Chapter 24. The Kid is Used for a Pawn in the Game
 

Did you ever stop to think of the tremendous moral lesson in the Bible tale of David and Goliath? And how great, human issues are often decided one way or the other by little things? Not all crises are passed in the clashing of swords and the boom of cannon. It was a pebble the size of your thumbend, remember, that slew the giant.

In the struggle which the Happy Family was making to preserve the shrunken range of the Flying U, and to hold back the sweeping tide of immigration, one might logically look for some big, overwhelming element to turn the tide one way or the other. With the Homeseekers' Syndicate backing the natural animosity of the settlers, who had filed upon semiarid land because the Happy Family had taken all of the tract that was tillable, a big, open clash might be considered inevitable.

And yet the struggle was resolving itself into the question of whether the contest filings should be approved by the land-office, or the filings of the Happy Family be allowed to stand as having been made in good faith. Florence Hallman therefore, having taken upon herself the leadership in the contest fight, must do one of two things if she would have victory to salve the hurt to her self-esteem and to vindicate the firm's policy in the eyes of the settlers.

She must produce evidence of the collusion of the Flying U outfit with the Happy Family, in the taking of the claims. Or she must connive to prevent the filing of answers to the contest notices within the time-limit fixed by law, so that the cases would go by default. That, of course, was the simplest--since she had not been able to gather any evidence of collusion that would stand in court.

There was another element in the land struggle--that was the soil and climate that would fight inexorably against the settlers; but with them we have little to do, since the Happy Family had nothing to do with them save in a purely negative way.

A four-wire fence and a systematic patrol along the line was having its effect upon the stock question. If the settlers drove their cattle south until they passed the farthest corner of Flying U fence, they came plump against Bert Rogers' barbed boundary line. West of that was his father's place--and that stretched to the railroad right-of-way, fenced on either side with a stock-proof barrier and hugging the Missouri all the way to the Marias--where were other settlers. If they went north until they passed the fence of the Happy Family, there were the Meeker holdings to bar the way to the very foot of Old Centennial, and as far up its sides as cattle would go.

The Happy Family had planned wisely when they took their claims in a long chain that stretched across the benchland north of the Flying U. Florence Grace knew this perfectly well--but what could she prove? The Happy Family had bought cattle of their own, and were grazing them lawfully upon their own claims. A lawyer had assured her that there was no evidence to be gained there. They never went near J. G. Whitmore, nor did they make use of his wagons, his teams or his tools or his money; instead they hired what they needed, openly and from Bert Rogers. They had bought their cattle from the Flying U, and that was the extent of their business relations--on the surface. And since collusion had been the ground given for the contests, it will be easily seen what slight hope Florence Grace and her clients must have of winning any contest suit. Still, there was that alternative-- the Happy Family had been so eager to build that fence and gather their cattle and put them back on the claims, and so anxious lest in their absence the settlers should slip cattle across the dead line and into the breaks, that they had postponed their trip to Great Falls as long as possible. The Honorable Blake had tacitly advised them to do so; and the Happy Family never gave a thought to their being hindered when they did get ready to attend to it.

But--a pebble killed Goliath.

H. J. Owens, whose eyes were the wrong shade of blue, sat upon a rocky hilltop which overlooked the trail from Flying U Coulee and a greater portion of the shack-dotted benchland as well, and swept the far horizons with his field glasses. Just down the eastern slope, where the jutting sandstone cast a shadow, his horse stood tied to a dejected wild-currant bush. He laid the glasses across his knees while he refilled his pipe, and tilted his hatbrim to shield his pale blue eyes from the sun that was sliding past midday.

H. J. Owens looked at his watch, nevertheless, as though the position of the sun meant nothing to him. He scowled a little, stretched a leg straight out before him to ease it of cramp, and afterwards moved farther along in the shade. The wind swept past with a faint whistle, and laid the ripening grasses flat where it passed. A cloud shadow moved slowly along the slope beneath him, and he watched the darkening of the earth where it touched, and the sharp contrast of the sun-yellowed sea of grass all around it. H. J. Owens looked bored and sleepy; yet he did not leave the hilltop--nor did he go to sleep.

Instead, he lifted the glasses, turned them toward Flying U Coulee a half mile to the south of him, and stared long at the trail. After a few minutes he made a gesture to lower the glasses, and then abruptly fixed them steadily upon one spot, where the trail wound up over the crest of the bluff. He looked for a minute, and laid the glasses down upon a rock.

H. J. Owens fumbled in the pocket of his coat, which he had folded and laid beside him on the yellow gravel of the hill. He found something he wanted, stood up, and with his back against a boulder he faced to the southwest. He was careful about the direction. He glanced up at the sun, squinting his eyes at the glare; he looked at what he held in his hand.

A glitter of sun on glass showed briefly. H. J. Owens laid his palm over it, waited while he could count ten, and took his palm away. Replaced it, waited, and revealed the glass again with the sun glare upon it full. He held it so for a full minute, and slid the glass back into his pocket.

He glanced down toward Flying U Coulee again--toward where the trail stretched like a brown ribbon through the grass. He seemed to be in something of a hurry now--if impatient movement meant anything--yet he did not leave the place at once. He kept looking off there toward the southwest--off beyond Antelope Coulee and the sparsely dotted shacks of the settlers.

A smudge of smoke rose thinly there, behind a hill. Unless one had been watching the place, one would scarcely have noticed it, but H. J. Owens saw it at once and smiled his twisted smile and went running down the hill to where his horse was tied. He mounted and rode down to the level, skirted the knoll and came out on the trail, down which he rode at an easy lope until he met the Kid.

The Kid was going to see Rosemary Allen and take a ride with her along the new fence; but he pulled up with the air of condescension which was his usual attitude toward "nesters," and in response to the twisted smile of H. J. Owens he grinned amiably.

"Want to go on a bear-hunt with me, Buck?" began H. J. Owens with just the right tone of comradeship, to win the undivided attention of the Kid.

"I was goin' to ride fence with Miss Allen," the Kid declined regretfully. "There ain't any bears got very close, there ain't. I guess you musta swallered something Andy told you." He looked at H. J. Owens tolerantly.

"No sir. I never talked to Andy about this." Had he been perfectly truthful he would have added that he had not talked with Andy about anything whatever, but he let it go. "This is a bear den I found myself; There's two little baby cubs, Buck, and I was wondering if you wouldn't like to go along and get one for a pet. You could learn it to dance and play soldier, and all kinds of stunts."

The Kid's eyes shone, but he was wary. This man was a nester, so it would be just at well to be careful "Where 'bouts is it?" he therefore demanded in a tone of doubt that would have done credit to Happy Jack.

"Oh, down over there in the hills. It's a secret, though, till we get them out. Some fellows are after them for themselves, Buck. They want to--skin 'em."

"The mean devils!" condemned the Kid promptly. "I'd take a fall outa them if I ketched 'em skinning any baby bear cubs while I was around."

H. J. Owens glanced behind him with an uneasiness not altogether assumed.

"Let's go down into this next gully to talk it over, Buck," he suggested with an air of secretiveness that fired the Kid's imagination. "They started out to follow me, and I don't want 'em to see me talking to you, you know."

The Kid went with him unsuspectingly. In all the six years of his life, no man had ever offered him injury. Fear had not yet become associated with those who spoke him fair. Nesters he did not consider friends because they were not friends with his bunch. Personally he did not know anything about enemies. This man was a nester--but he called him Buck, and he talked very nice and friendly, and he said he knew where there were some little baby bear cubs. The Kid had never before realized how much he wanted a bear cub for a pet. So do our wants grow to meet our opportunities.

H. J. Owens led the way into a shallow draw between two low hills, glancing often behind him and around him until they were shielded by the higher ground. He was careful to keep where the grass was thickest and would hold no hoofprints to betray them, but the Kid never noticed. He was thinking how nice it would be to have a bear cub for a pet. But it was funny that the Happy Family had never found him one, if there were any in the country.

He turned to put the question direct to H. J. Owens, I but that gentleman forestalled him.

"You wait here a minute, Buck, while I ride back on this hill a little ways to see if those fellows are on our trail," he said, and rode off before the Kid could ask him the question.

The Kid waited obediently. He saw H. J. Owens get off his horse and go sneaking up to the brow of the hill, and take some field glasses out of his pocket and look all around over the prairie with them. The sight tingled the Kid's blood so that he almost forgot about the bear cub. It was almost exactly like fighting Injuns, like Uncle Gee-gee told about when he wasn't cross.

In a few minutes Owens came back to the Kid, and they went on slowly, keeping always in the low, grassy places where there would be no tracks left to tell of their passing that way. Behind them a yellow-brown cloud drifted sullenly with the wind. Now and then a black flake settled past them to the ground. A peculiar, tangy smell was in the air--the smell of burning grass.

H. J. Owens related a long, full-detailed account of how he had been down in the hills along the river, and had seen the old mother bear digging ants out of a sand-hill for her cubs.

"I know--that's jes' 'zactly the way they do!" the Kid interrupted excitedly. "Daddy Chip seen one doing it on the Musselshell one time. He told me 'bout it."

H. J. Owens glanced sidelong at the Kid's flushed face, smiled his twisted smile and went on with his story. He had not bothered them, he said, because he did not have any way of carrying both cubs, and he hated to kill them. He had thought of Buck, and how he would like a pet cub, so he had followed the bear to her den and had come away to get a sack to carry them in, and to tell Buck about it.

The Kid never once doubted that it was so. Whenever any of the Happy Family found anything in the hills that was nice, they always thought of Buck, and they always brought it to him. You would be amazed at the number of rattlesnake rattles, and eagle's claws, and elk teeth, and things like that, which the Kid possessed and kept carefully stowed away in a closet kept sacred to his uses.

"'Course you'd 'member I wanted a baby bear cub; for a pet," he assented gravely and with a certain satisfaction. "Is it a far ways to that mother bear's home?"

"Why?" H. J. Owens turned from staring at the rolling smoke cloud, and looked at the Kid curiously. "Ain't you big enough to ride far?"

"'Course I'm big enough" The Kid's pride was touched. "I can ride as far as a horse can travel I bet I can ride farther and faster 'n you can, you pilgrims" He eyed the other disdainfully. "Huh! You can't ride. When you trot you go this way!" The Kid kicked Silver into a trot and went bouncing along with his elbows flapping loosely in imitation of H. J. Owens' ungraceful riding.

"I don't want to go a far ways," he explained when the other was again Riding alongside, "'cause Doctor Dell would cry if I didn't come back to supper. She cried when I was out huntin' the bunch. Doctor Dell gets lonesome awful easy." He looked over his shoulder uneasily. "I guess I better go back and tell her I'm goin' to git a baby bear cub for a pet," he said, and reined Silver around to act upon the impulse.

"No--don't do that, Buck." H. J. Owens pulled his horse in front of Silver. "It isn't far--just a little ways. And it would be fun to surprise them at the ranch Gee! When they saw you ride up with a pet bear cub in your arms--" H. J. Owens shook his head as though he could not find words to express the surprise of the Kid's family

The Kid smiled his Little Doctor smile. "I'd tell a man!" he assented enthusiastically. "I bet the Countess would holler when she seen it. She scares awful easy. She's scared of a mice, even! Huh! My kitty ketched a mice and she carried it right in her mouth and brought it into the kitchen and let it set down on the floor a minute, and it started to run away-- the mice did. And it runned right up to the Countess, and she jes' hollered and yelled And she got right up and stood on a chair and hollered for Daddy Chip to come and ketch that mice. He didn't do it though. Adeline ketched it herself. And I took it away from her and put it in a box for a pet. I wasn't scared."

"She'll be scared when she sees the bear cub," H. J. Owens declared absent-mindedly. "I know you won't be, though. If we hurry maybe we can watch how he digs ants for his supper. That's lots of fun, Buck"

"Yes--I 'member it's fun to watch baby bear cubs dig ants," the Kid assented earnestly, and followed willingly where H. J. Owens led the way.

That the way was far did not impress itself upon the Kid, beguiled with wonderful stories of how baby bear cubs might be taught to do tricks. He listened and believed, and invented some very wonderful tricks that he meant to teach his baby bear cub. Not until the shadows began to fill the gullies through which they rode did the Kid awake to the fact that night was coming close and that they were still traveling away from home and in a direction which was strange to him. Never in his life had he been tricked by any one with unfriendly intent. He did not guess that he was being tricked now. Ho rode away into the wild places in search of a baby bear cub for a pet.