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“That’s right, kid. I like your nerve,” Jeff cut in, emphasizing his approval with a slap on Bud’s shoulder as he bent to lift Smoky’s leg. “I’ve saw worse horses than this one come in ahead–it wouldn’t be no sport o’ kings if nobody took a chance.”

“I’m taking chance enough,” Bud retorted without looking up. “If I don’t win this time I will the next, maybe.”

“That’s right,” Jeff agreed heartily, winking broadly at the others behind Bud’s back.

Bud rubbed Smoky’s ankle with liniment, listened to various and sundry self-appointed advisers and, without seeming to think how the sums would total, took several other small bets on the race. They were small–Pop began to teeter back and forth and lift his shoulders and pull his beard–sure signs of perturbation.

“By Christmas, I’ll just put up ten dollars on the kid,” Pop finally cackled. “I ain’t got much to lose–but I’ll show yuh old Pop ain’t going to see the young feller stand alone.” He tried to catch Bud’s eye, but that young man was busy saddling Smoky and returning jibe for jibe with the men around him, and did not glance toward Pop at all.

“I’ll take this bottle in my pocket, Pop,” he said with his back toward the old man, and mounted carelessly. “I’ll ride him around a little and give him another good rubbing before we run. I’m betting,” he added to the others frankly, “on the chance that exercise and the liniment will take the soreness out of that ankle. I don’t believe it amounts to anything at all. So if any of you fellows want to bet–“

“Shucks! Don’t go ‘n-” Pop began, and bit the sentence in two, dropping immediately into a deep study. The kid was getting beyond Pop’s understanding.

A crowd of perhaps a hundred men and women–with a generous sprinkling of unruly juveniles–lined the sheer bank of the creek-bed and watched the horses run, and screamed their cheap witticisms at the losers, and their approval of those who won. The youngster with the mysterious past and the foolhardiness to bet on a lame horse they watched and discussed, the women plainly wishing he would win–because he was handsome and young, and such a wonderful musician. The men were more cold-blooded. They could not see that Bud’s good looks or the haunting melody of his voice had any bearing whatever upon his winning a race. They called him a fool, and either refused to bet at all on such a freak proposition as a lame horse running against Skeeter, or bet against him. A few of the wise ones wondered if Jeff and his bunch were merely “stringing the kid along “; if they might not let him win a little, just to make him more “chancey.” But they did not think it wise to bet on that probability.

While three races were being run Bud rode with the Little Lost men, and Smoky still limped a little. Jerry Myers, still self-appointed guardian of Bud, herded him apart and called him a fool and implored him to call the race off and keep his money in his own pocket.

Bud was thinking just then about a certain little woman who sat on the creek bank with a wide-brimmed straw hat shading her wonderful eyes, and a pair of little, high-arched feet tapping heels absently against the bank wall. Honey sat beside her, and a couple of the valley women whom Bud had met at the dance. He had ridden close and paused for a few friendly sentences with the quartette, careful to give Honey the attention she plainly expected. But it was not Honey who wore the wide hat and owned the pretty little feet. Bud pulled his thoughts back from a fruitless wish that he might in some way help that little woman whose trouble looked from her eyes, and whose lips smiled so bravely. He did not think of possession when he thought of her; it was the look in her eyes, and the slighting tones in which Honey spoke of her.

“Say, come alive! What yuh going off in a trance for, when I’m talking to yuh for your own good?” Jerry smiled whimsically, but his eyes were worried.

Bud pulled himself together and reined closer.

“Don’t bet anything on this race, Jerry,” he advised “Or if you do, don’t bet on Skeeter. But–well, I’ll just trade you a little advice for all you’ve given me. Don’t bet!”

“What the hell!” surprise jolted out of Jerry.

“It’s my funeral,” Bud laughed. “I’m a chancey kid, you see– but I’d hate to see you bet on me.” He pulled up to watch the next race–four nervy little cow-horses of true range breeding, going down to the quarter post.

“They ‘re going to make false starts aplenty,” Bud remarked after the first fluke.” Jeff and I have it out next. I’ll just give Smoke another treatment.” He dismounted, looked at Jerry undecidedly and slapped him on the knee. “I’m glad to have a friend like you,” he said impulsively. “There’s a lot of two-faced sinners around here that would steal a man blind. Don’t think I’m altogether a fool.”

Jerry looked at him queerly, opened his mouth and shut it again so tightly that his jawbones stood out a little. He watched Bud bathing Smoky’s ankle. When Bud was through and handed Jerry the bottle to keep for him, Jerry held him for an instant by the hand.

“Say, for Gawdsake don’t talk like that promiscuous, Bud,” he begged. “You might hit too close–“

“Ay, Jerry! Ever hear that old Armenian proverb, ‘He who tells the truth should have one foot in the stirrup’? I learned that in school.”

Jerry let go Bud’s hand and took the bottle, Bud’s watch that had his mother’s picture pasted in the back, and his vest, a pocket of which contained a memorandum of his wagers. Bud was stepping out of his chaps, and he looked up and grinned. “Cheer up, Jerry. You’re going to laugh in a minute.” When Jerry still remained thoughtful, Bud added soberly, “I appreciate you and old Pop standing by me. I don’t know just what you’ve got on your mind, but the fact that there’s something is hint enough for me.” Whereupon Jerry’s eyes lightened a little.

The four horses came thundering down the track, throwing tiny pebbles high into the air as they passed. A trim little sorrel won, and there was the usual confusion of voices upraised in an effort to be heard. When that had subsided, interest once more centered on Skeeter and Smoky, who seemed to have recovered somewhat from his lameness.

Not a man save Pop and Bud had placed a bet on Smoky, yet every man there seemed keenly interested in the race. They joshed Bud, who grinned and took it good-naturedly, and found another five dollars in–his pocket to bet–this time with Pop, who kept eyeing him sharply–and it seemed to Bud warningly. But Bud wanted to play his own game, this time, and he avoided Pop’s eyes.

The two men rode down the hoof-scored sand to the quarter post, Skeeter dancing sidewise at the prospect of a race, Smoky now and then tentatively against Bud’s steady pressure of the bit.

“He’s not limping now,” Bud gloated as they rode. But Jeff only laughed tolerantly and made no reply.

Dave Truman started them with a pistol shot, and the two horses darted away, Smoky half a jump in the lead. His limp was forgotten, and for half the distance he ran neck and neck with Skeeter. Then he dropped to Skeeter’s middle, to his flank–then ran with his black nose even with Skeeter’s rump. Even so it was a closer race than the crowd had expected, and all the cowboys began to yell themselves purple.

But when they were yet a few leaps from the wire clothes-line stretched high, from post to post, Bud leaned forward until he lay flat alongside Smoky’s neck, and gave a real Indian war-whoop. Smoky lifted and lengthened his stride, came up again to Skeeter’s middle, to his shoulder, to his ears–and with the next leap thrust his nose past Skeeter’s as they finished.

Well, then there was the usual noise, everyone trying to shout louder than his fellows. Bud rode to where Pop was sitting apart on a pacing gray horse that he always rode, and paused to say guardedly,

“I pulled him, Pop. But at that I won, so if I can pry another race out of this bunch to-day, you can bet all you like. And you owe me five dollars,” he added thriftily.

“Sho! Shucks almighty!” spluttered Pop, reaching reluctantly into his pocket for the money. “Jeff, he done some pullin’ himself–I wish I knowed,” he added pettishly, “just how big a fool you air.”

“Hey, come over here!” shouted Jeff. “What yuh nagging ole Pop about?”

“Pop lost five dollars on that race,” Bud called back, and loped over to the crowd. “But he isn’t the only one. Seems to me I’ve got quite a bunch of money coming to me, from this crowd!”

“Jeff, he’d a beat him a mile if his bridle rein had busted,” an arrogant voice shouted recklessly. “Jeff, you old fox, you know damn well you pulled Skeeter. You must love to lose, doggone yuh.”

“If you think I didn’t run right,” Jeff retorted, as if a little nettled, “someone else can ride the horse. That is, if the kid here ain’t scared off with your talk. How about it, Bud ? Think you won fair?”

Bud was collecting his money, and he did not immediately answer the challenge. When he did it was to offer them another race. He would not, he said, back down from anyone. He would bet his last cent on little Smoky. He became slightly vociferative and more than a little vain-glorious, and within half an hour he had once more staked all the money he had in the world. The number of men who wanted to bet with him surprised him a little. Also the fact that the Little Lost men were betting on Smoky.

Honey called him over to the bank and scolded him in tones much like her name, and finally gave him ten dollars which she wanted to wager on his winning. As he whirled away, Marian beckoned impulsively and leaned forward, stretching out to him her closed hand.

“Here’s ten,” she smiled, “just to show that the Little Lost stands by its men–and horses. Put it on Smoky, please.” When Bud was almost out of easy hearing, she called to him. “Oh– was that a five or a ten dollar bill I gave you?”

Bud turned back, unfolding the banknote. A very tightly folded scrap of paper slid into his palm.

“Oh, all right–I have the five here in my pocket,” called Marian, and laughed quite convincingly. “Go on and run! We won’t be able to breathe freely until the race is over.”

Wherefore Bud turned back, puzzled and with his heart jumping. For some reason Marian had taken this means of getting a message into his hands. What it could be he did not conjecture; but he had a vague, unreasoning hope that she trusted him and was asking him to help her somehow. He did not think that it concerned the race, so he did not risk opening the note then, with so many people about.

A slim, narrow-eyed youth of about Bud’s weight was chosen to ride Skeeter, and together they went back over the course to the quarter post, with Dave to start them and two or three others to make sure that the race was fair. Smoky was full now of little prancing steps, and held his neck arched while his nostrils flared in excitement, showing pink within. Skeeter persistently danced sidewise, fighting the bit, crazy to run.

Skeeter made two false starts, and when the pistol was fired, jumped high into the air and forward, shaking his head, impatient against the restraint his rider put upon him. Halfway down the stretch he lunged sidewise toward Smoky, but that level-headed little horse swerved and went on, shoulder to shoulder with the other. At the very last Skeeter rolled a pebble under his foot and stumbled–and again Smoky came in with his slaty nose in the lead.

Pop rode into the centre of the yelling crowd, his whiskers bristling. “Shucks almighty!” he cried. “What fer ridin’ do yuh call that there? Jeff Hall, that feller held Skeeter in worse’n what you did yourself! I kin prove it! I got a stop watch, an’ I timed ‘im, I did. An’ I kin tell yuh the time yore horse made when he run agin Dave’s Boise. He’s three seconds–yes, by Christmas, he’s four seconds slower t’day ‘n what he’s ever run before! What fer sport d’ you call that?” His voice went up and cracked at the question mark like a boy in his early teens.

Jeff stalked forward to Skeeter’s side. “Jake, did you pull Skeeter?” he demanded sternly. “I’ll swan if this ain’t the belly-achiness bunch I ever seen! How about it, Jake? Did Skeeter do his durndest, or didn’t he?

“Shore, he did!” Jake testified warmly. “I’da beat, too, if he hadn’t stumbled right at the last. Didn’t yuh see him purty near go down? And wasn’t he within six inches of beatin’? I leave it to the crowd!”

The crowd was full of argument, and some bets were paid under protest. But they were paid, just the same. Burroback Valley insisted that the main points of racing law should be obeyed to the letter. Bud collected his winnings, the Scotch in him overlooking nothing whatever in the shape of a dollar. Then, under cover of getting his smoking material, he dared bring out Marian’s note. There were two lines in a fine, even hand on a cigarette paper, and Bud, relieved at her cleverness, unfolded the paper and read while he opened his bag of tobacco. The lines were like those in an old-fashioned copy book:

“Winners may be losers.
Empty pockets, safe owner.”

And that was all. Bud sifted tobacco into the paper, rolled it into a cigarette and smoked it to so short a stub that he burnt his lips. Then he dropped it beside his foot and ground it into the sand while he talked.

He would run Smoky no more that day, he declared, but next Sunday he would give them all a chance to settle their minds and win back their losings, providing his horse’s ankle didn’t go bad again with to-day’s running. Pop, Dave, Jeff and a few other wise ones examined the weak ankle and disagreed over the exact cause and nature of the weakness. It seemed all right. Smoky did not flinch from rubbing, though he did lift his foot away from strange hands. They questioned Bud, who could offer no positive information on the subject, except that once he and Smoky had rolled down a bluff together, and Smoky had been lame for a while afterwards.

It did not occur to anyone to ask Bud which leg had been lamed, and Bud did not volunteer the detail. An old sprain, they finally decided, and Bud replaced his saddle, got his chaps and coat from Jerry, who was smiling over an extra twenty-five dollars, and rode over to give the girls their winnings.

He stayed for several minutes talking with them and hoping for a chance to thank Marian for her friendly warning. But there was none, and he rode away dissatisfied and wondering uneasily if Marian thought he was really as friendly with Honey as that young lady made him appear to be.

He was one of the first to ride back to the ranch, and he turned Smoky in the pasture and caught up Stopper to ride with Honey, who said she was going for a ride when the races were over, and that if he liked to go along she would show him the Sinks. Bud had professed an eagerness to see the Sinks which he did not feel until Marian had turned her head toward Honey and said in her quiet voice:

“Why the Sinks? You know that isn’t safe country to ride in, Honey.”

“That’s why I want to ride there,” Honey retorted flippantly. “I hate safe places and safe things.”

Marian had glanced at Bud–and it was that glance which he was remembering now with a puzzled sense that, like the note, it had meant something definite, something vital to his own welfare if he could only find the key. First it was Hen, then Jerry, and now Marian, all warning him vaguely of danger into which he might stumble if he were not careful.

Bud was no fool, but on the other hand he was not one to stampede easily. He had that steadfast courage, perhaps, which could face danger and still maintain his natural calm– just as his mother had corrected grammatical slips in the very sentences which told her of an impending outbreak of Indians long ago Bud saddled Stopper and the horse which Honey was to ride, led them to the house and went inside to wait until the girl was ready. While he waited he played–and hoped that Marian, hearing, would know that he played for her; and that she would come and explain the cryptic message. Whether Marian heard and appreciated the music or not, she failed to appear and let him know. It seemed to him that she might easily have come into the room for a minute when she knew he was there, and let him have a chance to thank her and ask her just what she meant.

He was just finishing the AVE MARIA which Marian had likened to a breath of cool air, when Honey appeared in riding skirt and light shirtwaist. She looked very trim and attractive, and Bud smiled upon her approvingly, and cut short the last strain by four beats, which was one way of letting Marian know that he considered her rather unappreciative.

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.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: EVEN MUSHROOMS HELP

Bud wanted to have a little confidential talk with Marian. He hoped that she would be willing to tell him a great deal more than could be written on one side of a cigarette paper, and he was curious to hear what it was. On the other hand, he wanted somehow to let her know that he was anxious to help her in any way possible. She needed help, of that he was sure.

Lew returned on Tuesday, with a vile temper and rheumatism in his left shoulder so that he could not work, but stayed around the house and too evidently made his wife miserable by his presence. On Wednesday morning Marian had her hair dressed so low over her ears that she resembled a lady of old Colonial days–but she did not quite conceal from Bud’s keen eyes the ugly bruise on her temple. She was pale and her lips were compressed as if she were afraid to relax lest she burst out in tears or in a violent denunciation of some kind. Bud dared not look at her, nor at Lew, who sat glowering at Bud’s right hand. He tried to eat, tried to swallow his coffee, and finally gave up the attempt and left the table.

In getting up he touched Lew’s shoulder with his elbow, and Lew let out a bellow of pain and an oath, and leaned away from him, his right hand up to ward off another hurt.

“Pardon me. I forgot your rheumatism,” Bud apologized perfunctorily, his face going red at the epithet. Marian, coming toward him with a plate of biscuits, looked him full in the eyes and turned her glance to her husband’s back while her lips curled in the bitterest, the most scornful smile Bud had ever seen on a woman’s face. She did not speak–speech was impossible before that tableful of men–but Bud went out feeling as though she had told him that her contempt for Lew was beyond words, and that his rheumatism brought no pity whatever.

Wednesday passed, Thursday came, and still there was no chance to speak a word in private. The kitchen drudge was hedged about by open ears and curious eyes, and save at meal- time she was invisible to the men unless they glimpsed her for a moment in the kitchen door.

Thursday brought a thunder storm with plenty of rain, and in the drizzle that held over until Friday noon Bud went out to an old calf shed which he had discovered in the edge of the pasture, and gathered his neckerchief full of mushrooms. Bud hated mushrooms, but he carried them to the machine shed and waited until he was sure that Honey was in the sitting room playing the piano–and hitting what Bud called a blue note now and then–and that Lew was in the bunk-house with the other men, and Dave and old Pop were in Pop’s shack. Then, and then only, Bud took long steps to the kitchen door, carrying his mushrooms as tenderly as though they were eggs for hatching.

Marian was up to her dimpled elbows in bread dough when he went in. Honey was still groping her way lumpily through the Blue Danube Waltz, and Bud stood so that he could look out through the white-curtained window over the kitchen table and make sure that no one approached the house unseen.

“Here are some mushrooms,” he said guardedly, lest his voice should carry to Honey. “They’re just an excuse. Far as I’m concerned you can feed them to the hogs. I like things clean and natural and wholesome, myself. I came to find out what’s the matter, Mrs. Morris. Is there anything I can do? I took the hint you gave me in the note, Sunday, and I discovered right away you knew what you were talking about. That was a holdup down in the Sinks. It couldn’t have been anything else. But they wouldn’t have got anything. I didn’t have more than a dollar in my pocket.”

Marian turned her head, and listened to the piano, and glanced up at him.

“I also like things clean and natural and wholesome,” she said quietly. “That’s why I tried to put you on your guard. You don’t seem to fit in, somehow, with–the surroundings. I happen to know that the races held here every Sunday are just thinly veiled attempts to cheat the unwary out of every cent they have. I should advise you, Mr. Birnie, to be very careful how you bet on any horses.”

“I shall,” Bud smiled. “Pop gave me some good advice, too, about running horses. He says, “It’s every fellow for himself, and mercy toward none. I’m playing by their rule, and Pop expects to make a few dollars, too. He said he’d stand by me.”

“Oh! He did?” Marian’s voice puzzled Bud. She kneaded the bread vigorously for a minute. “Don’t depend too much on Pop. He’s–variable. And don’t go around with a dollar in your pocket–unless you don’t mind losing that dollar. There are men in this country who would willingly dispense with the formality of racing a horse in order to get your money.”

“Yes–I’ve discovered one informal method already. I wish I knew how I could help YOU.”

“Help me–in what way?” Marian glanced out of the window again as if that were a habit she had formed.

“I don’t know. I wish I did. I thought perhaps you had some trouble that–My mother had the same look in her eyes when we came back to the ranch after some Indian trouble, and found the house burned and everything destroyed but the ground itself. She didn’t say anything much. She just began helping father plan how we’d manage until we could get material and build another cabin, and make our supplies hold out. She didn’t complain. But her eyes had the same look I’ve seen in yours, Mrs. Morris. So I feel as if I ought to help you, just as I’d help mother.” Bud’s face had been red and embarrassed when he began, but his earnestness served to erase his selfconsciousness.

“You’re different–just like mother,” he went on when Marian did not answer. “You don’t belong here drudging in this kitchen. I never saw a woman doing a man’s work before. They ought to have a man cooking for all these hulking men.”

“Oh, the kitchen!” Marian exclaimed impatiently. “I don’t mind the cooking. That’s the least–“

“It isn’t right, just the same. I–I don’t suppose that’s it altogether. I’m not trying to find out what the trouble is– but I wish you’d remember that I’m ready to do anything in the world that I can. You won’t misunderstand that, I’m sure.”

“No-o,” said Marian slowly. “But you see, there’s nothing that you can do–except, perhaps, make things worse for me.” Then , to lighten that statement, she smiled at him. “Just now you can help me very much if you will go in and play something besides the Blue Danube Waltz. I’ve had to listen to that ever since Honora sent away for the music with the winter’s grocery order, last October. Tell Honora you got her some mushrooms. And don’t trust anyone. If you must bet on the horses, do so with your eyes open. They’re cheats–and worse, some of them.”

Bud’s glance followed hers through the window that overlooked the corrals and the outbuildings. Lew was coming up to the house with a slicker over his head to keep off the drizzle.

“Well, remember I’d do anything for you that I’d do for my mother or my sister Dulcie. And I wish you’d call on me just as they would, if you get in a pinch and need me. If I know you’ll do that I’ll feel a lot better satisfied.”

“If I need you be sure that I shall let you know. And I’ll say that “It’s a comfort to have met one white man,” Marian assured him hurriedly, her anxious eyes on her approaching husband.

She need not have worried over his coming, so far as Bud was concerned. For Bud was in the sitting-room and had picked Honey off the piano stool, had given her a playful shake and was playing the Blue Danube as its composer intended that it should be played, when Lew entered the kitchen and kicked the door shut behind him.

Bud spent the forenoon conscientiously trying to teach Honey that the rests are quite as important to the tempo of a waltz measure as are the notes. Honey’s talent for music did not measure up to her talent for coquetry; she received about five dollars’ worth of instruction and no blandishments whatever, and although she no doubt profited thereby, at last she balked and put her lazy white hands over her ears and refused to listen to Bud’s inexorable “One, two, three, one, two, three-and one, two, three.” Whereupon Bud laughed and returned to the bunk-house.

He arrived in the middle of a heated argument over Jeff Hall’s tactics in racing Skeeter, and immediately was called upon for his private, personal opinion of Sunday’s race. Bud’s private, personal opinion being exceedingly private and personal, he threw out a skirmish line of banter.

Smoky could run circles around that Skeeter horse, he boasted, and Jeff’s manner of riding was absolutely unimportant, non-essential and immaterial. He was mighty glad that holdup man had fallen down, last Sunday, before he got his hands on any money, because that money was going to talk long and loud to Jeff Hall next Sunday. Now that Bud had started running his horse for money, working for wages looked foolish and unprofitable. He was now working merely for healthful exercise and to pass the time away between Sundays. His real mission in life, he had discovered, was to teach Jeff’s bunch that gambling is a sin.

The talk was carried enthusiastically to the dinner table, where Bud ignored the scowling proximity of Lew and repeated his boasts in a revised form as an indirect means of letting Marian know that he meant to play the Burroback game in the Burroback way–or as nearly as he could–and keep his honesty more or less intact. He did not think she would approve, but he wanted her to know.

Once, when Buddy was fifteen, four thoroughbred cows and four calves disappeared mysteriously from the home ranch just before the calves had reached branding age. Buddy rode the hills and the valleys every spare minute for two weeks in search of them, and finally, away over the ridge where an undesirable neighbor was getting a start in cattle, Buddy found the calves in a fenced field with eight calves belonging–perhaps–to the undesirable neighbor.

Buddy did not ride down to the ranch and accuse the neighbor of stealing the calves. Instead, he painstakingly sought a weak place in the fence, made a very accidental looking hole and drove out the twelve calves, took them over the ridge to Tomahawk and left them in a high, mountain meadow pretty well surrounded by matted thickets. There, because there was good grass and running water, the calves seemed quite as happy as in the field.

Then Buddy hurried home and brought a branding iron and a fresh horse, and by working very hard and fast, he somehow managed to plant a deep tomahawk brand on each one of the twelve calves. He returned home very late and very proud of himself, and met his father face to face as he was putting away the iron. Explanations and a broken harness strap mingled painfully in Buddy’s memory for a long time afterwards, but the full effect of the beating was lost because Buddy happened to hear Bob Birnie confide to mother that the lad had served the old cattle-thief right, and that any man who could start with one thoroughbred cow and in four years have sufficient increase from that cow to produce eight calves a season, ought to lose them all.

Buddy had not needed his father’s opinion to strengthen his own conviction that he had performed a worthy deed and one of which no man need feel ashamed. Indeed, Buddy considered the painful incident of the buggy strap a parental effort at official discipline, and held no particular grudge against his father after the welts had disappeared from his person.

Wherefore Bud, the man, held unswervingly to the ethical standard of Buddy the boy. If Burroback Valley was scheming to fleece a stranger at their races and rob him by force if he happened to win, then Bud felt justified in getting every dollar possible out of the lot of them. At any rate, he told himself, he would do his darndest. It was plain enough that Pop was trying to make an opportunity to talk confidentially, but with a dozen men on the place it was easy enough to avoid being alone without arousing the old man’s suspicions. Marian had told him to trust no one; and Bud, with his usual thoroughness, applied the warning literally.

Sunday morning he caught up Smoky and rode him to the corral. Smoky had recovered from his lameness, and while Bud groomed him for the afternoon’s running the men of Little Lost gathered round him and offered advice and encouragement, and even volunteered to lend him money if he needed it. But Bud told them to put up their own bets, and never to worry about him. Their advice and their encouragement, however, he accepted as cheerfully as they were given.

“Think yuh can beat Skeeter, young feller?” Pop shambled up to inquire anxiously, his beard brushing Bud’s shoulder while he leaned close. “Remember what I told ye. You stick by me an’ I’ll stick by you. You shook on it, don’t forgit that, young feller.”

Bud had forgotten, but he made haste to redeem his promise.” Last Sunday, Pop, I had to play it alone. To-day-well, if you want to make an honest dollar, you know what to do, don’t you?”

“Sho! I’m bettin’ on yore horse t’day, an’ mind ye, I want to see my money doubled! But that there lameness in his left hind ankle–I don’t see but what that kinda changes my opinion a little mite. You shore he won’t quit on ye in the race, now? Don’t lie to ole Pop, young feller!”

“Say! He ‘s the gamest little horse in the state, Pop. He never has quit, and he never will.” Bud stood up and laid a friendly hand on the old fellow’s shoulder. “Pop, I’m running him to-day to win. That’s the truth. I’m going to put all I’ve got on him. Is that good enough?”

“Shucks almighty! That’s good enough fer me,–plenty good fer me,” Pop cackled, and trotted off to find someone who had little enough faith in Smoky to wager a two-to-one against him.

It seemed to Bud that the crowd was larger than that of a week ago, and there was no doubt whatever that the betting was more feverish, and that Jeff meant that day to retrieve his losses. Bud passed up a very good chance to win on other races, and centred all his betting on Smoky. He had been throughout the week boastful and full of confidence, and now he swaggered and lifted his voice in arrogant challenge to all and sundry. His three hundred dollars was on the race, and incidentally, he never left Smoky from the time he led him up from pasture until the time came when he and Jeff Hall rode side by side down to the quarter post.

They came up in a small whirlwind of speed and dust, and Smoky was under the wire to his ears when Skeeter’s nose showed beyond it. Little Lost was jubilant. Jeff Hall and his backers were not.

Bud’s three hundred dollars had in less than a minute increased to a little over nine hundred, though all his bets had been moderate. By the time he had collected, his pockets were full and his cocksureness had increased to such an unbearable crowing that Jeff Hall’s eyes were venomous as a snake’s. Jeff had been running to win, that day, and he had taken odds on Skeeter that had seemed to him perfectly safe.

“I’ll run yuh horse for horse!” he bellowed and spat out an epithet that sent Bud at him white-lipped.

“Damn yuh, ride down to the quarter post and I’ll show you some running!” Bud yelled back. “And after you’ve swallowed dust all the way up the track, you go with me to where the women can’t see and I’ll lick the living tar outa you!”

Jeff swore and wheeled Skeeter toward the starting post, beckoning Bud to follow. And Bud, hastily tucking in a flapping bulge of striped shirt, went after him. At that moment he was not Bud, but Buddy in one of his fighting moods, with his plans forgotten while he avenged an insult.

Men lined up at the wire to judge for themselves the finish, and Dave Truman rode alone to start them. No one doubted but that the start would be fair–Jeff and Bud would see to that!

For the first time in months the rein-ends stung Smoky’s flanks when he was in his third jump. Just once Bud struck, and was ashamed of the blow as it fell. Smoky did not need that urge, but he flattened his ears and came down the track a full length ahead of Skeeter, and held the pace to the wire and beyond, where he stopped in a swirl of sand and went prancing back, ready for another race if they asked it of him.

“Guess Dave’ll have to bring out Boise and take the swellin’ outa that singin’ kid’s pocket,” a hardfaced man shouted as Jeff slid off Skeeter and went over to where his cronies stood bunched and conferring earnestly together

“Not to-day, he needn’t. I’ve had all the excitement I want; and I’d like to have time to count my money before I lose it,” Bud retorted. “Next Sunday, if it’s a clear day and the sign is right, I might run against Boise if it’s worth my while. Say, Jeff, seeing you’re playing hard luck, I won’t lick you for what you called me. And just to show my heart’s right, I’ll lend you Skeeter to ride home. Or if you want to buy him back, you can have him for sixty dollars or such a matter. He ‘s a nice little horse,–if you aren’t in a hurry!”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: WHY BUD MISSED A DANCE

“Bud, you’re fourteen kinds of a damn fool and I can prove it,” Jerry announced without prelude of any kind save, perhaps, the viciousness with which he thrust a pitchfork into a cock of hay. The two were turning over hay-cocks that had been drenched with another unwelcome storm, and they had not been talking much. “Forking” soggy hay when the sun is blistering hot and great, long-billed mosquitoes are boring indefatigably into the back of one’s neck is not a pastime conducive to polite and animated conversation.

“Fly at it,” Bud invited, resting his fork while he scratched a smarting shoulder. “But you can skip some of the evidence. I know seven of the kinds, and I plead guilty. Any able- bodied man who will deliberately make a barbecue of himself for a gang of blood-thirsty insects ought to be hanged. What’s the rest?”

“You can call that mild,” Jerry stated severely. “Bud, you’re playing to lose the shirt off your back. You’ve got a hundred dollar forfeit up on next Sunday’s running match, so you’ll run if you have to race Boise afoot. That’s all right if you want the risk–but did it ever occur to you that if all the coin in the neighborhood is collected in one man’s pocket, there’ll be about as many fellows as there are losers, that will lay awake till sun-up figuring how to heel him and ride off with the roll? I ain’t over-stocked with courage, myself. I’d rather be broke in Burroback Valley than owner of wealth. It’s healthier,”

He thrust his fork into another settled heap, lifted it clear of the ground with one heave of his muscular shoulders, and heard within a strident buzzing. He held the hay poised until a mottled gray snake writhed into view, its ugly jaws open and its fangs showing malevolently.

“Grab him with your fork, Bud,” Jerry said coolly. “A rattler–the valley’s full of ’em,–some of ’em ‘s human.”

The snake was dispatched and the two went on to the next hay- cock. Bud was turning over more than the hay, and presently he spoke more seriously than was his habit with Jerry.

“You’re full enough of warnings, Jerry. What do you want me to do about it?”

“Drift,” Jerry advised. “There’s moral diseases just as catching as smallpox. This part of the country has been settled up by men that came here first because they wanted to hide out. They’ve slipped into darn crooked ways, and the rest has either followed suit or quit. All through this rough country “It’s the same-over in the Black Rim, across Thunder Mountains, and beyond that to the Sawtooth, a man that’s honest is a man that’s off his range. I’d like to see you pull out–before you’re planted.”

Bud looked at Jerry, studied him, feature by feature. “Then what are you doing here?” he demanded bluntly. “Why haven’t you pulled out?”

“Me?” Jerry bit his lip. “Bud, I’m going to take a chance and tell you the God’s-truth. I dassent. I’m protected here because I keep my mouth shut, and because they know I’ve got to or they can hand me over. I had some trouble. I’m on the dodge, and Little Lost is right handy to the Sinks and– Catrock Canyon. There ain’t a sheriff in Idaho that would have one chance in a thousand of getting me here. But you– say!” He faced Bud. “You ain’t on the dodge, too, are yuh?”

“Nope,” Bud grinned. “Over at the Muleshoe they seemed to think I was. I just struck out for myself, and I want to show up at home some day with a stake I made myself. “It’s just a little argument with my dad that I want to settle. And,” he added frankly, “I seem to have struck the right place to make money quickly. The very fact that they’re a bunch of crooks makes my conscience clear on the point of running my horse. I’m not cheating them out of a cent. If Jeff’s horse is faster than Smoky, Jeff is privileged to let him out and win if he can. It isn’t my fault if he ‘s playing to let me win from the whole bunch in the hope that he can hold me up afterwards and get the roll “It’s straight ‘give and take’– and so far I’ve been taking.”

Jerry worked for a while, moodily silent. “What I’d like is to see you take the trail; while the takin’s good,” he said later. “I’ve got to keep my mouth shut. But I like yuh, Bud. I hate like hell to see you walking straight into a trap.”

“Say, I’m as easily trapped as a mountain lion,” Bud told him confidently.

Whereat Jerry looked at him pityingly. “You going to that dance up at Morgan’s?”

“Sure! I’m going to take Honey and–I think Mrs. Morris if she decides to go. Honey mentioned it last night. Why?”

“Oh, nothing.” Jerry shouldered his fork and went off to where a jug of water was buried in the hay beside a certain boulder which marked the spot. He drank long, stopped for a short gossip with Charley, who strolled over for a drink, and went to work on another row.

Bud watched him, and wondered if Jerry had changed rows to avoid further talk with him; and whether Jerry had merely been trying to get information from him, and had either learned what he wanted to know, or had given up the attempt. Bud reviewed mentally their desultory conversation and decided that he had accidentally been very discreet. The only real bit of information he had given Jerry was the fact that he was not “on the dodge”–a criminal in fear of the law–and that surely could harm no man.

That he intended to run against Boise on Sunday was common knowledge; also that he had a hundred dollar forfeit up on the race. And that he was going to a dance with Honey was of no consequence that he could see.

Bud was beginning to discount the vague warnings he had received. Unless something definite came within his knowledge he would go about his business exactly as if Burroback Valley were a church-going community. He would not “drift.”

But after all he did not go to the dance with Honey, or with anyone. He came to the supper-table freshly shaved and dressed for the occasion, ate hungrily and straightway became a very sick young man. He did not care if there were forty dances in the Valley that night. His head was splitting, his stomach was in a turmoil. He told Jerry to go ahead with Honey, and if he felt better after a while he would follow. Jerry at first was inclined to scepticism, and accused Bud of crawfishing at the last minute. But within ten minutes Bud had convinced him so completely that Jerry insisted upon staying with him. By then Bud was too sick to care what was being done, or who did it. So Jerry stayed.

Honey came to the bunk-house in her dance finery, was met in the doorway by Jerry and was told that this was no place for a lady, and reluctantly consented to go without her escort.

A light shone dimly in the kitchen after the dancers had departed, wherefore Jerry guessed that Marian had not gone with the others, and that he could perhaps get hold of mustard for an emetic or a plaster–Jerry was not sure which remedy would be best, and the patient, wanting to die, would not be finicky. He found Marian measuring something drop by drop into half a glass of water. She turned, saw who had entered, and carefully counted three more drops, corked the bottle tightly and slid it into her apron pocket, and held out the glass to Jerry.

“Give him this,” she said in a soft undertone. “I’m sorry, but I hadn’t a chance to say a word to the boy, and so I couldn’t think of any other way of making sure he would not go up to Morgan’s. I put something into his coffee to make him sick. You may tell him, Jerry, if you like. I should, if I had the chance. This will counteract the effects of the other so that he will be all right in a couple of hours.”

Jerry took the glass and stood looking at her steadily. “That sure was one way to do it,” he observed, with a quirk of the lips. “It’s none of my business, and I ain’t asking any questions, but–“

“Very sensible, I’m sure,” Marian interrupted him. “I wish he’d leave the country. Can’t you–?”

“No. I told him to pull out, and he just laughed at me. I knowed they was figuring on ganging together to-night–“

Marian closed her hands together with a gesture of impatience. “Jerry, I wish I knew just how bad you are!” she exclaimed. “Do you dare stand by him? Because this thing is only beginning. I couldn’t bear to see him go up there to- night, absolutely unsuspecting–and so I made him sick. Tell that to anyone, and you can make me–“

“Say, I ain’t a damned skunk!” Jerry muttered. “I’m bad enough, maybe. At any rate you think so.” Then, as usually happened, Jerry decided to hold his tongue. He turned and lifted the latch of the screen door. “You sure made a good job of it,” he grinned. “I’ll go an’ pour this into Bud ‘fore he loses his boots!”

He did so, and saved Bud’s boots and half a night’s sleep besides. Moreover, when Bud, fully recovered, searched his memory of that supper and decided that it was the sliced cucumbers that had disagreed with him, Jerry gravely assured him that it undoubtedly was the combination of cucumber and custard pie, and that Bud was lucky to be alive after such reckless eating.

Having missed the dance altogether, Bud looked forward with impatience to Sunday. It is quite possible that others shared with him that impatience, though we are going to adhere for a while to Bud’s point of view and do no more than guess at the thoughts hidden behind the fair words of certain men in the Valley.

Pop’s state of mind we are privileged to know, for Pop was seen making daily pilgrimage to the pasture where he could watch Smoky limping desultorily here and there with Stopper and Sunfish. On Saturday afternoon Bud saw Pop trying to get his hands on Smoky, presumably to examine the lame ankle. But three legs were all Smoky needed to keep him out of Pop’s reach. Pop forgot his rheumatism and ran pretty fast for a man his age, and when Bud arrived Pop’s vocabulary had limbered up to a more surprising activity than his legs.

“Want to bet on yourself, Pop?” Bud called out when Pop was running back and forth, hopefully trying to corner Smoky in a rocky draw. “I’m willing to risk a dollar on you, anyway.”

Pop whirled upon him and hurled sentences not written in the book of Parlor Entertainment. The gist of it was that he had been trying all the week to have a talk with Bud, and Bud had plainly avoided him after promising to act upon Pop’s advice and run so as to make some money.

“Well, I made some,” Bud defended. “If you didn’t, it’s just because you didn’t bet strong enough.”

“I want to look at that horse’s hind foot,” Pop insisted.

“No use. He’s too lame to run against Boise. You can see that yourself.”

Pop eyed Bud suspiciously, pulling his beard. “Are you fixin’ to double-cross me, young feller?” he wanted to know. “I went and made some purty big bets on this race. If you think yo’re goin’ to fool ole Pop, you ‘ll wish you hadn’t. You got enemies already in this valley, lemme tell yuh. The Muleshoe ain’t any bunch to fool with, and I’m willing to say ‘t they’re laying fer yuh. They think,” he added shrewdly, “‘t you’re a spotter, or something. Air yuh?”

“Of course I am, Pop! I’ve spotted a way to make money and have fun while I do it.” Bud looked at the old man, remembered Marian’s declaration that Pop was not very reliable, and groped mentally for a way to hearten the old man without revealing anything better kept to himself, such as the immediate effect of a horse hair tied just above a horse’s hoof, also the immediate result of removing that hair. Wherefore, he could not think of much to say, except that he would not attempt to run a lame horse against Boise.

“All I can say is, to-morrow morning you keep your eyes open, Pop, and your tongue between your teeth. And no matter what comes up, you use your own judgment.”

To-morrow morning Pop showed that he was taking Bud’s advice. When the crowd began to gather–much earlier than usual, by the way, and much larger than any crowd Bud had seen in the valley–Pop was trotting here and there, listening and pulling his whiskers and eyeing Bud sharply whenever that young man appeared in his vicinity.

Bud led Smoky up at noon–and Smoky was still lame. Dave looked at him and at Bud, and grinned. “I guess that forfeit money’s mine,” he said in his laconic way. “No use running that horse. I could beat him afoot.”

This was but the beginning. Others began to banter and jeer Bud, Jeff’s crowd taunting him with malicious glee. The singin’ kid was going to have some of the swelling taken out of his head, they chortled. He had been crazy enough to put up a forfeit on to-day’s race, and now his horse had just three legs to run on.

“Git out afoot, kid!” Jeff Hall yelled. “If you kin run half as fast as you kin talk, you’ll beat Boise four lengths in the first quarter!”

Bud retorted in kind, and led Smoky around the corral as if he hoped that the horse would recover miraculously just to save his master’s pride. The crowd hooted to see how Smoky hobbled along, barely touching the toe of his lame foot to the ground. Bud led him back to the manger piled with new hay, and faced the jeering crowd belligerently. Bud noticed several of the Muleshoe men in the crowd, no doubt drawn to Little Lost by the talk of Bud’s spectacular winnings for two Sundays. Hen was there, and Day Masters and Cub. Also there were strangers who had ridden a long way, judging by their sweaty horses. In the midst of the talk and laughter Dave led out Boise freshly curried and brushed and arching his neck proudly.

“No use, Bud,” he said tolerantly. “I guess you’re set back that forfeit money–unless you want to go through the motions of running a lame horse.”

“No, sir, I’m not going to hand over any forfeit money without making a fight for it!” Bud told him, anger showing in his voice. “I’m no such piker as that. I won’t run Smoky, lame as he is “–Bud probably nudged his own ribs when he said that!–“but if you’ll make it a mile, I’ll catch up my old buckskin packhorse and run the race with him, by thunder! He’s not the quickest horse in the world, but he sure can run a long while!”

They yelled and slapped one another on the back, and otherwise comported themselves as though a great joke had been told them; never dreaming, poor fools, that a costly joke was being perpetrated.

“Go it, kid. You run your packhorse, and I’ll rive yuh five to one on him!” a friend of Jeff Hall’s yelled derisively.

“I’ll just take you up on that, and I’ll make it one hundred dollars,” Bud shouted back. “I’d run a turtle for a quarter, at those odds!”

The crowd was having hysterics when Bud straddled a Little Lost horse and, loudly declaring that he would bring back Sunfish, led Smoky limping back to he pasture. He returned soon, leading the buckskin. The crowd surged closer, gave Sunfish a glance and whooped again. Bud’s face was red with apparent anger, his eyes snapped. He faced them defiantly, his hand on Sunfish’s thin, straggling mane.

“You’re such good sports, you’ll surely appreciate my feelings when I say that this horse is mine, and I’m going to run him and back him to win!” he cried. “I may be a darn fool, but I’m no piker. I know what this horse can do when I try to catch him up on a frosty morning–and I’m going to see if he can’t go just as fast and just as long when I’m on him as he can when I’m after him.”

“We’ll go yuh, kid! I’ll bet yuh five to one,” a man shouted. “You name the amount yourself.”

“Fifty,” said Bud, and the man nodded and jotted down the amount.

“Bud, you’re a damn fool. I’ll bet you a hundred and make it ten to one,” drawled Dave, stroking Boise’s face affectionately while he looked superciliously at Sunfish standing half asleep in the clamor, with his head sagging at the end of his long, ewe neck. “But if you’ll take my advice, go turn that fool horse back in the pasture and run the bay if you must run something.”

“The bay’s a rope horse. I don’t want to spoil him by running him. That little horse saved my life, down in the Sinks. No, Sunfish has run times enough from me–now he ‘s got to run for me, by thunder. I’ll bet on him, too!”

Jeff pushed his way through to Bud. He was smiling with that crafty look in his eyes which should have warned a child that the smile went no deeper than his lips.

“Bud, doggone it, I like yore nerve. Besides, you owe me something for the way you trimmed me last Sunday. I’ll just give you fifteen to one, and you put up Skeeter at seventy- five, and as much money as yo’re a mind to. A pile of it come out of my pocket, so-“

“Well, don’t holler your head off, Jeff. How’s two hundred?”

“Suits me, kid.” He winked at the others, who knew how sure a thing he had to back his wager. “It ‘ll be a lot of money if I should lose–” He turned suddenly to Dave. “How much was that you put up agin the kid, Dave?”

“One hundred dollars, and a ten-to-one shot I win,” Dave drawled. “That ought to satisfy yuh it ain’t a frame-up. The kid’s crazy, that’s all.”

“Oh! Am I?” Bud turned hotly.”Well, I’ve bet half of all the money I have in the world. And I’m game for the other half–” He stopped abruptly, cast one look at Sunfish and another at Boise, stepping about uneasily, his shiny coat rippling, beautiful. He turned and combed Sunfish’s scanty mane with his gloved fingers. Those nearest saw that his lips were trembling a little and mistook his hidden emotion for anger.

“You got him going,” a man whispered in Jeff’s ear.”The kid’s crazy mad. He’ll bet the shirt off his back if yuh egg him on a little more.”

Jeff must have decided to “egg” Bud on. By the time the crowd had reached the course, and the first, more commonplace races were over, the other half of his money was in the hands of the stake-holder, who happened on this day to be Jerry. And the odds varied from four to one up to Jeff Hall’s scornful fifteen.

“Bet yuh five hundred dollars against your bay horse,”Lew offered when Bud confessed that he had not another dollar to bet.–

“All right, it’s a go with me,” Bud answered recklessly. “Get his hundred, Jerry, and put down Stopper.”

“What’s that saddle worth?” another asked meaningly.

“One hundred dollars,” snapped Bud. “And if you want to go further, there are my chaps and spurs and this silver-mounted bridle-and my boots and hat-and I’ll throw in Sunfish for whatever you say his hide’s worth. Who wants the outfit?”

“I’ll take ’em,” said Jeff, and permitted Jerry and Dave to appraise the outfit, which Bud piled contemptuously in a heap.

He mounted Sunfish bareback with a rope halter. Bud was bareheaded and in his sock feet. His eyes were terribly blue and bright, and his face was flushed as a drunken man’s. He glanced over to the bank where the women and children were watching. It seemed to him that one woman fluttered her handkerchief, and his heart beat unevenly for a minute.

Then he was riding at a walk down the course to the farthest post, and the crowd was laughing at the contrast between the two horses. Boise stepped springily, tossing his head, his eyes ablaze with ardor for the race. Beside him Sunfish walked steadily as if he were carrying a pack. He was not a pretty horse to look at. His neck was long and thin, his mane and tail scanty and uneven, a nondescript sorrel. His head looked large, set on the end of that neck, his nose was dished in and his eyes had a certain veiled look, as if he were hiding a bad disposition under those droopy lids. Without a saddle he betrayed his high, thin withers, the sway in his back, his high hip bones. His front legs were flat, with long, stringy-looking muscles under his unkempt buckskin hide. Even the women laughed at Sunfish.

Beside them two men rode, the starter and another to see that the start was fair. So they receded down the flat, yellow course and dwindled to mere miniature figures against the sand, so that one could not tell one horse from another.

The crowd bunched, still laughing at how the singin’ kid was going to feel when he rode again to meet them. It would cure him of racing, they said. It would be a good lesson; serve him right for coming in there and thinking, because he had cleaned up once or twice, that he could not be beaten.

“Here they come,” Jeff Hall announced satisfiedly, and spat into the sand as a tiny blue puff of smoke showed beside one of the dots, and two other dots began to grow perceptibly larger within a yellow cloud which rolled along the earth.

Men reined this way and that, or stood on their toes if they were afoot, the better to see the two rolling dots. In a moment one dot seemed larger than the other. One could glimpse the upflinging of knees as two horses leaped closer and closer.

“Well-l-he’s keepin’ Dave in sight–that’s more than what I expected he’d do,” Jeff observed.

It was Pop who suddenly gave a whoop that cracked and shrilled into falsetto.

“Shucks a’mighty! Dave, he’s a-whippin’ up to keep the KID in sight!” he quavered. “Shucks–a’MIGHTY, he ‘s a-comin’!”

He was. Lying forward flattened along Sunfish’s hard-muscled shoulders, Bud was gaining and gaining–one length, then two lengths as he shot under the wire, slowed and rode back to find a silent crowd watching him.

He was clothed safely again in chaps, boots, spurs, hat– except that I have named the articles backward; cowpuncher that he was, Bud put on his hat before he even reached for his boots–and was collecting his wagers relentlessly as Shylock ever took his toll, before he paid any attention to the atmosphere around him. Then, because someone shouted a question three inches from his ear, Bud turned and laughed as he faced them.

“Why, sure he’s from running stock! I never said he wasn’t– because none of you make-believe horsemen had sense enough to see the speed in him and get curious. You bush-racers never saw a real race-horse before, I guess. They aren’t always pretty to look at, you know. Sunfish has all the earmarks of speed if you know how to look for them. He’s thoroughbred; sired by Trump, out of Kansas Chippy–if that means anything to you fellows.” He looked them over, eyes meeting eyes until his glance rested on Jeff Hall.”I’ve got his registration papers in my grip, if you aren’t convinced. And,” he added by way of rubbing it in, “I guess I’ve got about all the money there is in this valley.”

“No, you ain’t!” Pop Truman cackled, teetering backward and forward while he counted his winnings. “I bet on ye, young feller. Brought me in something, too. It did so!”

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