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Cow-Country By B. M. Bower Characters: 19338

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

"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 possible. 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 yo

ur 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.

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