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The Man of the Forest By Zane Grey Characters: 23964

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Milt Dale quietly sat up to gaze, with thoughtful eyes, into the gloom.

He was thirty years old. As a boy of fourteen he had run off from his school and home in Iowa and, joining a wagon-train of pioneers, he was one of the first to see log cabins built on the slopes of the White Mountains. But he had not taken kindly to farming or sheep-raising or monotonous home toil, and for twelve years he had lived in the forest, with only infrequent visits to Pine and Show Down and Snowdrop. This wandering forest life of his did not indicate that he did not care for the villagers, for he did care, and he was welcome everywhere, but that he loved wild life and solitude and beauty with the primitive instinctive force of a savage.

And on this night he had stumbled upon a dark plot against the only one of all the honest white people in that region whom he could not call a friend.

"That man Beasley!" he soliloquized. "Beasley-in cahoots with Snake Anson!... Well, he was right. Al Auchincloss is on his last legs. Poor old man! When I tell him he'll never believe ME, that's sure!"

Discovery of the plot meant to Dale that he must hurry down to Pine.

"A girl-Helen Rayner-twenty years old," he mused. "Beasley wants her made off with.... That means-worse than killed!"

Dale accepted facts of life with that equanimity and fatality acquired by one long versed in the cruel annals of forest lore. Bad men worked their evil just as savage wolves relayed a deer. He had shot wolves for that trick. With men, good or bad, he had not clashed. Old women and children appealed to him, but he had never had any interest in girls. The image, then, of this Helen Rayner came strangely to Dale; and he suddenly realized that he had meant somehow to circumvent Beasley, not to befriend old Al Auchincloss, but for the sake of the girl. Probably she was already on her way West, alone, eager, hopeful of a future home. How little people guessed what awaited them at a journey's end! Many trails ended abruptly in the forest-and only trained woodsmen could read the tragedy.

"Strange how I cut across country to-day from Spruce Swamp," reflected Dale. Circumstances, movements, usually were not strange to him. His methods and habits were seldom changed by chance. The matter, then, of his turning off a course out of his way for no apparent reason, and of his having overheard a plot singularly involving a young girl, was indeed an adventure to provoke thought. It provoked more, for Dale grew conscious of an unfamiliar smoldering heat along his veins. He who had little to do with the strife of men, and nothing to do with anger, felt his blood grow hot at the cowardly trap laid for an innocent girl.

"Old Al won't listen to me," pondered Dale. "An' even if he did, he wouldn't believe me. Maybe nobody will.... All the same, Snake Anson won't get that girl."

With these last words Dale satisfied himself of his own position, and his pondering ceased. Taking his rifle, he descended from the loft and peered out of the door. The night had grown darker, windier, cooler; broken clouds were scudding across the sky; only a few stars showed; fine rain was blowing from the northwest; and the forest seemed full of a low, dull roar.

"Reckon I'd better hang up here," he said, and turned to the fire. The coals were red now. From the depths of his hunting-coat he procured a little bag of salt and some strips of dried meat. These strips he laid for a moment on the hot embers, until they began to sizzle and curl; then with a sharpened stick he removed them and ate like a hungry hunter grateful for little.

He sat on a block of wood with his palms spread to the dying warmth of the fire and his eyes fixed upon the changing, glowing, golden embers. Outside, the wind continued to rise and the moan of the forest increased to a roar. Dale felt the comfortable warmth stealing over him, drowsily lulling; and he heard the storm-wind in the trees, now like a waterfall, and anon like a retreating army, and again low and sad; and he saw pictures in the glowing embers, strange as dreams.

Presently he rose and, climbing to the loft, he stretched himself out, and soon fell asleep.

When the gray dawn broke he was on his way, 'cross-country, to the village of Pine.

During the night the wind had shifted and the rain had ceased. A suspicion of frost shone on the grass in open places. All was gray-the parks, the glades-and deeper, darker gray marked the aisles of the forest. Shadows lurked under the trees and the silence seemed consistent with spectral forms. Then the east kindled, the gray lightened, the dreaming woodland awoke to the far-reaching rays of a bursting red sun.

This was always the happiest moment of Dale's lonely days, as sunset was his saddest. He responded, and there was something in his blood that answered the whistle of a stag from a near-by ridge. His strides were long, noiseless, and they left dark trace where his feet brushed the dew-laden grass.

Dale pursued a zigzag course over the ridges to escape the hardest climbing, but the "senacas"-those parklike meadows so named by Mexican sheep-herders-were as round and level as if they had been made by man in beautiful contrast to the dark-green, rough, and rugged ridges. Both open senaca and dense wooded ridge showed to his quick eye an abundance of game. The cracking of twigs and disappearing flash of gray among the spruces, a round black lumbering object, a twittering in the brush, and stealthy steps, were all easy signs for Dale to read. Once, as he noiselessly emerged into a little glade, he espied a red fox stalking some quarry, which, as he advanced, proved to be a flock of partridges. They whirred up, brushing the branches, and the fox trotted away. In every senaca Dale encountered wild turkeys feeding on the seeds of the high grass.

It had always been his custom, on his visits to Pine, to kill and pack fresh meat down to several old friends, who were glad to give him lodging. And, hurried though he was now, he did not intend to make an exception of this trip.

At length he got down into the pine belt, where the great, gnarled, yellow trees soared aloft, stately, and aloof from one another, and the ground was a brown, odorous, springy mat of pine-needles, level as a floor. Squirrels watched him from all around, scurrying away at his near approach-tiny, brown, light-striped squirrels, and larger ones, russet-colored, and the splendid dark-grays with their white bushy tails and plumed ears.

This belt of pine ended abruptly upon wide, gray, rolling, open land, almost like a prairie, with foot-hills lifting near and far, and the red-gold blaze of aspen thickets catching the morning sun. Here Dale flushed a flock of wild turkeys, upward of forty in number, and their subdued color of gray flecked with white, and graceful, sleek build, showed them to be hens. There was not a gobbler in the flock. They began to run pell-mell out into the grass, until only their heads appeared bobbing along, and finally disappeared. Dale caught a glimpse of skulking coyotes that evidently had been stalking the turkeys, and as they saw him and darted into the timber he took a quick shot at the hindmost. His bullet struck low, as he had meant it to, but too low, and the coyote got only a dusting of earth and pine-needles thrown up into his face. This frightened him so that he leaped aside blindly to butt into a tree, rolled over, gained his feet, and then the cover of the forest. Dale was amused at this. His hand was against all the predatory beasts of the forest, though he had learned that lion and bear and wolf and fox were all as necessary to the great scheme of nature as were the gentle, beautiful wild creatures upon which they preyed. But some he loved better than others, and so he deplored the inexplicable cruelty.

He crossed the wide, grassy plain and struck another gradual descent where aspens and pines crowded a shallow ravine and warm, sun-lighted glades bordered along a sparkling brook. Here he heard a turkey gobble, and that was a signal for him to change his course and make a crouching, silent detour around a clump of aspens. In a sunny patch of grass a dozen or more big gobblers stood, all suspiciously facing in his direction, heads erect, with that wild aspect peculiar to their species. Old wild turkey gobblers were the most difficult game to stalk. Dale shot two of them. The others began to run like ostriches, thudding over the ground, spreading their wings, and with that running start launched their heavy bodies into whirring flight. They flew low, at about the height of a man from the grass, and vanished in the woods.

Dale threw the two turkeys over his shoulder and went on his way. Soon he came to a break in the forest level, from which he gazed down a league-long slope of pine and cedar, out upon the bare, glistening desert, stretching away, endlessly rolling out to the dim, dark horizon line.

The little hamlet of Pine lay on the last level of sparsely timbered forest. A road, running parallel with a dark-watered, swift-flowing stream, divided the cluster of log cabins from which columns of blue smoke drifted lazily aloft. Fields of corn and fields of oats, yellow in the sunlight, surrounded the village; and green pastures, dotted with horses and cattle, reached away to the denser woodland. This site appeared to be a natural clearing, for there was no evidence of cut timber. The scene was rather too wild to be pastoral, but it was serene, tranquil, giving the impression of a remote community, prosperous and happy, drifting along the peaceful tenor of sequestered lives.

Dale halted before a neat little log cabin and a little patch of garden bordered with sunflowers. His call was answered by an old woman, gray and bent, but remarkably spry, who appeared at the door.

"Why, land's sakes, if it ain't Milt Dale!" she exclaimed, in welcome.

"Reckon it's me, Mrs. Cass," he replied. "An' I've brought you a turkey."

"Milt, you're that good boy who never forgits old Widow Cass.... What a gobbler! First one I've seen this fall. My man Tom used to fetch home gobblers like that.... An' mebbe he'll come home again sometime."

Her husband, Tom Cass, had gone into the forest years before and had never returned. But the old woman always looked for him and never gave up hope.

"Men have been lost in the forest an' yet come back," replied Dale, as he had said to her many a time.

"Come right in. You air hungry, I know. Now, son, when last did you eat a fresh egg or a flapjack?"

"You should remember," he answered, laughing, as he followed her into a small, clean kitchen.

"Laws-a'-me! An' thet's months ago," she replied, shaking her gray head. "Milt, you should give up that wild life-an' marry-an' have a home."

"You always tell me that."

"Yes, an' I'll see you do it yet.... Now you set there, an' pretty soon I'll give you thet to eat which 'll make your mouth water."

"What's the news, Auntie?" he asked.

"Nary news in this dead place. Why, nobody's been to Snowdrop in two weeks!... Sary Jones died, poor old soul-she's better off-an' one of my cows run away. Milt, she's wild when she gits loose in the woods. An' you'll have to track her, 'cause nobody else can. An' John Dakker's heifer was killed by a lion, an' Lem Harden's fast hoss-you know his favorite-was stole by hoss-thieves. Lem is jest crazy. An' that reminds me, Milt, where's your big ranger, thet you'd never sell or lend?"

"My horses are up in the woods, Auntie; safe, I reckon, from horse-thieves."

"Well, that's a blessin'. We've had some stock stole this summer, Milt, an' no mistake."

Thus, while preparing a meal for Dale, the old woman went on recounting all that had happened in the little village since his last visit. Dale enjoyed her gossip and quaint philosophy, and it was exceedingly good to sit at her table. In his opinion, nowhere els

e could there have been such butter and cream, such ham and eggs. Besides, she always had apple pie, it seemed, at any time he happened in; and apple pie was one of Dale's few regrets while up in the lonely forest.

"How's old Al Auchincloss?" presently inquired Dale.

"Poorly-poorly," sighed Mrs. Cass. "But he tramps an' rides around same as ever. Al's not long for this world.... An', Milt, that reminds me-there's the biggest news you ever heard."

"You don't say so!" exclaimed Dale, to encourage the excited old woman.

"Al has sent back to Saint Joe for his niece, Helen Rayner. She's to inherit all his property. We've heard much of her-a purty lass, they say.... Now, Milt Dale, here's your chance. Stay out of the woods an' go to work.... You can marry that girl!"

"No chance for me, Auntie," replied Dale, smiling.

The old woman snorted. "Much you know! Any girl would have you, Milt Dale, if you'd only throw a kerchief."

"Me!... An' why, Auntie?" he queried, half amused, half thoughtful. When he got back to civilization he always had to adjust his thoughts to the ideas of people.

"Why? I declare, Milt, you live so in the woods you're like a boy of ten-an' then sometimes as old as the hills.... There's no young man to compare with you, hereabouts. An' this girl-she'll have all the spunk of the Auchinclosses."

"Then maybe she'd not be such a catch, after all," replied Dale.

"Wal, you've no cause to love them, that's sure. But, Milt, the Auchincloss women are always good wives."

"Dear Auntie, you're dreamin'," said Dale, soberly. "I want no wife. I'm happy in the woods."

"Air you goin' to live like an Injun all your days, Milt Dale?" she queried, sharply.

"I hope so."

"You ought to be ashamed. But some lass will change you, boy, an' mebbe it'll be this Helen Rayner. I hope an' pray so to thet."

"Auntie, supposin' she did change me. She'd never change old Al. He hates me, you know."

"Wal, I ain't so sure, Milt. I met Al the other day. He inquired for you, an' said you was wild, but he reckoned men like you was good for pioneer settlements. Lord knows the good turns you've done this village! Milt, old Al doesn't approve of your wild life, but he never had no hard feelin's till thet tame lion of yours killed so many of his sheep."

"Auntie, I don't believe Tom ever killed Al's sheep," declared Dale, positively.

"Wal, Al thinks so, an' many other people," replied Mrs. Cass, shaking her gray head doubtfully. "You never swore he didn't. An' there was them two sheep-herders who did swear they seen him."

"They only saw a cougar. An' they were so scared they ran."

"Who wouldn't? Thet big beast is enough to scare any one. For land's sakes, don't ever fetch him down here again! I'll never forgit the time you did. All the folks an' children an' hosses in Pine broke an' run thet day."

"Yes; but Tom wasn't to blame. Auntie, he's the tamest of my pets. Didn't he try to put his head on your lap an' lick your hand?"

"Wal, Milt, I ain't gainsayin' your cougar pet didn't act better 'n a lot of people I know. Fer he did. But the looks of him an' what's been said was enough for me."

"An' what's all that, Auntie?"

"They say he's wild when out of your sight. An' thet he'd trail an' kill anythin' you put him after."

"I trained him to be just that way."

"Wal, leave Tom to home up in the woods-when you visit us."

Dale finished his hearty meal, and listened awhile longer to the old woman's talk; then, taking his rifle and the other turkey, he bade her good-by. She followed him out.

"Now, Milt, you'll come soon again, won't you-jest to see Al's niece-who'll be here in a week?"

"I reckon I'll drop in some day.... Auntie, have you seen my friends, the Mormon boys?"

"No, I 'ain't seen them an' don't want to," she retorted. "Milt Dale, if any one ever corrals you it'll be Mormons."

"Don't worry, Auntie. I like those boys. They often see me up in the woods an' ask me to help them track a hoss or help kill some fresh meat."

"They're workin' for Beasley now."

"Is that so?" rejoined Dale, with a sudden start. "An' what doin'?"

"Beasley is gettin' so rich he's buildin' a fence, an' didn't have enough help, so I hear."

"Beasley gettin' rich!" repeated Dale, thoughtfully. "More sheep an' horses an' cattle than ever, I reckon?"

"Laws-a'-me! Why, Milt, Beasley 'ain't any idea what he owns. Yes, he's the biggest man in these parts, since poor old Al's took to failin'. I reckon Al's health ain't none improved by Beasley's success. They've bad some bitter quarrels lately-so I hear. Al ain't what he was."

Dale bade good-by again to his old friend and strode away, thoughtful and serious. Beasley would not only be difficult to circumvent, but he would be dangerous to oppose. There did not appear much doubt of his driving his way rough-shod to the dominance of affairs there in Pine. Dale, passing down the road, began to meet acquaintances who had hearty welcome for his presence and interest in his doings, so that his pondering was interrupted for the time being. He carried the turkey to another old friend, and when he left her house he went on to the village store. This was a large log cabin, roughly covered with clapboards, with a wide plank platform in front and a hitching-rail in the road. Several horses were standing there, and a group of lazy, shirt-sleeved loungers.

"I'll be doggoned if it ain't Milt Dale!" exclaimed one.

"Howdy, Milt, old buckskin! Right down glad to see you," greeted another.

"Hello, Dale! You air shore good for sore eyes," drawled still another.

After a long period of absence Dale always experienced a singular warmth of feeling when he met these acquaintances. It faded quickly when he got back to the intimacy of his woodland, and that was because the people of Pine, with few exceptions-though they liked him and greatly admired his outdoor wisdom-regarded him as a sort of nonentity. Because he loved the wild and preferred it to village and range life, they had classed him as not one of them. Some believed him lazy; others believed him shiftless; others thought him an Indian in mind and habits; and there were many who called him slow-witted. Then there was another side to their regard for him, which always afforded him good-natured amusement. Two of this group asked him to bring in some turkey or venison; another wanted to hunt with him. Lem Harden came out of the store and appealed to Dale to recover his stolen horse. Lem's brother wanted a wild-running mare tracked and brought home. Jesse Lyons wanted a colt broken, and broken with patience, not violence, as was the method of the hard-riding boys at Pine. So one and all they besieged Dale with their selfish needs, all unconscious of the flattering nature of these overtures. And on the moment there happened by two women whose remarks, as they entered the store, bore strong testimony to Dale's personality.

"If there ain't Milt Dale!" exclaimed the older of the two. "How lucky! My cow's sick, an' the men are no good doctorin'. I'll jest ask Milt over."

"No one like Milt!" responded the other woman, heartily.

"Good day there-you Milt Dale!" called the first speaker. "When you git away from these lazy men come over."

Dale never refused a service, and that was why his infrequent visits to Pine were wont to be prolonged beyond his own pleasure.

Presently Beasley strode down the street, and when about to enter the store he espied Dale.

"Hullo there, Milt!" he called, cordially, as he came forward with extended hand. His greeting was sincere, but the lightning glance he shot over Dale was not born of his pleasure. Seen in daylight, Beasley was a big, bold, bluff man, with strong, dark features. His aggressive presence suggested that he was a good friend and a bad enemy.

Dale shook hands with him.

"How are you, Beasley?"

"Ain't complainin', Milt, though I got more work than I can rustle. Reckon you wouldn't take a job bossin' my sheep-herders?"

"Reckon I wouldn't," replied Dale. "Thanks all the same."

"What's goin' on up in the woods?"

"Plenty of turkey an' deer. Lots of bear, too. The Indians have worked back on the south side early this fall. But I reckon winter will come late an' be mild."

"Good! An' where 're you headin' from?"

"'Cross-country from my camp," replied Dale, rather evasively.

"Your camp! Nobody ever found that yet," declared Beasley, gruffly.

"It's up there," said Dale.

"Reckon you've got that cougar chained in your cabin door?" queried Beasley, and there was a barely distinguishable shudder of his muscular frame. Also the pupils dilated in his hard brown eyes.

"Tom ain't chained. An' I haven't no cabin, Beasley."

"You mean to tell me that big brute stays in your camp without bein' hog-tied or corralled!" demanded Beasley.

"Sure he does."

"Beats me! But, then, I'm queer on cougars. Have had many a cougar trail me at night. Ain't sayin' I was scared. But I don't care for that brand of varmint.... Milt, you goin' to stay down awhile?"

"Yes, I'll hang around some."

"Come over to the ranch. Glad to see you any time. Some old huntin' pards of yours are workin' for me."

"Thanks, Beasley. I reckon I'll come over."

Beasley turned away and took a step, and then, as if with an after-thought, he wheeled again.

"Suppose you've heard about old Al Auchincloss bein' near petered out?" queried Beasley. A strong, ponderous cast of thought seemed to emanate from his features. Dale divined that Beasley's next step would be to further his advancement by some word or hint.

"Widow Cass was tellin' me all the news. Too bad about old Al," replied Dale.

"Sure is. He's done for. An' I'm sorry-though Al's never been square-"

"Beasley," interrupted Dale, quickly, "you can't say that to me. Al Auchincloss always was the whitest an' squarest man in this sheep country."

Beasley gave Dale a fleeting, dark glance.

"Dale, what you think ain't goin' to influence feelin' on this range," returned Beasley, deliberately. "You live in the woods an'-"

"Reckon livin' in the woods I might think-an' know a whole lot," interposed Dale, just as deliberately. The group of men exchanged surprised glances. This was Milt Dale in different aspect. And Beasley did not conceal a puzzled surprise.

"About what-now?" he asked, bluntly.

"Why, about what's goin' on in Pine," replied Dale.

Some of the men laughed.

"Shore lots goin' on-an' no mistake," put in Lem Harden.

Probably the keen Beasley had never before considered Milt Dale as a responsible person; certainly never one in any way to cross his trail. But on the instant, perhaps, some instinct was born, or he divined an antagonism in Dale that was both surprising and perplexing.

"Dale, I've differences with Al Auchincloss-have had them for years," said Beasley. "Much of what he owns is mine. An' it's goin' to come to me. Now I reckon people will be takin' sides-some for me an' some for Al. Most are for me.... Where do you stand? Al Auchincloss never had no use for you, an' besides he's a dyin' man. Are you goin' on his side?"

"Yes, I reckon I am."

"Wal, I'm glad you've declared yourself," rejoined Beasley, shortly, and he strode away with the ponderous gait of a man who would brush any obstacle from his path.

"Milt, thet's bad-makin' Beasley sore at you," said Lem Harden. "He's on the way to boss this outfit."

"He's sure goin' to step into Al's boots," said another.

"Thet was white of Milt to stick up fer poor old Al," declared Lem's brother.

Dale broke away from them and wended a thoughtful way down the road. The burden of what he knew about Beasley weighed less heavily upon him, and the close-lipped course he had decided upon appeared wisest. He needed to think before undertaking to call upon old Al Auchincloss; and to that end he sought an hour's seclusion under the pines.

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