Chapter Nine: Little Lost
 

Little Lost--somehow the name appealed to Bud, whose instinct for harmony extended to words and phrases and, for that matter, to everything in the world that was beautiful. From the time when he first heard Little Lost mentioned, he had felt a vague regret that chance had not led him there instead of to the Muleshoe. Brands he had heard all his life as the familiar, colloquial names for ranch headquarters. The Muleshoe was merely a brand name. Little Lost was something else, and because Buddy had been taught to "wait and find out" and to ask questions only as a last resort, Bud was still in ignorance of the meaning of Little Lost. He knew, from careless remarks made in his presence, that the mail came to Little Lost, and that there was some sort of store where certain everyday necessities were kept, for which the store-keeper charged "two prices." But there was also a ranch, for he sometimes heard the boys mention the Little Lost cattle, and speak of some man as a rider for the Little Lost.

So to Little Lost Bud rode blithely next morning, riding Stopper and leading Smoky, Sunfish and the pack following as a matter of course. Again his trained instinct served him faithfully. He had a very good general idea of Burroback Valley, he knew that the Muleshoe occupied a fair part of the south side, and guessed that he must ride north, toward the Gold Gap Mountains, to find the place he wanted.

The trail was easy, his horses were as fat as was good for them. In two hours of riding at his usual trail pace he came upon another stream which he knew must be Sunk Creek grown a little wider and deeper in its journey down the valley. He forded that with a great splashing, climbed the farther bank, followed a stubby, rocky bit of road that wound through dense willow and cottonwood growth, came out into a humpy meadow full of ant hills, gopher holes and soggy wet places where the water grass grew, crossed that and followed the road around a brushy ridge and found himself squarely confronting Little Lost.

There could be no mistake, for "Little Lost Post Office" was unevenly painted on the high cross-bar of the gate that stood wide open and permanently warped with long sagging. There was a hitch-rail outside the gate, and Bud took the hint and left his horses there. From the wisps of fresh hay strewn along the road, Bud knew that haying had begun at Little Lost. There were at least four cabins and a somewhat pretentious, story-and-a-half log house with vines reaching vainly to the high window sills, and coarse lace curtains. One of these curtains moved slightly, and Bud's sharp eyes detected the movement and knew that his arrival was observed in spite of the emptiness of the yard.

The beaten path led to a screen door which sagged with much slamming, leaving a wide space at the top through which flies passed in and out quite comfortably. Bud saw that, also, and his fingers itched to reset that door, just as he would have done for his mother--supposing his mother would have tolerated the slamming which had brought the need. Bud lifted his gloved knuckles to knock, saw that the room within was grimy and bare and meant for public use, very much like the office of a country hotel, with a counter and a set of pigeon-holes at the farther end. He walked in.

No one appeared, and after ten minutes or so Bud guessed why, and went back to the door, pushed it wide open and permitted it to fly shut with a bang. Whereupon a girl opened the door behind the counter and came in, glancing at Bud with frank curiosity.

Bud took off his hat and clanked over to the counter and asked if there was any mail for Bud Birnie--Robert Wallace Birnie.

The girl looked at him again and smiled, and turned to shuffle a handful of letters. Bud employed the time in trying to guess just what she meant by that smile.

It was not really a smile, he decided, but the beginning of one. And if that were the beginning, he would very much like to know what the whole smile would mean. The beginning hinted at things. It was as if she doubted the reality of the name he gave, and meant to conceal her doubt, or had heard something amusing about him, or wished to be friends with him, or was secretly timorous and trying to appear merely indifferent. Or perhaps----

She replaced the letters and turned, and rested her hands on the counter. She looked at him and again her lips turned at the corners in that faint, enigmatical beginning of a smile.

"There isn't a thing," she said. "The mail comes this noon again. Do you want yours sent out to any of the outfits? Or shall I just hold it?"

"Just hold it, when there is any. At least, until I see whether I land a job here. I wonder where I could find the boss?" Bud was glancing often at her hands. For a ranch girl her hands were soft and white, but her fingers were a bit too stubby and her nails were too round and flat.

"Uncle Dave will be home at noon. He's out in the meadow with the boys. You might sit down and wait."

Bud looked at his watch. Sitting down and waiting for four hours did not appeal to him, even supposing the girl would keep him company. But he lingered awhile, leaning with his elbows on the counter near her; and by those obscure little conversational trails known to youth, he progressed considerably in his acquaintance with the girl and made her smile often without once feeling quite certain that he knew what was in her mind.

He discovered that her name was Honora Krause, and that she was called Honey "for short." Her father had been Dutch and her mother a Yankee, and she lived with her uncle, Dave Truman, who owned Little Lost ranch, and took care of the mail for him, and attended to the store--which was nothing more than a supply depot kept for the accommodation of the neighbors. The store, she said, was in the next room.

Bud asked her what Little Lost meant, and she replied that she did not know, but that it might have something to do with Sunk Creek losing itself in The Sinks. There was a Little Lost river, farther across the mountains, she said, but it did not run through Little Lost ranch, nor come anywhere near it.

After that she questioned him adroitly. Perversely Bud declined to become confidential, and Honey Krause changed the subject abruptly.

"There's going to be a dance here next Friday night. It'll be a good chance to get acquainted with everybody--if you go. There'll be good music, I guess. Uncle Dave wrote to Crater for the Saunders boys to come down and play. Do you know anybody in Crater?"

The question was innocent enough, but perverseness still held Bud. He smiled and said he did not know anybody anywhere, any more. He said that if Bobbie Burns had asked him "Should auld acquaintance be forgot," he'd have told him yes, and he'd have made it good and strong. But he added that he was just as willing to make new acquaintance, and thought the dance would be a good place to begin.

Honey gave him a provocative glance from under her lashes, and Bud straightened and stepped back.

"You let folks stop here, I take it. I've a pack outfit and a couple of saddle horses with me. Will it be all right to turn them in the corral? I hate to have them eat post hay all day. Or I could perhaps go back to the creek and camp."

"Oh, just turn your horses in the corral and make yourself at home till uncle comes," she told him with that tantalizing half-smile. "We keep people here--just for accommodation. There has to be some place in the valley where folks can stop. I can't promise that uncle will give you a job, but There's going to be chicken and dumplings for dinner. And the mail will be in, about noon--you'll want to wait for that."

She was standing just within the screen door, frankly watching him as he came past the house with the horses, and she came out and halted him when she spied the top of the pack.

"You'd better leave those things here," she advised him eagerly. "I'll put them in the sitting-room by the piano. My goodness, you must be a whole orchestra! If you can play, maybe you and I can furnish the music for the dance, and save Uncle Dave hiring the Saunders boys. Anyway, we can play together, and have real good times."

Bud had an odd feeling that Honey was talking one thing with her lips, and thinking an entirely different set of thoughts. He eyed her covertly while he untied the cases, and he could have sworn that he saw her signal someone behind the lace curtains of the nearest window. He glanced carelessly that way, but the curtains were motionless. Honey was holding out her hands for the guitar and the mandolin when he turned, so Bud surrendered them and went on to the corrals.

He did not return to the house. An old man was pottering around a machine shed that stood backed against a thick fringe of brush, and when Bud rode by he left his work and came after him, taking short steps and walking with his back bent stiffly forward and his hands swinging limply at his sides.

He had a long black beard streaked with gray, and sharp blue eyes set deep under tufted white eyebrows. He seemed a friendly old man whose interest in life remained keen as in his youth, despite the feebleness of his body. He showed Bud where to turn the horses, and went to work on the pack rope, his crooked old fingers moving with the sureness of lifelong habit. He was eager to know all the news that Bud could tell him, and when he discovered that Bud had just left the Muleshoe, and that he had been fired because of a fight with Dirk Tracy, the old fellow cackled gleefully

"Well, now, I guess you just about had yore hands full, young man," he commented shrewdly. "Dirk ain't so easy to lick."

Bud immediately wanted to know why it was taken for granted that he had whipped Dirk, and grandpa chortled again. "Now if you hadn't of licked Dirk, you wouldn't of got fired," he retorted, and proceeded to relate a good deal of harmless gossip which seemed to bear out the statement. Dirk Tracy, according to grandpa, was the real boss of the Muleshoe, and Bart was merely a figure-head.

All of this did not matter to Bud, but grandpa was garrulous. A good deal of information Bud received while the two attended to the horses and loitered at the corral gate.

Grandpa admired Smoky, and looked him over carefully, with those caressing smoothings of mane and forelock which betray the lover of good horseflesh.

"I reckon he's purty fast," he said, peering shrewdly into Bud's face." The boys has been talking about pulling off some horse races here next Sunday--we got a good, straight, hard- packed creek-bed up here a piece that has been cleaned of rocks fer a mile track, and they're goin' to run a horse er two. Most generally they do, on Sunday, if work's slack. You might git in on it, if you're around in these parts." He pushed his back straight with his palms, turned his head sidewise and squinted at Smoky through half-closed lids while he fumbled for cigarette material.

"I dunno but what I might be willin' to put up a few dollars on that horse myself," he observed, "if you say he kin run. You wouldn't go an' lie to an old feller like me, would yuh, son?"

Bud offered him the cigarette he had just rolled. "No, I won't lie to you, dad," he grinned. "You know horses too well."

"Well, but kin he run? I want yore word on it."

"Well-yes, he's always been able to turn a cow," Bud admitted cautiously.

"Ever run him fer money?" The old man began teetering from his toes to his heels, and to hitch his shoulders forward and back.

"Well, no, not for money. I've run him once or twice for fun, just trying to beat some of the boys to camp, maybe."

"Sho! That's no way to do! No way at all!" The old man spat angrily into the dust of the corral. Then he thought of something. "Did yuh beat 'em?" he demanded sharply.

"Why, sure, I beat them!" Bud looked at him surprised, seemed about to say more, and let the statement stand unqualified.

Grandpa stared at him for a minute, his blue eyes blinking with some secret excitement. "Young feller," he began abruptly, "lemme tell yuh something. Yuh never want to do a thing like that agin. If you got a horse that can outrun the other feller's horse, figure to make him bring yuh in something--if it ain't no more'n a quarter! Make him bring yuh a little something. That's the way to do with everything yuh turn a hand to; make it bring yuh in something! It ain't what goes out that'll do yuh any good--it's what comes in. You mind that. If you let a horse run agin' another feller's horse, bet on him to come in ahead--and then," he cried fiercely, pounding one fist into the other palm, " by Christmas, make 'im come in ahead!" His voice cracked and went flat with emotion.

He stopped suddenly and let his arms fall slack, his shoulders sag forward. He waggled his head and muttered into his beard, and glanced at Bud with a crafty look.

"If I'da took that to m'self, I wouldn't be chorin' around here now for my own son," he lamented. "I'd of saved the quarters, an' I'd of had a few dollars now of my own. Uh course," he made haste to add, "I git holt of a little, now and agin. Too old to ride--too old to work--jest manage to pick up a dollar er two now and agin--on a horse that kin run."

He went over to Smoky again and ran his hand down over the leg muscles to the hocks, felt for imperfections and straightened painfully, slapped the horse approvingly between the forelegs and laid a hand on his shoulder while he turned slowly to Bud.

"Young feller, there ain't a man on the place right now but you an' me. What say you throw yore saddle on this horse and take 'im up to the track? I'd like to see him run. Seems to me he'd ought to be a purty good quarter-horse."

Bud hesitated. "I wouldn't mind running him, grandpa, if I thought I could make something on him. I've got my stake to make, and I want to make it before all my teeth fall out so I can't chew anything but the cud of reflection on my lost opportunities. If Smoky can run a few dollars into my pocket, I'm with you."

Grandpa teetered forward and put out his hand. "Shake on that, boy!" he cackled. "Pop Truman ain't too old to have his little joke--and make it bring him in something, by Christmas! You saddle up and we'll go try him out on a quarter-mile--mebby a half, if he holds up good."

He poked a cigarette-stained forefinger against Bud's chest and whispered slyly: "My son Dave, he 's got a horse in the stable that's been cleanin' everything in the valley. I'll slip him out and up the creektrail to the track, and you run that horse of yourn agin him. Dave, he can't git a race outa nobody around here, no more, so he won't run next Sunday. We'll jest see how yore horse runs alongside Boise. I kin tell purty well how you kin run agin the rest--Pop, he ain't s' thick-headed they kin fool him much. What say we try it?"

Bud stood back and looked him over. "You shook hands with me on it," he said gravely. "Where I came from, that holds a man like taking oath on a Bible in court. I'm a stranger here, but I'm going to expect the same standard of honor, grandpa. You can back out now, and I'll run Smoky without any tryout, and you can take your chance. I couldn't expect you to stand by a stranger against your own folks--"

"Sho! Shucks a'mighty!" Grandpa spat and wagged his head furiously. "My own forks'd beat me in a horse race if they could, and I wouldn't hold it agin 'em! Runnin' horses is like playin' poker. Every feller fer himself an' mercy to- ward none! I knowed what it meant when I shook with yuh, young feller, and I hold ye to it. I hold ye to it! You lay low if I tell ye to lay low, and we'll make us a few dollars, mebby. C'm on and git that horse outa here b'fore somebuddy comes. It's mail day."

He waved Bud toward his saddle and took himself off in a shuffling kind of trot. By the time Bud had saddled Smoky grandpa hailed him cautiously from the brush-fringe beyond the corral. He motioned toward a small gate and Bud led Smoky that way, closing the gate after him.

The old man was mounted on a clean-built bay whose coat shone with little glints of gold in the dark red. With one sweeping look Bud observed the points that told of speed, and his eyes went inquiringly to meet the sharp blue ones, that sparkled under the tufted white eyebrows of grandpa.

"Do you expect Smoky to show up the same day that horse arrives?" he inquired mildly. "Pop, you'll have to prove to me that he won't run Sunday--"

Pop snorted. "Seems to me like you do know a speedy horse when you see one, young feller. Beats me't you been overlookin' what you got under yore saddle right now. Boise, he's the best runnin' horse in the valley--and that's why he won't run next Sunday, ner no other Sunday till somebuddy brings in a strange horse to put agin him. Dave, he won't crowd ye fur a race, boy. You kin refuse to run yore horse agin him, like the rest has done. I'll jest lope along t'day and see what yours kin do."

"Well, all right, then." Bud waited for the old man to ride ahead down the obscure trail that wound through the brush for half a mile or so before they emerged into the rough border of the creek bed. Pop reined in close and explained garrulously to Bud how this particular stream disappeared into the ground two miles above Little Lost, leaving the wide, level river bottom bone dry.

Pop was cautious. He rode up to a rise of ground and scanned the country suspiciously before he led the way into the creek bed. Even then he kept close under the bank until they had passed two of the quarter-mile posts that had been planted in the hard sand.

Evidently he had been doing a good deal of thinking during the ride; certainly he had watched Smoky. When he stopped under the bank opposite the half-mile post he dismounted more spryly than one would have expected. His eyes were bright, his voice sharp. Pop was forgetting his age.

"I guess I'll ride yore horse m'self," he announced, and they exchanged horses under the shelter of the bank. "You kin take an' ride Boise-an' I want you should beat me if you kin." He looked at Bud appraisingly. "I'll bet a dollar," he cried suddenly, "that I kin outrun ye, young feller! An' you got the fastest horse in Burroback Valley and I don't know what I got under me. I'm seventy years old come September--when I'm afoot. Are ye afraid to bet?"

"I'm scared a dollar's worth that I'll never see you again to-day unless I ride back to find you," Bud grinned.

"Any time you lose ole Pop Truman--shucks almighty! Come on, then--I'll show ye the way to the quarter-post!"

"I'm right with you, Pop. You say so, and I'm gone!"

They reined in with the shadow of the post falling square across the necks of both horses. Pop gathered up the reins, set his feet in the stirrups and shrilled, "Go, gol darn ye!"

They went, like two scared rabbits down the smooth, yellow stretch of packed sand. Pop's elbows stuck straight out, he held the reins high and leaned far over Smoky's neck, his eyes glaring. Bud--oh, never worry about Bud! In the years that lay between thirteen and twenty-one Bud had learned a good many things, and one of them was how to get out of a horse all the speed there was in him.

They went past the quarter-post and a furlong beyond before either could pull up. Pop was pale and triumphant, and breathing harder than his mount.

"Here 's your dollar, Pop--and don't you talk in your sleep!" Bud admonished, smiling as he held out the dollar, but with an anxious tone in his voice. "If this is the best running horse you've got in the valley, I may get some action, next Sunday!"

Pop dismounted, took the dollar with a grin and mounted Boise--and that in spite of the fact that Boise was keyed up and stepping around and snorting for another race. Bud watched Pop queerly, remembering how feeble had been the old man whom he had met at the corral.

"Say, Pop, you ought to race a little every day," he bantered. "You're fifteen years younger than you were an hour ago."

For answer Pop felt of his back and groaned. "Oh, I'll pay fer it, young feller! I don't look fer much peace with my back fer a week, after this. But you kin make sure of one thing, and that is, I ain't goin' to talk in my sleep none. By Christmas, We'll make this horse of yours bring us in something! I guess you better turn yore horses all out in the pasture. Dave, he'll give yuh work all right. I'll fix it with Dave. And you listen to Pop, young feller. I'll show ye a thing or two about runnin' horses. You'n me'll clean up a nice little bunch of money-he-he!-beat Boise in a quarter dash! Tell that to Dave, an' he wouldn't b'lieve ye!"

When Pop got off at the back of the stable he could scarcely move, he was so stiff. But his mind was working well enough to see that Bud rubbed the saddle print off Boise and turned his own horses loose in the pasture, before he let him go on to the house. The last Bud heard from Pop that forenoon was a senile chuckle and a cackling, "Outrun Boise in a quarter dash! Shucks a'mighty! But I knew it--I knew he had the speed--sho! Ye can't fool ole Pop--shucks!"