THE YOUNG FORESTER
By Zane Grey
I. CHOOSING A PROFESSION
I loved outdoor life and hunting. Some way a grizzly bear would come in when I tried to explain forestry to my brother.
"Hunting grizzlies!" he cried. "Why, Ken, father says you've been reading dime novels."
"Just wait, Hal, till he comes out here. I'll show him that forestry isn't just bear-hunting."
My brother Hal and I were camping a few days on the Susquehanna River, and we had divided the time between fishing and tramping. Our camp was on the edge of a forest some eight miles from Harrisburg. The property belonged to our father, and he had promised to drive out to see us. But he did not come that day, and I had to content myself with winning Hal over to my side.
"Ken, if the governor lets you go to Arizona can't you ring me in?"
"Not this summer. I'd be afraid to ask him. But in another year I'll do it."
"Won't it be great? But what a long time to wait! It makes me sick to think of you out there riding mustangs and hunting bears and lions."
"You'll have to stand it. You're pretty much of a kid, Hal—not yet fourteen. Besides, I've graduated."
"Kid!" exclaimed Hal, hotly. "You're not such a Methuselah yourself! I'm nearly as big as you. I can ride as well and play ball as well, and I can beat you all—"
"Hold on, Hal! I want you to help me to persuade father, and if you get your temper up you'll like as not go against me. If he lets me go I'll bring you in as soon as I dare. That's a promise. I guess I know how much I'd like to have you."
"All right," replied Hal, resignedly. "I'll have to hold in, I suppose. But I'm crazy to go. And, Ken, the cowboys and lions are not all that interest me. I like what you tell me about forestry. But who ever heard of forestry as a profession?"
"It's just this way, Hal. The natural resources have got to be conserved, and the Government is trying to enlist intelligent young men in the work—particularly in the department of forestry. I'm not exaggerating when I say the prosperity of this country depends upon forestry."
I have to admit that I was repeating what I had read.
"Why does it? Tell me how," demanded Hal.
"Because the lumbermen are wiping out all the timber and never thinking of the future. They are in such a hurry to get rich that they'll leave their grandchildren only a desert. They cut and slash in every direction, and then fires come and the country is ruined. Our rivers depend upon the forests for water. The trees draw the rain; the leaves break it up and let it fall in mists and drippings; it seeps into the ground, and is held by the roots. If the trees are destroyed the rain rushes off on the surface and floods the rivers. The forests store up water, and they do good in other ways."
"We've got to have wood and lumber," said Hal.
"Of course we have. But there won't be any unless we go in for forestry. It's been practiced in Germany for three hundred years."
We spent another hour talking about it, and if Hal's practical sense, which he inherited from father, had not been offset by his real love for the forests I should have been discouraged. Hal was of an industrious turn of mind; he meant to make money, and anything that was good business appealed strongly to him. But, finally, he began to see what I was driving at; he admitted that there was something in the argument.
The late afternoon was the best time for fishing. For the next two hours our thoughts were of quivering rods and leaping bass.
"You'll miss the big bass this August," remarked Hal, laughing. "Guess you won't have all the sport."
"That's so, Hal," I replied, regretfully. "But we're talking as if it were a dead sure thing that I'm going West. Well, I only hope so."
What Hal and I liked best about camping—of course after the fishing—was to sit around the campfire. Tonight it was more pleasant than ever, and when darkness fully settled down it was even thrilling. We talked about bears. Then Hal told of mountain-lions and the habit they have of creeping stealthily after hunters. There was a hoot-owl crying dismally up in the woods, and down by the edge of the river bright-green eyes peered at us from the darkness. When the wind came up and moaned through the trees it was not hard to imagine we were out in the wilderness. This had been a favorite game for Hal and me; only tonight there seemed some reality about it. From the way Hal whispered, and listened, and looked, he might very well have been expecting a visit from lions or, for that matter, even from Indians. Finally we went to bed. But our slumbers were broken. Hal often had nightmares even on ordinary nights, and on this one he moaned so much and thrashed about the tent so desperately that I knew the lions were after him.
I dreamed of forest lands with snow-capped peaks rising in the background; I dreamed of elk standing on the open ridges, of white-tailed deer trooping out of the hollows, of antelope browsing on the sage at the edge of the forests. Here was the broad track of a grizzly in the snow; there on a sunny crag lay a tawny mountain-lion asleep. The bronzed cowboy came in for his share, and the lone bandit played his part in a way to make me shiver. The great pines, the shady, brown trails, the sunlit glades, were as real to me as if I had been among them. Most vivid of all was the lonely forest at night and the campfire. I heard the sputter of the red embers and smelled the wood smoke; I peered into the dark shadows watching and listening for I knew not what.
On the next day early in the afternoon father appeared on the river road.
"There he is," cried Hal. "He's driving Billy. How he's coming."
Billy was father's fastest horse. It pleased me immensely to see the pace, for father would not have been driving fast unless he were in a particularly good humor. And when he stopped on the bank above camp I could have shouted. He wore his corduroys as if he were ready for outdoor life. There was a smile on his face as he tied Billy, and, coming down, he poked into everything in camp and asked innumerable questions. Hal talked about the bass until I was afraid he would want to go fishing and postpone our forestry tramp in the woods. But presently he spoke directly to me.
"Well, Kenneth, are you going to come out with the truth about that Wild-West scheme of yours? Now that you've graduated you want a fling. You want to ride mustangs, to see cowboys, to hunt and shoot—all that sort of thing."
When father spoke in such a way it usually meant the defeat of my schemes. I grew cold all over.
"Yes, father, I'd like all that—But I mean business. I want to be a forest ranger. Let me go to Arizona this summer. And in the fall I'd—I'd like to go to a school of forestry."
There! the truth was out, and my feelings were divided between relief and fear. Before father could reply I launched into a set speech upon forestry, and talked till I was out of breath.
"There's something in what you say," replied my father. "You've been reading up on the subject?"
"Everything I could get, and I've been trying to apply my knowledge in the woods. I love the trees. I'd love an outdoor life. But forestry won't be any picnic. A ranger must be able to ride and pack, make trail and camp, live alone in the woods, fight fire and wild beasts. Oh! It'd be great!"
"I dare say," said father, dryly; "particularly the riding and shooting. Well, I guess you'll make a good-enough doctor to suit me."
"Give me a square deal," I cried, jumping up. "Mayn't I have one word to say about my future? Wouldn't you rather have me happy and successful as a forester, even if there is danger, than just an ordinary, poor doctor? Let's go over our woodland. I'll prove that you are letting your forest run down. You've got sixty acres of hard woods that ought to be bringing a regular income. If I can't prove it, if I can't interest you, I'll agree to study medicine. But if I do you're to let me try forestry."
"Well, Kenneth, that's a fair proposition," returned father, evidently surprised at my earnestness "Come on. We'll go up in the woods. Hal, I suppose he's won you over?"
"Ken's got a big thing in mind," replied Hal, loyally "It's just splendid."
I never saw the long, black-fringed line of trees without joy in the possession of them and a desire to be among them. The sixty acres of timber land covered the whole of a swampy valley, spread over a rolling hill sloping down to the glistening river.
"Now, son? go ahead," said my father, as we clambered over a rail fence and stepped into the edge of shade..
"Well, father—" I began, haltingly, and could not collect my thoughts. Then we were in the cool woods. It was very still, there being only a faint rustling of leaves and the mellow note of a hermit-thrush. The deep shadows were lightened by shafts of sunshine which, here and there, managed to pierce the canopy of foliage. Somehow, the feeling roused by these things loosened my tongue.
"This is an old hard-wood forest," I began. "Much of the white oak, hickory, ash, maple, is virgin timber. These trees have reached maturity; many are dead at the tops; all of them should have been cut long ago. They make too dense a shade for the seedlings to survive. Look at that bunch of sapling maples. See how they reach up, trying to get to the light. They haven't a branch low down and the tops are thin. Yet maple is one of our hardiest trees. Growth has been suppressed. Do you notice there are no small oaks or hickories just here? They can't live in deep shade. Here's the stump of a white oak cut last fall. It was about two feet in diameter. Let's count the rings to find its age—about ninety years. It flourished in its youth and grew rapidly, but it had a hard time after about fifty years. At that time it was either burned, or mutilated by a falling tree, or struck by lightning."
"Now, how do you make that out?" asked father, intensely interested.
"See the free, wide rings from the pith out to about number forty-five. The tree was healthy up to that time. Then it met with an injury of some kind, as is indicated by this black scar. After that the rings grew narrower. The tree struggled to live."
We walked on with me talking as fast as I could get the words out. I showed father a giant, bushy chestnut which was dominating all the trees around it, and told him how it retarded their growth. On the other hand, the other trees were absorbing nutrition from the ground that would have benefited the chestnut.
"There's a sinful waste of wood here," I said, as we climbed over and around the windfalls and rotting tree-trunks. "The old trees die and are blown down. The amount of rotting wood equals the yearly growth. Now, I want to show you the worst enemies of the trees. Here's a big white oak, a hundred and fifty years old. It's almost dead. See the little holes bored in the bark. They were made by a beetle. Look!"
I swung my hatchet and split off a section of bark. Everywhere in the bark and round the tree ran little dust-filled grooves. I pried out a number of tiny brown beetles, somewhat the shape of a pinching-bug, only very much smaller.
"There! You'd hardly think that that great tree was killed by a lot of little bugs, would you? They girdle the trees and prevent the sap from flowing."
I found an old chestnut which contained nests of the deadly white moths, and explained how it laid its eggs, and how the caterpillars that came from them killed the trees by eating the leaves. I showed how mice and squirrels injured the forest by eating the seeds.
"First I'd cut and sell all the matured and dead timber. Then I'd thin out the spreading trees that want all the light, and the saplings that grow too close together. I'd get rid of the beetles, and try to check the spread of caterpillars. For trees grow twice as fast if they are not choked or diseased. Then I'd keep planting seeds and shoots in the open places, taking care to favor the species best adapted to the soil, and cutting those that don't grow well. In this way we'll be keeping our forest while doubling its growth and value, and having a yearly income from it."
"Kenneth, I see you're in dead earnest about this business," said my father, slowly. "Before I came out here today I had been looking up the subject, and I believe, with you, that forestry really means the salvation of our country. I think you are really interested, and I've a mind not to oppose you."
"You'll never regret it. I'll learn; I'll work up. Then it's an outdoor life—healthy, free—why! all the boys I've told take to the idea. There's something fine about it." "Forestry it is, then," replied he. "I like the promise of it, and I like your attitude. If you have learned so much while you were camping out here the past few summers it speaks well for you. But why do you want to go to Arizona?"
"Because the best chances are out West. I'd like to get a line on the National Forests there before I go to college. The work will be different; those Western forests are all pine. I've a friend, Dick Leslie, a fellow I used to fish with, who went West and is now a fire ranger in the new National Forest in Arizona—Penetier is the name of it. He has written me several times to come out and spend a while with him in the woods."
"Penetier? Where is that—near what town?"
"Holston. It's a pretty rough country, Dick says; plenty of deer, bears, and lions on his range. So I could hunt some while studying the forests. I think I'd be safe with Dick, even if it is wild out there."
"All right, I'll let you go. When you return we'll see about the college." Then he surprised me by drawing a letter from his pocket and handing it to me. "My friend, Mr. White, got this letter from the department at Washington. It may be of use to you out there."
So it was settled, and when father drove off homeward Hal and I went back to camp. It would have been hard to say which of us was the more excited. Hal did a war dance round the campfire. I was glad, however, that he did not have the little twinge of remorse which I experienced, for I had not told him or father all that Dick had written about the wilderness of Penetier. I am afraid my mind was as much occupied with rifles and mustangs as with the study of forestry. But, though the adventure called most strongly to me, I knew I was sincere about the forestry end of it, and I resolved that I would never slight my opportunities. So, smothering conscience, I fell to the delight of making plans. I was for breaking camp at once, but Hal persuaded me to stay one more day. We talked for hours. Only one thing bothered me. Hal was jolly and glum by turns. He reveled in the plans for my outfit, but he wanted his own chance. A thousand times I had to repeat my promise, and the last thing he said before we slept was: "Ken, you're going to ring me in next summer!"
II. THE MAN ON THE TRAIN
Travelling was a new experience to me, and on the first night after I left home I lay awake until we reached Altoona. We rolled out of smoky Pittsburg at dawn, and from then on the only bitter drop in my cup of bliss was that the train went so fast I could not see everything out of my window.
Four days to ride! The great Mississippi to cross, the plains, the Rocky Mountains, then the Arizona plateaus-a long, long journey with a wild pine forest at the end! I wondered what more any young fellow could have wished. With my face glued to the car window I watched the level country speed by.
There appeared to be one continuous procession of well-cultivated farms, little hamlets, and prosperous towns. What interested me most, of course, were the farms, for all of them had some kind of wood. We passed a zone of maple forests which looked to be more carefully kept than the others. Then I recognized that they were maple-sugar trees. The farmers had cleaned out the other species, and this primitive method of forestry had produced the finest maples it had ever been my good-fortune to see. Indiana was flatter than Ohio, not so well watered, and therefore less heavily timbered. I saw, with regret, that the woodland was being cut regularly, tree after tree, and stacked in cords for firewood.
At Chicago I was to change for Santa Fe, and finding my train in the station I climbed aboard. My car was a tourist coach. Father had insisted on buying a ticket for the California Limited, but I had argued that a luxurious Pullman was not exactly the thing for a prospective forester. Still I pocketed the extra money which I had assured him he need not spend for the first-class ticket.
The huge station, with its glaring lights and clanging bells, and the outspreading city, soon gave place to prairie land.
That night I slept little, but the very time I wanted to be awake—when we crossed the Mississippi—I was slumbering soundly, and so missed it.
"I'll bet I don't miss it coming back," I vowed.
The sight of the Missouri, however, somewhat repaid me for the loss. What a muddy, wide river! And I thought of the thousands of miles of country it drained, and of the forests there must be at its source. Then came the never-ending Kansas corn-fields. I do not know whether it was their length or their treeless monotony, but I grew tired looking at them.
From then on I began to take some notice of my fellow-travelers. The conductor proved to be an agreeable old fellow; and the train-boy, though I mistrusted his advances because he tried to sell me everything from chewing-gum to mining stock, turned out to be pretty good company. The Negro porter had such a jolly voice and laugh that I talked to him whenever I got the chance. Then occasional passengers occupied the seat opposite me from town to town. They were much alike, all sunburned and loud-voiced, and it looked as though they had all bought their high boots and wide hats at the same shop.
The last traveller to face me was a very heavy man with a great bullet head and a shock of light hair. His blue eyes had a bold flash, his long mustache drooped, and there was something about him that I did not like. He wore a huge diamond in the bosom of his flannel shirt, and a leather watch-chain that was thick and strong enough to have held up a town-clock.
"Hot," he said, as he mopped his moist brow.
"Not so hot as it was," I replied.
"Sure not. We're climbin' a little. He's whistlin' for Dodge City now."
"Dodge City?" I echoed, with interest. The name brought back vivid scenes from certain yellow-backed volumes, and certain uncomfortable memories of my father's displeasure. "Isn't this the old cattle town where there used to be so many fights?"
"Sure. An' not so very long ago. Here, look out the window." He clapped his big hand on my knee; then pointed. "See that hill there. Dead Man's Hill it was once, where they buried the fellers as died with their boots on."
I stared, and even stretched my neck out of the window.
"Yes, old Dodge was sure lively," he continued, as our train passed on. "I seen a little mix-up there myself in the early eighties. Five cow-punchers, friends they was, had been visitin' town. One feller, playful-like, takes another feller's quirt—that's a whip. An' the other feller, playful-like, says, 'Give it back.' Then they tussles for it, an' rolls on the ground. I was laughin', as was everybody, when, suddenly, the owner of the quirt thumps his friend. Both cowboys got up, slow, an' watchin' of each other. Then the first feller, who had started the play, pulls his gun. He'd hardly flashed it when they all pulls guns, an' it was some noisy an' smoky. In about five seconds there was five dead cowpunchers. Killed themselves, as you might say, just for fun. That's what life was worth in old Dodge." After this story I felt more kindly disposed ward my travelling companion, and would have asked for more romances but the conductor came along and engaged him in conversation. Then my neighbor across the aisle, a young fellow not much older than myself, asked me to talk to him.
"Why, yes, if you like," I replied, in surprise. He was pale; there were red spots in his cheeks, and dark lines under his weary eyes.
"You look so strong and eager that it's done me good to watch you," he explained, with a sad smile. "You see—I'm sick."
I told him I was very sorry, and hoped he would get well soon.
"I ought to have come West sooner," he replied, "but I couldn't get the money."
He looked up at me and then out of the window at the sun setting red across the plains. I tried to make him think of something beside himself, but I made a mess of it. The meeting with him was a shock to me. Long after dark, when I had stretched out for the night, I kept thinking of him and contrasting what I had to look forward to with his dismal future. Somehow it did not seem fair, and I could not get rid of the idea that I was selfish.
Next day I had my first sight of real mountains. And the Pennsylvania hills, that all my life had appeared so high, dwindled to nothing. At Trinidad, where we stopped for breakfast, I walked out on the platform sniffing at the keen thin air. When we crossed the Raton Mountains into New Mexico the sick boy got off at the first station, and I waved good-bye to him as the train pulled out. Then the mountains and the funny little adobe huts and the Pueblo Indians along the line made me forget everything else.
The big man with the heavy watch-chain was still on the train, and after he had read his newspaper he began to talk to me.
"This road follows the old trail that the goldseekers took in forty-nine," he said. "We're comin' soon to a place, Apache Pass, where the Apaches used to ambush the wagon-trains, It's somewheres along here."
Presently the train wound into a narrow yellow ravine, the walls of which grew higher and higher.
"Them Apaches was the worst redskins ever in the West. They used to hide on top of this pass an' shoot down on the wagon-trains."
Later in the day he drew my attention to a mountain standing all by itself. It was shaped like a cone, green with trees almost to the summit, and ending in a bare stone peak that had a flat top.
"Starvation Peak," he said. "That name's three hundred years old, dates back to the time the Spaniards owned this land. There's a story about it that's likely true enough. Some Spaniards were attacked by Indians an' climbed to the peak, expectin' to be better able to defend themselves up there. The Indians camped below the peak an' starved the Spaniards. Stuck there till they starved to death! That's where it got its name."
"Those times you tell of must have been great," I said, regretfully. "I'd like to have been here then. But isn't the country all settled now? Aren't the Indians dead? There's no more fighting?"
"It's not like it used to be, but there's still warm places in the West. Not that the Indians break out often any more. But bad men are almost as bad, if not so plentiful, as when Billy the Kid run these parts. I saw two men shot an' another knifed jest before I went East to St. Louis."
"In Arizona. Holston is the station where I get off, an' it happened near there."
"Holston is where I'm going."
"You don't say. Well, I'm glad to meet you, young man. My name's Buell, an' I'm some known in Holston. What's your name?"
He eyed me in a sharp but not unfriendly manner, and seemed pleased to learn of my destination.
"Ward. Kenneth Ward. I'm from Pennsylvania."
"You haven't got the bugs. Any one can see that," he said, and as I looked puzzled he went on with a smile, and a sounding rap on his chest: "Most young fellers as come out here have consumption. They call it bugs. I reckon you're seekin' your fortune."'
"Yes, in a way."
"There's opportunities for husky youngsters out here. What're you goin' to rustle for, if I may ask?"
"I'm going in for forestry."
"Forestry? Do you mean lumberin'?"
"No. Forestry is rather the opposite of lumbering. I'm going in for Government forestry—to save the timber, not cut it."
It seemed to me he gave a little start of surprise; he certainly straightened up and looked at me hard.
"What's Government forestry?"
I told him to the best of my ability. He listened attentively enough, but thereafter he had not another word for me, and presently he went into the next car. I took his manner to be the Western abruptness that I had heard of, and presently forgot him in the scenery along the line. At Albuquerque I got off for a trip to a lunch-counter, and happened to take a seat next to him.
"Know anybody in Holston?" he asked.
As I could not speak because of a mouthful of sandwich I shook my head. For the moment I had forgotten about Dick Leslie, and when it did occur to me some Indians offering to sell me beads straightway drove it out of my mind again.
When I awoke the next day, it was to see the sage ridges and red buttes of Arizona. We were due at Holston at eight o'clock, but owing to a crippled engine the train was hours late. At last I fell asleep to be awakened by a vigorous shake.
"Holston. Your stop. Holston," the conductor was saying.
"All right," I said, sitting up and then making a grab for my grip. "We're pretty late, aren't we?"
"Six hours. It's two o'clock."
"Hope I can get a room," I said, as I followed him out on the platform. He held up his lantern so that the light would shine in my face. "There's a hotel down the street a block or so. Better hurry and look sharp. Holston's not a safe place for a stranger at night."
I stepped off into a windy darkness. A lamp glimmered in the station window. By its light I made out several men, the foremost of whom had a dark, pointed face and glittering eyes. He wore a strange hat, and I knew from pictures I had seen that he was a Mexican. Then the bulky form of Buell loomed up. I called, but evidently he did not hear me. The men took his grips, and they moved away to disappear in the darkness. While I paused, hoping to see some one to direct me, the train puffed out, leaving me alone on the platform.
When I turned the corner I saw two dim lights, one far to the left, the other to the right, and the black outline of buildings under what appeared to be the shadow of a mountain. It was the quietest and darkest town I had ever struck.
I decided to turn toward the right-hand light, for the conductor had said "down the street." I set forth at a brisk pace, but the loneliness and strangeness of the place were rather depressing.
Before I had gone many steps, however, the sound of running water halted me, and just in the nick of time, for I was walking straight into a ditch. By peering hard into the darkness and feeling my way I found a bridge. Then it did not take long to reach the light. But it was a saloon, and not the hotel. One peep into it served to make me face about in double-quick time, and hurry in the opposite direction.
Hearing a soft footfall, I glanced over my shoulder, to see the Mexican that I had noticed at the station. He was coming from across the street. I wondered if he were watching me. He might be. My heart began to beat violently. Turning once again, I discovered that the fellow could not be seen in the pitchy blackness. Then I broke into a run.
III. THE TRAIL
A short dash brought me to the end of the block; the side street was not so dark, and after I had crossed this open space I glanced backward.
Soon I sped into a wan circle of light, and, reaching a door upon which was a hotel sign, I burst in. Chairs were scattered about a bare office; a man stirred on a couch, and then sat up, blinking.
"I'm afraid—I believe some one's chasing me," I said.
He sat there eying me, and then drawled, sleepily:
"Thet ain't no call to wake a feller, is it?"
The man settled himself comfortably again, and closed his eyes.
"Say, isn't this a hotel? I want a room!" I cried.
"Up-stairs; first door." And with that the porter went to sleep in good earnest.
I made for the stairs, and, after a backward look into the street, I ran up. A smelly lamp shed a yellowish glare along a hall. I pushed open the first door, and, entering the room, bolted myself in. Then all the strength went out of my legs. When I sat down on the bed I was in a cold sweat and shaking like a leaf. Soon the weakness passed, and I moved about the room, trying to find a lamp or candle. Evidently the hotel, and, for that matter, the town of Holston, did not concern itself with such trifles as lights. On the instant I got a bad impression of Holston. I had to undress in the dark. When I pulled the window open a little at the top the upper sash slid all the way down. I managed to get it back, and tried raising the lower sash. It was very loose, but it stayed up. Then I crawled into bed.
Though I was tired and sleepy, my mind whirled so that I could not get to sleep. If I had been honest with myself I should have wished myself back home. Pennsylvania seemed a long way off, and the adventures that I had dreamed of did not seem so alluring, now that I was in a lonely room in a lonely, dark town. Buell had seemed friendly and kind—at least, in the beginning. Why had he not answered my call? The incident did not look well to me. Then I fell to wondering if the Mexican had really followed me. The first thing for me in the morning would be to buy a revolver. Then if any Mexicans—
A step on the tin roof outside frightened me stiff. I had noticed a porch, or shed, under my window. Some one must have climbed upon it. I stopped breathing to listen. For what seemed moments there was no sound. I wanted to think that the noise might have been made by a cat, but I couldn't. I was scared—frightened half to death.
If there had been a bolt on the window the matter would not have been so disturbing. I lay there a-quiver, eyes upon the gray window space of my room. Dead silence once more intervened. All I heard was the pound of my heart against my ribs.
Suddenly I froze at the sight of a black figure against the light of my window. I recognized the strange bat, the grotesque outlines. I was about to shout for help when the fellow reached down and softly began to raise the sash.
That made me angry. Jerking up in bed, I caught the heavy pitcher from the wash-stand and flung it with all my might.
Had I smashed out the whole side of the room it could scarcely have made more noise. Accompanied by the clinking of glass and the creaking of tin, my visitor rolled off the roof. I waited, expecting an uproar from the other inmates of the hotel. No footstep, no call sounded within hearing. Once again the stillness settled down.
Then, to my relief, the gray gloom lightened, and dawn broke. Never had I been so glad to see the morning. While dressing I cast gratified glances at the ragged hole in the window. With the daylight my courage had returned, and I began to have a sort of pride in my achievement.
"If that fellow had known how I can throw a baseball he'd have been careful," I thought, a little cockily.
I went down-stairs into the office. The sleepy porter was mopping the floor. Behind the desk stood a man so large that he made Buell seem small. He was all shoulders and beard.
"Can I get breakfast?"
"Nobody's got a half-hitch on you, has they?" he replied, jerking a monstrous thumb over his shoulder toward a door.
I knew the words half-hitch had something to do with a lasso, and I was rather taken back by the hotel proprietor's remark. The dining-room was more attractive than anything I had yet seen about the place: the linen was clean, and the ham and eggs and coffee that were being served to several rugged men gave forth a savory odor. But either the waiter was blind or he could not bear, for he paid not the slightest attention to me. I waited, while trying to figure out the situation. Something was wrong, and, whatever it was, I guessed that it must be with me. After about an hour I got my breakfast. Then I went into the office, intending to be brisk, businesslike, and careful about asking questions.
"I'd like to pay my bill, and also for a little damage," I said, telling what had happened.
"Somebody'll kill thet Greaser yet," was all the comment the man made.
I went outside, not knowing whether to be angry or amused with these queer people. In the broad light of day Holston looked as bad as it had made me feel by night. All I could see were the station and freight-sheds, several stores with high, wide signs, glaringly painted, and a long block of saloons. When I had turned a street corner, however, a number of stores came into view with some three-storied brick buildings, and, farther out, many frame houses.
Moreover, this street led my eye to great snowcapped mountains, and I stopped short in my tracks, for I realized they were the Arizona peaks. Up the swelling slopes swept a black fringe that I knew to be timber. The mountains appeared to be close, but I knew that even the foot-bills were miles away. Penetier, I remembered from one of Dick's letters, was on the extreme northern slope, and it must be anywhere from forty to sixty miles off. The sharp, white peaks glistened in the morning sun; the air had a cool touch of snow and a tang of pine. I drew in a full breath, with a sense on being among the pines.
Now I must buy my outfit and take the trail for Penetier. This I resolved to do with as few questions as possible. I never before was troubled by sensitiveness, but the fact had dawned upon me that I did not like being taken for a tenderfoot. So, with this in mind, I entered a general merchandise store.
It was very large, and full of hardware, harness, saddles, blankets—everything that cowboys and ranchmen use. Several men, two in shirt-sleeves, were chatting near the door. They saw me come in, and then, for all that it meant to them, I might as well not have been in existence at all. So I sat down to wait, determined to take Western ways and things as I found them. I sat there fifteen minutes by my watch. This was not so bad; but when a lanky, red-faced, leather-legged individual came in too he at once supplied with his wants, I began to get angry. I waited another five minutes, and still the friendly chatting went on. Finally I could stand it no longer.
"Will somebody wait on me?" I demanded.
One of the shirt-sleeved men leisurely got up and surveyed me.
"Do you want to buy something?" he drawled.
"Yes, I do."
"Why didn't you say so?"
The reply trembling on my lips was cut short by the entrance of Buell.
"Hello!" he said in a loud voice, shaking hands with me. "You've trailed into the right place. Smith, treat this lad right. It's guns an' knives an' lassoes he wants, I'll bet a hoss."
"Yes, I want an outfit," I said, much embarrassed. "I'm going to meet a friend out in Penetier, a ranger—Dick Leslie."
Buell started violently, and his eyes flashed. "Dick—Dick Leslie!" he said, and coughed loudly. "I know Dick.... So you're a friend of his'n? ... Now, let me help you with the outfit."
Anything strange in Buell's manner was forgotten, in the absorbing interest of my outfit. Father had given me plenty of money, so that I had but to choose. I had had sense enough to bring my old corduroys and boots, and I had donned them that morning. One after another I made my purchases—Winchester, revolver, bolsters, ammunition, saddle, bridle, lasso, blanket. When I got so far, Buell said: "You'll need a mustang an' a pack-pony. I know a feller who's got jest what you want." And with that he led me out of the store.
"Now you take it from me," he went on, in a fatherly voice, "Holston people haven't got any use for Easterners. An' if you mention your business—forestry an' that—why, you wouldn't be safe. There's many in the lumberin' business here as don't take kindly to the Government. See! That's why I'm givin' you advice. Keep it to yourself an' hit the trail today, soon as you can. I'll steer you right."
I was too much excited to answer clearly; indeed, I hardly thanked him. However, he scarcely gave me the chance. He kept up his talk about the townspeople and their attitude toward Easterners until we arrived at a kind of stock-yard full of shaggy little ponies. The sight of them drove every other thought out of my head.
"Mustangs!" I exclaimed.
"Sure. Can you ride?"
"Oh yes. I have a horse at home.... What wiry little fellows! They're so wild-looking."
"You pick out the one as suits you, an' I'll step into Cless's here. He's the man who owns this bunch."
It did not take me long to decide. A black mustang at once took my eye. When he had been curried and brushed he would be a little beauty. I was trying to coax him to me when Buell returned with a man.
"Thet your pick?" he asked, as I pointed. "Well, now, you're not so much of a tenderfoot. Thet's the best mustang in the lot. Cless, how much for him, an' a pack-pony an' pack-saddle?"
"I reckon twenty dollars'll make it square," replied the owner.
This nearly made me drop with amazement. I had only about seventy-five dollars left, and I had been very much afraid that I could not buy the mustang, let alone the pack-pony and saddle.
"Cless, send round to Smith for the lad's outfit, an' saddle up for him at once." Then he turned to me. "Now some grub, an' a pan or two."
Having camped before, I knew how to buy supplies. Buell, however, cut out much that I wanted, saying the thing to think of was a light pack for the pony.
"I'll hurry to the hotel and get my things," I said, "and meet you here. I'll not be a moment."
But Buell said it would be better for him to go with me, though he did not explain. He kept with me, still he remained in the office while I went up-stairs. Somehow this suited me, for I did not want him to see the broken window. I took a few things from my grip and rolled them in a bundle. Then I took a little leather case of odds and ends I had always carried when camping and slipped it into my pocket. Hurrying down-stairs I left my grip with the porter, wrote and mailed a postal card to my father, and followed the impatient Buell.
"You see, it's a smart lick of a ride to Penetier, and I want to get there before dark," he explained, kindly.
I could have shouted for very glee when I saw the black mustang saddled and bridled.
"He's well broke," said Cless. "Keep his bridle down when you ain't in the saddle. An' find a patch of grass fer him at night. The pony'll stick to him."
Cless fell to packing a lean pack-pony.
"Watch me do this," said he; "you'll hev trouble if you don't git the hang of the diamondhitch."
I watched him set the little wooden criss-cross on the pony's back, throw the balance of my outfit (which he had tied up in a canvas) over the saddle, and then pass a long rope in remarkable turns and wonderful loops round pony and pack.
"What's the mustang's name?" I inquired.
"Never had any," replied the former owner.
"Then it's Hal." I thought how that name would please my brother at home.
"Climb up. Let's see if you fit the stirrups," said Cless. "Couldn't be better."
"Now, young feller, you can hit the trail," put in Buell, with his big voice. "An' remember what I told you. This country ain't got much use for a feller as can't look out for himself."
He opened the gate, and led my mustang into the road and quite some distance. The pony jogged along after us. Then Buell stopped with a finger outstretched.
"There, at the end of this street, you'll find a trail. Hit it an' stick to it. All the little trail's leadin' into it needn't bother you."
He swept his hand round to the west of the mountain. The direction did not tally with the idea I had gotten from Dick's letter.
"I thought Penetier was on the north side of the mountains."
"Who said so?" he asked, staring. "Don't I know this country? Take it from me."
I thanked him, and, turning, with a light heart I faced the black mountain and my journey.
It was about ten o'clock when Hal jogged into a broad trail on the outskirts of Holston. A gray flat lay before me, on the other side of which began the slow rise of the slope. I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to run the mustang, but did not for the sake of the burdened pony. That sage-flat was miles wide, though it seemed so narrow. The back of the lower slope began to change to a dark green, which told me I was surely getting closer to the mountains, even if it did not seem so. The trail began to rise, and at last I reached the first pine-trees. They were a disappointment to me, being no larger than many of the white oaks at home, and stunted, with ragged dead tops. They proved to me that trees isolated from their fellows fare as poorly as trees overcrowded. Where pines grow closely, but not too closely, they rise straight and true, cleaning themselves of the low branches, and making good lumber, free of knots. Where they grow far apart, at the mercy of wind and heat and free to spread many branches, they make only gnarled and knotty lumber.
As I rode on the pines became slowly more numerous and loftier. Then, when I had surmounted what I took to be the first foot-hill, I came upon a magnificent forest. A little farther on the trail walled me in with great seamed trunks, six feet in diameter, rising a hundred feet before spreading a single branch.
Meanwhile my mustang kept steadily up the slow-rising trail, and the time passed. Either the grand old forest had completely bewitched me or the sweet smell of pine had intoxicated me, for as I rode along utterly content I entirely forgot about Dick and the trail and where I was heading. Nor did I come to my senses until Hal snorted and stopped before a tangled windfall.
Then I glanced down to see only the clean, brown pine-needles. There was no trail. Perplexed and somewhat anxious, I rode back a piece, expecting surely to cross the trail. But I did not. I went to the left and to the right, then circled in a wide curve. No trail! The forest about me seemed at once familiar and strange.
It was only when the long shadows began to creep under the trees that I awoke fully to the truth.
I had missed the trail! I was lost in the forest!
IV. LOST IN THE FOREST
For a moment I was dazed. And then came panic. I ran up this ridge and that one, I rushed to and fro over ground which looked, whatever way I turned, exactly the same. And I kept saying, "I'm lost! I'm lost!" Not until I dropped exhausted against a pine-tree did any other thought come to me.
The moment that I stopped running about so aimlessly the panicky feeling left me. I remembered that for a ranger to be lost in the forest was an every-day affair, and the sooner I began that part of my education the better. Then it came to me how foolish I had been to get alarmed, when I knew that the general slope of the forest led down to the open country.
This put an entirely different light upon the matter. I still had some fears that I might not soon find Dick Leslie, but these I dismissed for the present, at least. A suitable place to camp for the night must be found. I led the mustang down into the hollows, keeping my eye sharp for grass. Presently I came to a place that was wet and soggy at the bottom, and, following this up for quite a way, I found plenty of grass and a pool of clear water.
Often as I had made camp back in the woods of Pennsylvania, the doing of it now was new. For this was not play; it was the real thing, and it made the old camping seem tame. I took the saddle off Hal and tied him with my lasso, making as long a halter as possible. Slipping the pack from the pony was an easier task than the getting it back again was likely to prove. Next I broke open a box of cartridges and loaded the Winchester. My revolver was already loaded, and hung on my belt. Remembering Dick's letters about the bears and mountain-lions in Penetier Forest, I got a good deal of comfort out of my weapons. Then I built a fire, and while my supper was cooking I scraped up a mass of pine-needles for a bed. Never had I sat down to a meal with such a sense of strange enjoyment.
But when I had finished and had everything packed away and covered, my mind began to wander in unexpected directions. Why was it that the twilight seemed to move under the giant pines and creep down the hollow? While I gazed the gray shadows deepened to black, and night came suddenly. My campfire seemed to give almost no light, yet close at hand the flickering gleams played hide-and-seek among the pines and chased up the straight tree trunks. The crackling of my fire and the light steps of the grazing mustangs only emphasized the silence of the forest. Then a low moaning from a distance gave me a chill. At first I had no idea what it was, but presently I thought it must be the wind in the pines. It bore no resemblance to any sound I had ever before heard in the woods. It would murmur from different parts of the forest; sometimes it would cease for a little, and then travel and swell toward me, only to die away again. But it rose steadily, with shorter intervals of silence, until the intermittent gusts swept through the tree-tops with a rushing roar. I had listened to the crash of the ocean surf, and the resemblance was a striking one.
Listening to this mournful wind with all my ears I was the better prepared for any lonesome cries of the forest; nevertheless, a sudden, sharp "Ki-yi-i!" seemingly right at my back, gave me a fright that sent my tongue to the roof of my mouth.
Fumbling at the hammer of my rifle, I peered into the black-streaked gloom of the forest. The crackling of dry twigs brought me to my feet. At the same moment the mustangs snorted. Something was prowling about just beyond the light. I thought of a panther. That was the only beast I could think of which had such an unearthly cry.
Then another bowl, resembling that of a dog, and followed by yelps and barks, told me that I was being visited by a pack of coyotes. I spent the good part of an hour listening to their serenade. The wild, mournful notes sent quivers up my back. By-and-by they went away, and as my fire had burned down to a red glow and the night wind had grown cold I began to think of sleep.
But I was not sleepy. When I had stretched out on the soft bed of pine-needles with my rifle close by, and was all snug and warm under the heavy blanket, it seemed that nothing was so far away from me as sleep. The wonder of my situation kept me wide awake, my eyes on the dim huge pines and the glimmer of stars, and my ears open to the rush and roar of the wind, every sense alert. Hours must have passed as I lay there living over the things that had happened and trying to think out what was to come. At last, however, I rolled over on my side, and with my hand on the rifle and my cheek close to the sweet-smelling pine-needles I dropped asleep.
When I awoke the forest was bright and sunny.
"You'll make a fine forester," I said aloud, in disgust at my tardiness. Then began the stern business of the day. While getting breakfast I turned over in my mind the proper thing for me to do. Evidently I must pack and find the trail. The pony had wandered off into the woods, but was easily caught—a fact which lightened my worry, for I knew how dependent I was upon my mustangs. When I had tried for I do not know how long to get my pack to stay on the pony's back I saw where Mr. Cless had played a joke on me. All memory of the diamond-hitch had faded into utter confusion. First the pack fell over the off-side; next, on top of me; then the saddle slipped awry, and when I did get the pack to remain stationary upon the patient pony, how on earth to tie it there became more and more of a mystery. Finally, in sheer desperation, I ran round the pony, pulled, tugged, and knotted the lasso; more by luck than through sense I had accomplished something in the nature of the diamond-hitch.
I headed Hal up the gentle forest slope, and began the day's journey wherever chance might lead me. As confidence came, my enjoyment increased. I began to believe I could take care of myself. I reasoned out that, as the peaks were snow-capped, I should find water, and very likely game, up higher. Moreover, I might climb a foothill or bluff from which I could get my bearings.
It seemed to me that I passed more pine-trees than I could have imagined there were in the whole world. Miles and miles of pines! And in every mile they grew larger and ruggeder and farther apart, and so high that I could hardly see the tips. After a time I got out of the almost level forest into ground ridged and hollowed, and found it advisable to turn more to the right. On the sunny southern slopes I saw trees that dwarfed the ones on the colder and shady north sides. I also found many small pines and seedlings growing in warm, protected places. This showed me the value of the sun to a forest. Though I kept a lookout for deer or game of any kind, I saw nothing except some black squirrels with white tails. They were beautiful and very tame, and one was nibbling at what I concluded must have been a seed from a pine-cone.
Presently I fancied that I espied a moving speck far down through the forest glades. I stopped Hal, and, watching closely, soon made certain of it. Then it became lost for a time, but reappeared again somewhat closer. It was like a brown blur and scarcely moved. I reined Hal more to the right. Not for quite a while did I see the thing again, and when I did it looked so big and brown that I took up my Winchester. Then it disappeared once more.
I descended into a hollow, and tying Hal, I stole forward on foot, hoping by that means to get close to the strange object without being seen myself.
I waited behind a pine, and suddenly three horsemen rode across a glade not two hundred yards away. The foremost rider was no other than the Mexican whom I had reason to remember.
The huge trunk amply concealed me, but, nevertheless, I crouched down. How strange that I should run into that Mexican again! Where was he going? Had he followed me? Was there a trail?
As long as the three men were in sight I watched them. When the last brown speck had flitted and disappeared far away in the forest I retraced my steps to my mustang, pondering upon this new turn in my affairs.
"Things are bound to happen to me," I concluded, "and I may as well make up my mind to that."
While standing beside Hal, undecided as to my next move, I heard a whistle. It was faint, perhaps miles away, yet unmistakably it was the whistle of an engine. I wondered if the railroad turned round this side of the peaks. Mounting Hal, I rode down the forest to the point where I had seen the men, and there came upon a trail. I proceeded along this in the direction the men had taken. I had come again to the slow-rising level that I had noted earlier in my morning's journey. After several miles a light or opening in the forest ahead caused me to use more caution. As I rode forward I saw a vast area of tree-tops far below, and then I found myself on the edge of a foot-hill.
Right under me was a wide, yellow, bare spot, miles across, a horrible slash in the green forest, and in the middle of it, surrounded by stacks on stacks of lumber, was a great sawmill.
I stared in utter amazement. A sawmill on Penetier! Even as I gazed a train of fresh-cut lumber trailed away into the forest.
V. THE SAWMILL
In my surprise I almost forgot the Mexican. Then I thought that if Dick were there the Mexican would be likely to have troubles of his own. I remembered Dick's reputation as a fighter. But suppose I did not find Dick at the sawmill? This part of the forest was probably owned by private individuals, for I couldn't imagine Government timber being cut in this fashion. So I tied Hal and the pony amidst a thick clump of young pines, and, leaving all my outfit except my revolver, I struck out across the slash.
No second glance was needed to tell that the lumbering here was careless and without thought for the future. It had been a clean cut, and what small saplings had escaped the saw had been crushed by the dropping and hauling of the large pines. The stumps were all about three feet high, and that meant the waste of many thousands of feet of good lumber. Only the straight, unbranched trunks had been used. The tops of the pines had not been lopped, and lay where they had fallen. It was a wilderness of yellow brush, a dry jungle. The smell of pine was so powerful that I could hardly breathe. Fire must inevitably complete this work of ruin; already I was forester enough to see that.
Presently the trail crossed a railroad track which appeared to have been hastily constructed. Swinging along at a rapid step on the ties I soon reached the outskirts of the huge stacks of lumber; I must have walked half a mile between two yellow walls. Then I entered the lumber camp.
It was even worse-looking than the slash. Rows of dirty tents, lines of squatty log-cabins, and many flat-board houses clustered around an immense sawmill. Evidently I had arrived at the noon hour, for the mill was not running, and many rough men were lounging about smoking pipes. At the door of the first shack stood a fat, round-faced Negro wearing a long, dirty apron.
"Is Dick Leslie here?" I asked.
"I dunno if Dick's come in yet, but I 'specks him," he replied. "Be you the young gent Dick's lookin' fer from down East?"
"Come right in, sonny, come right in an' eat. Dick allus eats with me, an' he has spoke often 'bout you." He led me in, and seated me at a bench where several men were eating. They were brawny fellows, clad in overalls and undershirts, and one, who spoke pleasantly to me, had sawdust on his bare arms and even in his hair. The cook set before me a bowl of soup, a plate of beans, potroast, and coffee, all of which I attacked with a good appetite. Presently the men finished their meat and went outside, leaving me alone with the cook.
"Many men on this job?" I asked.
"More'n a thousand. Buell's runnin' two shifts, day an' night."
"Buell? Does he own this land?"
"No. He's only the agent of a 'Frisco lumber company, an' the land belongs to the Government. Buell's sure slashin' the lumber off, though. Two freight-trains of lumber out every day."
"Is this Penetier Forest?" I queried, carelessly, but I had begun to think hard.
I wanted to ask questions, but thought it wiser to wait. I knew enough already to make out that I had come upon the scene of a gigantic lumber steal. Buell's strange manner on the train, at the station, and his eagerness to hurry me out of Holston now needed no more explanation. I began to think the worst of him.
"Did you see a Mexican come into camp?" I inquired of the Negro.
"Sure. Greaser got here this mornin'."
"He tried to rob me in Holston."
"'Tain't nothin' new fer Greaser. He's a thief, but I never heerd of him holdin' anybody up. No nerve 'cept to knife a feller in the back."
"What'll I do if I meet him here?"
"Slam him one! You're a strappin' big lad. Slam him one, an' flash your gun on him. Greaser's a coward. I seen a young feller he'd cheated make him crawl. Anyway, it'll be all day with him when Dick finds out he tried to rob you. An' say, stranger, if a feller stays sober, this camp's safe enough in daytime, but at night, drunk or sober, it's a tough place."
Before I had finished eating a shrill whistle from the sawmill called the hands to work; soon it was followed by the rumble of machinery and the sharp singing of a saw.
I set out to see the lumber-camp, and although I stepped forth boldly, the truth was that with all my love for the Wild West I would have liked to be at home. But here I was, and I determined not to show the white feather.
I passed a row of cook-shacks like the one I had been in, and several stores and saloons. The lumber-camp was a little town. A rambling log cabin attracted me by reason of the shaggy mustangs standing before it and the sounds of mirth within. A peep showed me a room with a long bar, where men and boys were drinking. I heard the rattle of dice and the clink of silver. Seeing the place was crowded, I thought I might find Dick there, so I stepped inside. My entrance was unnoticed, so far as I could tell; in fact, there seemed no reason why it should be otherwise, for, being roughly dressed, I did not look very different from the many young fellows there. I scanned all the faces, but did not see Dick's, nor, for that matter, the Mexican's. Both disappointed and relieved, I turned away, for the picture of low dissipation was not attractive.
The hum of the great sawmill drew me like a magnet. I went out to the lumber-yard at the back of the mill, where a trestle slanted down to a pond full of logs. A train loaded with pines had just pulled in, and dozens of men were rolling logs off the flat-cars into a canal. At stations along the canal stood others pike-poling the logs toward the trestle, where an endless chain caught them with sharp claws and hauled them up. Half-way from, the ground they were washed clean by a circle of water-spouts.
I walked up the trestle and into the mill. The noise almost deafened me. High above all other sounds rose the piercing song of the saw, and the short intervals when it was not cutting were filled with a thunderous crash that jarred the whole building. After a few confused glances I got the working order into my head, and found myself in the most interesting place I had ever seen.
As the stream of logs came up into the mill the first log was shunted off the chain upon a carriage. Two men operated this carriage by levers, one to take the log up to the saw, and the other to run it back for another cut. The run back was very swift. Then a huge black iron head butted up from below and turned the log over as easily as if it had been a straw. This was what made the jar and crash. On the first cut the long strip of bark went to the left and up against five little circular saws. Then the five pieces slipped out of sight down chutes. When the log was trimmed a man stationed near the huge band-saw made signs to those on the carriage, and I saw that they got from him directions whether to cut the log into timbers, planks, or boards. The heavy timbers, after leaving the saw, went straight down the middle of the mill, the planks went to the right, the boards in another direction. Men and boys were everywhere, each with a lever in hand. There was not the slightest cessation of the work. And a log forty feet long and six feet thick, which had taken hundreds of years to grow, was cut up in just four minutes.
The place fascinated me. I had not dreamed that a sawmill could be brought to such a pitch of mechanical perfection, and I wondered how long the timber would last at that rate of cutting. The movement and din tired me, and I went outside upon a long platform. Here workmen caught the planks and boards as they came out, and loaded them upon trucks which were wheeled away. This platform was a world in itself. It sent arms everywhere among the piles of lumber, and once or twice I was as much lost as I had been up in the forest.
While turning into one of these byways I came suddenly upon Buell and another man. They were standing near a little house of weather-strips, evidently an office, and were in their shirt-sleeves. They had not seen or heard me. I dodged behind a pile of planks, intending to slip back the way I had come. Before I could move Buell's voice rooted me to the spot.
"His name's Ward. Tall, well-set lad. I put Greaser after him the other night, hopin' to scare him back East. But nix!"
"Well, he's here now—to study forestry! Ha! ha!" said the other.
"You're sure the boy you mean is the one I mean?"
"Greaser told me so. And this boy is Leslie's friend."
"That's the worst of it," replied Buell, impatiently. "I've got Leslie fixed as far as this lumber deal is concerned, but he won't stand for any more. He was harder to fix than the other rangers, an' I'm afraid of him." he's grouchy now.
"You shouldn't have let the boy get here."
"Stockton, I tried to prevent it. I put Greaser with Bud an' Bill on his trail. They didn't find him, an' now here he turns up."
"Maybe he can be fixed."
"Not if I know my business, he can't; take that from me. This kid is straight. He'll queer my deal in a minute if he gets wise. Mind you, I'm gettin' leary of Washington. We've seen about the last of these lumber deals. If I can pull this one off I'll quit; all I want is a little more time. Then I'll fire the slash, an' that'll cover tracks."
"Buell, I wouldn't want to be near Penetier when you light that fire. This forest will burn like tinder."
"It's a whole lot I care then. Let her burn. Let the Government put out the fire. Now, what's to be done about this boy?"
"I think I'd try to feel him out. Maybe he can be fixed. Boys who want to be foresters can't be rich. Failing that—you say he's a kid who wants to hunt and shoot—get some one to take him up on the mountain."
"See here, Stockton. This young Ward will see the timber is bein' cut clean. If it was only a little patch I wouldn't mind. But this slash an' this mill! He'll know. More'n that, he'll tell Leslie about the Mexican. Dick's no fool. We're up against it."
"It's risky, Buell. You remember the ranger up in Oregon."
"Then we are to fall down on this deal all because of a fresh tenderfoot kid?" demanded Buell.
"Not so loud.... We'll not fall down. But caution—use caution. You made a mistake in trusting so much to the Greaser."
"I know, an' I'm afraid of Leslie. An' that other fire-ranger, Jim Williams, he's a Texan, an' a bad man. The two of them could about trim up this camp. They'll both fight for the boy; take that from me."
"We are sure up against it. Think now, and think quick."
"First, I'll try to fix the boy. If that won't work... we'll kidnap him. Then we'll take no chances with Leslie. There's a cool two hundred an' fifty thousand in this deal for us, an' we're goin' to get it."
With that Buell went into his office and closed the door; the other man, Stockton, walked briskly down the platform. I could not resist peeping from my hiding-place as he passed. He was tall and had a red beard, which would enable me to recognize him if we met.
I waited there for some little time. Then I saw that by squeezing between two plies of lumber could reach the other side of the platform. When I reached the railing I climbed over, and, with the help of braces and posts, soon got to where I could drop down. Once on the ground I ran along under the platform until I saw a lane that led to the street. My one thought was to reach the cabin where the Negro cook stayed and ask him if Dick Leslie had come to camp. If he had not arrived, then I intended to make a bee-line for my mustang.
VI. DICK LESLIE, RANGER
Which end of the street I entered I had no idea. The cabins were all alike, and in my hurry I would have passed the cook's shack had it not been for the sight of a man standing in the door. That stalwart figure I would have known anywhere.
"Dick!" I cried, rushing at him.
What Dick's welcome was I did not hear, but judging from the grip he put on my shoulders and then on my hands, he was glad to see me.
"Ken, blessed if I'd have known you," he said, shoving me back at arm's-length. "Let's have a look at you.... Grown I say, but you're a husky lad!"
While he was looking at me I returned the scrutiny with interest. Dick had always been big, but now he seemed wider and heavier. Among these bronzed Westerners he appeared pale, but that was only on account of his fair skin.
"Ken, didn't you get my letter—the one telling you not to come West yet a while?"
"No," I replied, blankly. "The last one I got was in May—about the middle. I have it with me. You certainly asked me to come then. Dick, don't you want me—now?"
Plain it was that my friend felt uncomfortable; he shifted from one foot to another, and a cloud darkened his brow. But his blue eyes burned with a warm light as he put his hand on my shoulder.
"Ken, I'm glad to see you," he said, earnestly. "It's like getting a glimpse of home. But I wrote you not to come. Conditions have changed—there's something doing here—I'll—"
"You needn't explain, Dick," I replied, gravely. "I know. Buell and—" I waved my hand from the sawmill to the encircling slash.
Dick's face turned a fiery red. I believed that was the only time Dick Leslie ever failed to look a fellow in the eye.
"Ken!... You're on," he said, recovering his composure. "Well, wait till you hear—Hello! here's Jim Williams, my pardner."
A clinking of spurs accompanied a soft step.
"Jim, here's Ken Ward, the kid pardner I used to have back in the States," said Dick. "Ken, you know Jim."
If ever I knew anything by heart it was what Dick had written me about this Texan, Jim Williams.
"Ken, I shore am glad to see you," drawled Jim, giving my hand a squeeze that I thought must break every bone in it.
Though Jim Williams had never been described to me, my first sight of him fitted my own ideas. He was tall and spare; his weather-beaten face seemed set like a dark mask; only his eyes moved, and they had a quivering alertness and a brilliancy that made them hard to look into. He wore a wide sombrero, a blue flannel shirt with a double row of big buttons, overalls, top-boots with very high heels, and long spurs. A heavy revolver swung at his hip, and if I had not already known that Jim Williams had fought Indians and killed bad men, I should still have seen something that awed me in the look of him.
I certainly felt proud to be standing with those two rangers, and for the moment Buell and all his crew could not have daunted me.
"Hello! what's this?" inquired Dick, throwing back my coat; and, catching sight of my revolver, he ejaculated: "Ken Ward!"
"Wal, Ken, if you-all ain't packin' a gun!" said Jim, in his slow, careless drawl. "Dick, he shore is!"
It was now my turn to blush.
"Yes, I've got a gun," I replied, "and I ought to have had it the other night."
"How so?" inquired Dick, quickly.
It did not take me long to relate the incident of the Mexican.
Dick looked like a thunder-cloud, but Jim swayed and shook with laughter.
"You knocked him off the roof? Wal, thet shore is dee-lightful. It shore is!"
"Yes; and, Dick," I went on, breathlessly, "the Greaser followed me, and if I hadn't missed the trail, I don't know what would have happened. Anyway, he got here first."
"The Greaser trailed you?" interrupted Dick, sharply.
When I replied he glanced keenly at me. "How do you know?"
"I suspected it when I saw him with two men in the forest. But now I know it."
"I beard Buell tell Stockton he had put the Greaser on my trail."
"Buell—Stockton!" exclaimed Dick. "What'd they have to do with the Greaser?"
"I met Buell on the train. I told him I had come West to study forestry. Buell's afraid I'll find out about this lumber steal, and he wants to shut my mouth."
Dick looked from me to Jim, and Jim slowly straitened his tall form. For a moment neither spoke. Dick's white face caused me to look away from him. Jim put a hand on my arm.
"Ken, you shore was lucky; you shore was."
"I guess he doesn't know how lucky," added Dick, somewhat huskily. "Come on, we'll look up the Mexican."
"It shore is funny how bad I want to see thet Greaser."
Dick's hard look and tone were threatening enough, yet they did not affect me so much as the easy, gay manner of the Texan. Little cold quivers ran over me, and my knees knocked together. For the moment my animosity toward the Mexican vanished, and with it the old hunger to be in the thick of Wild Western life. I was afraid that I was going to see a man killed without being able to lift a hand to prevent it.
The rangers marched me between them down the street and into the corner saloon. Dick held me half behind him with his left hand while Jim sauntered ahead. Strangest of all the things that had happened was the sudden silencing of the noisy crowd.
The Mexican was not there. His companions, Bud and Bill, as Buell had called them, were sitting at a table, and as Jim Williams walked into the center of the room they slowly and gradually rose to their feet. One was a swarthy man with evil eyes and a scar on his cheek; the other had a brick-red face and a sandy mustache with a vicious curl. Neither seemed to be afraid, only cautious.
"We're all lookin' for thet Greaser friend of yourn," drawled Jim. "I shore want to see him bad."
"He's gone, Williams," replied one. "Was in somethin' of a rustle, an' didn't leave no word."
"Wal, I reckon he's all we're lookin' for this pertickler minnit."
Jim spoke in a soft, drawling voice, and his almost expressionless tone seemed to indicate pleasant indifference; still, no one could have been misled by it, for the long, steady gaze he gave the men and his cool presence that held the room quiet meant something vastly different. No reply was offered. Bud and Bill sat down, evidently to resume their card-playing. The uneasy silence broke to a laugh, then to subdued voices, and finally the clatter and hum began again. Dick led me outside, where we were soon joined by Jim.
"He's holed up," suggested Dick.
"Shore. I don't take no stock in his hittin' the trail. He's layin' low."
"Let's look around a bit, anyhow."
Dick took me back to the cook's cabin and, bidding me remain inside, strode away. I beard footsteps so soon after his departure that I made certain he had returned, but the burly form which blocked the light in the cabin door was not Dick's. I was astounded to recognize Buell.
"Hello!" he said, in his blustering voice. "Heard you had reached camp, an' have been huntin' you up."
I greeted him pleasantly enough—more from surprise than from a desire to mislead him. It seemed to me then that a child could have read Buell. He'd an air of suppressed excitement; there was a glow on his face and a kind of daring flash in his eyes. He seemed too eager, too glad to see me.
"I've got a good job for you," he went on, glibly, "jest what you want, an' you're jest what I need. Come into my office an' help me. There'll be plenty of outside work—measurin' lumber, markin' trees, an' such."
"Why, Mr. Buell—I—you see, Dick—he might not—"
I hesitated, not knowing how to proceed. But at my halting speech Buell became even more smiling and voluble.
"Dick? Oh, Dick an' I stand all right; take thet from me. Dick'll agree to what I want. I need a young feller bad. Money's no object. You're a bright youngster. You'll look out for my interests. Here!" He pulled out a large wad of greenbacks, and then spoke in a lower voice. "You understand that money cuts no ice 'round this camp. We've a big deal. We need a smart young feller. There's always some little irregularities about these big timber deals out West. But you'll wear blinkers, an' make some money while you're studyin' forestry. See?"
"Irregularities? What kind of irregularities?"
For the life of me I could not keep a little scorn out of my question. Buell slowly put the bills in his pocket while his eyes searched; I could not control my rising temper.
"You mean you want to fix me?"
He made no answer, and his face stiffened.
"You mean you want to buy my silence, shut my mouth about this lumber steal?"
He drew in his breath audibly, yet still he did not speak. Either he was dull of comprehension or else he was astonished beyond words. I knew I was mad to goad him like that, but I could not help it. I grew hot with anger, and the more clearly I realized that he had believed he could "fix" me with his dirty money the hotter I got.
"You told Stockton you were leary of Washington, and were afraid I'd queer your big deal.... Well, Mr. Buell, that's exactly what I'm going to do—queer it!"
He went black in the face, and, cursing horribly, grasped me by the arm. I struggled, but I could not loose that iron hand. Suddenly I felt a violent wrench that freed me. Then I saw Dick swing back his shoulder and shoot out his arm. He knocked Buell clear across the room, and when the man fell I thought the cabin was coming down in the crash. He appeared stunned, for he groped about with his hands, found a chair, and, using it as a support, rose to his feet, swaying unsteadily.
"Leslie, I'll get you for this—take it from me," he muttered.
Dick's lips were tight, and he watched Buell with flaming eyes. The lumberman lurched out of the door, and we heard him cursing after he had disappeared. Then Dick looked at me with no little disapproval.
"What did you say to make Buell wild like that?"
I told Dick, word for word. First he looked dumfounded, then angry, and he ended up with a grim laugh.
"Ken, you're sure bent on starting something, as Jim would say. You've started it all right. And Jim'll love you for it. But I'm responsible to your mother. Ken, I remember your mother—and you're going back home."
"You're going back home as fast as I can get you to Holston and put you on a train, that's all."
"I won't go!" I cried.
Without any more words Dick led me down the street to a rude corral; here he rapidly saddled and packed his horses. The only time he spoke was when he asked me where I had tied my mustangs. Soon we were hurrying out through the slash toward the forest. Dick's troubled face kept down my resentment, but my heart grew like lead. What an ending to my long-cherished trip to the West! It had lasted two days. The disappointment seemed more than I could bear.
We found the mustangs as I had left them, and the sight of Hal and the feeling of the saddle made me all the worse. We did not climb the foot-hill by the trail which the Mexican had used, but took a long, slow ascent far round to the left. Dick glanced back often, and when we reached the top he looked again in a way to convince me that he had some apprehensions of being followed.
Twilight of that eventful day found us pitching camp in a thickly timbered hollow. I could not help dwelling on how different my feelings would have been if this night were but the beginning of many nights with Dick. It was the last, and the more I thought about it the more wretched I grew. Dick rolled in his blanket without saying even good-night, and I lay there watching the veils and shadows of firelight flicker on the pines, and listening, to the wind. Gradually the bitterness seemed to go away; my body relaxed and sank into the soft, fragrant pine-needles; the great shadowy trees mixed with the surrounding darkness. When I awoke it was broad daylight, and Dick was shaking my arm.
"Hunt up the horses while I get the grub ready," he said, curtly.
As the hollow was carpeted with thick grass our horses had not strayed. I noticed that here the larger trees had been cut, and the forest resembled a fine park. In the sunny patches seedlings were sprouting, many little bushy pines were growing, and the saplings had sufficient room and light to prosper. I commented to Dick upon the difference between this part of Penetier and the hideous slash we had left.
"There were a couple of Government markers went through here and marked the timber to be cut," said Dick.
"Was the timber cut in the mill I saw?"
"No. Buell's just run up that mill. The old one is out here a ways, nearer Holston."
"Is it possible, Dick, that any of those loggers back there don't know the Government is being defrauded?"
"Ken, hardly any of them know it, and they wouldn't care if they did. You see, this forest-preserve business is new out here. Formerly the lumbermen bought so much land and cut over it—skinned it. Two years ago, when the National Forests were laid out, the lumbering men—that is, the loggers, sawmill hands, and so on—found they did not get as much employment as formerly. So generally they're sore on the National Forest idea."
"But, Dick, if they understand the idea of forestry they'd never oppose it."
"Maybe. I don't understand it too well myself. I can fight fire—that's my business; but this ranger work is new. I doubt if the Westerners will take to forestry. There've been some shady deals all over the West because of it. Buell, now, he's a timber shark. He bought so much timber from the Government, and had the markers come in to mark the cut; then after they were gone, he rushed up a mill and clapped on a thousand hands."
"And the rangers stand for it? Where'll their jobs be when the Government finds out?"
"I was against it from the start. So was Jim, particularly. But the other rangers persuaded us."
It began to dawn upon me that Dick Leslie might, after all, turn out to be good soil in which to plant some seeds of forestry. I said no more then, as we were busy packing for the start, but when we had mounted I began to talk. I told him all I had learned about trees, how I loved them, and how I had determined to devote my life to their study, care, and development. As we rode along under the wide-spreading pines I illustrated my remarks by every example I could possibly use. The more I talked the more interested Dick became, and this spurred me on. Perhaps I exaggerated, but my conscience never pricked me. He began to ask questions.
We reached a spring at midday, and halted for a rest. I kept on pleading, and presently I discovered, to my joy, that I had made a strong impression upon Dick. It seemed a strange thing for me to be trying to explain forestry to a forest ranger, but so it was.
"Ken, it's all news to me. I've been on Penetier about a year, and I never heard a word of what you've been telling me. My duties have been the practical ones that any woodsman knows. Jim and the other rangers—why, they don't know any more than I. It's a great thing, and I've queered my chance with the Government."
"No, you haven't—neither has Jim—not if you'll be straight from now on. You can't keep faith with Buell. He tried to kidnap me. That lets you out. We'll spoil Buell's little deal and save Penetier. A letter to father will do it. He has friends in the Forestry Department at Washington. Dick, what do you say? It's not too late!"
The dark shade lifted from the ranger's face, and he looked at me with the smile of the old fishing days.
"Say? I say yes!" he exclaimed, in ringing voice, "Ken, you've made a man of me!"
VI. BACK TO HOLSTON
Soon we were out of the forest, and riding across the sage-flat with Holston in sight. Both of us avoided the unpleasant subject of my enforced home-going. Evidently Dick felt cut up about it, and it caused me such a pang that I drove it from my mind. Toward the end of our ride Dick began again to talk of forestry.
"Ken, it's mighty interesting—all this you've said about trees. Some of the things are so simple that I wonder I didn't hit on them long ago; in fact, I knew a lot of what you might call forestry, but the scientific ideas—they stump me. Now, what you said about a pine-tree cleaning itself—come back at me with that."
"Why, that's simple enough, Dick," I answered. "Now, say here we have a clump of pine saplings. They stand pretty close—close enough to make dense shade, but not too crowded. The shade has prevented the lower branches from producing leaves. As a consequence these branches die. Then they dry, rot, and fall off, so when the trees mature they are clean-shafted. They have fine, clear trunks. They have cleaned themselves, and so make the best of lumber, free from knots."
So our talk went on. Once in town I was impatient to write to my father, for we had decided that we would not telegraph. Leaving our horses in Cless's corral, we went to the hotel and proceeded to compose the letter. This turned out more of a task than we had bargained for. But we got it finished at last, not forgetting to put in a word for Jim Williams, and then we both signed it.
"There!" I cried. "Dick, something will be doing round Holston before many days."
"That's no joke, you can bet," replied Dick, wiping his face. "Ken, it's made me sweat just to see that letter start East. Buell is a tough sort, and he'll make trouble. Well, he wants to steer clear of Jim and me."
After that we fell silent, and walked slowly back toward Cless's corral. Dick's lips were closed tight, and he did not look at me. Evidently he did not intend to actually put me aboard a train, and the time for parting had come. He watered his horses at the trough, and fussed over his pack and fumbled with his saddle-girths. It looked to me as though he had not the courage to say goodby.
"Ken, it didn't look so bad—so mean till now," he said. "I'm all broken up.... To get you way out here! Oh! what's the use? I'm mighty sorry ....Good-bye—maybe—
He broke off suddenly, and, wringing my hand, he vaulted into the saddle. He growled at his pack-pony, and drove him out of the corral. Then he set off at a steady trot down the street toward the open country.
It came to me in a flash, as I saw him riding farther and farther away, that the reason my heart was not broken was because I did not intend to go home. Dick had taken it for granted that I would board the next train for the East. But I was not going to do anything of the sort. To my amaze I found my mind made up on that score. I had no definite plan, but I was determined to endure almost anything rather than give up my mustang and outfit.
"It's shift for myself now," I thought, soberly. "I guess I can make good. ... I'm going back to Penetier."
Even in the moment of impulse I knew how foolish this would be. But I could not help it. That forest had bewitched me. I meant to go back to it.
"I'll stay away from the sawmill," I meditated, growing lighter of heart every minute. "I'll keep out of sight of the lumbermen. I'll go higher up on the mountain, and hunt, and study the trees.... I'll do it."
Whereupon I marched off at once to a store and bought the supply of provisions that Buell had decided against when he helped me with my outfit. This addition made packing the pony more of a problem than ever, but I contrived to get it all on to my satisfaction. It was nearing sunset when I rode out of Holston this second time. The sage flat was bare and gray. Dick had long since reached the pines, and would probably make camp at the spring where we had stopped for lunch. I certainly did not want to catch up with him, but as there was small chance of that; it caused me no concern.
Shortly after sunset twilight fell, and it was night when I reached the first pine-trees. Still, as the trail was easily to be seen, I kept on, for I did not want to camp without water. The forest was very dark, in some places like a huge black tent, and I had not ridden far when the old fear of night, the fancy of things out there in the darkness, once more possessed me. It made me angry. Why could I not have the same confidence that I had in the daytime? It was impossible. The forest was full of moving shadows. When the wind came up to roar in the pine-tips it was a relief because it broke the silence.
I began to doubt whether I could be sure of locating the spring, and I finally decided to make camp at once. I stopped Hal, and had swung my leg over the pommel when I saw a faint glimmer of light far ahead. It twinkled like a star, but was not white and cold enough for a star.
"That's Dick's campfire," I said. "I'll have to stop here. Maybe I'm too close now."
I pondered the question. The blaze was a long way off, and I concluded I could risk camping on the spot, provided I did not make a fire. Accordingly I dismounted, and was searching for a suitable place when I happened to think that the campfire might not be Dick's, after all. Perhaps Buell had sent the Mexican with Bud and Bill on my trail again. This would not do. But I did not want to go back or turn off the trail.
"I'll slip up and see who it is," I decided.
The idea pleased me; however, I did not yield to it without further consideration. I had a clear sense of responsibility. I knew that from now on I should be called upon to reason out many perplexing things. I did not want to make any mistakes. So I tied Hal and the pack-pony to a bush fringing the trail, and set off through the forest.
It dawned upon me presently that the campfire was much farther away than it appeared. Often it went out of sight behind trees. By degrees it grew larger and larger. Then I slowed down and approached more cautiously. Once when the trees obscured it I traveled some distance without getting a good view of it. Passing down into a little hollow I lost it again. When I climbed out I hauled up short with a sharp catch of my breath. There were several figures moving around the campfire. I had stumbled on a camp that surely was not Dick Leslie's.
The ground was as soft as velvet, and my footsteps gave forth no sound. When the wind lulled I paused behind a tree and waited for another gusty roar. I kept very close to the trail, for that was the only means by which I could return to my horses. I felt the skin tighten on my face. Suddenly, as I paused, I beard angry voices, pitched high. But I could not make out the words.
Curiosity got the better of me. If the men were hired by Buell I wanted to know what they were quarrelling about. I stole stealthily from tree to tree, and another hollow opened beneath me. It was so wide and the pines so overshadowed it that I could not tell how close the opposite side might be to the campfire. I slipped down along the edge of the trail. The blaze disappeared. Only a faint arc of light showed through the gloom.
I peered keenly into the blackness. At length I reached the slope. Here I dropped to my hands and knees.
It was a long crawl to the top. Reaching it, I cautiously peeped over. There were trees hiding the fire. But it was close. I heard the voices of men. I backed down the slope, crossed the trail, and came up on the other side. Pines grew thick on this level, and I stole silently from one to another. Finally I reached the black trunk of a tree close to the campfire.
For a moment I lay low. I did not seem exactly afraid, but I was all tense and hard, and my heart drummed in my ears. There was something ticklish about this scouting. Then I peeped out.
It added little to my excitement to recognize the Mexican. He sat near the fire smoking a cigarette. Near him were several men, one of whom was Bill. Facing them sat a man with his back to a small sapling. He was tied with a lasso.
One glance at his white face made me drop behind the tree, where I lay stunned and bewildered—for that man was Dick Leslie.
VIII. THE LUMBERMEN
For a full moment I just lay still, hugging the ground, and I did not seem to think at all. Voices loud in anger roused me. Raising myself, I guardedly looked from behind the tree.
One of the lumbermen threw brush on the fire, making it blaze brightly. He was tall and had a red beard. I recognized Stockton, Buell's right hand in the lumber deal.
"Leslie, you're a liar!" he said.
Dick's eyes glinted from his pale face.
"Yes, that's your speed, Stockton," he retorted. "You bring your thugs into my camp pretending to be friendly. You grab a fellow behind his back, tie him up, and then call him a liar. Wait, you timber shark!"
"You're lying about that kid, Ward," declared the other. "You sent him back East, that's what. He'll have the whole forest service down here. Buell will be wild. Oh, he won't do a thing when he learns Ward has given us the slip!"
"I tell you, Ken Ward gave me the slip," replied Dick. "I'll admit I meant to see him safe in Holston. But he wouldn't go. He ran off from me right here in this forest."
What could have been Dick's object in telling such a lie? It made me wonder. Perhaps these lumbermen were more dangerous than I had supposed, and Dick did not wish them to believe I had left Penetier. Maybe he was playing for time, and did not want them to get alarmed and escape before the officers came.
"Why did he run off?" asked Stockton.
"Because I meant to send him home, and he didn't want to go. He's crazy to camp out, to hunt and ride."
"If that's true, Leslie, there's been no word sent to Washington."
"How could there be?"
"Well, I've got to hold you anyway till we see Buell. His orders were to keep you and Ward prisoners till this lumber deal is pulled off. We're not going to be stopped now."
Leslie turned crimson, and strained on the lasso that bound him to the sapling. "Somebody is going to pay for this business!" he declared, savagely. "You forget I'm an officer in this forest."
"I'll hold you, Leslie, whatever comes of it," answered the lumberman. "I'd advise you to cool down."
"You and Buell have barked up the wrong tree, mind that, Stockton. Jim Williams, my pardner, is wise. He expects me back tomorrow."
"See hyar, Stockton," put in Bill, "you're new in Arizona, an' I want to give you a hunch. If Jim Williams hits this trail, you ain't goin' to be well enough to care about any old lumber steal."
"Jim hit the trail all right," went on Dick. "He's after Greaser. It'd go hard with you if Jim happened to walk in now."
"I don't want to buck against Williams, that's certain," replied Stockton. "I know his record. But I'll take a chance—anyway, till Buell knows. It's his game."
Dick made no answer, and sat there eyeing his captors. There was little talk after this. Bud threw a log on the fire. Stockton told the Mexican to take a look at the horses. Greaser walked within twenty feet of where I lay, and I held my breath while he passed. The others rolled in their blankets. It was now so dark that I could not distinguish anything outside of the campfire circle. But I heard Greaser's soft, shuffling footsteps as he returned. Then his dark, slim figure made a shadow between me and the light. He sat down before the fire and began to roll a cigarette. He did not seem sleepy.
A daring scheme flashed into my mind. I would crawl into camp and free Dick. Not only would I outwit the lumber thieves, but also make Dick think well of me. What would Jim Williams say of a trick like that? The thought of the Texan banished what little hesitation I felt. Glancing round the bright circle, I made my plan; it was to crawl far back into the darkness, go around to the other side of the camp, and then slip up behind Dick. Already his head was nodding on his breast. It made me furious to see him sitting so uncomfortably, sagging in the lasso.
I tried to beat down my excitement, but there was a tingling all over me that would not subside. But I soon saw that I might have a long wait. The Mexican did not go to sleep, so I had time to cool off.
The campfire gradually burned out, and the white glow changed to red. One of the men snored in a way that sounded like a wheezy whistle. Coyotes howled in the woods, and the longer I listened to the long, strange howls the better I liked them. The roar in the wind had died down to a moaning. I thought of myself lying there, with my skin prickling and my eyes sharp on the darkening forms. I thought of the nights I had spent with Hal in the old woods at home. How full the present seemed! My breast swelled, my hand gripped my revolver, my eyes pierced the darkness, and I would not have been anywhere else for the world.
Greaser smoked out his cigarette, and began to nod. That was the signal for me. I crawled noiselessly from the tree. When I found myself going down into the hollow, I stopped and rose to my feet. The forest was so pitchy black that I could not tell the trees from the darkness. I groped to the left, trying to circle. Once I snapped a twig; it cracked like a pistol-shot, and my heart stopped beating, then began to thump. But Greaser never stirred as he sat in the waning light. At last I had half circled the camp.
After a short rest I started forward, slow and stealthy as a creeping cat. When within fifty feet of the fire I went down on all-fours and began to crawl. Twice I got out of line. But at last Dick's burly shoulders loomed up between me and the light.
Then I halted. My breast seemed bursting, and I panted so hard that I was in a terror lest I should awaken some one. Again I thought of what I was doing, and fought desperately to gain my coolness.
Now the only cover I had was Dick's broad back, for the sapling to which he was tied was small. I drew my hunting-knife. One more wriggle brought me close to Dick, with my face near his hands, which were bound behind him. I slipped the blade under the lasso, and cut it through.
Dick started as if he had received an electric shock. He threw back his head and uttered a sudden exclamation.
Although I was almost paralyzed with fright I put my hand on his shoulder and whispered: "S-s-s-h! It's Ken!"
Greaser uttered a shrill cry. Dick leaped to his feet. Then I grew dizzy, and my sight blurred. I heard hoarse shouts and saw dark forms rising as if out of the earth. All was confusion. I wanted to run, but could not get up. There was a wrestling, whirling mass in front of me.
But this dimness of sight and weakness of body did not last. I saw two men on the ground, with Dick standing over them. Stockton was closing in. Greaser ran around them with something in his hand that glittered in the firelight. Stockton dived for Dick's legs and upset him. They went down together, and the Mexican leaped on them, waving the bright thing high over his head.
I bounded forward, and, grasping his wrist with both hands, I wrenched his arm with all my might. Some one struck me over the head. I saw a million darting points of light—then all went black.
When I opened my eyes the sun was shining. I had a queer, numb feeling all over, and my head hurt terribly. Everything about me was hazy. I did not know where I was. After a little I struggled to sit up, and with great difficulty managed it. My hands were tied. Then it all came back to me. Stockton stood before me holding a tin cup of water toward my lips. My throat was parched, and I drank. Stockton had a great bruise on his forehead; his nostrils were crusted with blood, and his shirt was half torn off.
"You're all right?" he said.
"Sure," I replied, which was not true.
I imagined that a look of relief came over his face. Next I saw Bill nursing his eye, and bathing it with a wet handkerchief. It was swollen shut, puffed out to the size of a goose-egg, and blue as indigo. Dick had certainly landed hard on Bill. Then I turned round to see Dick sitting against the little sapling, bound fast with a lasso. His clean face did not look as if he had been in a fight; he was smiling, yet there was anxiety in his eyes.
"Ken, now you've played hob," he said. It was a reproach, but his look made me proud.
"Oh, Dick, if you hadn't called out!" I exclaimed.
"Darned if you're not right! But it was a slick job, and you'll tickle Jim to death. I was an old woman. But that cold knife-blade made me jump."
I glanced round the camp for the Mexican and Bud and the fifth man, but they were gone. Bill varied his occupation of the moment by kneading biscuit dough in a basin. Then there came such a severe pain in my head that I went blind for a little while. "What's the matter with my head? Who hit me?" I cried.
"Bud slugged you with the butt of his pistol," said Dick. "And, Ken, I think you saved me from being knifed by the Greaser. You twisted his arm half off. He cursed all night.... Ha! there he comes now with your outfit."
Sure enough, the Mexican appeared on the trail, leading my horses. I was so glad to see Hal that I forgot I was a prisoner. But Greaser's sullen face and glittering eyes reminded me of it quickly enough. I read treachery in his glance.
Bud rode into camp from the other direction, and he brought a bunch of horses, two of which I recognized as Dick's. The lumbermen set about getting breakfast, and Stockton helped me to what little I could eat and drink. Now that I was caught he did not appear at all mean or harsh. I did not shrink from him, and had the feeling that he meant well by me.
The horses were saddled and bridled, and Dick and I, still tied, were bundled astride our mounts. The pack-ponies led the way, with Bill following; I came next, Greaser rode behind me, and Dick was between Bud and Stockton. So we traveled, and no time was wasted. I noticed that the men kept a sharp lookout both to the fore and the rear. We branched off the main trail and took a steeper one leading up the slope. We rode for hours. There were moments when I reeled in my saddle, but for the greater while I stood my pain and weariness well enough. Some time in the afternoon a shrill whistle ahead attracted my attention. I made out two horsemen waiting on the trail.
"Huh! about time!" growled Bill. "Hyar's Buell an' Herky-Jerky."
As we approached I saw Buell, and the fellow with the queer name turned out to be no other than the absent man I had been wondering about. He had been dispatched to fetch the lumberman.
Buell was superbly mounted on a sleek bay, and he looked very much the same jovial fellow I had met on the train. He grinned at the disfigured men.
"Take it from me, you fellers wouldn't look any worse bunged up if you'd been jolted by the sawlogs in my mill."
"We can't stand here to crack jokes," said Stockton, sharply. "Some ranger might see us. Now what?"
"You ketched the kid in time. That's all I wanted. Take him an' Leslie up in one of the canyons an' keep them there till further orders. You needn't stay, Stockton, after you get them in a safe place. An' you can send up grub."
Then he turned to me.
"You'll not be hurt if—"
"Don't you speak to me!" I burst out. It was on my lips to tell him of the letter to Washington, but somehow I kept silent.
"Leslie," went on Buell, "I'll overlook your hittin' me an' let you go if you'll give me your word to keep mum about this."