Chapter 18. The Long Way Round
 

Miss Allen turned to yell encouragingly to the Kid, and she saw that he was going on slowly, his head turned to watch her. She told him to wait where he was, and she would come around the mountain and get him and take him home. "Do you hear me, baby?" she asked imploringly after she had told him just what she meant to do. "Answer me, baby!"

"I ain't a baby!" his voice came faintly shrill after a minute. "I'm a rell ole cowpuncher"

Miss Allen thought that was what he said, but at the time she did not quite understand, except his denial of being a baby; that was clear enough. She turned to the climb, feeling that she must hurry if she expected to get him and take him home before dark. She knew that every minute was precious and must not be wasted. It was well after noon--she had forgotten to eat her lunch, but her watch said it was nearly one o'clock already. She had no idea how far she had ridden, but she thought it must be twelve miles at least.

She had no idea, either, how far she had run down the butte to the cliff--until she began to climb back. Every rod or so she stopped to rest and to look back and to call to the Kid who seemed such a tiny mite of humanity among these huge peaks and fearsome gorges. He seemed to be watching her very closely always when she looked she could see the pink blur of his little upturned face. She must hurry. Oh, if she could only send a wireless to his mother! Human inventions fell far short of the big needs, after all, she thought as she toiled upward.

From the top of the peak she could see the hazy outline of the Bear Paws, and she knew just about where the Flying U Coulee lay. She imagined that she could distinguish the line of its bluff in the far distance. It was not so very far--but she could not get any word of cheer across the quivering air lanes. She turned and looked wishfully down at the Kid, a tinier speck now than before--for she had climbed quite a distance She waved her hand to him, and her warm brown eyes held a maternal tenderness. He waved his hat--just like a man; he must be brave! she thought. She turned reluctantly and went hurrying down the other side, her blood racing with the joy of having found him, and of knowing that he was safe.

It seemed to take a long time to climb down that peak; much longer than she thought it would take. She looked at her watch nervously--two o'clock, almost! She must hurry, or they would be in the dark getting home. That did not worry her very much, However, for there would be searching parties--she would be sure to strike one somewhere in the hills before dark.

She came finally down to the level--except that it was not level at all, but a trough-shaped gulch that looked unfamiliar. Still, it was the same one she had used as a starting point when she began to climb--of course it was the same one. How in the world could a person get turned around going straight up the side of a hill and straight down again in the very same place. This was the gorge where her horse was tied, only it might be that she was a little below the exact spot; that could happen, of course. So Miss Allen went up the gorge until it petered out against the face of the mountain--one might as well call it a mountain and be done with it, for it certainly was more than a mere hill.

It was some time before Miss Allen would admit to herself that she had missed the gorge where she had left her horse, and that she did not know where the gorge was, and that she did not know where she was herself. She had gone down the mouth of the gulch before she made any admissions, and she had seen not one solitary thing that she could remember having ever seen before.

Not even the peak she had climbed looked familiar from where she was. She was not perfectly sure that it was the same peak when she looked at it.

Were you ever lost? It is a very peculiar sensation--the feeling that you are adrift in a world that is strange. Miss Allen had never been lost before in her life. If she had been, she would have been more careful, and would have made sure that she was descending that peak by the exact route she had followed up it, instead of just taking it for granted that all she need do was get to the bottom.

After an hour or two she decided to climb the peak again, get her bearings from the top and come down more carefully. She was wild with apprehension--though I must say it was not for her own plight but on account of the Kid. So she climbed. And then everything looked so different that she believed she had climbed another hill entirely. So she went down again and turned into a gorge which seemed to lead in the direction where she had seen the little lost boy. She followed that quite a long way--and that one petered out like the first.

Miss Allen found the gorges filling up with shadow, and she looked up and saw the sky crimson and gold, and she knew then without any doubts that she was lost. Miss Allen was a brave young woman, or she would not have been down in that country in the first place; but just the same she sat down with her back against a clay bank and cried because of the eeriness and the silence, and because she was hungry and she knew she was going to be cold before morning--but mostly because she could not find that poor, brave little baby boy who had waved his hat when she left him, and shouted that he was not a baby.

In a few minutes she pulled herself together and went on; there was nothing to be gained by sitting in one place and worrying. She walked until it was too dark to see, and then, because she had come upon a little, level canyon bottom-- though one that was perfectly strange--she stopped there where a high bank sheltered her from the wind that was too cool for comfort. She called, a few times, until she was sure that the child was not within hearing. After that she repeated poetry to keep her mind off the loneliness and the pity of that poor baby alone like herself. She would not think of him if she could help it.

When she began to shiver so that her teeth chattered, she would walk up and down before the bank until she felt warm again; then she would sit with her back against the clay and close her eyes and try to sleep. It was not a pleasant way in which to pass a whole night, but Miss Allen endured it as best she could. When the sun tinged the hill-tops she got up stiffly and dragged herself out of the canyon where she could get the direction straight in her mind, and then set off resolutely to find the Kid. She no longer had much thought of finding her horse, though she missed him terribly, and wished she had the lunch that was tied to the saddle.

This, remember, was the fourth day since the Kid rode down through the little pasture and stood on a piece of fence-post so that he could fasten the gate. Men had given up hope of finding him alive and unharmed. They searched now for his body. And then the three women who lived with Miss Allen began to inquire about the girl, and so the warning went out that Miss Allen was lost; and they began looking for her also.

Miss Allen, along towards noon of that fourth day, found a small stream of water that was fit to drink. Beside the stream she found the footprints of a child, and they looked quite fresh--as if they had been made that day. She whipped up her flagging energy and went on hopefully.

It was a long while afterwards that she met him coming down a canyon on his horse. It must have been past three o'clock, and Miss Allen could scarcely drag herself along. When she saw him she turned faint, and sat down heavily on the steep- sloping bank.

The Kid rode up and stopped beside her. His face was terribly dirty and streaked with the marks of tears he would never acknowledge afterwards. He seemed to be all right, though, and because of his ignorance of the danger he had been in he did not seem to have suffered half as much as had Miss Allen.

"Howdy do," he greeted her, and smiled his adorable little smile that was like the Little Doctor's. "Are you the lady up on the hill? Do you know where the bunch is? I'm--lookin' for the bunch."

Miss Allen found strength enough to stand up and put her arms around him as he sat very straight in his little stock saddle; she hugged him tight.

"You poor baby!" she cried, and her eyes were blurred with tears. "You poor little lost baby!"

"I ain't a baby!" The Kid pulled himself free. "I'm six years old goin' on thirty. I'm a rell ole cowpuncher. I can slap a saddle on my string and ride like a son-a-gun. And I can put the bridle on him my own self and everything. I--I was lookin' for the bunch. I had to make a dry-camp and my doughnuts is smashed up and the jelly glass broke but I never cried when a skink came. I shooed him away and I never cried once. I'm a rell ole cowpuncher, ain't I? I ain't afraid of skinks. I frowed a rock at him and I said, git outa here, you damn old skink or I'll knock your block off!' You oughter seen him go! I--I sure made him hard to ketch, by cripes!"

Miss Allen stepped back and the twinkle came into her eyes and the whimsical twist to her lips. She knew children. Not for the world would she offend this manchild.

"Well, I should say you are a real old cowpuncher!" she exclaimed admiringly. "Now I'm afraid of skinks. I never would dare knock his block off! And last night when I was lost and hungry and it got dark, I--cried!"

"Hunh!" The Kid studied her with a condescending pity. "Oh, well--you're just a woman. Us fellers have to take care of women. Daddy Chip takes care of Doctor Dell--I guess she'd cry if she couldn't find the bunch and had to make dry-camp and skinks come around--but I never."

"Of course you never!" Miss Allen agreed emphatically, trying not to look conscious of any tear-marks on the Kid's sunburned cheeks. "Women are regular cry babies, aren't they? I suppose," she added guilefully: "I'd cry again if you rode off to find the bunch an left me down here all alone. I've lost my horse, an I've lost my lunch, and I've lost myself, and I'm awful afraid of skunks--skinks."

"Oh, I'll take care of you," the Kid comforted. "I'll give you a doughnut if you're hungry. I've got some left, but you'll have to pick out the glass where the jelly broke on it." He reined closer to the bank and slid off and began untying the sadly depleted bag from behind the cantle. Miss Allen offered to do it for him, and was beautifully snubbed. The Kid may have been just a frightened, lost little boy before he met her--but that was a secret hidden in the silences of the deep canyons. Now he was a real old cowpuncher, and he was going to take care of Miss Allen because men always had to take care of women.

Miss Allen offended him deeply when she called him Claude. She was told bluntly that he was Buck, and that he belonged to the Flying U outfit, and was riding down here to help the bunch gather some cattle. "But I can't find the brakes," he admitted grudgingly. "That's where the bunch is--down in the brakes; I can't seem to locate them brakes"

"Don't you think you ought to go home to your mother?" Miss Allen asked him while he was struggling with the knot he had tied in the bag.

"I've got to find the bunch. The bunch needs me," said the Kid. "I--I guess Doctor Dell is s'prised--"

"Who's Doctor Dell? Your mother? Your mother has just about cried herself sick, she's so lonesome without you."

The Kid looked at her wide-eyed. "Aw, gwan! he retorted after a minute, imitating Happy Jack's disbelief of any unpleasant news. "I guess you're jest loadin' me. Daddy Chip is takin' care of her. He wouldn't let her be lonesome."

The Kid got the sack open and reached an arm in to the shoulder . He groped there for a minute and drew out a battered doughnut smeared liberally with wild currant jelly, and gave it to Miss Allen with an air of princely generosity and all the chivalry of all the Happy Family rolled into one baby gesture. Miss Allen took the doughnut meekly and did not spoil the Kid's pleasure by hugging him as she would have liked to do. Instead she said: "Thank you, Buck of the Flying U," quite humbly. Then something choked Miss Allen and she turned her back upon him abruptly.

"I've got one, two, free, fourteen left," said the Kid, counting them gravely. "If I had 'membered to bring matches," he added regretfully, "I could have a fire and toast rabbit legs. I guess you got some glass, didn't you? I got some and it cutted my tongue so the bleed came--but I never cried," he made haste to deny stoutly. "I'm a rell ole cowpuncher now. I just cussed." He looked at her gravely. "You can't cuss where women can hear," he told Miss Allen reassuringly. "Bud says--"

"Let me see the doughnuts," said miss Allen abruptly. "I think you ought to let me keep the lunch. That's the woman's part. Men can't bother with lunch--"

"It ain't lunch, it's grub," corrected the Kid. But he let her have the bag, and Miss Allen looked inside. There were some dried prunes that looked like lumps of dirty dough, and six dilapidated doughnuts in a mess of jelly, and a small glass jar of honey.

"I couldn't get the cover off," the Kid explained, "'theut I busted it, and then it would all spill like the jelly. Gee I- I wish I had a beefsteak under my belt!"

Miss Allen leaned over with her elbows on the bank and laughed and laughed. Miss Allen was closer to hysterics than she had ever been in her life. The Kid looked at her in astonishment and turned to Silver, standing with drooping head beside the bank. Miss Allen pulled herself together and asked him what he was going to do.

"I'm going to locate your horse," he said, "and then I'm going to take you home." He looked at her disapprovingly. "I don't like you so very much," he added. "It ain't p'lite to laugh at a feller all the time."

"I won't laugh any more. I think we had better go home right away," said Miss Allen contritely. "You see, Buck, the bunch came home. They--they aren't hunting cattle now. They want to find you and tell you. And your father and mother need you awfully bad, Buck. They've been looking all over for you, everywhere, and wishing you'd come home."

Buck looked wistfully up and down the canyon. His face at that moment was not the face of a real old cowpuncher, but the sweet, dirty, mother-hungry face of a child. "It's a far ways," he said plaintively. "It's a million miles, I guess I wanted to go home, but I couldn't des' 'zactly 'member--and I thought I could find the bunch, and they'd know the trail better. Do you know the trail?"

Miss Allen evaded that question and the Kid's wide, wistful eyes. "I think if we start out, Buck, we can find it. We must go toward the sun, now. That will be towards home. Shall I put you on your horse?"

The Kid gave her a withering glance and squirmed up into the saddle with the help of both horn and cantle and by the grace of good luck. Miss Allen gasped while she watched him.

The Kid looked down at her triumphantly. He frowned a little and flushed guiltily when he remembered something. "'Scuse me," he said. "I guess you better ride my horse. I guess I better walk. It ain't p'lite for ladies to walk and men ride."

"No, no!" Miss Allen reached up with both hands and held the Kid from dismounting. "I'll walk, Buck. I'd rather. I--why, I wouldn't dare ride that horse of yours. I'd be afraid he might buck me off." She pinched her eyebrows together and pursed up her lips in a most convincing manner.

"Hunh!" Scorn of her cowardice was in his tone. "Well, a course I ain't scared to ride him."

So with Miss Allen walking close to the Kid's stirrup and trying her best to keep up and to be cheerful and to remember that she must not treat him like a little, lost boy but like a real old cowpuncher, they started up the canyon toward the sun which hung low above a dark, pine-covered hill.