggard and old and haunted. They, too, were thinking of Lost Child Creek and How it had gotten its name.

Miss Allen gleaned a little information from them regarding the general whereabouts of the various searching parties. And then, having learned that the foothills of the mountains were being searched minutely because the Kid might have taken a notion to visit Meeker's; and that the country around Wolf Butte was being searched, because he had once told Big Medicine that when he got bigger and his dad would let him, he was going over there and kill wolves to make Doctor Dell some rugs: and that the country toward the river was being searched because the Kid always wanted to see where the Happy Family drove the sheep to, that time when Happy Jack got shot under the arm; that all the places the Kid had seemed most interested in were being searched minutely--if it could be possible to; search minutely a country the size of that! Having learned all that, Miss Allen struck off by herself, straight down into the Badlands where nobody seemed to have done much searching.

The reason for that was, that the Happy Family had come out of the breaks on the day that the Kid was lost. They had not ridden together, but in twos and threes because they drove out several small bunches of cattle that they had gleaned, to a common centre in One Man Coulee. They had traveled by the most feasible routes through that rough country, and they had seen no sign of the Kid or any other rider.

They did not believe that he had come over that far, or even in that direction; because a horseman would almost certainly have been sighted by some of them in crossing a ridge somewhere.

It never occurred to anyone that the Kid might go down Flying U Creek and so into the breaks and the Badlands. Flying U Creek was fenced, and the wire gate was in its place--Chip had looked down along there, the first night, and had found the gate up just as it always was kept. Why should he suspect that the Kid had managed to open that gate and to close it after him? A little fellow like that?

So the searching parties, having no clue to that one incident which would at least have sent them in the right direction, kept to the outlying fringe of gulches which led into the broken edge of the benchland, and to the country west and north and south of these gulches. At that, there was enough broken country to keep them busy for several days, even when you consider the number of searchers.

Miss Allen did not want to go tagging along with some party. She did not feel as if she could do any good that way, and she wanted to do some good. She wanted to find that poor little fellow and take him to his mother. She had met his mother, just the day before, and had ridden with her for several miles. The look in the Little Doctor's eyes haunted Miss Allen until she felt sometimes as if she must scream curses to the heavens for so torturing a mother. And that was not all; she had looked into Chip's face, last night--and she had gone home and cried until she could cry no more, just with the pity of it.

She left the more open valley and rode down a long, twisting canyon that was lined with cliffs so that it was impossible to climb out with a horse. She was sure she could not get lost or turned around, in a place like that, and it seemed to her as hopeful a place to search as any. When you came to that, they all had to ride at random and trust to luck, for there was not the faintest clue to guide them. So Miss Allen considered that she could do no better than search all the patches of brush in the canyon, and keep on going.

The canyon ended abruptly in a little flat, which she crossed. She had not seen the tracks of any horse going down, but when she was almost across the flat she discovered tracks of cattle, and now and then the print of a shod hoof. Miss Allen began to pride herself on her astuteness in reading these signs. They meant that some of the Happy Family had driven cattle this way; which meant that they would have seen little Claude Bennett--that was the Kid's real name, which no one except perfect strangers ever used--they would have seen the Kid or his tracks, if he had ridden down here.

Miss Allen, then, must look farther than this. She hesitated before three or four feasible outlets to the little flat, and chose the one farthest to the right. That carried her farther south, and deeper into a maze of gulches and gorges and small, hidden valleys. She did not stop, but she began to see that it was going to be pure chance, or the guiding hand of a tender Providence, if one ever did find anybody in this horrible jumble. She had never seen such a mess. She believed that poor little tot had come down in here, after all; she could not see why, but then you seldom did know why children took a notion to do certain unbelievable things. Miss Allen had taught the primary grade in a city school, and she knew a little about small boys and girls and the big ideas they sometimes harbored.

She rode and rode, trying to put herself mentally in the Kid's place. Trying to pick up the thread of logical thought--children were logical sometimes--startlingly so.

"I wonder," she thought suddenly, "if he started out with the idea of hunting cattle! I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he did--living on a cattle ranch, and probably knowing that the men were down here somewhere." Miss Allen, you see, came pretty close to the truth with her guess.

Still, that did not help her find the Kid. She saw a high, bald peak standing up at the mouth of the gorge down which she was at that time picking her way, and she made up her mind to climb that peak and see if she might not find him by looking from that point of vantage. So she rode to the foot of the pinnacle, tied her horse to a bush and began to climb.

Peaks like that are very deceptive in their height Miss Allen was slim and her lungs were perfect, and she climbed steadily and as fast as she dared. For all that it took her a long while to reach the top--much longer than she expected. When she reached the black rock that looked, from the bottom, like the highest point of the hill, she found that she had not gone much more than two-thirds of the way up, and that the real peak sloped back so that it could not be seen from below at all.

Miss Allen was a persistent young woman. She kept climbing until she did finally reach the highest point, and could look down into gorges and flats and tiny basins and canyons and upon peaks and ridges and worm-like windings, and patches of timber and patches of grass and patches of barren earth and patches of rocks all jumbled up together--. Miss Allen gasped from something more than the climb, and sat down upon a rock, stricken with a sudden, overpowering weakness. "God in heaven!" she whispered, appalled. "What a place to get lost in!"

She sat there a while and stared dejectedly down upon that wild orgy of the earth's upheaval which is the Badlands. She felt as though it was sheer madness even to think of finding anybody in there. It was worse than a mountain country, because in the mountains there is a certain semblance of some system in the canyons and high ridges and peaks. Here every thing--peaks, gorges, tiny valleys and all--seemed to be just dumped down together. Peaks rose from the middle of canyons; canyons were half the time blind pockets that ended abruptly against a cliff.

"Oh!" she cried aloud, jumpin up and gesticulating wildly. Baby! Little Claude! Here! Look up this way!" She saw him, down below, on the opposite side from where she had left her horse.

The Kid was riding slowly up a gorge. Silver was picking his way carefully over the rocks--they looked tiny, down there! And they were not going toward home, by any means. They were headed directly away from home.

The cheeks of Miss Allen were wet while she shouted and called and waved her hands. He was alive, anyway. Oh, if his mother could only be told that he was alive! Oh, why weren't there telephones or something where they were needed! If his poor mother could see him!

Miss Allen called again, and the Kid heard her. She was sure that he heard her, because he stopped--that pitiful, tiny speck down there on the horse!--and she thought he looked up at her. Yes, she was sure he heard her, and that finally he saw her; because he took off his hat and waved it over his head--just like a man, the poor baby!

Miss Allen considered going straight down to him, and then walking around to where her horse was tied. She was afraid to leave him while she went for the horse and rode around to where he was. She was afraid she might miss him somehow the Badlands had stamped that fear deep into her soul.

"Wait!" she shouted, her hands cupped around her trembling lips, tears rolling down her cheeks "Wait baby! I'm coming for you." She hoped that the Kid heard what she said, but she could not be sure, for she did not hear him reply. But he did not go on at once, and she thought he would wait.

Miss Allen picked up her skirts away from her ankles and started running down the steep slope. The Kid, away down below, stared up at her. She went down a third of the way, and stopped just in time to save herself from going over a sheer wall of rocks--stopped because a rock which she dislodged with her foot rolled down the slope a few feet, gave a leap into space and disappeared.

A step at a time Miss Allen crept down to where the rock had bounced off into nothingness, and gave one look and crouched close to the earth. A hundred feet, it must be, straight down. After the first shock she looked to the right and the left and saw that she must go back, and down upon the other side.

Away down there at the bottom, the Kid sat still on his horse and stared up at her. And Miss Allen calling to him that she would come, started back up to the peak.