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Little Lost








From: Cow-country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Next: Bud Meets The Woman

Previous: The Muleshoe



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