Chapter 20. The Rell Ole Cowpuncher Goes Home
 

I don't suppose anything can equal the aplomb of a child that has always had his own way and has developed normally. The Kid, for instance, had been wandering in the wild places-- this was the morning of the sixth day. The whole of Northern Montana waited anxiously for news of him. The ranch had been turned into a rendezvous for searchers. Men rode as long as they could sit in the saddle. Women were hysterical in the affection they lavished upon their own young. And yet, the Kid himself opened his eyes to the sun and his mind was untroubled save where his immediate needs were concerned. He sat up thinking of breakfast, and he spied Andy Green humped on his knees over a heap of camp-fire coals, toasting rabbit- hams--the joy of it--on a forked stick. Opposite him Miss Allen crouched and held another rabbit-leg on a forked stick. The Kid sat up as if a spring had been suddenly released, and threw off the gray blanket

"Say, I want to do that too!" he cried. "Get me a stick, Andy, so I can do it. I never did and I want to!"

Andy grabbed him as he came up and kissed him--and the Kid wondered at the tremble of Andy's arms. He wondered also at the unusual caress; but it was very nice to have Andy's arms around him and Andy's cheek against his, and of a sudden the baby of him came to the surface.

"I want my Daddy Chip!" he whimpered, and laid his head down on Andy's shoulder . "And I want my Doctor Dell and my--cat! She's lonesome for me. And I forgot to take the string off her tail and maybe it ain't comfortable any more!"

"We're going to hit the trail, old-timer, just as soon as we get outside of a little grub." Andy's voice was so tender that Miss Allen gulped back a sob of sympathy. "You take this stick and finish roasting the meat, and then see what you think of rabbit-hams. I hear you've been a real old cowpuncher, Buck. The way you took care of Miss Allen proves you're the goods, all right. Not quite so close, or you'll burn it, Buck. That's better. I'll go get another stick and roast the back."

The Kid, squatting on his heels by the fire, watched gravely the rabbit-leg on the two prongs of the willow stick he held. He glanced across at Miss Allen and smiled his Little Doctor smile.

"He's my pal," he announced. "I bet if I stayed we could round up all them cattle our own selves. And I bet he can find your horse, too. He--he's 'customed to this country. I'd a found your horse today, all right--but I guess Andy could find him quicker. Us punchers'll take care of you, all right." The rabbit-leg sagged to the coals and began to scorch, and the Kid lifted it startled and was grateful when Miss Allen did not seem to have seen the accident.

"I'd a killed a rabbit for you," he explained, "only I didn't have no gun or no matches so I couldn't. When I'm ten my Daddy Chip is going to give me a gun. And then if you get lost I can take care of you like Andy can. I'll be ten next week, I guess." He turned as Andy came back slicing off the branches of a willow the size of his thumb.

"Say, old-timer, where's the rest of the bunch?" he inquired casually. "Did you git your cattle rounded up?"

"Not yet." Andy sharpened the prongs of his stick and carefully impaled the back of the rabbit.

"Well, I'll help you out. But I guess I better go home first--I guess Doctor Dell might need me, maybe."

"I know she does, Buck." Andy's voice had a peculiar, shaky sound that the Kid did not understand. "She needs you right bad. We'll hit the high places right away quick."

Since Andy had gone at daybreak and brought the horses over into this canyon, his statement was a literal one. They ate hurriedly and started--and Miss Allen insisted that Andy was all turned around, and that they were going in exactly the wrong direction, and blushed and was silent when Andy, turning his face full toward her, made a kissing motion with his lips.

"You quit that!" the Kid commanded him sharply. "She's my girl I guess I found her first 'fore you did, and you ain't goin' to kiss her."

After that there was no lovemaking but the most decorous conversation between these two.

Flying U Coulee lay deserted under the warm sunlight of early forenoon. Deserted, and silent with the silence that tells where Death has stopped with his sickle. Even the Kid seemed to feel a strangeness in the atmosphere--a stillness that made his face sober while he looked around the little pasture and up at the hill trail. In all the way home they had not met anyone--but that may have been because Andy chose the way up Flying U Creek as being shorter and therefore more desirable.

At the lower line fence of the little pasture Andy refused to believe the Kid's assertion of having opened and shut the gate, until the Kid got down and proved that he could open it--the shutting process being too slow for Andy's raw nerves. He lifted the Kid into the saddle and shut the gate himself, and led the way up the creek at a fast trot.

"I guess Doctor Dell will be glad to see me," the Kid observed wistfully. "I've been gone most a year, I guess."

Neither Andy nor Miss Allen made any reply to this. Their eyes were searching the hilltop for riders, that they might signal. But there was no one in sight anywhere.

"Hadn't you better shout?" suggested Miss Allen. "Or would it be better to go quietly--"

Andy did not reply; nor did he shout. Andy, at that moment, was fighting a dryness in his throat. He could not have called out if he had wanted to. They rode to the stable and stopped. Andy lifted the Kid down and set him on his two feet by the stable door while he turned to Miss Allen. For once in his life he was at a loss. He did not know how best to bring the Kid to the Little Doctor; How best to lighten the shock of seeing safe and well the manchild who she thought was dead. He hesitated. Perhaps he should have ridden on to the house with him. Perhaps he should have fired the signal when first he came into the coulee. Perhaps. . .

The Kid himself swept aside Andy's uncertainties. Adeline, the cat, came out of the stable and looked at them contemplatively. Adeline still had the string tied to her tail, and a wisp of paper tied to the string. The Kid pounced and caught her by the middle.

"I guess I can tie knots so they stay, by cripes!" he shouted vaingloriously. "I guess Happy Jack can't tie strings any better 'n me, can he? Nice kitty--c'm back here, you son-a- gun!"

Adeline had not worried over the absence of the Kid, but his hilarious arrival seemed to worry her considerably. She went bounding up the path to the house, and after her went the Kid, yelling epithets which were a bit shocking for one of his age.

So he came to the porch just when Chip and the Little Doctor reached it, white-faced and trembling. Adeline paused to squeeze under the steps, and the Kid catching her by the tail, dragged her back yowling. While his astounded parents watched him unbelievingly, the Kid gripped Adeline firmly and started up the steps.

"I ketched the son-a-gun!" he cried jubilantly.

"Say, I seen a skink, Daddy Chip, and I frowed a rock and knocked his block off 'cause he was going to swipe my grub. Was you s'prised, Doctor Dell?"

Doctor Dell did not say. Doctor Dell was kneeling on the porch floor with the Kid held closer in her arms than ever he held the cat, and she was crying and laughing and kissing him all at once--though nobody except a mother can perform that feat.