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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Man of the Forest By Zane Grey Characters: 24163

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Helen Rayner had been on the westbound overland train fully twenty-four hours before she made an alarming discovery.

Accompanied by her sister Bo, a precocious girl of sixteen, Helen had left St. Joseph with a heart saddened by farewells to loved ones at home, yet full of thrilling and vivid anticipations of the strange life in the Far West. All her people had the pioneer spirit; love of change, action, adventure, was in her blood. Then duty to a widowed mother with a large and growing family had called to Helen to accept this rich uncle's offer. She had taught school and also her little brothers and sisters; she had helped along in other ways. And now, though the tearing up of the roots of old loved ties was hard, this opportunity was irresistible in its call. The prayer of her dreams had been answered. To bring good fortune to her family; to take care of this beautiful, wild little sister; to leave the yellow, sordid, humdrum towns for the great, rolling, boundless open; to live on a wonderful ranch that was some day to be her own; to have fulfilled a deep, instinctive, and undeveloped love of horses, cattle, sheep, of desert and mountain, of trees and brooks and wild flowers-all this was the sum of her most passionate longings, now in some marvelous, fairylike way to come true.

A check to her happy anticipations, a blank, sickening dash of cold water upon her warm and intimate dreams, had been the discovery that Harve Riggs was on the train. His presence could mean only one thing-that he had followed her. Riggs had been the worst of many sore trials back there in St. Joseph. He had possessed some claim or influence upon her mother, who favored his offer of marriage to Helen; he was neither attractive, nor good, nor industrious, nor anything that interested her; he was the boastful, strutting adventurer, not genuinely Western, and he affected long hair and guns and notoriety. Helen had suspected the veracity of the many fights he claimed had been his, and also she suspected that he was not really big enough to be bad-as Western men were bad. But on the train, in the station at La Junta, one glimpse of him, manifestly spying upon her while trying to keep out of her sight, warned Helen that she now might have a problem on her hands.

The recognition sobered her. All was not to be a road of roses to this new home in the West. Riggs would follow her, if he could not accompany her, and to gain his own ends he would stoop to anything. Helen felt the startling realization of being cast upon her own resources, and then a numbing discouragement and loneliness and helplessness. But these feelings did not long persist in the quick pride and flash of her temper. Opportunity knocked at her door and she meant to be at home to it. She would not have been Al Auchincloss's niece if she had faltered. And, when temper was succeeded by genuine anger, she could have laughed to scorn this Harve Riggs and his schemes, whatever they were. Once and for all she dismissed fear of him. When she left St. Joseph she had faced the West with a beating heart and a high resolve to be worthy of that West. Homes had to be made out there in that far country, so Uncle Al had written, and women were needed to make homes. She meant to be one of these women and to make of her sister another. And with the thought that she would know definitely what to say to Riggs when he approached her, sooner or later, Helen dismissed him from mind.

While the train was in motion, enabling Helen to watch the ever-changing scenery, and resting her from the strenuous task of keeping Bo well in hand at stations, she lapsed again into dreamy gaze at the pine forests and the red, rocky gullies and the dim, bold mountains. She saw the sun set over distant ranges of New Mexico-a golden blaze of glory, as new to her as the strange fancies born in her, thrilling and fleeting by. Bo's raptures were not silent, and the instant the sun sank and the color faded she just as rapturously importuned Helen to get out the huge basket of food they had brought from home.

They had two seats, facing each other, at the end of the coach, and piled there, with the basket on top, was luggage that constituted all the girls owned in the world. Indeed, it was very much more than they had ever owned before, because their mother, in her care for them and desire to have them look well in the eyes of this rich uncle, had spent money and pains to give them pretty and serviceable clothes.

The girls sat together, with the heavy basket on their knees, and ate while they gazed out at the cool, dark ridges. The train clattered slowly on, apparently over a road that was all curves. And it was supper-time for everybody in that crowded coach. If Helen had not been so absorbed by the great, wild mountain-land she would have had more interest in the passengers. As it was she saw them, and was amused and thoughtful at the men and women and a few children in the car, all middle-class people, poor and hopeful, traveling out there to the New West to find homes. It was splendid and beautiful, this fact, yet it inspired a brief and inexplicable sadness. From the train window, that world of forest and crag, with its long bare reaches between, seemed so lonely, so wild, so unlivable. How endless the distance! For hours and miles upon miles no house, no hut, no Indian tepee! It was amazing, the length and breadth of this beautiful land. And Helen, who loved brooks and running streams, saw no water at all.

Then darkness settled down over the slow-moving panorama; a cool night wind blew in at the window; white stars began to blink out of the blue. The sisters, with hands clasped and heads nestled together, went to sleep under a heavy cloak.

Early the next morning, while the girls were again delving into their apparently bottomless basket, the train stopped at Las Vegas.

"Look! Look!" cried Bo, in thrilling voice. "Cowboys! Oh, Nell, look!"

Helen, laughing, looked first at her sister, and thought how most of all she was good to look at. Bo was little, instinct with pulsating life, and she had chestnut hair and dark-blue eyes. These eyes were flashing, roguish, and they drew like magnets.

Outside on the rude station platform were railroad men, Mexicans, and a group of lounging cowboys. Long, lean, bow-legged fellows they were, with young, frank faces and intent eyes. One of them seemed particularly attractive with his superb build, his red-bronze face and bright-red scarf, his swinging gun, and the huge, long, curved spurs. Evidently he caught Bo's admiring gaze, for, with a word to his companions, he sauntered toward the window where the girls sat. His gait was singular, almost awkward, as if he was not accustomed to walking. The long spurs jingled musically. He removed his sombrero and stood at ease, frank, cool, smiling. Helen liked him on sight, and, looking to see what effect he had upon Bo, she found that young lady staring, frightened stiff.

"Good mawnin'," drawled the cowboy, with slow, good-humored smile. "Now where might you-all be travelin'?"

The sound of his voice, the clean-cut and droll geniality; seemed new and delightful to Helen.

"We go to Magdalena-then take stage for the White Mountains," replied Helen.

The cowboy's still, intent eyes showed surprise.

"Apache country, miss," he said. "I reckon I'm sorry. Thet's shore no place for you-all... Beggin' your pawdin-you ain't Mormons?"

"No. We're nieces of Al Auchincloss," rejoined Helen.

"Wal, you don't say! I've been down Magdalena way an' heerd of Al.... Reckon you're goin' a-visitin'?"

"It's to be home for us."

"Shore thet's fine. The West needs girls.... Yes, I've heerd of Al. An old Arizona cattle-man in a sheep country! Thet's bad.... Now I'm wonderin'-if I'd drift down there an' ask him for a job ridin' for him-would I get it?"

His lazy smile was infectious and his meaning was as clear as crystal water. The gaze he bent upon Bo somehow pleased Helen. The last year or two, since Bo had grown prettier all the time, she had been a magnet for admiring glances. This one of the cowboy's inspired respect and liking, as well as amusement. It certainly was not lost upon Bo.

"My uncle once said in a letter that he never had enough men to run his ranch," replied Helen, smiling.

"Shore I'll go. I reckon I'd jest naturally drift that way-now."

He seemed so laconic, so easy, so nice, that he could not have been taken seriously, yet Helen's quick perceptions registered a daring, a something that was both sudden and inevitable in him. His last word was as clear as the soft look he fixed upon Bo.

Helen had a mischievous trait, which, subdue it as she would, occasionally cropped out; and Bo, who once in her wilful life had been rendered speechless, offered such a temptation.

"Maybe my little sister will put in a good word for you-to Uncle Al," said Helen. Just then the train jerked, and started slowly. The cowboy took two long strides beside the car, his heated boyish face almost on a level with the window, his eyes, now shy and a little wistful, yet bold, too, fixed upon Bo.

"Good-by-Sweetheart!" he called.

He halted-was lost to view.

"Well!" ejaculated Helen, contritely, half sorry, half amused. "What a sudden young gentleman!"

Bo had blushed beautifully.

"Nell, wasn't he glorious!" she burst out, with eyes shining.

"I'd hardly call him that, but he was-nice," replied Helen, much relieved that Bo had apparently not taken offense at her.

It appeared plain that Bo resisted a frantic desire to look out of the window and to wave her hand. But she only peeped out, manifestly to her disappointment.

"Do you think he-he'll come to Uncle Al's?" asked Bo.

"Child, he was only in fun."

"Nell, I'll bet you he comes. Oh, it'd be great! I'm going to love cowboys. They don't look like that Harve Riggs who ran after you so."

Helen sighed, partly because of the reminder of her odious suitor, and partly because Bo's future already called mysteriously to the child. Helen had to be at once a mother and a protector to a girl of intense and wilful spirit.

One of the trainmen directed the girls' attention to a green, sloping mountain rising to a bold, blunt bluff of bare rock; and, calling it Starvation Peak, he told a story of how Indians had once driven Spaniards up there and starved them. Bo was intensely interested, and thereafter she watched more keenly than ever, and always had a question for a passing trainman. The adobe houses of the Mexicans pleased her, and, then the train got out into Indian country, where pueblos appeared near the track and Indians with their bright colors and shaggy wild mustangs-then she was enraptured.

"But these Indians are peaceful!" she exclaimed once, regretfully.

"Gracious, child! You don't want to see hostile Indians, do you?" queried Helen.

"I do, you bet," was the frank rejoinder.

"Well, I'LL bet that I'll be sorry I didn't leave you with mother."

"Nell-you never will!"

They reached Albuquerque about noon, and this important station, where they had to change trains, had been the first dreaded anticipation of the journey. It certainly was a busy place-full of jabbering Mexicans, stalking, red-faced, wicked-looking cowboys, lolling Indians. In the confusion Helen would have been hard put to it to preserve calmness, with Bo to watch, and all that baggage to carry, and the other train to find; but the kindly brakeman who had been attentive to them now helped them off the train into the other-a service for which Helen was very grateful.

"Albuquerque's a hard place," confided the trainman. "Better stay in the car-and don't hang out the windows.... Good luck to you!"

Only a few passengers were in the car and they were Mexicans at the forward end. This branch train consisted of one passenger-coach, with a baggage-car, attached to a string of freight-cars. Helen told herself, somewhat grimly, that soon she would know surely whether or not her suspicions of Harve Rig

gs had warrant. If he was going on to Magdalena on that day he must go in this coach. Presently Bo, who was not obeying admonitions, drew her head out of the window. Her eyes were wide in amaze, her mouth open.

"Nell! I saw that man Riggs!" she whispered. "He's going to get on this train."

"Bo, I saw him yesterday," replied Helen, soberly.

"He's followed you-the-the-"

"Now, Bo, don't get excited," remonstrated Helen. "We've left home now. We've got to take things as they come. Never mind if Riggs has followed me. I'll settle him."

"Oh! Then you won't speak-have anything to do with him?"

"I won't if I can help it."

Other passengers boarded the train, dusty, uncouth, ragged men, and some hard-featured, poorly clad women, marked by toil, and several more Mexicans. With bustle and loud talk they found their several seats.

Then Helen saw Harve Riggs enter, burdened with much luggage. He was a man of about medium height, of dark, flashy appearance, cultivating long black mustache and hair. His apparel was striking, as it consisted of black frock-coat, black trousers stuffed in high, fancy-topped boots, an embroidered vest, and flowing tie, and a black sombrero. His belt and gun were prominent. It was significant that he excited comment among the other passengers.

When he had deposited his pieces of baggage he seemed to square himself, and, turning abruptly, approached the seat occupied by the girls. When he reached it he sat down upon the arm of the one opposite, took off his sombrero, and deliberately looked at Helen. His eyes were light, glinting, with hard, restless quiver, and his mouth was coarse and arrogant. Helen had never seen him detached from her home surroundings, and now the difference struck cold upon her heart.

"Hello, Nell!" he said. "Surprised to see me?"

"No," she replied, coldly.

"I'll gamble you are."

"Harve Riggs, I told you the day before I left home that nothing you could do or say mattered to me."

"Reckon that ain't so, Nell. Any woman I keep track of has reason to think. An' you know it."

"Then you followed me-out here?" demanded Helen, and her voice, despite her control, quivered with anger.

"I sure did," he replied, and there was as much thought of himself in the act as there was of her.

"Why? Why? It's useless-hopeless."

"I swore I'd have you, or nobody else would," he replied, and here, in the passion of his voice there sounded egotism rather than hunger for a woman's love. "But I reckon I'd have struck West anyhow, sooner or later."

"You're not going to-all the way-to Pine?" faltered Helen, momentarily weakening.

"Nell, I'll camp on your trail from now on," he declared.

Then Bo sat bolt-upright, with pale face and flashing eyes.

"Harve Riggs, you leave Nell alone," she burst out, in ringing, brave young voice. "I'll tell you what-I'll bet-if you follow her and nag her any more, my uncle Al or some cowboy will run you out of the country."

"Hello, Pepper!" replied Riggs, coolly. "I see your manners haven't improved an' you're still wild about cowboys."

"People don't have good manners with-with-"

"Bo, hush!" admonished Helen. It was difficult to reprove Bo just then, for that young lady had not the slightest fear of Riggs. Indeed, she looked as if she could slap his face. And Helen realized that however her intelligence had grasped the possibilities of leaving home for a wild country, and whatever her determination to be brave, the actual beginning of self-reliance had left her spirit weak. She would rise out of that. But just now this flashing-eyed little sister seemed a protector. Bo would readily adapt herself to the West, Helen thought, because she was so young, primitive, elemental.

Whereupon Bo turned her back to Riggs and looked out of the window. The man laughed. Then he stood up and leaned over Helen.

"Nell, I'm goin' wherever you go," he said, steadily. "You can take that friendly or not, just as it pleases you. But if you've got any sense you'll not give these people out here a hunch against me. I might hurt somebody.... An' wouldn't it be better-to act friends? For I'm goin' to look after you, whether you like it or not."

Helen had considered this man an annoyance, and later a menace, and now she must declare open enmity with him. However disgusting the idea that he considered himself a factor in her new life, it was the truth. He existed, he had control over his movements. She could not change that. She hated the need of thinking so much about him; and suddenly, with a hot, bursting anger, she hated the man.

"You'll not look after me. I'll take care of myself," she said, and she turned her back upon him. She heard him mutter under his breath and slowly move away down the car. Then Bo slipped a hand in hers.

"Never mind, Nell," she whispered. "You know what old Sheriff Haines said about Harve Riggs. 'A four-flush would-be gun-fighter! If he ever strikes a real Western town he'll get run out of it.' I just wish my red-faced cowboy had got on this train!"

Helen felt a rush of gladness that she had yielded to Bo's wild importunities to take her West. The spirit which had made Bo incorrigible at home probably would make her react happily to life out in this free country. Yet Helen, with all her warmth and gratefulness, had to laugh at her sister.

"Your red-faced cowboy! Why, Bo, you were scared stiff. And now you claim him!"

"I certainly could love that fellow," replied Bo, dreamily.

"Child, you've been saying that about fellows for a long time. And you've never looked twice at any of them yet."

"He was different.... Nell, I'll bet he comes to Pine."

"I hope he does. I wish he was on this train. I liked his looks, Bo."

"Well, Nell dear, he looked at ME first and last-so don't get your hopes up.... Oh, the train's starting!... Good-by, Albu-ker-what's that awful name?... Nell, let's eat dinner. I'm starved."

Then Helen forgot her troubles and the uncertain future, and what with listening to Bo's chatter, and partaking again of the endless good things to eat in the huge basket, and watching the noble mountains, she drew once more into happy mood.

The valley of the Rio Grande opened to view, wide near at hand in a great gray-green gap between the bare black mountains, narrow in the distance, where the yellow river wound away, glistening under a hot sun. Bo squealed in glee at sight of naked little Mexican children that darted into adobe huts as the train clattered by, and she exclaimed her pleasure in the Indians, and the mustangs, and particularly in a group of cowboys riding into town on spirited horses. Helen saw all Bo pointed out, but it was to the wonderful rolling valley that her gaze clung longest, and to the dim purple distance that seemed to hold something from her. She had never before experienced any feeling like that; she had never seen a tenth so far. And the sight awoke something strange in her. The sun was burning hot, as she could tell when she put a hand outside the window, and a strong wind blew sheets of dry dust at the train. She gathered at once what tremendous factors in the Southwest were the sun and the dust and the wind. And her realization made her love them. It was there; the open, the wild, the beautiful, the lonely land; and she felt the poignant call of blood in her-to seek, to strive, to find, to live. One look down that yellow valley, endless between its dark iron ramparts, had given her understanding of her uncle. She must be like him in spirit, as it was claimed she resembled him otherwise.

At length Bo grew tired of watching scenery that contained no life, and, with her bright head on the faded cloak, she went to sleep. But Helen kept steady, farseeing gaze out upon that land of rock and plain; and during the long hours, as she watched through clouds of dust and veils of heat, some strong and doubtful and restless sentiment seemed to change and then to fix. It was her physical acceptance-her eyes and her senses taking the West as she had already taken it in spirit.

A woman should love her home wherever fate placed her, Helen believed, and not so much from duty as from delight and romance and living. How could life ever be tedious or monotonous out here in this tremendous vastness of bare earth and open sky, where the need to achieve made thinking and pondering superficial?

It was with regret that she saw the last of the valley of the Rio Grande, and then of its paralleled mountain ranges. But the miles brought compensation in other valleys, other bold, black upheavals of rock, and then again bare, boundless yellow plains, and sparsely cedared ridges, and white dry washes, ghastly in the sunlight, and dazzling beds of alkali, and then a desert space where golden and blue flowers bloomed.

She noted, too, that the whites and yellows of earth and rock had begun to shade to red-and this she knew meant an approach to Arizona. Arizona, the wild, the lonely, the red desert, the green plateau-Arizona with its thundering rivers, its unknown spaces, its pasture-lands and timber-lands, its wild horses, cowboys, outlaws, wolves and lions and savages! As to a boy, that name stirred and thrilled and sang to her of nameless, sweet, intangible things, mysterious and all of adventure. But she, being a girl of twenty, who had accepted responsibilities, must conceal the depths of her heart and that which her mother had complained was her misfortune in not being born a boy.

Time passed, while Helen watched and learned and dreamed. The train stopped, at long intervals, at wayside stations where there seemed nothing but adobe sheds and lazy Mexicans, and dust and heat. Bo awoke and began to chatter, and to dig into the basket. She learned from the conductor that Magdalena was only two stations on. And she was full of conjectures as to who would meet them, what would happen. So Helen was drawn back to sober realities, in which there was considerable zest. Assuredly she did not know what was going to happen. Twice Riggs passed up and down the aisle, his dark face and light eyes and sardonic smile deliberately forced upon her sight. But again Helen fought a growing dread with contemptuous scorn. This fellow was not half a man. It was not conceivable what he could do, except annoy her, until she arrived at Pine. Her uncle was to meet her or send for her at Snowdrop, which place, Helen knew, was distant a good long ride by stage from Magdalena. This stage-ride was the climax and the dread of all the long journey, in Helen's considerations.

"Oh, Nell!" cried Bo, with delight. "We're nearly there! Next station, the conductor said."

"I wonder if the stage travels at night," said Helen, thoughtfully.

"Sure it does!" replied the irrepressible Bo.

The train, though it clattered along as usual, seemed to Helen to fly. There the sun was setting over bleak New Mexican bluffs, Magdalena was at hand, and night, and adventure. Helen's heart beat fast. She watched the yellow plains where the cattle grazed; their presence, and irrigation ditches and cottonwood-trees told her that the railroad part of the journey was nearly ended. Then, at Bo's little scream, she looked across the car and out of the window to see a line of low, flat, red-adobe houses. The train began to slow down. Helen saw children run, white children and Mexican together; then more houses, and high upon a hill an immense adobe church, crude and glaring, yet somehow beautiful.

Helen told Bo to put on her bonnet, and, performing a like office for herself, she was ashamed of the trembling of her fingers. There were bustle and talk in the car.

The train stopped. Helen peered out to see a straggling crowd of Mexicans and Indians, all motionless and stolid, as if trains or nothing else mattered. Next Helen saw a white man, and that was a relief. He stood out in front of the others. Tall and broad, somehow striking, he drew a second glance that showed him to be a hunter clad in gray-fringed buckskin, and carrying a rifle.

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