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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Man of the Forest By Zane Grey Characters: 14003

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


In the afternoon, Dale, having accomplished some tasks imposed upon him by his old friends at Pine, directed slow steps toward the Auchincloss ranch.

The flat, square stone and log cabin of unusually large size stood upon a little hill half a mile out of the village. A home as well as a fort, it had been the first structure erected in that region, and the process of building had more than once been interrupted by Indian attacks. The Apaches had for some time, however, confined their fierce raids to points south of the White Mountain range. Auchincloss's house looked down upon barns and sheds and corrals of all sizes and shapes, and hundreds of acres of well-cultivated soil. Fields of oats waved gray and yellow in the afternoon sun; an immense green pasture was divided by a willow-bordered brook, and here were droves of horses, and out on the rolling bare flats were straggling herds of cattle.

The whole ranch showed many years of toil and the perseverance of man. The brook irrigated the verdant valley between the ranch and the village. Water for the house, however, came down from the high, wooded slope of the mountain, and had been brought there by a simple expedient. Pine logs of uniform size had been laid end to end, with a deep trough cut in them, and they made a shining line down the slope, across the valley, and up the little hill to the Auchincloss home. Near the house the hollowed halves of logs had been bound together, making a crude pipe. Water ran uphill in this case, one of the facts that made the ranch famous, as it had always been a wonder and delight to the small boys of Pine. The two good women who managed Auchincloss's large household were often shocked by the strange things that floated into their kitchen with the ever-flowing stream of clear, cold mountain water.

As it happened this day Dale encountered Al Auchincloss sitting in the shade of a porch, talking to some of his sheep-herders and stockmen. Auchincloss was a short man of extremely powerful build and great width of shoulder. He had no gray hairs, and he did not look old, yet there was in his face a certain weariness, something that resembled sloping lines of distress, dim and pale, that told of age and the ebb-tide of vitality. His features, cast in large mold, were clean-cut and comely, and he had frank blue eyes, somewhat sad, yet still full of spirit.

Dale had no idea how his visit would be taken, and he certainly would not have been surprised to be ordered off the place. He had not set foot there for years. Therefore it was with surprise that he saw Auchincloss wave away the herders and take his entrance without any particular expression.

"Howdy, Al! How are you?" greeted Dale, easily, as he leaned his rifle against the log wall.

Auchincloss did not rise, but he offered his hand.

"Wal, Milt Dale, I reckon this is the first time I ever seen you that I couldn't lay you flat on your back," replied the rancher. His tone was both testy and full of pathos.

"I take it you mean you ain't very well," replied Dale. "I'm sorry, Al."

"No, it ain't thet. Never was sick in my life. I'm just played out, like a hoss thet had been strong an' willin', an' did too much.... Wal, you don't look a day older, Milt. Livin' in the woods rolls over a man's head."

"Yes, I'm feelin' fine, an' time never bothers me."

"Wal, mebbe you ain't such a fool, after all. I've wondered lately-since I had time to think.... But, Milt, you don't git no richer."

"Al, I have all I want an' need."

"Wal, then, you don't support anybody; you don't do any good in the world."

"We don't agree, Al," replied Dale, with his slow smile.

"Reckon we never did.... An' you jest come over to pay your respects to me, eh?"

"Not altogether," answered Dale, ponderingly. "First off, I'd like to say I'll pay back them sheep you always claimed my tame cougar killed."

"You will! An' how'd you go about that?"

"Wasn't very many sheep, was there?

"A matter of fifty head."

"So many! Al, do you still think old Tom killed them sheep?"

"Humph! Milt, I know damn well he did."

"Al, now how could you know somethin' I don't? Be reasonable, now. Let's don't fall out about this again. I'll pay back the sheep. Work it out-"

"Milt Dale, you'll come down here an' work out that fifty head of sheep!" ejaculated the old rancher, incredulously.

"Sure."

"Wal, I'll be damned!" He sat back and gazed with shrewd eyes at Dale. "What's got into you, Milt? Hev you heard about my niece thet's comin', an' think you'll shine up to her?"

"Yes, Al, her comin' has a good deal to do with my deal," replied Dale, soberly. "But I never thought to shine up to her, as you hint."

"Haw! Haw! You're just like all the other colts hereabouts. Reckon it's a good sign, too. It'll take a woman to fetch you out of the woods. But, boy, this niece of mine, Helen Rayner, will stand you on your head. I never seen her. They say she's jest like her mother. An' Nell Auchincloss-what a girl she was!"

Dale felt his face grow red. Indeed, this was strange conversation for him.

"Honest, Al-" he began.

"Son, don't lie to an old man."

"Lie! I wouldn't lie to any one. Al, it's only men who live in towns an' are always makin' deals. I live in the forest, where there's nothin' to make me lie."

"Wal, no offense meant, I'm sure," responded Auchincloss. "An' mebbe there's somethin' in what you say... We was talkin' about them sheep your big cat killed. Wal, Milt, I can't prove it, that's sure. An' mebbe you'll think me doddery when I tell you my reason. It wasn't what them greaser herders said about seein' a cougar in the herd."

"What was it, then?" queried Dale, much interested.

"Wal, thet day a year ago I seen your pet. He was lyin' in front of the store an' you was inside tradin', fer supplies, I reckon. It was like meetin' an enemy face to face. Because, damn me if I didn't know that cougar was guilty when he looked in my eyes! There!"

The old rancher expected to be laughed at. But Dale was grave.

"Al, I know how you felt," he replied, as if they were discussing an action of a human being. "Sure I'd hate to doubt old Tom. But he's a cougar. An' the ways of animals are strange... Anyway, Al, I'll make good the loss of your sheep."

"No, you won't," rejoined Auchincloss, quickly. "We'll call it off. I'm takin' it square of you to make the offer. Thet's enough. So forget your worry about work, if you had any."

"There's somethin' else, Al, I wanted to say," began Dale, with hesitation. "An' it's about Beasley."

Auchincloss started violently, and a flame of red shot into his face. Then he raised a big hand that shook. Dale saw in a flash how the old man's nerves had gone.

"Don't mention-thet-thet greaser-to me!" burst out the rancher. "It makes me see-red.... Dale, I ain't overlookin' that you spoke up fer me to-day-stood fer my side. Lem Harden told me. I was glad. An' thet's why-to-day-I forgot our old q

uarrel.... But not a word about thet sheep-thief-or I'll drive you off the place!"

"But, Al-be reasonable," remonstrated Dale. "It's necessary thet I speak of-of Beasley."

"It ain't. Not to me. I won't listen."

"Reckon you'll have to, Al," returned Dale. "Beasley's after your property. He's made a deal-"

"By Heaven! I know that!" shouted Auchincloss, tottering up, with his face now black-red. "Do you think thet's new to me? Shut up, Dale! I can't stand it."

"But Al-there's worse," went on Dale, hurriedly. "Worse! Your life's threatened-an' your niece, Helen-she's to be-"

"Shut up-an' clear out!" roared Auchincloss, waving his huge fists.

He seemed on the verge of a collapse as, shaking all over, he backed into the door. A few seconds of rage had transformed him into a pitiful old man.

"But, Al-I'm your friend-" began Dale, appealingly.

"Friend, hey?" returned the rancher, with grim, bitter passion. "Then you're the only one.... Milt Dale, I'm rich an' I'm a dyin' man. I trust nobody... But, you wild hunter-if you're my friend-prove it!... Go kill thet greaser sheep-thief! DO somethin'-an' then come talk to me!"

With that he lurched, half falling, into the house, and slammed the door.

Dale stood there for a blank moment, and then, taking up his rifle, he strode away.

Toward sunset Dale located the camp of his four Mormon friends, and reached it in time for supper.

John, Roy, Joe, and Hal Beeman were sons of a pioneer Mormon who had settled the little community of Snowdrop. They were young men in years, but hard labor and hard life in the open had made them look matured. Only a year's difference in age stood between John and Roy, and between Roy and Joe, and likewise Joe and Hal. When it came to appearance they were difficult to distinguish from one another. Horsemen, sheep-herders, cattle-raisers, hunters-they all possessed long, wiry, powerful frames, lean, bronzed, still faces, and the quiet, keen eyes of men used to the open.

Their camp was situated beside a spring in a cove surrounded by aspens, some three miles from Pine; and, though working for Beasley, near the village, they had ridden to and fro from camp, after the habit of seclusion peculiar to their kind.

Dale and the brothers had much in common, and a warm regard had sprang up. But their exchange of confidences had wholly concerned things pertaining to the forest. Dale ate supper with them, and talked as usual when he met them, without giving any hint of the purpose forming in his mind. After the meal he helped Joe round up the horses, hobble them for the night, and drive them into a grassy glade among the pines. Later, when the shadows stole through the forest on the cool wind, and the camp-fire glowed comfortably, Dale broached the subject that possessed him.

"An' so you're working for Beasley?" he queried, by way of starting conversation.

"We was," drawled John. "But to-day, bein' the end of our month, we got our pay an' quit. Beasley sure was sore."

"Why'd you knock off?"

John essayed no reply, and his brothers all had that quiet, suppressed look of knowledge under restraint.

"Listen to what I come to tell you, then you'll talk," went on Dale. And hurriedly he told of Beasley's plot to abduct Al Auchincloss's niece and claim the dying man's property.

When Dale ended, rather breathlessly, the Mormon boys sat without any show of surprise or feeling. John, the eldest, took up a stick and slowly poked the red embers of the fire, making the white sparks fly.

"Now, Milt, why'd you tell us thet?" he asked, guardedly.

"You're the only friends I've got," replied Dale. "It didn't seem safe for me to talk down in the village. I thought of you boys right off. I ain't goin' to let Snake Anson get that girl. An' I need help, so I come to you."

"Beasley's strong around Pine, an' old Al's weakenin'. Beasley will git the property, girl or no girl," said John.

"Things don't always turn out as they look. But no matter about that. The girl deal is what riled me.... She's to arrive at Magdalena on the sixteenth, an' take stage for Snowdrop.... Now what to do? If she travels on that stage I'll be on it, you bet. But she oughtn't to be in it at all. ... Boys, somehow I'm goin' to save her. Will you help me? I reckon I've been in some tight corners for you. Sure, this 's different. But are you my friends? You know now what Beasley is. An' you're all lost at the hands of Snake Anson's gang. You've got fast hosses, eyes for trackin', an' you can handle a rifle. You're the kind of fellows I'd want in a tight pinch with a bad gang. Will you stand by me or see me go alone?"

Then John Beeman, silently, and with pale face, gave Dale's hand a powerful grip, and one by one the other brothers rose to do likewise. Their eyes flashed with hard glint and a strange bitterness hovered around their thin lips.

"Milt, mebbe we know what Beasley is better 'n you," said John, at length. "He ruined my father. He's cheated other Mormons. We boys have proved to ourselves thet he gets the sheep Anson's gang steals.... An' drives the herds to Phenix! Our people won't let us accuse Beasley. So we've suffered in silence. My father always said, let some one else say the first word against Beasley, an' you've come to us!"

Roy Beeman put a hand on Dale's shoulder. He, perhaps, was the keenest of the brothers and the one to whom adventure and peril called most. He had been oftenest with Dale, on many a long trail, and he was the hardest rider and the most relentless tracker in all that range country.

"An' we're goin' with you," he said, in a strong and rolling voice.

They resumed their seats before the fire. John threw on more wood, and with a crackling and sparkling the blaze curled up, fanned by the wind. As twilight deepened into night the moan in the pines increased to a roar. A pack of coyotes commenced to pierce the air in staccato cries.

The five young men conversed long and earnestly, considering, planning, rejecting ideas advanced by each. Dale and Roy Beeman suggested most of what became acceptable to all. Hunters of their type resembled explorers in slow and deliberate attention to details. What they had to deal with here was a situation of unlimited possibilities; the horses and outfit needed; a long detour to reach Magdalena unobserved; the rescue of a strange girl who would no doubt be self-willed and determined to ride on the stage-the rescue forcible, if necessary; the fight and the inevitable pursuit; the flight into the forest, and the safe delivery of the girl to Auchincloss.

"Then, Milt, will we go after Beasley?" queried Roy Beeman, significantly.

Dale was silent and thoughtful.

"Sufficient unto the day!" said John. "An' fellars, let's go to bed."

They rolled out their tarpaulins, Dale sharing Roy's blankets, and soon were asleep, while the red embers slowly faded, and the great roar of wind died down, and the forest stillness set in.

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