Chapter Sixteen: While the Going's Good
 

At supper Bud noticed that Marian, standing at his right side, set down his cup of coffee with her right hand, and at the same instant he felt her left hand fumble in his pocket and then touch his elbow. She went on, and Bud in his haste to get outside drank his coffee so hot that it scalded his mouth. Jerry rose up and stepped backward over the bench as Bud passed him, and went out at his heels.

"Go play the piano for half an hour and then meet me where you got them mushrooms. And when you quit playing, duck quick. Tell Honey you'll be back in a minute. Have her hunt for music for yuh while you're out--or something like that. Don't let on."

Bud might have questioned Jerry, but that cautious young man was already turning back to call something--to Dave, so Bud went around the corner, glancing into the pantry window as he passed. Marian was not in sight, nor was Honey at the moment when he stood beside the step of the post-office.

Boldness carries its own talisman against danger. Bud went in--without slamming the door behind him, you may be sure-- and drew his small notebook from his inside pocket. With that to consult frequently, he sat down by the window where the failing light was strongest, and proceeded to jot down imaginary figures on the paper he pulled from his coat pocket and unfolded as if it were of no value whatever to him. The piano playing ordered by Jerry could wait.

What Marian had to say on this occasion could not be written upon a cigarette paper. In effect her note was a preface to Jerry's commands. Bud saw where she had written words and erased them so thoroughly that the cheap paper was almost worn through. She had been afraid, poor lady, but her fear could not prevent the writing.

"You must leave to-night for Crater and cash the checks given you to pay the bets. Go to Crater. If you don't know the way, keep due north after you have crossed Gold Gap. There's the stage road, but they'll watch that, I'm afraid. They mean to stop payment on the checks. But first they will kill you if they can. They say you cheated with that thoroughbred horse. They took their losses so calmly--I knew that they meant to rob you. To show you how I know, it was Lew you shot on the ridge that night. His rheumatism was caused by your bullet that nicked his shoulder. So you see what sort we are--go. Don't wait--go now."

Bud looked up, and there was Honey leaning over the counter, smiling at him.

"Well, how much is it?" she teased when she saw he had discovered her.

Bud drew a line across the note and added imaginary columns of figures, his hat-brim hiding his face.

"Over eleven thousand dollars," he announced, and twisted the paper in his fingers while he went over to her. "Almost enough to start housekeeping!"

Honey blushed and leaned to look for something which she pretended to have dropped and Bud seized the opportunity to tuck the paper out of sight. "I feel pretty much intoxicated to-night, Honey," he said. "I think I need soothing, or something--and you know what music does to the savage breast. Let 's play."

"All right. You've been staying away lately till I thought you were mad," Honey assented rather eagerly, and opened the little gate in the half partition just as Bud was vaulting the counter, which gave her a great laugh and a chance for playful scuffling. Bud kissed her and immediately regretted the caress.

Jerry had told him to play the piano, but Bud took his mandolin and played that while Honey thumped out chords for him. As he had half expected, most of the men strayed in and perched here and there listening just as if there had not been a most unusual horserace to discuss before they slept. Indeed, Bud had never seen the Little Lost boys so thoughtful, and this silence struck him all at once as something sinister, like a beast of prey stalking its kill.

Two waltzes he played--and then, in the middle of a favorite two-step, a mandolin string snapped with a sharp twang, and Bud came as close to swearing as a well-behaved young man may come in the presence of a lady.

"Now I'll have to go get a new E string," he complained. "You play the Danube for the boys--the way I taught you--while I get this fixed. I've an extra string down in the bunk-house; it won't take five minutes to get it." He laid the mandolin down on his chair, bolted out through the screen door which he slammed after him to let Jerry know that he was coming, and walked halfway to the bunk-house before he veered off around the corner of the machine shed and ran.

Jerry was waiting by the old shed, and without a word he led Bud behind it where Sunfish was standing saddled and bridled.

"You got to go, Bud, while the going's good. "I'd go with yuh if I dared," Jerry mumbled guardedly. "You hit for Crater, Bud, and put that money in the bank. You can cut into the stage road where it crosses Oldman Creek, if you go straight up the race track to the far end, and follow the trail from there. You can't miss it--there ain't but one way to go. I got yuh this horse because he's worth more'n what the other two are, and he's faster. And Bud, if anybody rides up on yuh, shoot. Don't monkey around about it. And you ride!"

"All right," Bud muttered. "But I'll have to go down in the pasture and get my money, first. I've got my own private bank down there, and I haven't enough in my pockets to play penny ante more than one round."

"Hell!" Jerry's hand lifted to Bud's shoulder and gripped it for a minute. "That's right on the road to the Sinks, man!" He stood biting his lips, thinking deeply, turning his head now and then as little sounds came from the house: the waltz Honey was playing, the post-office door slamming shut.

"You tell me where that money's cached, Bud, and I'll go after it. I guess you'll have to trust me--I sure wouldn't let yuh go down to the pasture yourself right now. Where is it?"

"Look under that flat rock right by the gate post, where the top bars hit the ground. "It's wrapped up in a handkerchief, so just bring the package. "It's been easy to tuck things under the rock when I was putting up the bars. I'll wait here."

"Good enough--I'd sure have felt easier if I'd known you wasn't carrying all that money." Whereupon Jerry disappeared, and his going made no sound.

Bud stood beside Sunfish, wondering if he had been a fool to trust Jerry. By his own admission Jerry was living without the law, and this might easily be a smooth scheme of robbery. He turned and strained his eyes into the dusk, listening, trying to hear some sound that would show which way Jerry had gone. He was on the point of following him--suspicion getting the better of his faith--when Sunfish moved his head abruptly to one side, bumping Bud's head with his cheek. At the same instant a hand touched Bud's arm.

"I saw you from the kitchen window," Marian whispered tensely. "I was afraid you hadn't read my note, or perhaps wouldn't pay any attention to it. I heard you and Jerry--of course he won't dare go with you and show you the short-cut, even if he knows it. There's a quicker way than up the creek- bed. I have Boise out in the bushes, and a saddle. I was afraid to wait at the barn long enough to saddle him. You go--he's behind that great pile of rocks, back of the corrals. I'll wait for Jerry." She gave him a push, and Bud was so astonished that he made no reply whatever, but did exactly as she had told him to do.

Boise was standing behind the peaked outcropping of rock, and beside him was a stock-saddle which must have taxed Marian's strength to carry. Indeed, Bud thought she must have had wings, to do so much in so short a space of time; though when he came to estimate that time he decided that he must have been away from the house ten minutes, at least. If Marian followed him closely enough to see him duck behind the machine shed and meet Jerry, she could run behind the corral and get Boise out by way of the back door of the stable. There was a path, screened from the corral by a fringe of brush, which went that way. The truth flashed upon him that one could ride unseen all around Little Lost.

He was just dropping the stirrup down from the saddle horn when Marian appeared with Jerry and Sunfish close behind her. Jerry held out the package.

"She says she'll show you a short cut," he whispered. "She says I don't know anything about it. I guess she's right-- there's a lot I don't know. Lew 's gone, and she says she'll be back before daylight. If they miss Boise they'll think you stole him. But they won't look. Dave wouldn't slam around in the night on Boise--he thinks too much of him. Well--beat it, and I sure wish yuh luck. You be careful, Marian. Come back this way, and if you see a man's handkerchief hanging on this bush right here where I'm standing, it'll mean you've been missed."

"Thank you, Jerry," Marian whispered."I'll look for it. Come, Bud--keep close behind me, and don't make any noise."

Bud would have protested, but Marian did not give him a chance. She took up the reins, grasped the saddle horn, stuck her slipper toe in the stirrup and mounted Boise as quickly as Bud could have done it--as easily, too, making allowance for the difference in their height. Bud mounted Sunfish and followed her down the trail which led to the race track; but when they had gone through the brush and could see starlight beyond, she turned sharply to the left, let Boise pick his way carefully over a rocky stretch and plunged into the brush again, leaning low in the saddle so that the higher branches would not claw at her hair and face.

When they had once more come into open ground with a shoulder of Catrock Peak before them, Marian pulled up long enough to untie her apron and bind it over her hair like a peasant woman. She glanced back at Bud, and although darkness hid the expression on her face, he saw her eyes shining in the starlight. She raised her hand and beckoned, and Bud reined Sunfish close alongside.

"We're going into a spooky place now," she leaned toward him to whisper. "Boise knows the way, and your horse will follow."

"All right," Bud whispered back. "But you'd better tell me the way and let me go on alone. I'm pretty good at scouting out new trails. I don't want you to get in trouble--"

She would not listen to more of that, but pushed him back with the flat of her bare hand and rode ahead of him again. Straight at the sheer bluff, that lifted its huge, rocky shape before them, she led the way. So far as Bud could see she was not following any trail; but was aiming at a certain point and was sure enough of the ground to avoid detours.

They came out upon the bank of the dry river-bed. Bud knew it by the flatness of the foreground and the general contour of the mountains beyond. But immediately they turned at a sharp angle, travelled for a few minutes with the river-bed at their backs, and entered a narrow slit in the mountains where two peaks had been rent asunder in some titanic upheaval when the world was young. The horses scrambled along the rocky bottom for a little way, then Boise disappeared.

Sunfish halted, threw his head this way and that, gave a suspicious sniff and turned carefully around the corner of a square-faced boulder. In front was blackness. Bud urged him a little with rein and soft pressure of the spurs, and Sunfish stepped forward. He seemed reassured to find firm, smooth sand under his feet, and hurried a little until Boise was just ahead clicking his feet now and then against a rock.

"Coming?" Marian's voice sounded subdued, muffled by the close walls of the tunnel-like crevice.

"Coming," Bud assured her quietly "At your heels."

"I always used to feel spooky when I was riding through here," Marian said, dropping back so that they rode side by side, stirrups touching. "I was ten when I first made the trip. It was to get away from Indians. They wouldn't come into these places. Eddie and I found the way through. We were afraid they were after us, and so we kept going, and our horses brought us out. Eddie--is my brother."

"You grew up here?" Bud did not know how much incredulity was in his voice. "I was raised amongst the Indians in Wyoming. I thought you were from the East."

"I was in Chicago for three years," Marian explained. "I studied every waking minute, I think. I wanted to be a singer. Then--I came home to help bury mother. Father--Lew and father were partners, and I--married Lew. I didn't know-- it seemed as though I must. Father put it that way. The old story, Bud. I used to laugh at it in novels, but it does happen. Lew had a hold over father and Eddie, and he wanted me. I married him, but it did no good, for father was killed just a little more than a month afterwards. We had a ranch, up here in the Redwater Valley, about halfway to Crater. But it went--Lew gambled and drank and--so he took me to Little Lost. I've been there for two years."

The words of pity--and more--that crowded forward for utterance, Bud knew he must not speak. So he said nothing at all.

"Lew has always held Eddie over my head," she went on pouring out her troubles to him. "There's a gang, called the Catrock Gang, and Lew is one of them. I told you Lew is the man you shot. I think Dave Truman is in with them--at any rate he shuts his eyes to whatever goes on, and gets part of the stealings, I feel sure. That's why Lew is such a favorite. You see, Eddie is one--I'm trusting you with my life, almost, when I tell you this.

"But I couldn't stand by and not lift a hand to save you. I knew they would kill you. They'd have to, because I felt that you would fight and never give up. And you are too fine a man for those beasts to murder for the money you have. I knew, the minute I saw Jeff paying you his losings with a check, and some of the others doing the same, just what would happen. Jeff is almost as bad as the Catrockers, except that he is too cowardly to come out into the open. He gave you a check; and everyone who was there knew he would hurry up to Crater and stop payment on it, if he could do it and keep out of your sight. Those cronies of his would do the same--so they paid with checks.

"And the Catrock gang knew that. They mean to get hold of you, rob and-and-kill you, and forge the endorsement on the checks and let one man cash them in Crater before payment can be stopped. Indeed, the gang will see to it that Jeff stays away from Crater. Lew hinted that while they were about it they might as well clean out the bank. It wouldn't be the first time," she added bitterly.

She stopped then and asked for a match, and when Bud gave her one she lighted a candle and held it up so that she could examine the walls. "It's a natural tunnel," she volunteered in a different tone. "Somewhere along here there is a branch that goes back into the hill and ends in a blow-hole. But we're all right so far."

She blew out the candle and urged Boise forward, edging over to the right.

"Wasn't that taking quite a chance, making a light?" Bud asked as they went on.

"It was, but not so great a chance as missing the way. Jerry didn't hear anything of them when he went to the pasture gate, and they may not come through this way at all. They may not realize at first that you have left, and even when they did they would not believe at first that you had gone to Crater. You see "--and in the darkness Bud could picture her troubled smile--" they think you are an awful fool, in some ways. The way you bet to-day was pure madness."

"It would have been, except that I knew I could win."

"They never bet like that. They always 'figure', as they call it, that the other fellow is going to play some trick on them. Half the time Jeff bets against his own horse, on the sly. They all do, unless they feel sure that their own trick is best."

"They should have done that to-day," Bud observed dryly. "But you've explained it. They thought I'm an awful fool."

Out of the darkness came Marian's voice. "It's because you're so different. They can't understand you.

Bud was not interested in his own foolishness just then. Something in her voice had thrilled him anew with a desire to help her and with the conviction that he was desperately in need of help. There was a pathetic patience in her tone when she summarized he whole affair in those last two sentences. It was as if she were telling him how her whole life was darkened because she herself was different--because they could not understand a woman so fine, so true and sweet.

"What will happen if you are missed? If you go back and discover Jerry's handkerchief on that bush, what will you do? You can't go back if they find out--" There was no need for him to finish that sentence.

"I don't know," said Marian, "what I shall do. I hadn't thought much about it."

"I haven't thought much about anything else," Bud told her straightforwardly. "If Jerry flags you, you 'd better keep going. Couldn't you go to friends?"

"I could--if I had any. Bud, you don't understand. Eddie is the only relative I have on earth, that I know at all. He is--he's with the Catrockers and Lew dominates him completely. Lew has pushed Ed into doing things so that I must shield both or neither. And Eddie's just a boy. So I've no one at all."

Bud studied this while they rode on through the defile that was more frequently a tunnel, since the succession of caves always had an outlet which Marian found. She had stopped now and dismounted, and they were leading their horses down a steep, scrambling place with the stars showing overhead.

"A blowhole," Marian informed him briefly. "We'll come into another cave, soon, and while it's safe if you know it, I'll explain now that you must walk ahead of your horse and keep your right hand always in touch with the wall until we see the stars again. There's a ledge-five feet wide in the narrowest place, if you are nervous about ledges--and if you should get off that you'd have a drop of ten feet or so. We found that the ledge makes easier travelling, because the bottom is full of rocks and nasty depressions that are noticeable only with lights."

She started off again, and Bud followed her, his gloved fingers touching the right wall, his soul humbled before the greatness of this little woman with the deep, troubled eyes. When they came out into the starlight she stopped and listened for what seemed to Bud a very long time.

"If they are coming, they are a long way behind us," she said relievedly, and remounted. "Boise knows his trail and has made good time. And your horse has proven beyond all doubt that he's a thoroughbred. I've seen horses balk at going where we have gone."

"And I've seen men who counted themselves brave as any, who wouldn't do what you are doing to-night; Jerry, for instance. I wish you'd go back. I can't bear having you take this risk."

"I can't go back, Bud. Not if they find I've gone." Then he heard her laugh quietly. "I can't imagine now why I stayed and endured it all this while. I think I only needed the psychological moment for rebellion, and to-night the moment came. So you see you have really done me a service by getting into this scrape. It's the first time I have been off the ranch in a year."

"If you call that doing you a service, I'm going to ask you to let me do something also for you." Bud half smiled to himself in the darkness, thinking how diplomatic he was. "If you're found out, you'll have to keep on going, and I take it you wouldn't be particular where you went. So I wish you 'd take charge of part of this money for me, and if you leave, go down to my mother, on the Tomahawk ranch, out from Laramie. Anyone can tell you where it is, when you get down that way If you need any money use it. And tell mother I sent her the finest cook in the country. Mother, by the way, is a great musician, Marian. She taught me all I know of music. You'd get along just fine with mother. And she needs you, honest. She isn't very strong, yet she can't find anyone to suit, down there--"

"I might not suit, either," said Marian, her voice somewhat muffled.

"Oh, I'm not afraid of that. And--there's a message I want to send--I promised mother I'd--"

"Oh, hush! You're really an awfully poor prevaricator, Bud. This is to help me, you're planning."

"Well--it's to help me that I want you to take part of the money. The gang won't hold you up, will they? And I want mother to have it. I want her to have you, too,--to help out when company comes drifting in there, sometimes fifteen or twenty strong. Especially on Sunday. Mother has to wait on them and cook for them, and--as long as you are going to cook for a bunch, you may as well do it where it will be appreciated, and where you'll be treated like a--like a lady ought to be treated."

"You're even worse--" began Marian, laughing softly, and stopped abruptly, listening, her head turned behind them." Sh-sh-someone is coming behind us," she whispered. "We're almost through--come on, and don't talk!"