Lost Child





"Djuh find 'im?" The Old Man had limped down to the big gate and stood

there bare headed under the stars, waiting, hoping--fearing to hear the

answer.



"Hasn't he showed up yet?" Chip and the Little Doctor rode out of the

gloom and stopped before the gate. Chip did not wait for an answer. One

question answered the other and there was no need for more. "I brought

Dell home," he said. "She's about all in--and he's just as likely to

come back himself as we are to run across him. Silver'll bring him home,

all right. He can't be--yuh can't lose a horse. You go up to the house

and lie down, Dell. I--the Kid's all right."



His voice held all the tenderness of the lover, and all the

protectiveness of the husband and all the agony of a father--but Chip

managed to keep it firm and even for all that. He lifted the Little

Doctor bodily from the saddle, held her very close in his arms for a

minute, kissed her twice and pushed her gently through the gate.



"You better stay right here," he said authoritatively, "and rest and

look after J.G. You can't do any good riding--and you don't want to be

gone when he comes." He reached over the gate, got hold of her arm and

pulled her towards him. "Buck up, old girl," he whispered, and kissed

her lingeringly. "Now's the time to show the stuff you're made of. You

needn't worry one minute about that kid. He's the goods, all right. Yuh

couldn't lose him if you tried. Go up and go to bed."



"Go to bed!" echoed the Little Doctor and sardonically. "J.G., are you

sure he didn't say anything about going anywhere?"



"No. He was settin' there on the porch tormenting the cat." The Old

Man swallowed a lump. "I told him to quit. He set there a while after

that--I was talkin'' to Blake. I dunno where he went to. I was--"



"'S that you, Dell? Did yuh find 'im?" The Countess came flapping down

the path in a faded, red kimono. "What under the shinin' sun's went with

him, do yuh s'pose? Yuh never know what a day's got up its sleeve--'n

I always said it. Man plans and God displans--the poor little tad'll be

scairt plumb to death, out all alone in the dark--"



"Oh, for heaven's sake shut up!" cried the tortured Little Doctor, and

fled past her up the path as though she had some hope of running away

from the tormenting thoughts also. "Poor little tad, all alone in the

dark,"--the words followed her and were like sword thrusts through the

mother heart of her. Then Chip overtook her, knowing too well the hurt

which the Countess had given with her blundering anxiety. Just at the

porch he caught up with her, and she clung to him, sobbing wildly.



"You don't want to mind what that old hen says," he told her brusquely.

"She's got to do just so much cackling or she'd choke, I reckon. The

Kid's all right. Some of the boys have run across him by this time, most

likely, and are bringing him in. He'll be good and hungry, and the scare

will do him good." He forced himself to speak as though the Kid had

merely fallen on the corral fence, or something like that. "You've got

to make up your mind to these things," he argued, "if you tackle raising

a boy, Dell. Why, I'll bet I ran off and scared my folks into fits fifty

times when I was a kid."



"But--he's--just a baby!" sobbed the Little Doctor with her face pressed

hard against Chip's strong, comforting shoulder.



"He's a little devil!" amended Chip fiercely. "He ought to be walloped

for scaring you like this. He's just as capable of looking after himself

as most kids twice his size. He'll get hungry and head for home--and if

he don't know the way, Silver does; so he can't--"



"But he may have fallen and--"



"Come, now! Haven't you got any more sense than the Countess? If you

insist of thinking up horrors to scare yourself with, I don't know

as anybody can stop you. Dell! Brace up and quit worrying. I tell

you--he's--all right!"



That did well enough--seeing the Little Doctor did not get a look

at Chip's face, which was white and drawn, with sunken, haggard eyes

staring into the dark over her head. He kissed her hastily and told her

he must go, and that he'd hurry back as soon as he could. So he went

half running down the path and passed the Countess and the Old Man

without a word; piled onto his horse and went off up the hill road

again.



They could not get it out of their minds that the Kid must have ridden

up on the bluff to meet his mother, had been too early to meet her--for

the Little Doctor had come home rather later than she expected to

do--and had wandered off to visit the boys, perhaps, or to meet his

Daddy Chip who was over there some where on the bench trying to figure

out a system of ditches that might logically be expected to water the

desert claims of the Happy Family--if they could get the water.



They firmly believed that the kid had gone up on the hill, and so they

hunted for him up there. The Honorable Blake had gone to Dry Lake and

taken the train for Great Falls, before ever the Kid had been really

missed. The Old Man had not seen the Kid ride up the hill--but he

had been sitting with his chair turned away from the road, and he was

worried about other things and so might easily have missed seeing him.

The Countess had been taking a nap, and she was not expected to know

anything about his departure. And she had not looked into the doughnut

jar--indeed, she was so upset by supper time that, had she looked, she

would not have missed the doughnuts. For the same reason Ole did not

miss his blanket. Ole had not been near his bed; he was out riding and

searching and calling through the coulee and up toward the old Denson

place.



No one dreamed that the Kid had started out with a camp-outfit--if one

might call it that--and with the intention of joining the Happy Family

in the breaks, and of helping them gather their cattle. How could they

dream that? How could they realize that a child who still liked to

be told bedtime stories and to be rocked to sleep, should harbor such

man-size thoughts and ambitions? How could they know that the Kid was

being "a rell ole cowpuncher"?



That night the whole Happy Family, just returned from the Badlands and

warned by Chip at dusk that the Kid was missing, hunted the coulees that

bordered the benchland. A few of the nesters who had horses and could

ride them hunted also. The men who worked at the Flying U hunted, and

Chip hunted frantically. Chip just about worshipped that kid, and in

spite of his calmness and his optimism when he talked to the Little

Doctor, you can imagine the state of mind he was in.



At sunrise they straggled in to the ranch, caught up fresh horses,

swallowed a cup of coffee and what food they could choke down and

started out again. At nine o'clock a party came out from Dry Lake,

learned that the Kid was not yet found, and went out under a captain to

comb systematically through the hills and the coulees.



Before night all the able-bodied men in the country and some who were

not--were searching. It is astonishing how quickly a small army will

volunteer in such an emergency; and it doesn't seem to matter very much

that the country seems big and empty of people ordinarily. They come

from somewhere, when they're needed.



The Little Doctor--oh, let us not talk about the Little Doctor. Such

agonies as she suffered go too deep for words.



The next day after that, Chip saddled a horse and let her ride beside

him. Chip was afraid to leave her at the ranch--afraid that she would

go mad. So he let her ride--they rode together. They did not go far from

the ranch. There was always the fear that someone might bring him in

while they were gone. That fear drove them back, every hour or two. Then

another fear would drive them forth again.



Up in another county there is a creek called Lost Child Creek. A child

was lost--or was it two children?--and men hunted and hunted and hunted,

and it was months before anything was found. Then a cowboy riding that

way found--just bones. Chip knew about that creek which is called Lost

Child. He had been there and he had heard the story, and he had seen

the--father and had shuddered--and that was long before he had known the

feeling a father has for his child. What he was deadly afraid of now

was that the Little Doctor would hear about that creek, and how it had

gotten its name.



What he dreaded most for himself was to think of that creek. He kept

the Little Doctor beside him and away from that Job's comforter, the

Countess, and tried to keep her hope alive while the hours dragged their

leaden feet over the hearts of them all.



A camp was hastily organized in One Man Coulee and another out beyond

Denson's place, and men went there to the camps for a little food and

a little rest, when they could hold out no longer. Chip and the Little

Doctor rode from camp to camp, intercepted every party of searchers they

glimpsed on the horizon, and came back to the ranch, hollow-eyed and

silent for the most part. They would rest an hour, perhaps. Then they

would ride out again.



The Happy Family seemed never to think of eating, never to want sleep.

Two days--three days--four days--the days became a nightmare. Irish,

with a warrant out for his arrest, rode with the constable, perhaps--if

the search chanced to lead them together. Or with Big Medicine, whom he

had left in hot anger. H. J. Owens and these other claim-jumpers hunted

with the Happy Family and apparently gave not a thought to claims.



Miss Allen started out on the second day and hunted through all the

coulees and gulches in the neighborhood of her claim--coulees and

gulches that had been searched frantically two or three times before.

She had no time to make whimsical speeches to Andy Green, nor he to

listen. When they met, each asked the other for news, and separated

without a thought for each other. The Kid--they must find him--they

must.



The third day, Miss Allen put up a lunch, told her three claim partners

that she should not come back until night unless that poor child was

found, and that they need not look for her before dark and set out with

the twinkle all gone from her humorous brown eyes and her mouth very

determined.



She met Pink and the Native Son and was struck with the change which two

days of killing anxiety had made in them. True, they had not slept for

forty-eight hours, except an hour or two after they had been forced to

stop and eat. True, they had not eaten except in snatches. But it was

not that alone which made their faces look haggard and old and haunted.

They, too, were thinking of Lost Child Creek and How it had gotten its

name.



Miss Allen gleaned a little information from them regarding the general

whereabouts of the various searching parties. And then, having learned

that the foothills of the mountains were being searched minutely because

the Kid might have taken a notion to visit Meeker's; and that the

country around Wolf Butte was being searched, because he had once told

Big Medicine that when he got bigger and his dad would let him, he was

going over there and kill wolves to make Doctor Dell some rugs: and that

the country toward the river was being searched because the Kid always

wanted to see where the Happy Family drove the sheep to, that time

when Happy Jack got shot under the arm; that all the places the Kid had

seemed most interested in were being searched minutely--if it could be

possible to; search minutely a country the size of that! Having learned

all that, Miss Allen struck off by herself, straight down into the

Badlands where nobody seemed to have done much searching.



The reason for that was, that the Happy Family had come out of the

breaks on the day that the Kid was lost. They had not ridden together,

but in twos and threes because they drove out several small bunches of

cattle that they had gleaned, to a common centre in One Man Coulee. They

had traveled by the most feasible routes through that rough country, and

they had seen no sign of the Kid or any other rider.



They did not believe that he had come over that far, or even in that

direction; because a horseman would almost certainly have been sighted

by some of them in crossing a ridge somewhere.



It never occurred to anyone that the Kid might go down Flying U Creek

and so into the breaks and the Badlands. Flying U Creek was fenced, and

the wire gate was in its place--Chip had looked down along there, the

first night, and had found the gate up just as it always was kept. Why

should he suspect that the Kid had managed to open that gate and to

close it after him? A little fellow like that?



So the searching parties, having no clue to that one incident which

would at least have sent them in the right direction, kept to the

outlying fringe of gulches which led into the broken edge of the

benchland, and to the country west and north and south of these gulches.

At that, there was enough broken country to keep them busy for several

days, even when you consider the number of searchers.



Miss Allen did not want to go tagging along with some party. She did

not feel as if she could do any good that way, and she wanted to do some

good. She wanted to find that poor little fellow and take him to his

mother. She had met his mother, just the day before, and had ridden with

her for several miles. The look in the Little Doctor's eyes haunted

Miss Allen until she felt sometimes as if she must scream curses to the

heavens for so torturing a mother. And that was not all; she had looked

into Chip's face, last night--and she had gone home and cried until she

could cry no more, just with the pity of it.



She left the more open valley and rode down a long, twisting canyon

that was lined with cliffs so that it was impossible to climb out with a

horse. She was sure she could not get lost or turned around, in a place

like that, and it seemed to her as hopeful a place to search as any.

When you came to that, they all had to ride at random and trust to

luck, for there was not the faintest clue to guide them. So Miss Allen

considered that she could do no better than search all the patches of

brush in the canyon, and keep on going.



The canyon ended abruptly in a little flat, which she crossed. She had

not seen the tracks of any horse going down, but when she was almost

across the flat she discovered tracks of cattle, and now and then

the print of a shod hoof. Miss Allen began to pride herself on her

astuteness in reading these signs. They meant that some of the Happy

Family had driven cattle this way; which meant that they would have seen

little Claude Bennett--that was the Kid's real name, which no one except

perfect strangers ever used--they would have seen the Kid or his tracks,

if he had ridden down here.



Miss Allen, then, must look farther than this. She hesitated before

three or four feasible outlets to the little flat, and chose the one

farthest to the right. That carried her farther south, and deeper into a

maze of gulches and gorges and small, hidden valleys. She did not stop,

but she began to see that it was going to be pure chance, or the guiding

hand of a tender Providence, if one ever did find anybody in this

horrible jumble. She had never seen such a mess. She believed that poor

little tot had come down in here, after all; she could not see why,

but then you seldom did know why children took a notion to do certain

unbelievable things. Miss Allen had taught the primary grade in a city

school, and she knew a little about small boys and girls and the big

ideas they sometimes harbored.



She rode and rode, trying to put herself mentally in the Kid's place.

Trying to pick up the thread of logical thought--children were logical

sometimes--startlingly so.



"I wonder," she thought suddenly, "if he started out with the idea of

hunting cattle! I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he did--living on

a cattle ranch, and probably knowing that the men were down here

somewhere." Miss Allen, you see, came pretty close to the truth with her

guess.



Still, that did not help her find the Kid. She saw a high, bald peak

standing up at the mouth of the gorge down which she was at that time

picking her way, and she made up her mind to climb that peak and see

if she might not find him by looking from that point of vantage. So she

rode to the foot of the pinnacle, tied her horse to a bush and began to

climb.



Peaks like that are very deceptive in their height Miss Allen was slim

and her lungs were perfect, and she climbed steadily and as fast as

she dared. For all that it took her a long while to reach the top--much

longer than she expected. When she reached the black rock that looked,

from the bottom, like the highest point of the hill, she found that she

had not gone much more than two-thirds of the way up, and that the real

peak sloped back so that it could not be seen from below at all.



Miss Allen was a persistent young woman. She kept climbing until she

did finally reach the highest point, and could look down into gorges

and flats and tiny basins and canyons and upon peaks and ridges and

worm-like windings, and patches of timber and patches of grass and

patches of barren earth and patches of rocks all jumbled up together--.

Miss Allen gasped from something more than the climb, and sat down upon

a rock, stricken with a sudden, overpowering weakness. "God in heaven!"

she whispered, appalled. "What a place to get lost in!"



She sat there a while and stared dejectedly down upon that wild orgy of

the earth's upheaval which is the Badlands. She felt as though it was

sheer madness even to think of finding anybody in there. It was worse

than a mountain country, because in the mountains there is a certain

semblance of some system in the canyons and high ridges and peaks. Here

every thing--peaks, gorges, tiny valleys and all--seemed to be just

dumped down together. Peaks rose from the middle of canyons; canyons

were half the time blind pockets that ended abruptly against a cliff.



"Oh!" she cried aloud, jumpin up and gesticulating wildly. "Baby!

Little Claude! Here! Look up this way!" She saw him, down below, on the

opposite side from where she had left her horse.



The Kid was riding slowly up a gorge. Silver was picking his way

carefully over the rocks--they looked tiny, down there! And they were

not going toward home, by any means. They were headed directly away from

home.



The cheeks of Miss Allen were wet while she shouted and called and waved

her hands. He was alive, anyway. Oh, if his mother could only be told

that he was alive! Oh, why weren't there telephones or something where

they were needed! If his poor mother could see him!



Miss Allen called again, and the Kid heard her. She was sure that he

heard her, because he stopped--that pitiful, tiny speck down there on

the horse!--and she thought he looked up at her. Yes, she was sure he

heard her, and that finally he saw her; because he took off his hat and

waved it over his head--just like a man, the poor baby!



Miss Allen considered going straight down to him, and then walking

around to where her horse was tied. She was afraid to leave him while

she went for the horse and rode around to where he was. She was afraid

she might miss him somehow the Badlands had stamped that fear deep into

her soul.



"Wait!" she shouted, her hands cupped around her trembling lips, tears

rolling down her cheeks "Wait baby! I'm coming for you." She hoped that

the Kid heard what she said, but she could not be sure, for she did not

hear him reply. But he did not go on at once, and she thought he would

wait.



Miss Allen picked up her skirts away from her ankles and started running

down the steep slope. The Kid, away down below, stared up at her. She

went down a third of the way, and stopped just in time to save herself

from going over a sheer wall of rocks--stopped because a rock which she

dislodged with her foot rolled down the slope a few feet, gave a leap

into space and disappeared.



A step at a time Miss Allen crept down to where the rock had bounced off

into nothingness, and gave one look and crouched close to the earth.

A hundred feet, it must be, straight down. After the first shock she

looked to the right and the left and saw that she must go back, and down

upon the other side.



Away down there at the bottom, the Kid sat still on his horse and stared

up at her. And Miss Allen calling to him that she would come, started

back up to the peak.





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