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The Kid wriggled uncomfortably in the saddle and glanced at the narrow-browed face of H. J. Owens, who was looking this way and that at the enfolding hills and scowling abstractedly. The Kid was only six, but he was fairly good at reading moods and glances, having lived all his life amongst grown-ups.
"It's a pretty far ways to them baby bear cubs," he remarked. "I bet you're lost, old-timer. It's awful easy to get lost. I bet you don't know where that mother-bear lives."
"You shut up!" snarled H. J. Owens. The Kid had hit uncomfortably close to the truth.
"You shut up your own self, you darned pilgrim." the Kid flung back instantly. That was the way he learned to say rude things; they were said to him and he remembered and gave them back in full measure.
"Say, I'll slap you if you call me that again." H. J. Owens, because he did not relish the task he had undertaken, and because he had lost his bearing here in the confusion of hills and hollows and deep gullies, was in a very bad humor.
"You darn pilgrim, you dassent slap me. If you do the bunch'll fix you, all right. I guess they'd just about kill you. Daddy Chip would just knock the stuffin' outa you." He considered something very briefly, and then tilted his small chin so that he looked more than ever like the Little Doctor. "I bet you was just lying all the time," he accused. "I bet there ain't any baby bear cubs."
H. J. Owens laughed disagreeably, but he did not say whether or not the Kid was right in his conjecture. The Kid pinched his lips together and winked very fast for a minute. Never, never in all the six years of his life had anyone played him so shabby a trick. He knew what the laugh meant; it meant that this man had lied to him and led him away down here in the hills where he had promised his Doctor Dell, cross-his- heart, that he would never go again. He eyed the man resentfully.
"What made you lie about them baby bear cubs?" he demanded. "I didn't want to come such a far ways."
"You keep quiet. I've heard about enough from you, young man. A little more of that and you'll get something you ain't looking for."
"I'm a going home!" The Kid pulled Silver half around in the grassy gulch they were following. "And I'm going to tell the bunch what you said. I bet the bunch'll make you hard to ketch, you--you son-agun!"
"Here! You come back here, young man!" H. J. Owens reached over and caught Silver's bridle. "You don't go home till I let you go; see. You're going right along with me, if anybody should ask you. And you ain't going to talk like that either. now mind!" He turned his pale blue eyes threateningly upon the Kid. "Not another word out of you if you don't want a good thrashing. You come along and behave yourself or I'll cut your ears off."
The Kid's eyes blazed with anger. He did not flinch while he glared back at the man, and he did not seem to care, just at that moment, whether he lost his ears or kept them. "You let go my horse!" he gritted. "You wait. The bunch'll fix you, and fix you right. You wait!"
H. J. Owens hesitated, tempted to lay violent hands upon the small rebel. But he did not. He led Silver a rod or two, found it awkward, since the way was rough and he was not much of a horseman, and in a few minutes let the rein drop from his fingers.
"You come on, Buck, and be a good boy--and maybe we'll find them cubs yet," he conciliated. "You'd die a-laughing at the way they set up and scratch their ears when a big, black ant bites 'em, Buck. I'll show you in a little while. And there's a funny camp down here, too, where we can get some supper."
The Kid made no reply, but he rode along docilely beside H. J. Owens and listened to the new story he told of the bears. That is, he appeared to be listening; in reality he was struggling to solve the biggest problem he had ever known-- the problem of danger and of treachery. Poor little tad, he did not even know the names of his troubles. He only knew that this man had told him a lie about those baby bear cubs, and had brought him away down here where he had been lost, and that it was getting dark and he wanted to go home and the man was mean and would not let him go. He did not understand why the man should be so mean--but the man was mean to him, and he did not intend to "stand for it." He wanted to go home. And when the Kid really wanted to do a certain thing, he nearly always did it, as you may have observed.
H. J. Owens would not let him go home; therefore the Kid meant to go anyway. Only he would have to sneak off, or run off, or something, and hide where the man could not find him, and then go home to his Doctor Dell and Daddy Chip, and tell them how mean this pilgrim had been to him. And he would tell the bunch The bunch would fix him all right! The thought cheered the Kid so that he smiled and made the man think he was listening to his darned old bear story that was just a big lie. Think he would listen to any story that pilgrim could tell? Huh!
The gulches wore growing dusky now The Kid was tired, and he was hungry and could hardly keep from crying, he was so miserable. But he was the son of his father--he was Chip's kid; it would take a great deal more misery and unkindness to make him cry before this pilgrim who had been so mean to him. He rode along without saying a word. H. J. Owens did not say anything, either. He kept scanning each jagged peak and each gloomy canyon as they passed, and he seemed uneasy about something. The Kid knew what it was, all right; H. J. Owens was lost.
They came to a wide, flat-bottomed coulee with high ragged bluffs shutting it in upon every side. The Kid dimly remembered that coulee, because that was where Andy got down to tighten the cinch on Miss Allen's horse, and looked up at her the way Daddy Chip looked at Doctor Dell sometimes, and made a kiss with his lips--and got called down for it, too. The Kid remembered.
He looked at the man, shut his mouth tight and wheeled Silver suddenly to the left. He leaned forward as he had always seen the Happy Family do when they started a race, and struck Silver smartly down the rump with the braided romal on his bridle-reins. H. J. Owens was taken off his guard and did nothing but stare open-mouthed until the Kid was well under way; then he shouted and galloped after him, up the little flat.
He might as well have saved his horse's wind and his own energy. He was no match for little Buck Bennett, who had the whole Flying U outfit to teach him how to ride, and the spirit of his Daddy Chip and the little Doctor combined to give him grit and initiative. H. J. Owens pounded along to the head of the coulee, where he had seen the Kid galloping dimly in the dusk. He turned up into the canyon that sloped invitingly up from the level, and went on at the top speed of his horse--which was not fast enough to boast about.
When he had left the coulee well behind him, the Kid rode out from behind a clump of bushes that was a mere black shadow against the coulee wall, and turned back whence he had come. The Kid giggled a little over the way he had fooled the pilgrim, and wished that the bunch had been there to see him do it. He kept Silver galloping until he had reached the other end of the level, and then he pulled him down to a walk and let the reins drop loosely upon Silver's neck. That was what Daddy Chip and the boys had told him he must do, next time he got lost and did not know the way home. He must just let Silver go wherever he wanted to go, and not try to guide him at all. Silver would go straight home; he had the word of the whole bunch for that, and he believed it implicitly.
Silver looked back inquiringly at his small rider, hesitated and then swung back up the coulee. The Kid was afraid that H. J. Owens would come back and see him and cut off his ears if he went that way--but he did not pull Silver back and make him go some other way, for all that. If he left him alone, Silver would take him right straight home. Daddy Chip and the boys said so. And he would tell them how mean that man was. They would fix him, all right!
Halfway up the coulee Silver turned into a narrow gulch that seemed to lead nowhere at all except into the side of a big, black-shadowed bluff. Up on the hillside a coyote began to yap with a shrill staccato of sounds that trailed off into a disconsolate whimper. The Kid looked that way interestedly. He was not afraid of coyotes. They would not hurt anyone; they were more scared than you were--the bunch had told him so. He wished he could get a sight of him, though. He liked to see their ears stick up and their noses stick out in a sharp point, and see them drop their tails and go sliding away out of sight. When he was ten and Daddy Chip gave him a gun, he would shoot coyotes and skin them his own self.
The coyote yapped shrilly again, and the Kid wondered what his Doctor Dell would say when he got home. He was terribly hungry, and he was tired and wanted to go to bed. He wished the bunch would happen along and fix that man. His heart swelled in his chest with rage and disappointment when he thought of those baby bear cubs that were not anywhere at all--because the man was just lying all the time. In spite of himself the Kid cried whimperingly to himself while he rode slowly up the gorge which Silver had chosen to follow because the reins were drooping low alongside his neck and he might go where he pleased.
By and by the moon rose and lightened the hills so that they glowed softly; and the Kid, looking sleepily around him, saw a coyote slinking along a barren slope. He was going to shout at it and see it run, but he thought of the man who was looking for him and glanced fearfully over his shoulder. The moon shone full in his face and showed the tear-streaks and the tired droop to his lips.
The Kid thought he must be going wrong, because at the ranch the moon came up in another place altogether. He knew about the moon. Doctor Dell had explained to him how it just kept going round and round the world and you saw it when it came up over the edge. That was how Santa Claus found out if kids were good; he lived in the moon, and it went round and round so he could look down and see if you were bad. The Kid rubbed the tears off his cheeks with his palm, so that Santa Claus could not see that he had been crying. After that he rode bravely, with a consciously straight spine, because Santa Claus was looking at him all the time and he must be a rell ole cowpuncher.
After a long while the way grew less rough, and Silver trotted down the easier slopes. The Kid was pretty tired now. He held on by the horn of his saddle so Silver would not jolt him so much. He was terribly hungry, too, and his eyes kept going shut. But Santa Claus kept looking at him to see if he were a dead game sport, so he did not cry any more. He wished he had some grub in a sack, but he thought he must be nearly home now. He had come a terribly far ways since he ran away from that pilgrim who was going to cut off his ears.
The Kid was so sleepy, and so tired that he almost fell out of the saddle once when Silver, who had been loping easily across a fairly level stretch of ground, slowed abruptly to negotiate a washout crossing. He had been thinking about those baby bear cubs digging ants and eating them. He had almost seen them doing it; but he remembered now that he was going home to tell the bunch how the man had lied to him and tried to make him stay down here. The bunch would sure fix him when they heard about that.
He was still thinking vengefully of the punishment which the Happy Family would surely mete out to H. J. Owens when Silver lifted his head, looked off to the right and gave a shrill whinny. Somebody shouted, and immediately a couple of horsemen emerged from the shadow of a hill and galloped toward him.
The Kid gave a cry and then laughed. It was his Daddy Chip and somebody. He thought the other was Andy Green. He was too tired to kick Silver in the ribs and race toward them. He waited until they came up, their horses pounding over the uneven sod urged by the jubilance of their riders.
Chip rode up and lifted the Kid bodily from the saddle and held him so tight in his arms that the Kid kicked half- heartedly with both feet, to free himself. But he had a message for his Daddy Chip, and as soon as he could get his breath he delivered it.
"Daddy Chip, I just want you to kill that damn' pilgrim!" he commanded. "There wasn't any baby bear cubs at all. He was just a-stringin' me. And he was going to cut off my ears. He said it wasn't a far ways to where the baby bear cubs lived with the old mother bear, and it was. I wish you'd lick the stuffin' outa him. I'm awful hungry, Daddy Chip."
"We'll be home pretty quick," Chip said in a queer, choked voice. "Who was the man, Buck? Where is he now?"
The Kid lifted his head sleepily from his Daddy Chip's shoulder and pointed vaguely toward the moon. "He's the man that jumped Andy's ranch right on the edge of One Man," he explained. "He's back there ridin' the rim-rocks a lookin' for me. I'd a come home before, only he wouldn't let me come. He said he'd cut my ears off. I runned away from him, Daddy Chip. And I cussed him a plenty for lying to me--but you needn't tell Doctor Dell."
"I won't, Buck." Chip lifted him into a more comfortable position and held him so. While the Kid slept he talked with Andy about getting the Happy Family on the trail of H. J. Owens. Then he rode thankfully home with the Kid in his arms and Silver following docilely after.
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