Chapter Twenty: "Pick Your Footing!"
 

The three sat irresolutely on their horses at the tunnel's end of the Gap, staring out over the valley of the Redwater and at the mountains beyond. Bud's face was haggard and the lines of his mouth were hard. It was so vast a country in which to look for one little woman who had not gone back to see Jerry's signal!

"I'll bet yuh Sis cleared out," Eddie blurted, looking at Bud eagerly, as if he had been searching for some comforting word. "Sis has got lots of sand. She used to call me a 'fraid cat all the time when I didn't want to go where she did. I'll bet she just took Boise and run off with him. She would, if she made up her mind--and I guess she'd had about as much as she could stand, cookin' at Little Lost--"

Bud lifted his head and looked at Eddie like a man newly awakened. "I gave her money to take home for me, to my mother, down Laramie way. I begged her to go if she was liable to be in trouble over leaving the ranch. But she said she wouldn't go--not unless she was missed. She knew I'd come back to the ranch. I just piled her hands full of bills in the dark and told her to use them if she had to--"

"She might have done it," Jerry hazarded hopefully. "Maybe she did sneak in some other way and get her things. She'd have to take some clothes along. Women folks always have to pack. By gosh, she could hide Boise out somewhere and--"

For a young man in danger of being lynched by his boss for horse stealing and waylaid and robbed by a gang notorious in the country, Bud's appetite for risk seemed insatiable that morning. For he added the extreme possibility of breaking his neck by reckless riding in the next hour.

He swung Sunfish about and jabbed him with the spurs, ducking into the gloom of the Gap as if the two who rode behind were assassins on his trail. Once he spoke, and that was to Sunfish. His tone was savage.

"Damn your lazy hide, you've been through here twice and you've got daylight to help--now pick up your feet and travel!"

Sunfish travelled; and the pace he set sent even Jerry gasping now and then when he came to the worst places, with the sound of galloping hoofs in the distance before him, and Eddie coming along behind and lifting his voice warningly now and then. Even the Catrockers had held the Gap in respect, and had ridden its devious trail cautiously. But caution was a meaningless word to Bud just then while a small flame of hope burned steadily before him.

The last turn, where on the first trip Sunfish lost Boise and balked for a minute, he made so fast that Sunfish left a patch of yellowish hair on a pointed rock and came into the open snorting fire of wrath. He went over the rough ground like a bouncing antelope, simply because he was too mad to care how many legs he broke. At the peak of rocks he showed an inclination to stop, and Bud, who had been thinking and planning while he hoped, pulled him to a stand and waited for the others to come up. They could not go nearer the corrals without incurring the danger of being overheard, and that must not happen.

"You damn fool," gritted Jerry when he came up with Bud. "If I'd knowed you wanted to commit suicide I'd a caved your head in with a rock and saved myself the craziest ride I ever took in m' life!"

"Oh, shut up!" Bud snapped impatiently. "We're here, aren't we? Now listen to me, boys. You catch up my horses--Jerry, are you coming along with me? You may as well. I'm a deputy sheriff, and if anybody stops you for whatever you've done, I'll show a warrant for your arrest. And by thunder," he declared with a faint grin, "I'll serve it if I have to to keep you with me. I don't know what you've done, and I don't care. I want you. So catch up my horses--and Jerry, you can pack my war-bag and roll your bed and mine, if I'm too busy while I'm here."

"You're liable to be busy, all right," Jerry interpolated grimly.

"Well, they won't bother you. Ed, you better get the horses. Take Sunfish, here, and graze him somewhere outa sight. We'll keep going, and we might have to start suddenly."

"How about Sis? I thought--"

"I'm going to turn Little Lost upside down to find her, if she's here. If she isn't, I'm kinda hoping she went down to mother. She said there was no other place where she could go. And she'd feel that she had to deliver the money, perhaps-- because I must have given her a couple of thousand dollars. It was quite a roll, mostly in fifties and hundreds, and I'm short that much. I'm just gambling that the size of made her feel she must go."

"That'd be Sis all over, Mr. Birnie." Eddie glanced around him uneasily. The sun was shining level in his eyes, and sunlight to Eddie had long meant danger. "I guess we better hurry, then. I'll get the horses down outa sight, and come back here afoot and wait."

"Do that, kid," said Bud, slipping wearily off Sunfish. He gave the reins into Eddie's hand, motioned Jerry with his head to follow, and hurried down the winding path to the corrals. The cool brilliance of the morning, the cheerful warbling of little, wild canaries in the bushes as he passed, for once failed to thrill him with joy of life. He was wondering whether to go straight to the house and search it if necessary to make sure that she had not been there, or whether Indian cunning would serve him best. His whole being ached for direct action; his heart trembled with fear lest he should jeopardize Marian's safety by his impetuous haste to help her.

Pop, coming from the stable just as Bud was crossing the corral, settled the question for him. Pop peered at him sharply, put a hand to the small of his back and came stepping briskly toward him, his jaw working like a sheep eating hay.

"Afoot, air ye?" he exclaimed curiously. "What-fer idea yuh got in yore head now, young feller? Comin' back here afoot when ye rid two fast horses? Needn't be afraid of ole Pop-- not unless yuh lie to 'im and try to git somethin' fur nothin'. Made off with Lew's wife, too, didn't ye? Oh, there ain't much gits past ole Pop, even if he ain't the man he used to be. I seen yuh lookin' at her when yuh oughta been eatin'. I seen yuh! An' her watchin' you when she thought nobuddy'd ketch her at it! Sho! Shucks a'mighty! You been playin' hell all around, now, ain't ye? Needn't lie--I know what my own eyes tells me!"

"You know a lot, then, that I wish I knew. I've been in Crater all the time, Pop. Did you know Lew was mixed up in a bank robbery yesterday, and the cashier of the bank shot him? The rest of the gang is dead or in jail. The sheriff did some good work there for a few minutes."

Pop pinched in his lips and stared at Bud unwinkingly for a minute. "Don't lie to me," he warned petulantly. "Went to Crater, did ye? Cashed them checks, I expect."

Bud pulled his mouth into a rueful grin. "Yes, Pop, I cashed the checks, all right--and here's what's left of the money. I guess," he went on while he pulled out a small roll of bills and licked his finger preparatory to counting them, "I might better have stuck to running my horses. Poker's sure a fright. The way it can eat into a man's pocket--"

"Went and lost all that money on poker, did ye?" Pop's voice was shrill. "After me tellin' yuh how to git it--and showin' yuh how yuh could beat Boise--" the old man's rage choked him. He thrust his face close to Bud's and glared venomously.

"Yes, and just to show you I appreciate it, I'm going to give you what's left after I've counted off enough to see me through to Spokane. I feel sick, Pop. I want change of air. And as for riding two fast horses to Crater--" he paused while he counted slowly, Pop licking his lips avidly as he watched,--"why I don't know what you mean. I only ride one horse at a time, Pop, when I'm sober. And I was sober till I hit Crater."

He stopped counting when he reached fifty dollars and gave the rest to Pop, who thumbed the bank notes in a frenzy of greed until he saw that he had two hundred dollars in his possession. The glee which he tried to hide, the crafty suspicion that this was not all of it the returning conviction that Bud was actually almost penniless, and the cunning assumption of senility, was pictured on his face. Pop's poor, miserly soul was for a minute shamelessly revealed. Distraught though he was, Bud stared and shuddered a little at the spectacle.

I always said 't you're a good, honest, well-meaning boy," Pop cackled, slyly putting the money out of sight while he patted Bud on the shoulder. "Dave he thought mebby you took and stole Boise--and if I was you, Bud, I'd git to Spokane quick as I could and not let Dave ketch ye. Dave's out now lookin' for ye. If he suspicioned you'd have the gall to come right back to Little Lost, I expect mebby he'd string yuh up, young feller. Dave's got a nasty temper--he has so!"

"There's something else, Pop, that I don't like very well to be accused of. You say Mrs. Morris is gone. I don't know a thing about that, or about the horse being gone. I've been in Crater. I'd just got my money out of the bank when it was held up, and Lew was shot."

Pop teetered and gummed his tobacco and grinned foxily. "Shucks! I don't care nothin' about Lew's wife goin', ner I don't care nothin' much about the horse. They ain't no funral uh mine, Bud. Dave an' Lew, let 'em look after their own belongin's."

"They'll have to, far as I'm concerned," said Bud. "What would I want of a horse I can beat any time I want to run mine? Dave must think I'm scared to ride fast, since Sunday! And Pop, I've got troubles enough without having a woman on my hands. Are you sure Marian's gone?"

"Sure?" Pop snorted. "Honey, she's had to do the cookin' for me an' Jerry--and if I ain't sure--"

Bud did not wait to hear him out. There was Honey, whom he would very much like to avoid meeting; so the sooner he made certain of Marian's deliberate flight the better, since Honey was not an early riser. He went to the house and entered by way of the kitchen, feeling perfectly sure all the while that Pop was watching him. The disorder there was sufficiently convincing that Marian was gone, so he tip-toed across the room to a door through which he had never seen any one pass save Lew and Marian.

It was her bedroom, meagrely furnished, but in perfect order. On the goods-box dresser with a wavy-glassed mirror above it, her hair brush, comb and a few cheap toilet necessities lay, with the comb across a nail file as if she had put it down hurriedly before going out to serve supper to the men. Marian, then, had not stolen home to pack things for the journey, as Jerry had declared a woman would do. Bud sent a lingering glance around the room and closed the door. Hope was still with him, but it was darkened now with doubts.

In the kitchen again he hesitated, wanting his guitar and mandolin and yet aware of the foolishness of burdening himself with them now. Food was a different matter, however. Dave owed him for more than three weeks of hard work in the hayfield, so Bud collected from the pantry as much as he could carry, and left the house like a burglar.

Pop was fiddling with the mower that stood in front of the machine shed, plainly waiting for whatever night transpire. And since the bunk-house door was in plain view and not so far away as Bud wished it, he went boldly over to the old man, carrying his plunder on his shoulder.

"Dave owes me for work, Pop, so I took what grub I needed," he explained with elaborate candor. "I'll show you what I've got, so you'll know I'm not taking anything that I've no right to." He set down the sack, opened it and looked up into what appeared to be the largest-muzzled six-shooter he had ever seen in his life. Sheer astonishment held him there gaping, half stooped over the sack.

"No ye don't, young feller!" Pop snarled vindictively. "Yuh think I'd let a horse thief git off 'n this ranch whilst I'm able to pull a trigger? You fork ner that money you got on ye, first thing yuh do! it's mine by rights--I told yuh I'd help ye to win money off 'n the valley crowd, and I done it. An' what does you do? Never pay a mite of attention to me after I'd give ye all the inside workin's of the game--never offer to give me my share--no, by Christmas, you go steal a horse of my son's and hide him out somewheres, and go lose mighty near all I helped yuh win, playin' poker! Think I'm goin' to stand for that? Think two hundred dollars is goin' to even things up when I helped ye to win a fortune? Hand over that fifty you got on yuh!

Very meekly, his face blank, Bud reached into his pocket and got the money. Without a word he pulled two or three dollars in silver from his trousers pockets and added that to the lot. "Now what?" he wanted to know.

"Now You'll wait till Dave gits here to hang yuh fer horse- stealing!" shrilled Pop. "Jerry! Oh, Jerry! Where be yuh? I got 'im, by Christmas--I got the horse thief--caught him carryin good grub right outa the house!"

"Look out, Jerry!" called Bud, glancing quickly toward the bunk-house.

Now, Pop had without doubt been a man difficult to trick in his youth, but he was old, and he was excited, tickled over his easy triumph. He turned to see what was wrong with Jerry.

"Look out, Pop, you old fool, You'll bust a bloodvessel if you don't quiet down," Bud censured mockingly, wresting the gun from the clawing, struggling old man in his arms. He was surprised at the strength and agility of Pop, and though he was forcing him backward step by step into the machine shed, and knew that he was master of the situation, he had his hands full.

"Wildcats is nothing to Pop when he gets riled," Jerry grinned, coming up on the run. I kinda expected something like this. What yuh want done with him, Bud?"

"Gag him so he can't holler his head off, and then take him along--when I've got my money back, Bud panted. "Pop, you're about as appreciative as a buck Injun."

"Going to be hard to pack him so he'll ride," Jerry observed quizzically when Pop, bound and gagged, lay glaring at them behind the bunk-house. "He don't quite balance your two grips, Bud. And we do need hat grub."

"You bring the grub--I'll take Pop--" Bud stopped in the act of lifting the old man and listened. Honey's voice was calling Pop, with embellishments such Bud would never have believed a part of Honey's vocabulary. From her speech, she was coming after him, and Pop's jaws worked frantically behind Bud's handkerchief.

Jerry tilted his head toward the luggage he had made a second trip for, picked up Pop, clamped his hand over the mouth that was trying to betray them, and slipped away through the brush glancing once over his shoulder to make sure that Bud was following him.

They reached the safe screen of branches and stopped there for a minute, listening to Honey's vituperations and her threats of what she would do to Pop if he did not come up and start a fire.

She stopped, and hoofbeats sounded from the main road. Dave and his men were coming.

In his heart Bud thanked Little Lost for that hidden path through the bushes. He heard Dave asking Honey what was the matter with her, heard the unwomanly reply of the girl, heard her curse Pop for his neglect of the kitchen stove at that hour of the morning. Heard, too, her questioning of Dave. Had they found Bud, or Marian?

"If you got 'em together, and didn't string 'em both up to the nearest tree--"

Bud bit his lip and went on, his face aflame with rage at the brutishness of a girl he had half respected. "Honey!" he whispered contemptuously. "What a name for that little beast!"

At the rocks Eddie was waiting with Stopper, upon whom they hurriedly packed the beds and Bud's luggage. They spoke in whispers when they spoke at all, and to insure the horse's remaining quiet Eddie had tied a cotton rope snugly around its muzzle.

"I'll take Pop," Bud whispered, but Jerry shook his head and once more shouldered the old fellow as he would carry a bag of grain. So they slipped back down the trail, took a turn which Bud did not know, and presently Bud found that Jerry was keeping straight on. Bud made an Indian sign on the chance that Jerry would understand it, and with his free hand Jerry replied. He was taking Pop somewhere. They were to wait for him when they had reached the horses. So they separated for a space.

"This is sure a great country for hideouts, Mr. Birnie," Eddie ventured when they had put half a mile between themselves and Little Lost, and had come upon Smoky, Sunfish and Eddie's horse feeding quietly in a tiny, spring-watered basin half surrounded with rocks. "If you know the country you can keep dodgin' sheriffs all your life--if you just have grub enough to last."

"Looks to me as if there aren't many wasted opportunities here," Bud answered with some irony. "Is there an honest man in the whole country, Ed? I'd just like to know."

Eddie hesitated, his eyes anxiously trying to read Bud's meaning and his mood. "Not right around the Sinks, I guess," he replied truthfully. "Up at Crater there are some, and over to Jumpoff. But I guess this valley would be called pretty tough, all right. It's so full of caves and queer places it kinda attracts the ones that want to hide out." Then he grinned. "It's lucky for you it's like that, Mr. Birnie, or I don't see how you'd get away. Now I can show you how to get clear away from here without getting caught. But I guess we ought to have breakfast first. I'm pretty hungry. Ain't you? I can build a fire against that crack in the ledge over there, and the smoke will go away back underneath so it won't show. There's a blow-hole somewhere that draws smoke like a chimney."

Jerry came after a little, sniffing bacon. He threw himself down beside the fire and drew a long breath. "That old skunk's heavier than what you might think," he observed whimsically. "I packed him down into one of them sink holes and untied his feet and left him to scramble out best way he can. It'll take him longer'n it took me. Having the use of your hands helps quite a lot. And the use of your mouth to cuss a little. But he'll make it in an hour or two--I'm afraid." He looked at Bud, a half-shamed tenderness in his eyes." It sure was hard to leave him like I did. It was like walking on your toes past a rattler curled up asleep somewhere, afraid you might spoil his nap. Only Pop wasn't asleep." He sat up and reached his hand for a cup of coffee which Eddie was offering. "Anyway, I had the fun of telling the old devil what I thought about him," he added, and blew away the steam and took another satisfying nip.

"He'll put them on our trail, I suppose," said Bud, biting into a ragged piece of bread with a half-burned slice of hot bacon on it.

"When he gets to the ranch he will. His poison fangs was sure loaded when I left. He said he wanted to cut your heart out for robbing him, and so forth, ad swearum. We'd best not leave any trail."

"We ain't going to," Eddie assured him eagerly. "I'm glad being with the Catrockers is going to do some good, Mr. Birnie. It'll help you git away, and that'll help find Sis. I guess she hit down where you live, maybe. How far can your horse travel to-day--if he has to?"

Bud looked across to where Sunfish, having rolled in a wet spot near the spring and muddied himself to his satisfaction, was greedily at work upon a patch of grass. "If he has to, till he drops in his tracks. And that won't be for many a mile, kid. He's thoroughbred; a thoroughbred never knows when to quit."

"Well, there ain't any speedy trail ahead of us today," Eddie vouchsafed cheeringly. "There's half-a mile maybe where we can gallop, and the rest is a case of picking your footing."

"Let's begin picking it, then," said Bud, and got up, reaching for his bridle.

By devious ways it was that Eddie led them out of that sinister country surrounding the Sinks. In the beginning Bud and Jerry exchanged glances, and looked at their guns, believing that it would be through Catrock Canyon they would have to ride. Eddie, riding soberly in the lead, had yet a certain youthful sense of his importance. "They'll never think of following yuh this way, unless old Pop Truman gits back in time to tell 'em I'm travelling with yuh," he observed once when they had penetrated beyond the neighborhood of caves and blow-holes and were riding safely down a canyon that offered few chances of their being observed save from the front, which did not concern them.

"I guess you don't know old Pop is about the ringeader of the Catrockers. Er he was, till he began to git kinda childish about hoarding money, and then Dave stepped in. And Mr. Birnie, I guess you'd have been dead when you first came there, if it hadn't been that Dave and Pop wanted to give you a chance to get a lot of money off of Jeff's bunch. Lew was telling how you kept cleaning up, and he said right along that they was taking too much risk having you around. Lew said he bet you was a detective. Are you, Mr. Birnie?"

Bud was riding with his shoulders sagged forward, his thoughts with Marian--wherever she was. He had been convinced that she was not at Little Lost, that she had started for Laramie. But now that he was away from that evil spot his doubts returned. What if she were still in the neighborhood-- what if they found her? Memory of Honey's vindictiveness made him shiver, Honey was the kind of woman who would kill.

"I am, from now on, kid," he said despondently. "We're going to ride till we find your sister. And if those hell-hounds got her--"

"They didn't, from the way Honey talked," Jerry comforted. "We'll find her at Laramie, don't you ever think we won't!"