Chapter Thirteen: The Sinks
 

"We can go through the pasture and cut off a couple of miles," said Honey when they were mounted. "I hope you don't think I'm crazy, wanting a ride at this time of day, after all the excitement we've had. But every Sunday is taken up with horse-racing till late in the afternoon, and during the week no one has time to go. And," she added with a sidelong look at him, "there's something about the Sinks that makes me love to go there. Uncle Dave won't let me go alone."

Bud dismounted to pull down the two top bars of the pasture gate so that their horses could step over. A little way down the grassy slope Smoky and Sunfish fed together, the Little Lost horses grouped nearer the creek.

"I love that little horse of yours--why, he's gone lame again!" exclaimed Honey. "Isn't that a shame! You oughtn't to run him if it does that to him."

"He likes it," said Bud carelessly as he remounted. "And so do I, when I can clean up the way I did today. I'm over three hundred dollars richer right now than I was this morning."

"And next Sunday, maybe you'll be broke," Honey added significantly. "You never know how you are coming out. I think Jeff let you win to-day on purpose, so you'd bet it all again and lose. He's like that. He don't care how much he loses one day, because he gets it back some other time. I don't like it. Some of the boys never do get ahead, and you'll be in the same fix if you don't look out."

"You didn't bring me along to lecture me, I know," said Bud with a good-natured smile. "What about the Sinks ? Is it a dangerous place as--Mrs. Morris says?"

"Oh, Marian? She never does want me to come. She thinks I ought to stay in the house always, the way she does. The Sinks is--is--queer. There are caves, and then again deep holes straight down, and tracks of wildcats and lions. And in some places you can hear gurgles and rumbles. I love to be there just at sundown, because the shadows are spooky and it makes you feel--oh, you know--kind of creepy up your back. You don't know what might happen. I--do you believe in ghosts and haunted places, Bud?"

"I'd need a lot of scaring before I did. Are the Sinks haunted?"

"No-o--but there are funny noises and people have got lost there. Anyway they never showed up afterwards. The Indians claim it's haunted." She smiled that baring smile of hers. "Do you want to turn around and go back?"

"Sure. After we've had our ride, and seen the sights." And he added with some satisfaction, "The moon 's full to-night, and no clouds."

"And I brought sandwiches," Honey threw in as especial blessing. "Uncle Dave will be mad, I expect. But I've never seen the Sinks at night, with moonlight."

She was quiet while the horses waded Sunk Creek and picked their way carefully over a particularly rocky stretch beyond. "But what I'd rather do," she said, speaking from her thoughts which had evidently carried forward in the silence, "is explore Catrock Canyon."

"Well, why not, if we have time?" Bud rode up alongside her. "Is it far?"

Honey looked at him searchingly. "You must be stranger to these parts," she said disbelievingly. "Do you think you can make me swallow that?"

Bud looked at her inquiringly, which forced her to go on.

"You must know about Catrock Canyon, Bud Birnie. Don't try to make me believe you don't."

"I don't. I never heard of it before that I remember. What is it makes you want to explore it?"

Honey studied him. "You're the queerest specimen I ever did see," she exclaimed pettishly. "Why, it's not going to hurt you to admit you know Catrock Canyon is--unexplorable."

"Oh. So you want to explore it because it's unexplorable. Well, why is it unexplorable?"

Honey looked around her at the dry sageland they were crossing. "Oh, you make me tired!" she said bluntly, with something of the range roughness in her voice. "Because it is, that's all."

"Then I'd like to explore it myself," Bud declared.

"For one thing," Honey dilated, "there's no way to get in there. Up on the ridge this side, where the rock is that throws a shadow like a cat's head on the opposite wall, you can look down a ways. But the two sides come so close together at the top that you can't see the bottom of the canyon at all. I've been on the ridge where I could see the cat's head."

Bud glanced speculatively up at the sun, and Honey, catching his meaning, shook her head and smiled.

"If we get into the Sinks and back to-day, they will do enough talking about it; or Uncle Dave will, and Marian. I--I thought perhaps you'd be able to tell me about--Catrock Canyon."

"I'm able to say I don't know a thing about it. If no one can get into it, I should think that's about all, isn't it?"

"Yes--you'd think so," Honey agreed enigmatically, and began to talk of the racing that day, and of the dance, and of other dances and other races yet to come. Bud discussed these subjects for a while and then asked boldly, "When's Lew coming back?"

"Lew?" Honey shot a swift glance at him. "Why?" She looked ahead at the forbidding, craggy hills toward which she had glanced when she spoke of Catrock. "Why, I don't know. How should I?"

Bud saw that he had spoken unwisely. "I was thinking he'd maybe hate to miss another running match like to-day," he explained guilelessly. "Everybody and his dog seemed to be there to-day, and everybody had money up. All," he modified, "except the Muleshoe boys. I didn't see any of them."

"You won't," Honey told him with some emphasis. "Uncle Dave and the Muleshoe are on the outs. They never come around except for mail and things from the store. And most always they send Hen. Uncle Dave and Dirk Tracy had an awful row last winter. It was next thing to a killing. So of course the outfits ain't on friendly terms."

This was more than Pop had gossiped to Bud, and since the whole thing was of no concern to him, and Honey plainly objected to talking about Marian's husband, he was quite ready to fix his interest once more upon the Sinks. He was surprised when they emerged from a cluster of small, sage- covered knolls, directly upon the edge of what at first sight seemed to be another dry river bed--sprawled wider, perhaps, with irregular arms thrust back into the less sterile land. They rode down a steep, rocky trail and came out into the Sinks.

It was an odd, forbidding place, and the farther up the gravelly bottom they rode, the more forbidding it became. Bud thought that in the time when Indians were dangerous as she- bears the Sinks would not be a place where a man would want to ride. There were too many jutting crags, too many unsuspected, black holes that led back--no one knew just where.

Honey led the way to an irregular circle of waterwashed cobbles and Bud peered down fifty feet to another dry, gravelly bottom seemingly a duplicate of the upper surface. She rode on past other caves, and let him look down into other holes. There were faint rumblings in some of these, but in none was there any water showing save in stagnant pools in the rock where the rain had fallen.

"There's one cave I like to go into," said Honey at last. "It's a little farther on, but we have time enough. There's a spring inside, and we can eat our sandwiches. It isn't dark- there are openings to the top, and lots of funny, winding passages. That," she finished thrillingly, "is the place the Indians claim is haunted."

Bud did not shudder convincingly, and they rode slowly forward, picking their way among the rocks. The cave yawned wide open to the sun, which hung on the top of Catrock Peak. They dismounted, anchored the reins with rocks and went inside.

When Bud had been investigative Buddy, he had explored more caves than he could count. He had filched candles from his mother and had crept back and back until the candle flame flickered warning that he was nearing the "damps" Indians always did believe caves were haunted, probably because they did not understand the "damps", and thought evil spirits had taken those who went in and never returned. Buddy had once been lost in a cave for four harrowing hours, and had found his way out by sheer luck, passing the skeleton of an Indian and taking the tomahawk as a souvenir.

Wherefore this particular cave, with a spring back fifty feet from the entrance where a shaft of sunlight struck the rock through some obscure slit in the rock, had no thrill for him. But the floor was of fine, white sand, and the ceiling was knobby and grotesque, and he was quite willing to sit there beside the spring and eat two sandwiches and talk foolishness with Honey, using that part of his mind which was not busy with the complexities of winning money on the speed of his horses when three horses represented his entire business capital, and with wondering what was wrong with Burroback Valley, that three persons of widely different viewpoints had felt it necessary to caution him,--and had couched their admonitions in such general terms that he could not feel the force of their warning.

He was thinking back along his life to where false alarms of Indian outbreaks had played a very large part in the Tomahawk's affairs, and how little of the ranch work would ever have been done had they listened to every calamity howler that came along. Honey was talking, and he was answering partly at random, when she suddenly laughed and got up.

"You must be in love, Bud Birnie. You just said 'yes' when I asked you if you didn't think water snakes would be coming out this fall with their stripes running round them instead of lengthwise! You didn't hear a word--now, did you?"

"I heard music," Bud lied gallantly, "and I knew it was your voice. I'd probably say yes if you asked me whether the moon wouldn't look better with a ruffle around it."

"I'll say the moon will be wondering where we are, if we don't start back. The sun's down."

Bud got up from sitting cross-legged like a Turk, helped Honey to her feet--and felt her fingers clinging warmly to his own. He led the way to the cave's mouth, not looking at her. "Great sunset," he observed carelessly, glancing up at the ridge while he held her horse for her to mount.

Honey showed that she was perfectly at home in the saddle. She rode on ahead, leaving Bud to mount and follow. He was just swinging leisurely into the saddle when Stopper threw his head around, glancing back toward the level just beyond the cave. At the same instant Bud heard the familiar, unmistakable swish of a rope headed his way.

He flattened himself along Stopper's left shoulder as the loop settled and tightened on the saddle horn, and dropped on to the ground as Stopper whirled automatically to the right and braced himself against the strain. Bud turned half kneeling, his gun in his hand ready for the shot he expected would follow the rope. But Stopper was in action-the best ropehorse the Tomahawk had ever owned. For a few seconds he stood braced, his neck arched, his eyes bright and watchful. Then he leaped forward, straight at the horse and the rider who was in the act of leveling his gun. The horse hesitated, taken unaware by the onslaught. When he started to run Stopper was already passing him, turning sharply to the right again so that the rope raked the horse's front legs. Two jumps and Stopper had stopped, faced the horse and stood braced again, his ears perked knowingly while he waited for the flop.

It came--just as it always did come when Stopper got action on the end of a rope. Horse and rider came down together. They would not get up until Bud wished it--he could trust Stopper for that--so Bud walked over to the heap, his gun ready for action--and that, too, could be trusted to perform with what speed and precision was necessary. There would be no hasty shooting, however; Buddy had learned to save his bullets for real need when ammunition was not to be had for the asking, and grown-up Bud had never outgrown the habit.

He picked up the fellow's six-shooter which he had dropped when he fell, and stood sizing up the situation.

By the neckerchief drawn across his face it was a straight case of holdup. Bud stooped and yanked off the mask and looked into the glaring eyes of one whom he had never before seen.

"Well, how d'yuh like it, far as you've got?" Bud asked curiously. "Think you were holding up a pilgrim, or what?"

Just then, bing-gg sang a rifle bullet from the ridge above the cave. Bud looked that way and spied a man standing half revealed against the rosy clouds that were already dulling as dusk crept up from the low ground. It was a long shot for a six-shooter, but Buddy used to shoot antelope almost that far, so Bud lifted his arm and straightened it, just as if he were pointing a finger at the man, and fired. He had the satisfaction of seeing the figure jerk backward and go off over the ridge in a stooping kind of run.

"He'd better hurry back if he wants another shot at me," Bud grinned. "It'll be so dark down here in a minute he couldn't pick me up with his front sight if I was--as big a fool as you are. How about it? I'll just lead you into camp, I think--but you sure as hell couldn't get a job roping gateposts, on the strength of this little exhibition."

He went over to Stopper and untied his own rope, giving an approving pat to that business-like animal. "Hope your leg isn't broken or anything," he said to the man when he returned and passed the loop over the fellow's head and shoulders, drawing it rather snugly around his body and pinning his arms at the elbows. "It would be kind of unpleasant if they happen to take a notion to make you walk all the way to jail."

He beckoned Stopper, who immediately moved up, slackening the rope. The thrown horse drew up his knees, gave a preliminary heave and scrambled to his feet, Bud taking care that the man was pulled free and safe. The fellow stood up sulkily defiant, unable to rest much of his weight on his left leg.

Bud had ten busy minutes, and it was not until they were both mounted and headed for Little Lost, the captive with his arms tied behind him, his feet tied together under the horse, which Bud led, that Bud had time to wonder what it was all about. Then he began to look for Honey, who had disappeared. But in the softened light of the rising moon mingling with the afterglow of sunset, he saw the deep imprints of her horse's hoofs where he had galloped homeward. Bud did not think she ran away because she was frightened; she had seemed too sure of herself for that. She had probably gone for help.

A swift suspicion that the attack might have been made from jealousy died when Bud looked again at his prisoner. The man was swarthy, low of brow--part Indian, by the look of him. Honey would never give the fellow a second thought. So that brought him to the supposition that robbery had been intended, and the inference was made more logical when Bud remembered that Marian had warned him against something of the sort. Probably he and Honey had been followed into the Sinks, and even though Bud had not seen this man at the races, his partner up on the ridge might have been there. It was all very simple, and Bud, having arrived at the obvious conclusion, touched Stopper into a lope and arrived at Little Lost just as Dave Truman and three of his men were riding down into Sunk Creek ford on their way to the Sinks. They pulled up, staring hard at Dave and his captive. Dave spoke first.

"Honey said you was waylaid and robbed or killed--both, we took it, from her account. How'd yuh come to get the best of it so quick?"

"Why, his horse got tangled up in the rope and fell down, and fell on top of him," Bud explained cheerfully. "I was bringing him in. He's a bad citizen, I should judge, but he didn't do me any damage, as it turned out, so I don't know what to do with him. I'll just turn him over to you, I think."

"Hell! I don't want him," Dave protested. I'll pass him along to the sheriff--he may know something about him. Nelse and Charlie, you take and run him in to Crater and turn him over to Kline. You tell Kline what he done--or tried to do. Was he alone, Bud?"

"He had a partner up on the ridge, so far off I couldn't swear to him if I saw him face to face. I took a shot at him, and I think I nicked him. He ducked, and there weren't any more rifle bullets coming my way."

"You nicked him with your six-shooter? And him so far off you couldn't recognize him again?" Dave looked at Bud sharply. "That's purty good shootin', strikes me."

"Well, he stood up against the sky-line, and he wasn't more than seventy-five yards," Bud explained. "I've dropped antelope that far, plenty of times. The light was bad, this evening."

"Antelope," Dave repeated meditatively, and winked at his men. "All right, Bud--we'll let it stand at antelope. Boys, you hit for Crater with this fellow. You ought to make it there and back by tomorrow noon, all right."

Nelse took the lead rope from Bud and the two started off up the creek, meaning to strike the road from Little Lost to Crater, the county seat beyond Gold Gap mountains. Bud rode on to the ranch with his boss, and tried to answer Dave's questions satisfactorily without relating his own prowess or divulging too much of Stopper's skill; which was something of a problem for his wits.

Honey ran out to meet him and had to be assured over and over that he was not hurt, and that he had lost nothing but his temper and the ride home with her in the moonlight. She was plainly upset and anxious that he should not think her cowardly, to leave him that way.

"I looked back and saw a man throwing his rope, and you--it looked as if he had dragged you off the horse. I was sure I saw you falling. So I ran my horse all the way home, to get Uncle Dave and the boys," she told him tremulously. And then she added, with her tantalizing half smile, "I believe that horse of mine could beat Smoky or Skeeter, if I was scared that bad at the beginning of a race."

Bud, in sheer gratitude for her anxiety over him, patted Honey's hand and told her she must have broken the record, all right, and that she had done exactly the right thing. And Honey went to bed happy that night.