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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I’m not afraid of that. And–there’s a message I want to send–I promised mother I’d–“

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

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

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

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN:GUARDIAN ANGELS ARE RIDING POINT

They plunged into darkness again, rode at a half trot over smooth, hard sand, Bud trusting himself wholly to Marian and to the sagacity of the two horses who could see, he hoped, much better than he himself could. His keen hearing had caught a faint sound from behind them–far back in the crevice-like gorge they had just quitted, he believed. For Marian’s sake he stared anxiously ahead, eager for the first faint suggestion of starlight before them. It came, and he breathed freer and felt of his gun in its holster, pulling it forward an inch or two.

“This way, Bud,” Marian murmured, and swung Boise to the left, against the mountain under and through which they seemed to have passed. She led him into another small gorge whose extent he could not see, and stopped him with a hand pressed against Sunfish’s shoulder.

“We’d better get down and hold our horses quiet,” she cautioned. “Boise may try to whinny, and he mustn’t.”

They stood side by side at their horses’ heads, holding the animals close. For a time there were no sounds at all save the breathing of the horses and once a repressed sigh from Marian. Bud remembered suddenly how tired she must be. At six o’clock that morning she had fed twelve men a substantial breakfast. At noon there had been dinner for several more than twelve, and supper again at six–and here she was, risking her life when she should be in bed. He felt for her free hand, found it hanging listlessly by her side and took it in his own and held it there, just as one holds the hand of a timid child. Yet Marian was not timid.

A subdued mutter of voices, the click of hoofs striking against stone, and the pursuers passed within thirty feet of them. Boise had lifted his head to nicker a salute, but Marian’s jerk on the reins stopped him. They stood very still, not daring so much as a whisper until the sounds had receded and silence came again.

“They took the side-hill trail,” whispered Marian, pushing Boise backward to turn him in the narrow defile. “You’ll have to get down the hill into the creek-bed and follow that until you come to the stage road. There may be others coming that way, but they will be two or three miles behind you. This tunnel trail cuts off at least five miles but we had to go slower, you see.

“Right here you can lead Sunfish down the bluff to the creek. It’s all dry, and around the first bend you will see where the road crosses. Turn to the left on that and ride! This horse of yours will have to show the stuff that’s in him. Get to Crater ahead of these men that took the hill trail. They’ll not ride fast–they never dreamed you had come through here, but they came to cut off the distance and to head you off. With others behind, you must beat them all in or you’ll be trapped between.”

She had left Boise tied hastily to a bush and was walking ahead of Bud down the steep, rocky hillside to show him the easiest way amongst the boulders Halfway down, Bud caught her shoulder and stopped her.

“I’m not a kid,” he said firmly. “I can make it from here alone. Not another step, young lady. If you can get back home You’ll be doing enough. Take this–it’s money, but I don’t know how much. And watch your chance and go down to mother with that message. Birnie, of the Tomahawk outfit–you’ll find out in Laramie where to go. And tell mother I’m all right, and she’ll see me some day–when I’ve made my stake. God bless you, little woman. You’re the truest, sweetest little woman in the world. There’s just one more like you– that’s mother. Now go back–and for God’s sake he careful!”

He pressed money into her two hands, held them tightly together, kissed them both hurriedly and plunged down the hill with Sunfish slipping and sliding after him. For her safety, if not for his own, he meant to get away from there as quickly as possible.

In the creek bed he mounted and rode away at a sharp gallop, glad that Sunfish, thoroughbred though he was, had not been raised tenderly in stall and corral, but had run free with the range horses and had learned to keep his feet under him in rough country or smooth. When he reached the crossing of the stage road he turned to the left as Marian had commanded and put Sunfish to a pace that slid the miles behind him.

With his thoughts clinging to Marian, to the harshness which life had shown her who was all goodness and sweetness and courage, Bud forgot to keep careful watch behind him, or to look for the place where the hill trail joined the road, as it probably did some distance from Crater. It would be a blind trail, of course–since only the Catrock gang and Marian knew of it.

They came into the road not far behind him, out of rock- strewn, brushy wilderness that sloped up steeply to the rugged sides of Gold Gap mountains. Sunfish discovered them first, and gave Bud warning just before they identified him and began to shoot.

Bud laid himself along the shoulder of his horse with a handful of mane to steady him while he watched his chance and fired back at them. There were four, just the number he had guessed from the sounds as they came out of the tunnel. A horse ran staggering toward him with the others, faltered and fell. Bud was sorry for that. It had been no part of his plan to shoot down the horses.

The three came on, leaving the fourth to his own devices–and that, too, was quite in keeping with the type of human vultures they were. They kept firing at Bud, and once he felt Sunfish wince and leap forward as if a spur had raked him. Bud shot again, and thought he saw one horseman lurch backward. But he could not be sure–they were going at a terrific pace now, and Sunfish was leaving them farther and farther behind. They were outclassed, hopelessly out of pistol range, and they must have known it, for although they held to the chase they fired no more shots.

Then a dog barked, and Bud knew that he was passing a ranch. He could smell the fresh hay in the stacks, and a moment later he descried the black hulk of ranch buildings. Sunfish was running easily, his breath unlabored. Bud stood in the stirrups and looked back. They were still coming, for he could hear the pound of hoofs.

The ranch was behind him. Clear starlight was all around, and the bulk of near mountains. The road seemed sandy, yielding beneath the pound of Sunfish’s hoofs. Bud leaned forward again in the saddle, and planned what he would do when he reached Crater; found time, also, to hope that Marian had gone back, and had not heard the shooting.

Another dog barked, this time on the right. Bud saw that they were passing a picket fence. The barking of this dog started another farther ahead and to the left. Houses so close together could only mean that he was approaching Crater. Bud began to pull Sunfish down to a more conventional pace. He did not particularly want to see heads thrust from windows, and questions shouted to him. The Catrock gang might have friends up this way. It would be strange, Bud thought, if they hadn’t.

He loped along the road grown broader now and smoother. Many houses he passed, and the mouths of obscure lanes. Dogs ran out at him. Bud slowed to a walk and turned in the saddle, listening. Away back, where he had first met the signs of civilization, the dog he had aroused was barking again, his deep baying blurred by the distance. Bud grinned to himself and rode on at a walk, speaking now and then to an inquiring dog and calling him Purp in a tone that soothed.

Crater, he discovered in a cursory patrol of the place, was no more than an overgrown village. The court-house and jail stood on the main street, and just beyond was the bank. Bud rode here and there, examining closely the fronts of various buildings before he concluded that there was only the one bank in Crater. When he was quite sure of that he chose place near by the rear of the bank, where one horse and a cow occupied a comfortable corral together with hay. He unsaddled Sunfish and turned him there, himself returning to the bank before those other night-riders had more than reached the first straggling suburbs of the town.

On the porch of the court-house, behind a jutting corner pillar that seemed especially designed for the concealment of a man in Bud’s situation, he rolled cigarette which he meant to smoke later on when the way was clear, and waited for the horsemen to appear.

Presently they came, rode to a point opposite the court-house and bank with no more than a careless glance that way, and halted in front of an uninviting hotel across the street. Two remained on their horses while the third pounded on the door and shook it by the knob and finally raised the landlord from his sleep. There was a conference which Bud witnessed with much interest. A lamp had been lighted in the bare office, and against the yellow glow Bud distinctly saw the landlord nod his head twice–which plainly betokened some sort of understanding.

He was glad that he had not stopped at the hotel. He felt much more comfortable on the court-house porch. “Mother’s guardian angels must be riding ‘point’ to-night,” he mused.

The horsemen rode back to a livery stable which Bud had observed but had not entered. There they also sought for news of him, it would appear. You will recall, however, that Bud had ridden slowly into the business district of Crater, and his passing had been unmarked except by the barking of dogs that spent their nights in yammering at every sound and so were never taken seriously. The three horsemen were plainly nonplussed and conferred together in low tones before they rode on. It was evident that they meant to find Bud if they could. What they meant to do with him Bud did not attempt to conjecture. He did not intend to be found.

After a while the horsemen rode back to the hotel, got the landlord out with less difficulty than before and had another talk with him.

“He stole a horse from Dave Truman,” Bud heard one of the three say distinctly. “That there running horse Dave had.”

The landlord tucked in his shirt and exclaimed at the news, and Bud heard him mention the sheriff. But nothing came of that evidently. They talked further and reined their horses to ride back whence they came.

“He likely’s give us the slip outside of town, some place,” one man concluded. “We’ll ride back and see. If he shows up, he’ll likely want to eat. . . And send Dick out to the Stivers place. We’ll come a-running.” He had lowered his voice so that Bud could not hear what was to happen before the landlord sent Dick, but he decided he would not pry into the matter and try to fill that gap in the conversation.

He sat where he was until the three had ridden back down the sandy road which served as a street. Then he slipped behind the court-house and smoked his cigarette, and went and borrowed hay from the cow and the horse in the corral and made himself some sort of bed with his saddle blanket to help out, and slept until morning.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN:THE CATROCK GANG

A woman with a checkered apron and a motherly look came to let her chickens out and milk the cow, and woke Bud so that she could tell him she believed he had been on a “toot”, or he never would have taken such a liberty with her corral. Bud agreed to the toot, and apologized, and asked for breakfast. And the woman, after one good look at him, handed him the milk bucket and asked him how he liked his eggs.

“All the way from barn to breakfast,” Bud grinned, and the woman chuckled and called him Smarty, and told him to come in as soon as the cow was milked.

Bud had a great breakfast with the widow Hanson. She talked, and Bud learned a good deal about Crater and its surroundings, and when he spoke of holdup gangs she seemed to know immediately what he meant, and told him a great deal more about the Catrockers than Marian had done. Everything from murdering and robbing a peddler to looting the banks at Crater and Lava was laid to the Catrockers. They were the human buzzards that watched over the country and swooped down wherever there was money. The sheriff couldn’t do anything with them, and no one expected him to, so far as Bud could discover.

He hesitated a long time before he asked about Marian Morris. Mrs. Hanson wept while she related Marian’s history, which in substance was exactly what Marian herself had told Bud. Mrs. Hanson, however, told how Marian had fought to save her father and Ed, and how she had married Lew Morris as a part of her campaign for honesty and goodness. Now she was down at Little Lost cooking for a gang of men, said Mrs. Hanson, when she ought to be out in the world singing for thousands and her in silks and diamonds instead of gingham dresses and not enough of them.

“Marian Collier is the sweetest thing that ever grew up in this country,” the old lady sniffled. “She’s one in a thousand and when she was off to school she showed that she wasn’t no common trash. She wanted to be an opery singer, but then her mother died and Marian done what looked to be her duty. A bird in a trap is what I call her.”

Bud regretted having opened the subject, and praised the cooking by way of turning his hostess’s thoughts into a different channel. He asked her if she would accept him as a boarder while he was in town, and was promptly accepted.

He did not want to appear in public until the bank was opened, and he was a bit troubled over identification. There could be no harm, he reflected, in confiding to Mrs. Hanson as much as was necessary of his adventures. Wherefore he dried the dishes for her and told her his errand in town, and why it was that he and his horse had slept in her corral instead of patronizing hotel and livery stable. He showed her the checks he wanted to cash, and asked her, with flattering eagerness for her advice, what he should do. He had been warned, he said, that Jeff and his friends might try to beat him yet by stopping payment, and he knew that he had been followed by them to town.

“What You’ll do will be what I tell ye,” Mrs Hanson replied with decision. “The cashier is a friend to me–I was with his wife last month with her first baby, and they swear by me now, for I gave her good care. We’ll go over there this minute, and have talk with him. He’ll do what he can for ye, and he’ll do it for my sake.”

“You don’t know me, remember,” Bud reminded her honestly.

The widow Hanson gave him a scornful smile and toss of her head. “And do I not?” she demanded. Do you think I’ve buried three husbands and thinking now of the fourth, without knowing what’s wrote a man’s face? Three I buried, and only one died his bed. I can tell if a man’s honest or not, without giving him the second look. If you’ve got them checks you should get the money on them–for I know their stripe. Come on with me to Jimmy Lawton’s house. He’s likely holding the baby while Minie does the dishes.”

Mrs. Hanson guessed shrewdly. The cashier of the Crater County Bank was doing exactly what she said he would be doing. He was sitting in the kitchen, rocking a pink baby wrapped in white outing flannel with blue border, when Mrs. Hanson, without the formality of more than one warning tap on the screen door, walked in with Bud. She held out her hands for the baby while she introduced the cashier to Bud. In the next breath she was explaining what was wanted of the bank.

“They’ve done it before, and ye know it’s plain thievery and ought to be complained about. So now get your wits to work, Jimmy, for this friend of mine is entitled to his money and should have it if it is there to be had.”

“Oh, it’s there,” said Jimmy. He looked at his watch, looked at the kitchen clock, looked at Bud and winked. “We open at nine, in this town,” he said. “It lacks half an hour–but let me see those checks.”

Very relievedly Bud produced them, watched the cashier scan each one to make sure that they were right, and quaked when Jimmy scowled at Jeff Hall’s signature on the largest check of all. “He had a notion to use the wrong signature, but he may have lost his nerve. It’s all right, Mr. Birnie. Just endorse these, and I’ll take them into the bank and attend to them the first thing I do after the door is open. You’d better come in when I open up–“

“The gang had some talk about cleaning out the bank while they ‘re about it,” Bud remembered suddenly. “Can’t you appoint me something, or hire me as a guard and let me help out? How many men do you have here in this bank?”

“Two, except when the president’s in his office in the rear. That’s fine of you to offer. We’ve been held up, once–and they cleaned us out of cash.” Jimmy turned to Mrs. Hanson. “Mother, can’t you run over and have Jess come and swear Mr. Birnie in as a deputy? If I go, or he goes, someone may notice it and tip the gang off.”

Mrs. Hanson hastily deposited the baby in its cradle and went to call “Jess”, her face pink with excitement.

“You’re lucky you stopped at her house instead of some other place,” Jimmy observed. “She’s a corking good woman. As a deputy sheriff, you’ll come in mighty handy if they do try anything, Mr. Birnie–if you’re the kind of a man you look to be. I’ll bet you can shoot. Can you?”

“If you scare me badly enough, I might get a cramp in my trigger finger,” Bud confessed. Jimmy grinned and went back to considering his own part.

“I’ll cash these checks for you the first thing I do. And as deputy you can go with me. I’ll have to unlock the door on time, and if they mean to stop payment, and clean the bank too, it will probably be done all at once. It has been a year since they bothered us, so they may need a little change. If Jess isn’t busy he may stick around.”

“No one expects him to round up the gang, I heard.”

“No one expects him to go into Catrock Canyon after them. He’ll round them up, quick enough, if he can catch them far enough from their holes.”

Jess returned with Mrs. Hanson, swore in a new deputy, eyed Bud curiously, and agreed to remain hidden across the road from the bank with a rifle. He nodded understandingly when Bud warned him that the looting was a matter of hearsay on his part, and departed with an awkward compliment to Mrs. Jim about hoping that the baby was going to look like her.

Jim lived just behind the bank, and a high board fence between the two buildings served to hide his coming and going. But Bud took off his hat and walked stooping,–by special request of Mrs. Hanson–to make sure that he was not observed.

“I think I’ll stand out in front of the window,” said Bud when they were inside. “It will look more natural, and if any of these fellows show up I’d just as soon not show my brand the first thing.”

They showed up, all right, within two minutes of the unlocking of the bank and the rolling up of the shades. Jeff Hall was the first man to walk in, and he stopped short when he saw Bud lounging before the teller’s window and the cashier busy within. Other men were straggling up on the porch, and two of them entered. Jeff walked over to Bud, who shifted his position enough to bring him facing Jeff, whom he did not trust at all.

“Mr. Lawton,” Jeff began hurriedly, “I want to stop payment on a check this young feller got from me by fraud. It’s for five thousand eight hundred dollars, and I notify you–“

“Too late, Mr. Hall. I have already accepted the checks. Where did the fraud come in? You can bring suit, of course, to recover.”

“I’ll tell you, Jimmy. He bet that my horse couldn’t beat Dave Truman’s Boise. A good many bet on the same thing. But my horse proved to have more speed, so a lot of them are sore.” Bud chuckled as other Sunday losers came straggling in.

“Well, it’s too late. I have honored the checks,” Jimmy said crisply, and turned to hand a sealed manila envelope to the bookkeeper with whispered instructions. The bookkeeper, who had just entered from the rear of the office, turned on his heel and left again.

Jeff muttered something to his friends and went outside as if their business were done for the day.

“I gave you five thousand in currency and the balance in a cashier’s check,” Jimmy whispered through he wicket. “Sent it to the house, We don’t keep a great deal–ten thousand’s our limit in cash, and I don’t think you want to pack gold or silver–“

“No, I didn’t. I’d rather–“

Two men came in, one going over to the desk where he apparently wrote a check, the other came straight to the window. Bud looked into the heavily bearded face of a man who had the eyes of Lew Morris. He shifted his position a little so that he faced the man’s right side. The one at the desk was glancing slyly over his shoulder at the bookkeeper, who had just returned to his work.

“Can you change this twenty so I can get seven dollars and a quarter out of it?” asked the man at he window. As he slid the bill through the wicket he started to sneeze, and reached backward–for his handkerchief, apparently.

“Here’s one,” said Bud. “Don’t sneeze too hard, old-timer, or you’re liable to sneeze your whiskers all off. It’s happened before.”

Someone outside fired a shot in at Bud, clipping his hatband in front. At the sound of the shot the whiskered one snatched his gun out, and the cashier shot him. Bud had sent a shot through the outside window and hit somebody–whom, he did not know, for he had no time to look. The young fellow at the desk had whirled, and was pointing a gun shakily, first at he cashier and then at Bud. Bud fired and knocked he gun out of his hand, then stepped over the man he suspected was Lew and caught the young fellow by the wrist.

“You’re Ed Collier–by your eyes and your mouth,” Bud said in a rapid undertone. “I’m going to get you out of this, if you’ll do what I say. Will you?”

“He got me in here, honest,” the young fellow quaked. He couldn’t be more than nineteen, Bud guessed swiftly.

“Let me through, Jimmy,” Bud ordered hurriedly. “You got the man that put up this job. I’ll take the kid out the back way, if you don’t mind.”

Jimmy opened the steel-grilled door and let them through.

“Ed Collier,” he said in a tone of recognition. “I heard he was trailing–“

“Forget it, Jimmy. If the sheriff asks about him, say he got out. Now, Ed, I’m going to take you over to Mrs. Hanson’s. She’ll keep an eye on you for a while.”

Eddie was looking at the dead man on the floor, and trembling so that he did not attempt to reply; and by way of Jimmy’s back fence and the widow Hanson’s barn and corral, Bud got Eddie safe into the kitchen just as that determined lady was leaving home with a shotgun to help defend the honor of the town.

Bud took her by the shoulder and told her what he wanted her to do. “He’s Marian’s brother, and too young to be with that gang. So keep him here, safe and out of sight, until I come. Then I’ll want to borrow your horse. Shall I tie the kid?”

“And me an able-bodied woman that could turn him acrost my knee?” Mrs. Hanson’s eyes snapped.

“It’s more likely the boy needs his breakfast. Get along with ye!”

Bud got along, slipping into the bank by the rear door and taking a hand in the desultory firing in the street. The sheriff had a couple of men ironed and one man down and the landlord of the hotel was doing a great deal of explaining that he had never seen the bandits before. Just by way of stimulating his memory Bud threw a bullet close to his heels, and the landlord thereupon grovelled and wept while he protested his innocence.

“He’s a damn liar, sheriff,” Bud called across the hoof- scarred road. “He was talking to them about eleven o’clock last night. There were three that chased me into town, and they got him up out of bed to find out whether I’d stopped there. I hadn’t, luckily for me. If I had he’d have showed them the way to my room, and he’d have had a dead boarder this morning. Keep right on shedding tears, you old cut- throat! I was sitting on the court-house porch, last night, and I heard every word that passed between you and the Catrockers!”

“I’ve been suspicioning here was where they got their information right along,” the sheriff commented, and slipped the handcuffs on the landlord. Investigation proved that Jeff Hall and his friends had suddenly decided that they had no business with the bank that day, and had mounted and galloped out of town when the first shot was fired. Which simplified matters a bit for Bud.

In Jimmy Lawton’s kitchen he received his money, and when the prisoners were locked up he saved himself some trouble with the sheriff by hunting him up and explaining just why he had taken the Collier boy into custody.

“You know yourself he’s just a kid, and if you send him over the road he’s a criminal for life. I believe I can make a decent man of him. I want to try, anyway. So you just leave me this deputy’s badge, and make my commission regular and permanent, and I’ll keep an eye on him. Give me a paper so I can get a requisition and bring him back to stand trial, any time he breaks out. I’ll be responsible for him, sheriff.”

“And who in blazes are you?” the sheriff inquired, with a grin to remove the sting of suspicion. “Name sounded familiar, too!”

“Bud Birnie of the Tomahawk, down near Laramie; Telegraph Laramie if you like and find out about me.

“Good Lord! I know the Tomahawk like a book!” cried the sheriff. “And you’re Bob Birnie’s boy! Say! D’you remember dragging into camp on the summit one time when you was about twelve years old–been hidin’ out from Injuns about three days? Well, say! I’m the feller that packed you into the tent, and fed yuh when yuh come to. Remember the time I rode down and stayed over night at yore place, the time Bill Nye come down from his prospect hole up in the Snowies, bringin’ word the Injuns was up again?” The sheriff grabbed Bud’s hand and held it, shaking it up and down now and then to emphasize his words.

“Folks called you Buddy, then. I remember yuh, helpin’ your mother cook ‘n’ wash dishes for us fellers. I kinda felt like I had a claim on yuh, Buddy.

“Say, Bill Nye, he’s famous now. Writin’ books full of jokes, and all that. He always was a comical cuss. Don’t you remember how the bunch of us laughed at him when he drifted in about dark, him and four burros–that one he called Boomerang, that he named his paper after in Laramie? I’ve told lots of times what he said when he come stoopin’ into the kitchen–how Colorou had sent him word that he’d give Bill just four sleeps to get outa there. An, ‘Hell!’ says Bill. ‘I didn’t need any sleeps!’ An’ we all turned to and cooked a hull beef yore dad had butchered that day–and Bill loaded up with the first chunks we had ready, and pulled his freight. He sure didn’t need any sleeps–“

“Yes, you bet I remember. Jesse Cummings is your name. I sure ought to remember you, for you and your partner saved my life, I expect. I thought I’d seen you before, when you made me deputy. How about the kid? Can I have him? Lew Morris, the man that kept him on the wrong side of the law, is dead, I heard the doctor say. Jimmy got him when he pulled his gun.”

“Why, yes–if the town don’t git onto me turnin’ him loose, I guess you can have the kid for all I care. He didn’t take any part in the holdup, did he Buddy?”

“He was over by the customers’ desk when Lew started, to hold up the cashier.”

“Well I got enough prisoners so I guess he won’t be missed. But you look out how yuh git him outa town. Better wait til kinda late to-night. I sure would like to see him git a show. Them two Collier kids never did have a square deal, far as I’ve heard.

But be careful, youngster. I want another term off this county if I can get it. Don’t go get me in bad.”

“I won’t,” Bud promised and hurried back to Mrs. Hanson’s house.

That estimable lady was patting butter in a wooden bowl when Bud went in. She turned and brushed a wisp of gray hair from her face with her fore arm and sh-shed him into silent stepping, motioning toward an inner room. Bud tiptoed and looked, saw Ed Collier fast asleep, swaddled in a blanket, and grinned his approval.

He made sure that the sleep was genuine, also that the blanket swaddling was efficient. Moreover, he discovered that Mrs. Hanson had very prudently attached a thin wire to the foot of the blanket cocoon, had passed the wire through a knot hole in a cupboard set into the partition, and to a sheep bell which she no doubt expected to ring upon provocation–such as a prisoner struggling to release his feet from a gray blanket fastened with many large safety pins.

“He went right to sleep, the minute I’d fed him and tied him snug,” Mrs. Hanson murmured. “He was a sulky divvle and wouldn’t give a decent answer to me till he had his stomach filled. From the way he waded into the ham and eggs, I guess a square meal and him has been strangers for a long time.”

Sleep and Ed Collier must have been strangers also, for Bud attended the inquest of Lew Morris, visited afterwards with Sheriff Cummings, who was full of reminiscence and wanted to remind Bud of everything that had ever happened within his knowledge during the time when they had been neighbors with no more than forty miles or so between them. The sheriff offered Bud a horse and saddle, which he promised to deliver to the widow’s corral after the citizens of Crater had gone to bed. And while he did not say that it would be Ed’s horse, Bud guessed shrewdly that it would. After that, Bud carefully slit the lining of his boots tucked money and checks into the opening he had made, and did a very neat repair job.

All that while Ed Collier slept. When Bud returned for his supper Ed had evidently just awakened and was lying on his back biting his lip while he eyed the wire that ran from his feet to the parting of a pair of calico curtains. He did not see Bud, who was watching him through a crack in the door at the head of the bed. Ed was plainly puzzled at the wire and a bit resentful. He lifted his feet until the wire was well slackened, held them poised for a minute and deliberately brought them down hard on the floor.

The result was all that he could possibly have expected. Somewhere was a vicious clang, the rattle of a tin pan and the approaching outcry of a woman. Bud retreated to the kitchen to view the devastation and discovered that a sheep bell not too clean had been dislodged from a nail and dragged through one pan of milk into another, where it was rolling on its edge, stirring the cream that had risen. As Mrs. Hanson rushed in from the back yard, Bud returned to the angry captive’s side.

“I’ve got him safe,” he soothed Mrs. Hanson and her shotgun. “He just had a nightmare. Perhaps that breakfast you fed him was too hearty. I’ll look after him now, Mrs. Hanson. We won’t be bothering you long, anyway.”

Mrs. Hanson was talking to herself when she went to her milk pans, and Bud released Eddie Collier, guessing how humiliating it must be to be a young fellow pinned into a blanket with safety pins, and knowing from certain experiences of his own that humiliation is quite as apt to breed trouble as any other emotion.

Eddie sat up on the edge of the bed and stared at Bud. His eyes were like Marian’s in shape and color, but their expression was suspicion, defiance, and watchfulness blended into one compelling stare that spelled Fear. Or so Bud read it, having trapped animals of various grades ever since he had caught the “HAWNTOAD”, and seen that look many, many times in the eyes of his catch.

“How’d you like to take a trip with me–as a kind of a partner?” Bud began carelessly, pulling a splinter off the homemade bed for which Mrs. Hanson would not thank him–and beginning to whittle it to a sharp point aimlessly, as men have a way of doing when their minds are at work upon a problem which requires–much constructive thinking.

“Pardner in what?” Eddie countered sullenly.

“Pardner in what I am planning to do to make money. I can make money, you know–and stay on friendly terms with the sheriff, too. That’s better than your bunch has been able to do. I don’t mind telling you–it’s stale news, I guess–that I cleaned up close to twelve thousand dollars in less than a month, off a working capital of three thoroughbred horses and about sixty dollars cash. And I’ll add the knowledge that I was playing against men that would slip a cold deck if they played solitaire, they were so crooked. And if that doesn’t recommend me sufficiently, I’ll say I’m a deputy sheriff of Crater County, and Jesse Cummings knows my past. I want to hire you to go with me and make some money, and I’ll pay you forty a month and five per cent bonus on my profits at the end of two years. The first year may not show any profits, but the second year will. How does it sound to you?”

He had been rolling a cigarette, and now he offered the “makings” to Ed, who accepted them mechanically, his eyes still staring hard at Bud. He glanced toward the door and the one little window where wild cucumber vines were thickly matted, and Bud interpreted his glance.

“Lew and another Catrocker–the one that tried to rope me down in the Sinks–are dead, and three more are in jail. Business won’t be very brisk with the Catrock gang for a while.”

“If you’re trying to bribe me into squealing on the rest, you’re a damn fool,” said Eddie harshly. “I ain’t the squealing kind. You can lead me over to jail first. I’d rather take my chances with the others.” He was breathing hard when he finished.

“Rather than work for me?” Bud sliced off the sharp point which he had so carefully whittled, and began to sharpen a new one. Eddie watched him fascinatedly.

“Rather than squeal on the bunch. There’s no other reason in God’s world why you’d make me an offer like that. I ain’t a fool quite, if my head does run up to a peak.”

Bud chewed his lip, whittled, and finally threw the splinter away. When he turned toward Eddie his eyes were shiny.

“Kid, you’re breaking your sister’s heart, following this trail. I’d like to see you give her a chance to speak your name without blinking back tears. I’d like to see her smile all the way from her dimples to her eyes when she thinks of you. That’s why I made the offer–that and because I think you’d earn your wages.”

Eddie looked at him, looked away, staring vacantly at the wall. His eyelashes were blinking very fast, his lip began to tremble. “You–I–I never wanted to–I ain’t worth saving– oh, hell! I never had a chance before–” He dropped sidewise on the bed, buried his face in his arms and sobbed hoarsely, like the boy he was.

CHAPTER NINETEEN:BUD RIDES THROUGH CATROCK AND LOSES MARIAN

“You’ll have to show me the trail, pardner,” said Bud when they were making their way cautiously out of town by way of the tin can suburbs. “I could figure out the direction all right, and make it by morning; but seeing you grew up here, I’ll let you pilot.”

“You’ll have to tell me where you want to go, first,” said Eddie with a good deal of sullenness still in his voice.

“Little Lost.” Without intending to do so, Bud put a good deal of meaning in his voice.

Eddie did not say anything, but veered to the right, climbing higher on the slope than Bud would have gone. “We can take the high trail,” he volunteered when they stopped to rest the horses. “It takes up over the summit and down Burroback Valley. It’s longer, but the stage road edges along the Sinks and–it might be rough going, after we get down a piece.”

“How about the side-hill trail, through Catrock Peak?”

Eddie turned sharply. In the starlight Bud was watching him, wondering what he was thinking.

“How’d you get next to any side-hill trail?” Eddie asked after a minute. “You been over it?”

“I surely have. And I expect to go again, to-nigh! A young fellow about your size is going to act a pilot, and get me to Little Lost as quick as possibe. It’ll be daylight at that.”

“If you got another day coming, it better be before daylight we get there,” Eddie retorted glumly. H hesitated, turned his horse and led the way down the slope, angling down away from the well-travelled trail over the summit of Gold Gap.

That hesitation told Bud, without words, how tenuous was his hold upon Eddie. He possessed sufficient imagination to know that his own carefully discipline past, sheltered from actual contact with evil, had given him little enough by which to measure the soul of a youth like Eddie Collier.

How long Eddie had supped and slept with thieves and murderers, Bud could only guess. From the little that Marian had told him, Eddie’s father had been one of the gang. At least, she had plainly stated that he and Lew had been partners–though Collier might have been ranching innocently enough, and ignorant of Lew’s real nature.

At all events, Eddie was a lad well schooled in inequity such as the wilderness fosters in sturdy fashion. Wide spaces give room for great virtues and great wickedness. Bud felt that he was betting large odds on an unknown quantity. He was placing himself literally in the hands of an acknowledged Catrocker, because of the clean gaze of a pair of eyes, the fine curve of the mouth.

For a long time they rode without speech. Eddie in the lead, Bud following, alert to every little movement in the sage, every little sound of the night. That was what we rather naively call “second nature”, habit born of Bud’s growing years amongst dangers which every pioneer family knows. Alert he was, yet deeply dreaming; a tenuous dream too sweet to come true, he told himself; a dream which he never dared to dream until the cool stars, and the little night wind began to whisper to him that Marian was free from the brute that had owned her. He scarcely dared think of it yet. Shyly he remembered how he had held her hand to give her courage while they rode in darkness; her poor work-roughened little hand, that had been old when he took it first, and had warmed in his clasp. He remembered how he had pressed her hands together when they parted–why, surely it was longer ago than last night!–and had kissed them reverently as he would kiss the fingers of a queen.

“Hell’s too good for Lew Morris,” he blurted unexpectedly, the thought of Marian’s bruised cheek coming like a blow.

“Want to go and tell him so? If you don’t yuh better shut up,” Eddie whispered fierce warning. “You needn’t think all the Catrockers are dead or in jail. They’s a few left and they’d kill yuh quicker’n they’d take a drink.”

Bud, embarrassed at the emotion behind his statement, rather than ashamed of the remark itself, made no reply.

Much as Eddie desired silence, he himself pulled up and spoke again when Bud had ridden close.

“I guess you come through the Gap,” he whispered. “They’s a shorter way than that–Sis don’t know it. It’s one the bunch uses a lot–if they catch us–I can save my hide by makin’ out I led you into a trap. You’ll get yours, anyway. How much sand you got?”

Bud leaned and spat into the darkness. “Not much. Maybe enough to get through this scary short-cut of yours.”

“You tell the truth when you say scary. It’s so darn crazy to go down Catrock Canyon maybe they won’t think we’d tackle it. And if they catch us, I’ll say I led yuh in–and then–say, I’m kinda bettin’ on your luck. The way you cleaned up on them horses, maybe luck’ll stay with you. And I’ll help all I can, honest.”

“Fine.” Bud reached over and closed his fingers around Eddie’s thin, boyish arm. “You didn’t tell me yet why the other trail isn’t good enough.”

“I heard a sound in the Gap tunnel, that’s why. You maybe didn’t know what it was. I know them echoes to a fare-ye- well. Somebody’s there–likely posted waiting.” He was motionless for a space, listening.

“Get off-easy. Take off your spurs.” Eddie was down, whispering eagerly to Bud. “There’s a draft of air from the blow-holes that comes this way. Sound comes outa there a lot easier than it goes in. Sis and I found that out. Lead your horse–if they jump us, give him a lick with the quirt and hide in the brush.”

Like Indians the two made their way down a rambling slope not far from where Marian had guided Bud. To-night, however, Eddie led the way to the right instead of the left, which seemed to Bud a direction that would bring them down Oldman creek, that dry river bed, and finally, perhaps, to the race track.

Eddie never did explain just how he made his way through a maze of water-cut pillars and heaps of sandstone so bewildering that Bud afterward swore that in spite of the fact that he was leading Sunfish, he frequently found himself at that patient animal’s tail, where they were doubled around some freakish pillar. Frequently Eddie stopped and peered past his horse to make sure that Bud had not lost the trail. And finally, because he was no doubt worried over that possibility, he knotted his rope to his saddle horn, brought back a length that reached a full pace behind the tail of the horse, and placed the end in Bud’s hand.

“If yuh lose me you’re a goner,” he whispered. “So hang onto that, no matter what comes. And don’t yuh speak to me. This is hell’s corral and we’re walking the top trail right now.” He made sure that Bud had the loop in his hand, then slipped back past his horse and went on, walking more quickly.

Bud admitted afterwards that he was perfectly willing to be led like a tame squirrel around the top of “hell’s corral”, whatever that was. All that Bud saw was an intricate assembly of those terrific pillars, whose height he did not know, since he had no time to glance up and estimate the distance. There was no method, no channel worn through in anything that could be called a line. Whatever primeval torrent had honeycombed the ledge had left it so before ever its waters had formed a straight passage through. How Eddie knew the way he could only conjecture, remembering how he himself had ridden devious trails down on the Tomahawk range when he was a boy. It rather hurt his pride to realize that never had he seen anything approaching this madman’s trail.

Without warning they plunged into darkness again. Darkness so black that Bud knew they had entered another of those mysterious, subterranean passages which had created such names as abounded in the country: the “Sinks”, “Little Lost”, and Sunk River itself which disappeared mysteriously. He was beginning to wonder with a grim kind of humor if he himself was not about to follow the example of the rivers and disappear, when the soft padding of their footfalls blurred under the whistling of wind. Fine particles of sand stung him, a blast full against him halted him for a second. But the rope pulled steadily and he went on, half-dragged into starlight again.

They were in a canyon; deep, sombre in its night shadows, its width made known to him by the strip of starlight overhead. Directly before them, not more than a hundred yards, a light shone through a window.

The rope slackened in his hands, and Eddie slipped back to him shivering a little as Bud discovered when he laid a hand on his arm.

“I guess I better tie yuh–but it won’t be so yuh can’t shoot. Get on, and let me tie your feet into the stirrups. I–I guess maybe we can get past, all right–I’ll try–I want to go and take that job you said you’d give me!”

“What’s the matter, son? Is that where the Catrockers hang out?” Bud swung into the saddle. “I trust you, kid. You’re her brother.”

“I–I want to live like Sis wants me to. But I’ve got to tie yuh, Mr. Birnie, and that looks– But they’d k–you don’t know how they kill traitors. I saw one–” He leaned against Bud’s leg, one hand reaching up to the saddle horn and gripping it in a passing frenzy.” If you say so,” he whispered rapidly, “we’ll sneak up and shoot ’em through the window before they get a chance–“

Bud reached out his hand and patted Eddie on the shoulder.” That job of yours don’t call for any killing we can avoid,” he said. “Go ahead and tie me. No use of wasting lead on two men when one will do. It’s all right. I trust you, pardner.”

Eddie’s shoulders stiffened. He stood up, looked toward the light and gripped Bud’s hand. “I thought they’d be asleep– what was home,” he said. “We got to ride past the cabin to get out through another water-wash. But you take your coat and tie your horse’s feet, and I’ll tie mine. I–can’t tie you, Mr. Birnie. We’ll chance it together.”

Bud did not say anything at all, for which Eddie seemed grateful. They muffled eight hoofs, rode across the canyon’s bottom and passed the cabin so closely that the light of a smoky lantern on a table was plainly visible to Bud, as was the shaggy profile of a man who sat with his arms folded, glowering over a pipe. He heard nothing. Bud halted Sunfish and looked again to make sure, while Eddie beckoned frantically. They went on undisturbed–the Catrockers kept no dogs.

They passed a couple of corrals, rode over springy sod where Bud dimly discerned hay stubble. Eddie let down a set of bars, replaced them carefully, and they crossed another meadow. It struck Bud that the Catrockers were fairly well entrenched in their canyon, with plenty of horse feed at least.

They followed a twisting trail along the canyon’s wall, rode into another pit of darkness, came out into a sandy stretch that seemed hazily familiar to Bud. They crossed this, dove into the bushes following a dim trail, and in ten minutes Eddie’s horse backed suddenly against Sunfish’s nose. Bud stood in his stirrups, reins held firmly in his left hand, and in his right his six-shooter with the hammer lifted, ready to snap down.

A tall figure stepped away from the peaked rocks and paused at Bud’s side.

“I been waiting for Marian,” he said bluntly. “You know anything about her?”

“She turned back last night after she had shown me the way.” Bud’s throat went dry. “Did they miss her?” He leaned aggressively.

“Not till breakfast time, they didn’t. I was waiting here, most all night–except right after you folks left. She wasn’t missed, and I never flagged her–and she ain’t showed up yet!”

Bud sat there stunned, trying to think what might have happened. Those dark passages through the mountains–the ledge–” Ed, you know that trail she took me over? She was coming back that way. She could get lost–“

“No she couldn’t–not Sis. If her horse didn’t act the fool– what horse was it she rode?” Ed turned to Jerry as if he would know.

“Boise,” Bud spoke quickly, as though seconds were precious. “She said he knew the way.”

“He sure ought to,” Eddie replied emphatically. “Boise belongs to Sis, by rights. The mare got killed and Dad gave him to Sis when he was a suckin’ colt, and Sis raised him on cow’s milk and broke him herself. She rode him all over. Lew took and sold him to Dave, and gambled the money, and Sis never signed no bill of sale. They couldn’t make her. Sis has got spunk, once you stir her up. She’ll tackle anything. She’s always claimed Boise is hers. Boise knows the Gap like a book. Sis couldn’t get off the trail if she rode him.”

“Something happened, then,” Bud muttered stubbornly. “Four men came through behind us, and we waited out in the dark to let them pass. Then she sent me down to the creek-bottom, and she turned back. If they got her–” He turned Sunfish in the narrow brush trail. “She’s hurt, or they got her–I’m going back!” he said grimly.

“Hell! you can’t do any good alone,” Eddie protested, coming after him. “We’ll go look for her, Mr. Birnie, but we’ve got to have something so we can see. If. Jerry could dig up a couple of lanterns–“

“You wait. I’m coming along,” Jerry called guardedly. “I’ll bring lanterns.”

To Bud that time of waiting was torment. He had faced danger and tragedy since he could toddle, and fear had never overridden the titillating sense of adventure. But then the danger had been for himself. Now terror conjured pictures whose horror set him trembling. Twenty-four hours and more had passed since he had kissed Marian’s hand and let her go– to what? The inky blackness of those tunnelled caverns in the Gap confronted his mind like a nightmare. He could not speak of it–he dared not think of it, and yet he must.

Jerry came on horseback, with three unlighted lanterns held in a cluster by their wire handles. Eddie immediately urged his horse into the brushy edge of the trail so that he might pass Bud and take the lead. “You sure made quick time,” he remarked approvingly to Jerry.

“I raided Dave’s cache of whiskey or I’d have been here quicker,” Jerry explained. “We might need some.”

Bud gritted his teeth. “Ride, why don’t yuh?” he urged Eddie harshly. “What the hell ails that horse of yours ? You got him hobbled?”

Eddie glanced back over his bobbing shoulder as his horse trotted along the blind trail through the brush. “This here ain’t no race track,” he expostulated. “We’ll make it quicker without no broken legs.”

There was justice in his protest and Bud said nothing. But Sunfish’s head bumped the tail of Eddie’s horse many times during that ride. Once in the Gap, with a lighted lantern in his rein hand and his six-shooter in the other–because it was ticklish riding, in there with lights revealing them to anyone who might be coming through–he was content to go slowly, peering this way and that as he rode.

Once Eddie halted and turned to speak to them. “I know Boise wouldn’t leave the trail. If Sis had to duck off and hide from somebody, he’d come back to the trail. Loose, he’d do that. Sis and I used to explore around in here just for fun, and kept it for our secret till Lew found out. She always rode Boise. I’m dead sure he’d bring her out all right.”

“She hasn’t come out–yet. Go on,” said Bud, and Eddie rode forward obediently.

Three hours it took them to search the various passages where Eddie thought it possible that Marian had turned aside. Bud saw that the trail through was safe as any such trail could be, and he wondered at the nerve and initiative of the girl and the boy who had explored the place and found where certain queer twists and turns would lead. Afterwards he learned that Marian was twelve and Eddie ten when first they had hidden there from Indians, and they had been five years in finding where every passage led. Also, in daytime the place was not so fearsome, since sunlight slanted down into many a passageway through the blow-holes high above.

“She ain’t here. I knew she wasn’t,” Eddie announced when the final tunnel let them into the graying light of dawn beyond the Peak.

“In that case–” Bud glanced from him to Jerry, who was blowing out his lantern.

Jerry let down the globe carefully, at the same time glancing soberly at Bud. “The kid knows better than we do what would happen if Lew met up with her and Boise.”

Eddie shook his head miserably, his eyes fixed helpessly upon Bud. “Lew never, Mr. Birnie. I was with him every minute from dark till–till the cashier ,shot him. We come up the way I took you through the canyon. Lew never knew she was gone any more than I did.”

Jerry bit his lip. “Kid, what if the gang run acrost her, KNOWING Lew was dead?” he grated. “And her on Boise? The word’s out that Bud stole Boise. Dave and the boys rode out to round him up–and they ain’t done it, so they’re still riding–we’ll hope. Kid, you know damn well your gang would double-cross Dave in a minute, now Lew’s killed. If they got hold of the horse, do yuh think they’d turn him over to Dave?”

“No, you bet your life they wouldn’t!” Eddie retorted.

“And what about HER?” Bud cut in with ominous calm. “She’s your sister, kid. Would you be worried if you knew they had HER and the horse?”

Eddie gulped and looked away. “They wouldn’t hurt her unless they knew’t Lew was dead,” he said. “And them that went to Crater was killed or jailed, so–” He hesitated. “It looked to me like Anse was setting up waiting for the bunch to get back from Crater. He–he’s always jumpy when they go off and stay, and it’d be just like him to set there and wait till daylight. It looks to me, Mr. Birnie, like him and–and the rest don’t know yet that the Crater job was a fizzle. They wouldn’t think of such a thing as taking Sis, or Boise either, unless they knew Lew was dead.”

“Are you sure of that?” Bud had him in a grip that widened the boy’s eyes with something approaching fear.

“Yes sir, Mr. Birnie, I’m sure. What didn’t go to Crater stayed in camp–or was gone on some other trip. No, I’m sure!” He jerked away with sudden indignation at Bud’s disbelief. “Say! Do you think I’m bad enough to let my sister get into trouble with the Catrockers? I know they never got her. More’n likely it’s Dave.”

“Dave went up Burroback Valley,” Jerry stated flatly. “Him and the boys wasn’t on this side the ridge. They had it sized up that Bud might go from Crater straight across into Black Rim, and they rode up to catch him as he comes back across.” Jerry grinned a little. They wanted that money you peeled off the crowd Sunday, Bud. They was willing you should get to Crater and cash them checks before they overhauled yuh and strung yuh up.”

“You don’t suppose they’d hurt Marian if they found her with the horse? She might have followed along to Crater–“

“She never,” Eddie contradicted. And Jerry declared in the same breath, “She’d be too much afraid of Lew. No, if they found her with the horse they’d take him away from her and send her back on another one to do the kitchen work,” he conjectured with some contempt. “If they found YOU without the horse–well–men have been hung on suspicion, Bud. Money’s something everybody wants, and there ain’t a man in the valley but what has figured your winnings down to the last two-bit piece. It’s just a runnin’ match now to see what bunch gets to yuh first.”

“Oh, the money! I’d give the whole of it to anyone that would tell me Marian ‘s safe,” Bud cried unguardedly in his misery. Whereat Jerry and Ed looked at each other queerly.

CHAPTER TWENTY: “PICK YOUR FOOTING!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn your lazy hide, you’ve been through here twice and you’ve got daylight to help–now pick up your feet and travel!”

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

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

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

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

“You’re liable to be busy, all right,” Jerry interpolated grimly.

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

“How about Sis? I thought–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“SURE?” Pop snorted. “Honey, she’s had to do the cookin’ for me an’ Jerry–and if I ain’t sure–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you got ’em together, and didn’t string ’em both up to the nearest tree–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s begin picking it, then,” said Bud, and got up, reaching for his bridle.

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE:TRAILS END

At the last camp, just north of the Platte, Bud’s two black sheep balked. Bud himself, worn by sleepless nights and long hours in the saddle, turned furiously when Jerry announced that he guessed he and Ed wouldn’t go any farther.

“Well, damn you both for ungrateful hounds!” grated Bud, hurt to the quick. “I hope you don’t think I brought you this far to help hold me in the saddle; I made it north alone, without any mishap. I think I could have come back all right. But if you want to quit here, all right. You can high-tail it back to your outlaws–“

“Well, if you go ‘n put it that way!” Jerry expostulated, lifting both hands high in the air in a vain attempt to pull the situation toward the humorous. “You’re a depity sheriff, and you got the drop.” He grinned, saw that Bud’s eyes were still hard and his mouth unyielding, and lowered his hands, looking crestfallen as a kicked pup that had tried to be friendly.

“You can see for yourself we ain’t fit to go ‘n meet your mother and your father like we was–like we’d went straight,” Eddie put in explanatorily. “You’ve been raised good, and– say, it makes a man want to BE good to see how a feller don’t have to be no preacher to live right. But it don’t seem square to let you take us right home with you, just because you’re so darned kind you’d do it and never think a thing about it. We ain’t ungrateful–I know I ain’t. But–but–“

“The kid’s said it, Bud,” Jerry came to the rescue. “We come along because it was a ticklish trip you had ahead. And I’ve knowed as good riders as you are, that could stand a little holding in the saddle when some freak had tried to shoot ’em out of it. But you’re close to home now and you don’t need us no more, and so we ain’t going to horn in on the prodigal calf’s milkbucket. Marian, She’s likely there–“

“If Sis ain’t with your folks we’ll hunt her up,” Eddie interrupted eagerly. “Sis is your kind–she–she’s good enough for yuh, Bud, and I hope she–ll–well if she’s got any sense she will–well, if it comes to the narrying point, I–well, darn it, I’d like to see Sis git as good a man as you are!” Eddie, having bluntered that far, went headlong as if he were afraid to stop. “Sis is educated, and she’s an awful good singer and a fine girl, only I’m her brother. But I’m going to live honest from now on, Bud, and I hope you won’t hold off on account of me. I ain’t going to have sis feel like crying when she thinks about me! You–you–said something that hurt like a knife, Bud, when you told me that, up in Crater. And she wasn’t to blame for marryn’ Lew–and she done that outa goodness, the kind you showed to Jerry and me. And we don’t want to go spoilin’ everything by letting your folks see what you’re bringin’ home with yuh! And it might hurt Sis with your folks, if they found out that I’m–“

Bud had been standing by his horse, looking from one to the other, listening, watching their faces, measuring the full depth of their manhood. “Say! you remind me of a story the folks tell on me,” he said, his eyes shining, while his voice strove to make light of it all. “Once, when I was a kid in pink-aprons, I got lost from the trail-herd my folks were bringing up from Texas. It was comin’ dark, and they had the whole outfit out hunting me, and everybody scared to death. When they were all about crazy, they claim I came walking up to the camp-fire dragging a dead snake by the tail, and carrying a horn toad in my shirt, and claiming they were mine because I ‘ketched ’em.’ I’m not branding that yarn with any moral–but figure it out for yourself, boys.”

The two looked at each other and grinned. “I ain’t dead yet,” Eddie made sheepish comment. “Mebbe you kinda look on me as being a horn toad, Bud.”

“When you bear in mind that my folks raised that kid, You’ll realize that it takes a good deal to stampede mother.” Bud swung into the saddle to avoid subjecting his emotions to the cramped, inadequate limitations of speech. “Let’s go, boys. She’s a long trail to take the kinks out of before supper- time.”

They stood still, making no move to follow. Bud reined Smoky around so that he faced them, reached laboriously into that mysterious pocket of a cowpuncher’s trousers which is always held closed by the belt of his chaps, and which invariably holds in its depths the things he wants in a hurry. They watched him curiously, resolutely refusing to interpret his bit of autobiography, wondering perhaps why he did not go.

“Here she is.” Bud had disinterred the deputy sheriff’s badge, and began to polish it by the primitive but effectual method of spitting on it and then rubbing vigorously on his sleeve. “You’re outside of Crater County, but by thunder you’re both guilty of resisting an officer, and county lines don’t count!” He had pinned the badge at random on his coat while he was speaking, and now, before the two realized what he was about, he had his six-shooter out and aimed straight at them.

Bud had never lived in fear of the law. Instantly was sorry when he saw the involuntary stiffening of their muscles, the quick wordless suspicion and defiance that sent their eyes in shifty glances to right and left before their hands lifted a little. Trust him, love him they might, there was that latent fear of capture driven deep into their souls; so deep that even he had not erased it.

Bud saw–and so he laughed.

“I’ve got to show my folks that I’ve made a gathering,” he said. “You can’t quit, boys. And I’m going to take you to the end of the trail, now you’ve started.” He eyed them, saw that they were still stubborn, and drew in his breath sharply, manfully meeting the question in their minds.

“We’ve left more at the Sinks than the gnashing of teeth,” he said whimsically. “A couple of bad names, for instance. You’re two bully good friends of mine, and–damn it, Marian will want to see both of you fellows, if she’s there. If she isn’t–we’ll maybe have a big circle to ride, finding her. I’ll need you, no matter what’s ahead.” He looked from one to the other, gave a snort and added impatiently, “Aw, fork your horses and don’t stand there looking like a couple of damn fools!”

Whereupon Jerry shook his head dissentingly, grinned and gave Eddie so emphatic an impulse toward his horse that the kid went sprawling.

“Guess We’re up against it, all right–but I do wish yo ‘d lose that badge!” Jerry surrendered, and flipped the bridle reins over the neck of his horse. “Horn toad is right, the way you’re scabbling around amongst them rocks,” he called light-heartedly to the kid. “Ever see a purtier sunrise? I never!”

I don’t know what they thought of the sunset. Gorgeous it was, with many soft colors blended into unnamable tints and translucencies, and the songs of birds in the thickets as they passed. Smoky, Sunfish and Stopper walked briskly, ears perked forward, heads up, eyes eager to catch the familiar landmarks that meant home. Bud’s head was up, also, his eyes went here and there, resting with a careless affection on those same landmarks which spelled home. He would have let Smoky’s reins have a bit more slack and would have led his little convoy to the corrals at a gallop, had not hope begun to tremble and shrink from meeting certainty face to face. Had you asked him then, I think Bud would have owned himself a coward. Until he had speech with home-folk he would merely be hoping that Marian was there; but until he had speech with them he need not hear that they knew nothing of her. Bud– like, however, he tried to cover his trepidation with a joke.

“We’ll sneak up on. ’em,” he said to Ed and Jerry when the roofs of house and stables came into view.

Here’s where I grew up, boys. And in a minute or two more you’ll see the greatest little mother on earth–and the finest dad,” he added, swallowing the last of his Scotch stubbornness.

“And Sis, I hope,” Eddie said wistfully. “I sure hope she’s here.”

Neither Jerry nor Bud answered him at all. Smoky threw up his head suddenly and gave a shrill whinny, and a horse at the corrals answered sonorously.

“Say! That sounds to me like Boise!” Eddie exclaimed, standing up in his stirrups to look.

Bud turned pale, then flushed hotly. “Don’t holler!” he muttered, and held Smoky back a little. For just one reason a young man’s heart pounds as Bud’s heart pounded then. Jerry looked at him, took a deep breath and bit his lip thoughtfully. It may be that Jerry’s heartbeats were not quite normal just then, but no one would ever know.

They rode slowly to a point near the corner of the table, and there Bud halted the two with his lifted hand. Bud was trembling a little–but he was smiling, too. Eddie was frankly grinning, Jerry’s face was the face of a good poker-player– it told nothing.

In a group with their backs to them stood three: Marian, Bud’s mother and his father. Bob Birnie held Boise by the bridle, and the two women were stroking the brown nose of the horse that moved uneasily, with little impatient head- tossings.

“He doesn’t behave like a horse that has made the long trip he has made,” Bud’s mother observed admiringly. “You must be a wonderful little horsewoman, my dear, as well as a wonderful little woman in every other way. Buddy should never have sent you on such a trip–just to bring home money, like a bank messenger! But I’m glad that he did! And I do wish you would consent to stay–such an afternoon with music I haven’t had since Buddy left us. You could stay with me and train for the concert work you intend doing. I’m only an old ranch woman in a slat sunbonnet–but I taught my Buddy–and have you heard him?”

“An old woman in a slat sunbonnet–oh, how can you? Why, you’re the most wonderful woman in the whole world.” Marian’s voice was almost tearful in its protest. “Yes–I have heard–your Buddy.”

“‘T is the strangest way to go about selling a horse that I ever saw,” Bob Birnie put in dryly, smoothing his beard while he looked at them. “We’d be glad to have you stay, lass. But you’ve asked me to place a price on the horse, and I should like to ask ye a question or two. How fast did ye say he could run?”

Marian laid an arm around the shoulders of the old lady in a slat sunbonnet and patted her arm while she answered.

“Well, he beat everything in the country, so they refused to race against him, until Bud came with his horses,” she replied. “It took Sunfish to outrun him. He ‘s terribly fast, Mr. Birnie. I–really, I think he could beat the world’s record–if Bud rode him!”

Just here you should picture Ed and Jerry with their hands over their mouths, and Bud wanting to hide his face with his hat.

Bob Birnie’s beard behaved oddly for a minute, while he leaned and stroked Boise’s flat forelegs, that told of speed. “Wee-ll,” he hesitated, soft-heartedness battling with the horse-buyer’s keenness, “since Bud is na ere to ride him, he’ll make a good horse for the roundup. I’ll give ye “–more battling–“a hundred and fifty dollars for him, if ye care to sell–“

“Here, wait a minute before you sell to that old skinflint!” Bud shouted exuberantly, dismounting with a rush. The rush, I may say, carried him to the little old lady in the slat sunbonnet, and to that other little lady who was staring at him with wide, bright yes. Bud’s arms went around his mother. Perhaps by accident he gathered in Marian also–they were standing very close, and his arms were very long–and he was slow to discover his mistake.

“I’ll give you two hundred for Boise, and I’ll throw in one brother, and one long-legged, good-for-nothing cowpuncher–“

“Meaning yourself, Buddy?” came teasingly from he slat sunbonnet, whose occupant had not been told just everything. “I’ll be surprised if she’ll have you, with that dirty face and no shave for a week and more. But if she does, you’re luckier than you deserve, for riding up on us like this! We’ve heard all about you, Buddy–though you were wise to send this lassie to gild your faults and make a hero of you!”

Now, you want to know how Marian managed to live through that. I will say that she discovered how tenaciously a young man’s arms may cling when he thinks he is embracing merely his mother; but she freed herself and ran to Eddie, fairly pulled him off his horse, and talked very fast and incoherently to him and Jerry, asking question after question without waiting for a reply to any of them. All this, I suppose, in the hope that they would not hear, or, hearing, would not understand what that terrible, wonderful little woman was saying so innocently.

But you cannot faze youth. Eddie had important news for Sis, and he felt that now was the time to tell it before Marian blushed any redder, so he pulled her face up to his, put his lips so close to her ear that his breath tickled, and whispered–without any preface whatever that she could marry Bud any time now, because she was a widow.

“Here! Somebody–Bud–quick! Sis has fainted! Doggone it, I only told her Lew’s dead and she can marry you–shucks! I thought she’d be glad!”

Down on the Staked Plains, on an evening much like the evening when Bud came home with his “stake” and his hopes and two black sheep who were becoming white as most of us, a camp-fire began to crackle and wave smoke ribbons this way and that before it burned steadily under the supper pots of a certain hungry, happy group which you know.

“It’s somewhere about here that I got lost from camp when I was a kid,” Bud observed, tilting back his hat and lifting a knee to snap a dry stick over it. “Mother’d know, I bet. I kinda wish we’d brought her and dad along with us. That’s about eighteen years ago they trailed a herd north–and here we are, taking our trail–herd north on the same trail! I kinda wish now I’d picked up a bunch of yearling heifers along with our two-year-olds. We could have brought another hundred head just as well as not. They sure drive nice. Mother would have enjoyed this trip.”