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 her 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 blood-vessel 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!"





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