The man of the forest, p.1
Produced by Richard Fane
THE MAN OF THE FOREST
by Zane Grey
Harper and Brothers
At sunset hour the forest was still, lonely, sweet with tang of fir andspruce, blazing in gold and red and green; and the man who glided onunder the great trees seemed to blend with the colors and, disappearing,to have become a part of the wild woodland.
Old Baldy, highest of the White Mountains, stood up round and bare,rimmed bright gold in the last glow of the setting sun. Then, as thefire dropped behind the domed peak, a change, a cold and darkeningblight, passed down the black spear-pointed slopes over all thatmountain world.
It was a wild, richly timbered, and abundantly watered region of darkforests and grassy parks, ten thousand feet above sea-level, isolatedon all sides by the southern Arizona desert--the virgin home of elk anddeer, of bear and lion, of wolf and fox, and the birthplace as well asthe hiding-place of the fierce Apache.
September in that latitude was marked by the sudden cool night breezefollowing shortly after sundown. Twilight appeared to come on its wings,as did faint sounds, not distinguishable before in the stillness.
Milt Dale, man of the forest, halted at the edge of a timbered ridge, tolisten and to watch. Beneath him lay a narrow valley, open and grassy,from which rose a faint murmur of running water. Its music was piercedby the wild staccato yelp of a hunting coyote. From overhead in thegiant fir came a twittering and rustling of grouse settling for thenight; and from across the valley drifted the last low calls of wildturkeys going to roost.
To Dale's keen ear these sounds were all they should have been,betokening an unchanged serenity of forestland. He was glad, for he hadexpected to hear the clipclop of white men's horses--which to hear upin those fastnesses was hateful to him. He and the Indian were friends.That fierce foe had no enmity toward the lone hunter. But there hidsomewhere in the forest a gang of bad men, sheep-thieves, whom Dale didnot want to meet.
As he started out upon the slope, a sudden flaring of the afterglow ofsunset flooded down from Old Baldy, filling the valley with lights andshadows, yellow and blue, like the radiance of the sky. The pools in thecurves of the brook shone darkly bright. Dale's gaze swept up and downthe valley, and then tried to pierce the black shadows across the brookwhere the wall of spruce stood up, its speared and spiked crest againstthe pale clouds. The wind began to moan in the trees and there was afeeling of rain in the air. Dale, striking a trail, turned his back tothe fading afterglow and strode down the valley.
With night at hand and a rain-storm brewing, he did not head for hisown camp, some miles distant, but directed his steps toward an old logcabin. When he reached it darkness had almost set in. He approached withcaution. This cabin, like the few others scattered in the valleys, mightharbor Indians or a bear or a panther. Nothing, however, appeared to bethere. Then Dale studied the clouds driving across the sky, and he feltthe cool dampness of a fine, misty rain on his face. It would rain offand on during the night. Whereupon he entered the cabin.
And the next moment he heard quick hoof-beats of trotting horses.Peering out, he saw dim, moving forms in the darkness, quite closeat hand. They had approached against the wind so that sound had beendeadened. Five horses with riders, Dale made out--saw them loom close.Then he heard rough voices. Quickly he turned to feel in the dark for aladder he knew led to a loft; and finding it, he quickly mounted, takingcare not to make a noise with his rifle, and lay down upon the floorof brush and poles. Scarcely had he done so when heavy steps, withaccompaniment of clinking spurs, passed through the door below into thecabin.
"Wal, Beasley, are you here?" queried a loud voice.
There was no reply. The man below growled under his breath, and againthe spurs jingled.
"Fellars, Beasley ain't here yet," he called. "Put the hosses under theshed. We'll wait."
"Wait, huh!" came a harsh reply. "Mebbe all night--an' we got nuthin' toeat."
"Shut up, Moze. Reckon you're no good for anythin' but eatin'. Put themhosses away an' some of you rustle fire-wood in here."
Low, muttered curses, then mingled with dull thuds of hoofs and strainof leather and heaves of tired horses.
Another shuffling, clinking footstep entered the cabin.
"Snake, it'd been sense to fetch a pack along," drawled this newcomer.
"Reckon so, Jim. But we didn't, an' what's the use hollerin'? Beasleywon't keep us waitin' long."
Dale, lying still and prone, felt a slow start in all his blood--athrilling wave. That deep-voiced man below was Snake Anson, the worstand most dangerous character of the region; and the others, undoubtedly,composed his gang, long notorious in that sparsely settled country.And the Beasley mentioned--he was one of the two biggest ranchers andsheep-raisers of the White Mountain ranges. What was the meaning ofa rendezvous between Snake Anson and Beasley? Milt Dale answered thatquestion to Beasley's discredit; and many strange matters pertaining tosheep and herders, always a mystery to the little village of Pine, nowbecame as clear as daylight.
Other men entered the cabin.
"It ain't a-goin' to rain much," said one. Then came a crash of woodthrown to the ground.
"Jim, hyar's a chunk of pine log, dry as punk," said another.
Rustlings and slow footsteps, and then heavy thuds attested to theprobability that Jim was knocking the end of a log upon the ground tosplit off a corner whereby a handful of dry splinters could be procured.
"Snake, lemme your pipe, an' I'll hev a fire in a jiffy."
"Wal, I want my terbacco an' I ain't carin' about no fire," repliedSnake.
"Reckon you're the meanest cuss in these woods," drawled Jim.
Sharp click of steel on flint--many times--and then a sound of hardblowing and sputtering told of Jim's efforts to start a fire. Presentlythe pitchy blackness of the cabin changed; there came a little cracklingof wood and the rustle of flame, and then a steady growing roar.
As it chanced, Dale lay face down upon the floor of the loft, and rightnear his eyes there were cracks between the boughs. When the fire blazedup he was fairly well able to see the men below. The only one he hadever seen was Jim Wilson, who had been well known at Pine before SnakeAnson had ever been heard of. Jim was the best of a bad lot, and he hadfriends among the honest people. It was rumored that he and Snake didnot pull well together.
"Fire feels good," said the burly Moze, who appeared as broad as he wasblack-visaged. "Fall's sure a-comin'... Now if only we had some grub!"
"Moze, there's a hunk of deer meat in my saddle-bag, an' if you git ityou can have half," spoke up another voice.
Moze shuffled out with alacrity.
In the firelight Snake Anson's face looked lean and serpent-like, hiseyes glittered, and his long neck and all of his long length carried outthe analogy of his name.
"Snake, what's this here deal with Beasley?" inquired Jim.
"Reckon you'll l'arn when I do," replied the leader. He appeared tiredand thoughtful.
"Ain't we done away with enough of them poor greaser herders--fornothin'?" queried the youngest of the gang, a boy in years, whose hard,bitter lips and hungry eyes somehow set him apart from his comrades.
"You're dead right, Burt--an' that's my stand," replied the man whohad sent Moze out. "Snake, snow 'll be flyin' round these woods beforelong," said Jim Wilson. "Are we goin' to winter down in the Tonto Basinor over on the Gila?"
"Reckon we'll do some tall ridin' before we strike south," repliedSnake, gruffly.
At the juncture Moze returned.
"Boss, I heerd a hoss comin' up the trail," he said.
Snake rose and stood at the door, listening. Outs
"A-huh!" exclaimed Snake, in relief.
Silence ensued then for a moment, at the end of which interval Daleheard a rapid clip-clop on the rocky trail outside. The men belowshuffled uneasily, but none of them spoke. The fire cracked cheerily.Snake Anson stepped back from before the door with an action thatexpressed both doubt and caution.
The trotting horse had halted out there somewhere.
"Ho there, inside!" called a voice from the darkness.
"Ho yourself!" replied Anson.
"That you, Snake?" quickly followed the query.
"Reckon so," returned Anson, showing himself.
The newcomer entered. He was a large man, wearing a slicker that shonewet in the firelight. His sombrero, pulled well down, shadowed his face,so that the upper half of his features might as well have been masked.He had a black, drooping mustache, and a chin like a rock. A potentialforce, matured and powerful, seemed to be wrapped in his movements.
"Hullo, Snake! Hullo, Wilson!" he said. "I've backed out on the otherdeal. Sent for you on--on another little matter... particular private."
Here he indicated with a significant gesture that Snake's men were toleave the cabin.
"A-huh! ejaculated Anson, dubiously. Then he turned abruptly. Moze,you an' Shady an' Burt go wait outside. Reckon this ain't the deal Iexpected.... An' you can saddle the hosses."
The three members of the gang filed out, all glancing keenly at thestranger, who had moved back into the shadow.
"All right now, Beasley," said Anson, low-voiced. "What's your game?Jim, here, is in on my deals."
Then Beasley came forward to the fire, stretching his hands to theblaze.
"Nothin' to do with sheep," replied he.
"Wal, I reckoned not," assented the other. "An' say--whatever your gameis, I ain't likin' the way you kept me waitin' an' ridin' around. Wewaited near all day at Big Spring. Then thet greaser rode up an' sent ushere. We're a long way from camp with no grub an' no blankets."
"I won't keep you long," said Beasley. "But even if I did you'd notmind--when I tell you this deal concerns Al Auchincloss--the man whomade an outlaw of you!"
Anson's sudden action then seemed a leap of his whole frame. Wilson,likewise, bent forward eagerly. Beasley glanced at the door--then beganto whisper.
"Old Auchincloss is on his last legs. He's goin' to croak. He's sentback to Missouri for a niece--a young girl--an' he means to leave hisranches an' sheep--all his stock to her. Seems he has no one else....Them ranches--an' all them sheep an' hosses! You know me an' Al werepardners in sheep-raisin' for years. He swore I cheated him an' he threwme out. An' all these years I've been swearin' he did me dirt--owed mesheep an' money. I've got as many friends in Pine--an' all the way downthe trail--as Auchincloss has.... An' Snake, see here--"
He paused to draw a deep breath and his big hands trembled over theblaze. Anson leaned forward, like a serpent ready to strike, and JimWilson was as tense with his divination of the plot at hand.
"See here," panted Beasley. "The girl's due to arrive at Magdalena onthe sixteenth. That's a week from to-morrow. She'll take the stage toSnowdrop, where some of Auchincloss's men will meet her with a team."
"A-huh!" grunted Anson as Beasley halted again. "An' what of all thet?"
"She mustn't never get as far as Snowdrop!"
"You want me to hold up the stage--an' get the girl?"
"Wal--an' what then?"
"Make off with her.... She disappears. That's your affair. ... I'llpress my claims on Auchincloss--hound him--an' be ready when he croaksto take over his property. Then the girl can come back, for all Icare.... You an' Wilson fix up the deal between you. If you have to letthe gang in on it don't give them any hunch as to who an' what. This 'llmake you a rich stake. An' providin', when it's paid, you strike for newterritory."
"Thet might be wise," muttered Snake Anson. "Beasley, the weak point inyour game is the uncertainty of life. Old Al is tough. He may fool you."
"Auchincloss is a dyin' man," declared Beasley, with such positivenessthat it could not be doubted.
"Wal, he sure wasn't plumb hearty when I last seen him.... Beasley, incase I play your game--how'm I to know that girl?"
"Her name's Helen Rayner," replied Beasley, eagerly. "She's twentyyears old. All of them Auchinclosses was handsome an' they say she's thehandsomest."
"A-huh!... Beasley, this 's sure a bigger deal--an' one I ain'tfancyin'.... But I never doubted your word.... Come on--an' talk out.What's in it for me?"
"Don't let any one in on this. You two can hold up the stage. Why, itwas never held up.... But you want to mask.... How about ten thousandsheep--or what they bring at Phenix in gold?"
Jim Wilson whistled low.
"An' leave for new territory?" repeated Snake Anson, under his breath.
"You've said it."
"Wal, I ain't fancyin' the girl end of this deal, but you can count onme.... September sixteenth at Magdalena--an' her name's Helen--an' she'shandsome?"
"Yes. My herders will begin drivin' south in about two weeks. Later, ifthe weather holds good, send me word by one of them an' I'll meet you."
Beasley spread his hands once more over the blaze, pulled on his glovesand pulled down his sombrero, and with an abrupt word of parting strodeout into the night.
"Jim, what do you make of him?" queried Snake Anson.
"Pard, he's got us beat two ways for Sunday," replied Wilson.
"A-huh!... Wal, let's get back to camp." And he led the way out.
Low voices drifted into the cabin, then came snorts of horses andstriking hoofs, and after that a steady trot, gradually ceasing.Once more the moan of wind and soft patter of rain filled the foreststillness.
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