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   Chapter 26 No.26

The Man of the Forest By Zane Grey Characters: 27659

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


For Helen Rayner that brief, dark period of expulsion from her home had become a thing of the past, almost forgotten.

Two months had flown by on the wings of love and work and the joy of finding her place there in the West. All her old men had been only too glad of the opportunity to come back to her, and under Dale and Roy Beeman a different and prosperous order marked the life of the ranch.

Helen had made changes in the house by altering the arrangement of rooms and adding a new section. Only once had she ventured into the old dining-room where Las Vegas Carmichael had sat down to that fatal dinner for Beasley. She made a store-room of it, and a place she would never again enter.

Helen was happy, almost too happy, she thought, and therefore made more than needful of the several bitter drops in her sweet cup of life. Carmichael had ridden out of Pine, ostensibly on the trail of the Mexicans who had executed Beasley's commands. The last seen of him had been reported from Show Down, where he had appeared red-eyed and dangerous, like a hound on a scent. Then two months had flown by without a word.

Dale had shaken his head doubtfully when interrogated about the cowboy's absence. It would be just like Las Vegas never to be heard of again. Also it would be more like him to remain away until all trace of his drunken, savage spell had departed from him and had been forgotten by his friends. Bo took his disappearance apparently less to heart than Helen. But Bo grew more restless, wilder, and more wilful than ever. Helen thought she guessed Bo's secret; and once she ventured a hint concerning Carmichael's return.

"If Tom doesn't come back pretty soon I'll marry Milt Dale," retorted Bo, tauntingly.

This fired Helen's cheeks with red.

"But, child," she protested, half angry, half grave. "Milt and I are engaged."

"Sure. Only you're so slow. There's many a slip-you know."

"Bo, I tell you Tom will come back," replied Helen, earnestly. "I feel it. There was something fine in that cowboy. He understood me better than you or Milt, either.... And he was perfectly wild in love with you."

"Oh! WAS he?"

"Very much more than you deserved, Bo Rayner."

Then occurred one of Bo's sweet, bewildering, unexpected transformations. Her defiance, resentment, rebelliousness, vanished from a softly agitated face.

"Oh, Nell, I know that.... You just watch me if I ever get another chance at him!... Then-maybe he'd never drink again!"

"Bo, be happy-and be good. Don't ride off any more-don't tease the boys. It'll all come right in the end."

Bo recovered her equanimity quickly enough.

"Humph! You can afford to be cheerful. You've got a man who can't live when you're out of his sight. He's like a fish on dry land.... And you-why, once you were an old pessimist!"

Bo was not to be consoled or changed. Helen could only sigh and pray that her convictions would be verified.

The first day of July brought an early thunder-storm, just at sunrise. It roared and flared and rolled away, leaving a gorgeous golden cloud pageant in the sky and a fresh, sweetly smelling, glistening green range that delighted Helen's eye.

Birds were twittering in the arbors and bees were humming in the flowers. From the fields down along the brook came a blended song of swamp-blackbird and meadow-lark. A clarion-voiced burro split the air with his coarse and homely bray. The sheep were bleating, and a soft baa of little lambs came sweetly to Helen's ears. She went her usual rounds with more than usual zest and thrill. Everywhere was color, activity, life. The wind swept warm and pine-scented down from the mountain heights, now black and bold, and the great green slopes seemed to call to her.

At that very moment she came suddenly upon Dale, in his shirt-sleeves, dusty and hot, standing motionless, gazing at the distant mountains. Helen's greeting startled him.

"I-I was just looking away yonder," he said, smiling. She thrilled at the clear, wonderful light of his eyes.

"So was I-a moment ago," she replied, wistfully. "Do you miss the forest-very much?"

"Nell, I miss nothing. But I'd like to ride with you under the pines once more."

"We'll go," she cried.

"When?" he asked, eagerly.

"Oh-soon!" And then with flushed face and downcast eyes she passed on. For long Helen had cherished a fond hope that she might be married in Paradise Park, where she had fallen in love with Dale and had realized herself. But she had kept that hope secret. Dale's eager tone, his flashing eyes, had made her feel that her secret was there in her telltale face.

As she entered the lane leading to the house she encountered one of the new stable-boys driving a pack-mule.

"Jim, whose pack is that?" she asked.

"Ma'am, I dunno, but I heard him tell Roy he reckoned his name was mud," replied the boy, smiling.

Helen's heart gave a quick throb. That sounded like Las Vegas. She hurried on, and upon entering the courtyard she espied Roy Beeman holding the halter of a beautiful, wild-looking mustang. There was another horse with another man, who was in the act of dismounting on the far side. When he stepped into better view Helen recognized Las Vegas. And he saw her at the same instant.

Helen did not look up again until she was near the porch. She had dreaded this meeting, yet she was so glad that she could have cried aloud.

"Miss Helen, I shore am glad to see you," he said, standing bareheaded before her, the same young, frank-faced cowboy she had seen first from the train.

"Tom!" she exclaimed, and offered her hands.

He wrung them hard while he looked at her. The swift woman's glance Helen gave in return seemed to drive something dark and doubtful out of her heart. This was the same boy she had known-whom she had liked so well-who had won her sister's love. Helen imagined facing him thus was like awakening from a vague nightmare of doubt. Carmichael's face was clean, fresh, young, with its healthy tan; it wore the old glad smile, cool, easy, and natural; his eyes were like Dale's-penetrating, clear as crystal, without a shadow. What had evil, drink, blood, to do with the real inherent nobility of this splendid specimen of Western hardihood? Wherever he had been, whatever he had done during that long absence, he had returned long separated from that wild and savage character she could now forget. Perhaps there would never again be call for it.

"How's my girl?" he asked, just as naturally as if he had been gone a few days on some errand of his employer's.

"Bo? Oh, she's well-fine. I-I rather think she'll be glad to see you," replied Helen, warmly.

"An' how's thet big Indian, Dale?" he drawled.

"Well, too-I'm sure."

"Reckon I got back heah in time to see you-all married?"

"I-I assure you I-no one around here has been married yet," replied Helen, with a blush.

"Thet shore is fine. Was some worried," he said, lazily. "I've been chasin' wild hosses over in New Mexico, an' I got after this heah blue roan. He kept me chasin' him fer a spell. I've fetched him back for Bo."

Helen looked at the mustang Roy was holding, to be instantly delighted. He was a roan almost blue in color, neither large nor heavy, but powerfully built, clean-limbed, and racy, with a long mane and tail, black as coal, and a beautiful head that made Helen love him at once.

"Well, I'm jealous," declared Helen, archly. "I never did see such a pony."

"I reckoned you'd never ride any hoss but Ranger," said Las Vegas.

"No, I never will. But I can be jealous, anyhow, can't I?"

"Shore. An I reckon if you say you're goin' to have him-wal, Bo 'd be funny," he drawled.

"I reckon she would be funny," retorted Helen. She was so happy that she imitated his speech. She wanted to hug him. It was too good to be true-the return of this cowboy. He understood her. He had come back with nothing that could alienate her. He had apparently forgotten the terrible role he had accepted and the doom he had meted out to her enemies. That moment was wonderful for Helen in its revelation of the strange significance of the West as embodied in this cowboy. He was great. But he did not know that.

Then the door of the living-room opened, and a sweet, high voice pealed out:

"Roy! Oh, what a mustang! Whose is he?"

"Wal, Bo, if all I hear is so he belongs to you," replied Roy with a huge grin.

Bo appeared in the door. She stepped out upon the porch. She saw the cowboy. The excited flash of her pretty face vanished as she paled.

"Bo, I shore am glad to see you," drawled Las Vegas, as he stepped forward, sombrero in hand. Helen could not see any sign of confusion in him. But, indeed, she saw gladness. Then she expected to behold Bo run right into the cowboys's arms. It appeared, however, that she was doomed to disappointment.

"Tom, I'm glad to see you," she replied.

They shook hands as old friends.

"You're lookin' right fine," he said.

"Oh, I'm well.... And how have you been these six months?" she queried.

"Reckon I though it was longer," he drawled. "Wal, I'm pretty tip-top now, but I was laid up with heart trouble for a spell."

"Heart trouble?" she echoed, dubiously.

"Shore.... I ate too much over heah in New Mexico."

"It's no news to me-where your heart's located," laughed Bo. Then she ran off the porch to see the blue mustang. She walked round and round him, clasping her hands in sheer delight.

"Bo, he's a plumb dandy," said Roy. "Never seen a prettier hoss. He'll run like a streak. An' he's got good eyes. He'll be a pet some day. But I reckon he'll always be spunky."

"Bo ventured to step closer, and at last got a hand on the mustang, and then another. She smoothed his quivering neck and called softly to him, until he submitted to her hold.

"What's his name?" she asked.

"Blue somethin' or other," replied Roy.

"Tom, has my new mustang a name?" asked Bo, turning to the cowboy.

"Shore."

"What then?"

"Wal, I named him Blue-Bo," answered Las Vegas, with a smile.

"Blue-Boy?"

"Nope. He's named after you. An' I chased him, roped him, broke him all myself."

"Very well. Blue-Bo he is, then.... And he's a wonderful darling horse. Oh, Nell, just look at him.... Tom, I can't thank you enough."

"Reckon I don't want any thanks," drawled the cowboy. "But see heah, Bo, you shore got to live up to conditions before you ride him."

"What!" exclaimed Bo, who was startled by his slow, cool, meaning tone, of voice.

Helen delighted in looking at Las Vegas then. He had never appeared to better advantage. So cool, careless, and assured! He seemed master of a situation in which his terms must be accepted. Yet he might have been actuated by a cowboy motive beyond the power of Helen to divine.

"Bo Rayner," drawled Las Vegas, "thet blue mustang will be yours, an' you can ride him-when you're MRS. TOM CARMICHAEL!"

Never had he spoken a softer, more drawling speech, nor gazed at Bo more mildly. Roy seemed thunderstruck. Helen endeavored heroically to restrain her delicious, bursting glee. Bo's wide eyes stared at her lover-darkened-dilated. Suddenly she left the mustang to confront the cowboy where he lounged on the porch steps.

"Do you mean that?" she cried.

"Shore do."

"Bah! It's only a magnificent bluff," she retorted. "You're only in fun. It's your-your darned nerve!"

"Why, Bo," began Las Vegas, reproachfully. "You shore know I'm not the four-flusher kind. Never got away with a bluff in my life! An' I'm jest in daid earnest aboot this heah."

All the same, signs were not wanting in his mobile face that he was almost unable to restrain his mirth.

Helen realized then that Bo saw through the cowboy-that the ultimatum was only one of his tricks.

"It IS a bluff and I CALL you!" declared Bo, ringingly.

Las Vegas suddenly awoke to consequences. He essayed to speak, but she was so wonderful then, so white and blazing-eyed, that he was stricken mute.

"I'll ride Blue-Bo this afternoon," deliberately stated the girl.

Las Vegas had wit enough to grasp her meaning, and he seemed about to collapse.

"Very well, you can make me Mrs. Tom Carmichael to-day-this morning-just before dinner.... Go get a preacher to marry us-and make yourself look a more presentable bridegroom-UNLESS IT WAS ONLY A BLUFF!"

Her imperiousness changed as the tremendous portent of her words seemed to make Las Vegas a blank, stone image of a man. With a wild-rose color suffusing her face, she swiftly bent over him, kissed him, and flashed away into the house. Her laugh pealed back, and it thrilled Helen, so deep and strange was it for the wilful sister, so wild and merry and full of joy.

It was then that Roy Beeman recovered from his paralysis, to let out such a roar of mirth as to frighten the horses. Helen was laughing, and crying, too, but laughing mostly. Las Vegas Carmichael was a sight for the gods to behold. Bo's kiss had unclamped what had bound him. The sudden truth, undeniable, insupportable, glorious, made him a madman.

"Bluff-she called me-ride Blue-Bo saf'ternoon!" he raved, reaching wildly for Helen. "Mrs.-Tom-Carmichael-before dinner-preacher-presentable bridegroom!... Aw! I'm drunk again! I-who swore off forever!"

"No, Tom, you're just happy," said Helen.

Between her and Roy the cowboy was at length persuaded to accept the situation and to see his wonderful opportunity.

"Now-now, Miss Helen-what'd Bo mean by pre-presentable bridegroom?... Presents? Lord, I'm clean busted flat!"

"She meant you must dress up in your best, of course," replied Helen.

"Where 'n earth will I get a preacher?... Show Down's forty miles.... Can't ride there in time.... Roy, I've gotta have a preacher.... Life or death deal fer me."

"Wal, old man,

if you'll brace up I'll marry you to Bo," said Roy, with his glad grin.

"Aw!" gasped Las Vegas, as if at the coming of a sudden beautiful hope.

"Tom, I'm a preacher," replied Roy, now earnestly. "You didn't know thet, but I am. An' I can marry you an' Bo as good as any one, an' tighter 'n most."

Las Vegas reached for his friend as a drowning man might have reached for solid rock.

"Roy, can you really marry them-with my Bible-and the service of my church?" asked Helen, a happy hope flushing her face.

"Wal, indeed I can. I've married more 'n one couple whose religion wasn't mine."

"B-b-before-d-d-din-ner!" burst out Las Vegas, like a stuttering idiot.

"I reckon. Come on, now, an' make yourself pre-senttible," said Roy. "Miss Helen, you tell Bo thet it's all settled."

He picked up the halter on the blue mustang and turned away toward the corrals. Las Vegas put the bridle of his horse over his arm, and seemed to be following in a trance, with his dazed, rapt face held high.

"Bring Dale," called Helen, softly after them.

So it came about as naturally as it was wonderful that Bo rode the blue mustang before the afternoon ended.

Las Vegas disobeyed his first orders from Mrs. Tom Carmichael and rode out after her toward the green-rising range. Helen seemed impelled to follow. She did not need to ask Dale the second time. They rode swiftly, but never caught up with Bo and Las Vegas, whose riding resembled their happiness.

Dale read Helen's mind, or else his own thoughts were in harmony with hers, for he always seemed to speak what she was thinking. And as they rode homeward he asked her in his quiet way if they could not spare a few days to visit his old camp.

"And take Bo-and Tom? Oh, of all things I'd like to'" she replied.

"Yes-an' Roy, too," added Dale, significantly.

"Of course," said Helen, lightly, as if she had not caught his meaning. But she turned her eyes away, while her heart thumped disgracefully and all her body was aglow. "Will Tom and Bo go?"

"It was Tom who got me to ask you," replied Dale. "John an' Hal can look after the men while we're gone."

"Oh-so Tom put it in your head? I guess-maybe-I won't go."

"It is always in my mind, Nell," he said, with his slow seriousness. "I'm goin' to work all my life for you. But I'll want to an' need to go back to the woods often.... An' if you ever stoop to marry me-an' make me the richest of men-you'll have to marry me up there where I fell in love with you."

"Ah! Did Las Vegas Tom Carmichael say that, too?" inquired Helen, softly.

"Nell, do you want to know what Las Vegas said?"

"By all means."

"He said this-an' not an hour ago. 'Milt, old hoss, let me give you a hunch. I'm a man of family now-an' I've been a devil with the wimmen in my day. I can see through 'em. Don't marry Nell Rayner in or near the house where I killed Beasley. She'd remember. An' don't let her remember thet day. Go off into the woods. Paradise Park! Bo an' me will go with you."

Helen gave him her hand, while they walked the horses homeward in the long sunset shadows. In the fullness of that happy hour she had time for a grateful wonder at the keen penetration of the cowboy Carmichael. Dale had saved her life, but it was Las Vegas who had saved her happiness.

Not many days later, when again the afternoon shadows were slanting low, Helen rode out upon the promontory where the dim trail zigzagged far above Paradise Park.

Roy was singing as he drove the pack-burros down the slope; Bo and Las Vegas were trying to ride the trail two abreast, so they could hold hands; Dale had dismounted to stand beside Helen's horse, as she gazed down the shaggy black slopes to the beautiful wild park with its gray meadows and shining ribbons of brooks.

It was July, and there were no golden-red glorious flames and blazes of color such as lingered in Helen's memory. Black spruce slopes and green pines and white streaks of aspens and lacy waterfall of foam and dark outcroppings of rock-these colors and forms greeted her gaze with all the old enchantment. Wildness, beauty, and loneliness were there, the same as ever, immutable, like the spirit of those heights.

Helen would fain have lingered longer, but the others called, and Ranger impatiently snorted his sense of the grass and water far below. And she knew that when she climbed there again to the wide outlook she would be another woman.

"Nell, come on," said Dale, as he led on. "It's better to look up."

The sun had just sunk behind the ragged fringe of mountain-rim when those three strong and efficient men of the open had pitched camp and had prepared a bountiful supper. Then Roy Beeman took out the little worn Bible which Helen had given him to use when he married Bo, and as he opened it a light changed his dark face.

"Come, Helen an' Dale," he said.

They arose to stand before him. And he married them there under the great, stately pines, with the fragrant blue smoke curling upward, and the wind singing through the branches, while the waterfall murmured its low, soft, dreamy music, and from the dark slope came the wild, lonely cry of a wolf, full of the hunger for life and a mate.

"Let us pray," said Roy, as he closed the Bible, and knelt with them.

"There is only one God, an' Him I beseech in my humble office for the woman an' man I have just wedded in holy bonds. Bless them an' watch them an' keep them through all the comin' years. Bless the sons of this strong man of the woods an' make them like him, with love an' understandin' of the source from which life comes. Bless the daughters of this woman an' send with them more of her love an' soul, which must be the softenin' an' the salvation of the hard West. O Lord, blaze the dim, dark trail for them through the unknown forest of life! O Lord, lead the way across the naked range of the future no mortal knows! We ask in Thy name! Amen."

When the preacher stood up again and raised the couple from their kneeling posture, it seemed that a grave and solemn personage had left him. This young man was again the dark-faced, clear-eyed Roy, droll and dry, with the enigmatic smile on his lips.

"Mrs. Dale," he said, taking her hands, "I wish you joy.... An' now, after this here, my crownin' service in your behalf-I reckon I'll claim a reward."

Then he kissed her. Bo came next with her warm and loving felicitations, and the cowboy, with characteristic action, also made at Helen.

"Nell, shore it's the only chance I'll ever have to kiss you," he drawled. "Because when this heah big Indian once finds out what kissin' is-!"

Las Vegas then proved how swift and hearty he could be upon occasions. All this left Helen red and confused and unutterably happy. She appreciated Dale's state. His eyes reflected the precious treasure which manifestly he saw, but realization of ownership had not yet become demonstrable.

Then with gay speech and happy laugh and silent look these five partook of the supper. When it was finished Roy made known his intention to leave. They all protested and coaxed, but to no avail. He only laughed and went on saddling his horse.

"Roy, please stay," implored Helen. "The day's almost ended. You're tired."

"Nope. I'll never be no third party when there's only two."

"But there are four of us."

"Didn't I just make you an' Dale one?... An', Mrs. Dale, you forget I've been married more 'n once."

Helen found herself confronted by an unanswerable side of the argument. Las Vegas rolled on the grass in his mirth. Dale looked strange.

"Roy, then that's why you're so nice," said Bo, with a little devil in her eyes. "Do you know I had my mind made up if Tom hadn't come around I was going to make up to you, Roy.... I sure was. What number wife would I have been?"

It always took Bo to turn the tables on anybody. Roy looked mightily embarrassed. And the laugh was on him. He did not face them again until he had mounted.

"Las Vegas, I've done my best for you-hitched you to thet blue-eyed girl the best I know how," he declared. "But I shore ain't guaranteein' nothin'. You'd better build a corral for her."

"Why, Roy, you shore don't savvy the way to break these wild ones," drawled Las Vegas. "Bo will be eatin' out of my hand in about a week."

Bo's blue eyes expressed an eloquent doubt as to this extraordinary claim.

"Good-by, friends," said Roy, and rode away to disappear in the spruces.

Thereupon Bo and Las Vegas forgot Roy, and Dale and Helen, the camp chores to be done, and everything else except themselves. Helen's first wifely duty was to insist that she should and could and would help her husband with the work of cleaning up after the sumptuous supper. Before they had finished a sound startled them. It came from Roy, evidently high on the darkening slope, and was a long, mellow pealing halloo, that rang on the cool air, burst the dreamy silence, and rapped across from slope to slope and cliff to cliff, to lose its power and die away hauntingly in the distant recesses.

Dale shook his head as if he did not care to attempt a reply to that beautiful call. Silence once again enfolded the park, and twilight seemed to be born of the air, drifting downward.

"Nell, do you miss anythin'?" asked Dale.

"No. Nothing in all the world," she murmured. "I am happier than I ever dared pray to be."

"I don't mean people or things. I mean my pets."

"Ah! I had forgotten.... Milt, where are they?"

"Gone back to the wild," he said. "They had to live in my absence. An' I've been away long."

Just then the brooding silence, with its soft murmur of falling water and faint sigh of wind in the pines, was broken by a piercing scream, high, quivering, like that of a woman in exquisite agony.

"That's Tom!" exclaimed Dale.

"Oh-I was so-so frightened!" whispered Helen.

Bo came running, with Las Vegas at her heels.

"Milt, that was your tame cougar," cried Bo, excitedly. "Oh, I'll never forget him! I'll hear those cries in my dreams!"

"Yes, it was Tom," said Dale, thoughtfully. "But I never heard him cry just like that."

"Oh, call him in!"

Dale whistled and called, but Tom did not come. Then the hunter stalked off in the gloom to call from different points under the slope. After a while he returned without the cougar. And at that moment, from far up the dark ravine, drifted down the same wild cry, only changed by distance, strange and tragic in its meaning.

"He scented us. He remembers. But he'll never come back," said Dale.

Helen felt stirred anew with the convictions of Dale's deep knowledge of life and nature. And her imagination seemed to have wings. How full and perfect her trust, her happiness in the realization that her love and her future, her children, and perhaps grandchildren, would come under the guidance of such a man! Only a little had she begun to comprehend the secrets of good and ill in their relation to the laws of nature. Ages before men had lived on the earth there had been the creatures of the wilderness, and the holes of the rocks, and the nests of the trees, and rain, frost, heat, dew, sunlight and night, storm and calm, the honey of the wildflower and the instinct of the bee-all the beautiful and multiple forms of life with their inscrutable design. To know something of them and to love them was to be close to the kingdom of earth-perhaps to the greater kingdom of heaven. For whatever breathed and moved was a part of that creation. The coo of the dove, the lichen on the mossy rock, the mourn of a hunting wolf, and the murmur of the waterfall, the ever-green and growing tips of the spruces, and the thunderbolts along the battlements of the heights-these one and all must be actuated by the great spirit-that incalculable thing in the universe which had produced man and soul.

And there in the starlight, under the wide-gnarled pines, sighing low with the wind, Helen sat with Dale on the old stone that an avalanche of a million years past had flung from the rampart above to serve as camp-table and bench for lovers in the wilderness; the sweet scent of spruce mingled with the fragrance of wood-smoke blown in their faces. How white the stars, and calm and true! How they blazed their single task! A coyote yelped off on the south slope, dark now as midnight. A bit of weathered rock rolled and tapped from shelf to shelf. And the wind moaned. Helen felt all the sadness and mystery and nobility of this lonely fastness, and full on her heart rested the supreme consciousness that all would some day be well with the troubled world beyond.

"Nell, I'll homestead this park," said Dale. "Then it'll always be ours."

"Homestead! What's that?" murmured Helen, dreamily. The word sounded sweet.

"The government will give land to men who locate an' build," replied Dale. "We'll run up a log cabin."

"And come here often.... Paradise Park!" whispered Helen.

Dale's first kisses were on her lips then, hard and cool and clean, like the life of the man, singularly exalting to her, completing her woman's strange and unutterable joy of the hour, and rendering her mute.

Bo's melodious laugh, and her voice with its old mockery of torment, drifted softly on the night breeze. And the cowboy's "Aw, Bo," drawling his reproach and longing, was all that the tranquil, waiting silence needed.

Paradise Park was living again one of its romances. Love was no stranger to that lonely fastness. Helen heard in the whisper of the wind through the pine the old-earth story, beautiful, ever new, and yet eternal. She thrilled to her depths. The spar-pointed spruces stood up black and clear against the noble stars. All that vast solitude breathed and waited, charged full with its secret, ready to reveal itself to her tremulous soul.

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