The Young Forester by Zane Grey
II. The Man on the Train
Travelling was a new experience to me, and on the first night after I left home I lay awake until we reached Altoona. We rolled out of smoky Pittsburg at dawn, and from then on the only bitter drop in my cup of bliss was that the train went so fast I could not see everything out of my window.
Four days to ride! The great Mississippi to cross, the plains, the Rocky Mountains, then the Arizona plateaus-a long, long journey with a wild pine forest at the end! I wondered what more any young fellow could have wished. With my face glued to the car window I watched the level country speed by.
There appeared to be one continuous procession of well-cultivated farms, little hamlets, and prosperous towns. What interested me most, of course, were the farms, for all of them had some kind of wood. We passed a zone of maple forests which looked to be more carefully kept than the others. Then I recognized that they were maple-sugar trees. The farmers had cleaned out the other species, and this primitive method of forestry had produced the finest maples it had ever been my good-fortune to see. Indiana was flatter than Ohio, not so well watered, and therefore less heavily timbered. I saw, with regret, that the woodland was being cut regularly, tree after tree, and stacked in cords for firewood.
At Chicago I was to change for Santa Fe, and finding my train in the station I climbed aboard. My car was a tourist coach. Father had insisted on buying a ticket for the California Limited, but I had argued that a luxurious Pullman was not exactly the thing for a prospective forester. Still I pocketed the extra money which I had assured him he need not spend for the first-class ticket.
The huge station, with its glaring lights and clanging bells, and the outspreading city, soon gave place to prairie land.
That night I slept little, but the very time I wanted to be awake--when we crossed the Mississippi--I was slumbering soundly, and so missed it.
"I'll bet I don't miss it coming back," I vowed.
The sight of the Missouri, however, somewhat repaid me for the loss. What a muddy, wide river! And I thought of the thousands of miles of country it drained, and of the forests there must be at its source. Then came the never-ending Kansas corn-fields. I do not know whether it was their length or their treeless monotony, but I grew tired looking at them.
From then on I began to take some notice of my fellow-travelers. The conductor proved to be an agreeable old fellow; and the train-boy, though I mistrusted his advances because he tried to sell me everything from chewing-gum to mining stock, turned out to be pretty good company. The Negro porter had such a jolly voice and laugh that I talked to him whenever I got the chance. Then occasional passengers occupied the seat opposite me from town to town. They were much alike, all sunburned and loud-voiced, and it looked as though they had all bought their high boots and wide hats at the same shop.
The last traveller to face me was a very heavy man with a great bullet head and a shock of light hair. His blue eyes had a bold flash, his long mustache drooped, and there was something about him that I did not like. He wore a huge diamond in the bosom of his flannel shirt, and a leather watch-chain that was thick and strong enough to have held up a town-clock.
"Hot," he said, as he mopped his moist brow.
"Not so hot as it was," I replied.
"Sure not. We're climbin' a little. He's whistlin' for Dodge City now."
"Dodge City?" I echoed, with interest. The name brought back vivid scenes from certain yellow-backed volumes, and certain uncomfortable memories of my father's displeasure. "Isn't this the old cattle town where there used to be so many fights?"
"Sure. An' not so very long ago. Here, look out the window." He clapped his big hand on my knee; then pointed. "See that hill there. Dead Man's Hill it was once, where they buried the fellers as died with their boots on."
I stared, and even stretched my neck out of the window.
"Yes, old Dodge was sure lively," he continued, as our train passed on. "I seen a little mix-up there myself in the early eighties. Five cow-punchers, friends they was, had been visitin' town. One feller, playful-like, takes another feller's quirt--that's a whip. An' the other feller, playful-like, says, 'Give it back.' Then they tussles for it, an' rolls on the ground. I was laughin', as was everybody, when, suddenly, the owner of the quirt thumps his friend. Both cowboys got up, slow, an' watchin' of each other. Then the first feller, who had started the play, pulls his gun. He'd hardly flashed it when they all pulls guns, an' it was some noisy an' smoky. In about five seconds there was five dead cowpunchers. Killed themselves, as you might say, just for fun. That's what life was worth in old Dodge." After this story I felt more kindly disposed ward my travelling companion, and would have asked for more romances but the conductor came along and engaged him in conversation. Then my neighbor across the aisle, a young fellow not much older than myself, asked me to talk to him.
"Why, yes, if you like," I replied, in surprise. He was pale; there were red spots in his cheeks, and dark lines under his weary eyes.
"You look so strong and eager that it's done me good to watch you," he explained, with a sad smile. "You see--I'm sick."
I told him I was very sorry, and hoped he would get well soon.
"I ought to have come West sooner," he replied, "but I couldn't get the money."
He looked up at me and then out of the window at the sun setting red across the plains. I tried to make him think of something beside himself, but I made a mess of it. The meeting with him was a shock to me. Long after dark, when I had stretched out for the night, I kept thinking of him and contrasting what I had to look forward to with his dismal future. Somehow it did not seem fair, and I could not get rid of the idea that I was selfish.
Next day I had my first sight of real mountains. And the Pennsylvania hills, that all my life had appeared so high, dwindled to nothing. At Trinidad, where we stopped for breakfast, I walked out on the platform sniffing at the keen thin air. When we crossed the Raton Mountains into New Mexico the sick boy got off at the first station, and I waved good-bye to him as the train pulled out. Then the mountains and the funny little adobe huts and the Pueblo Indians along the line made me forget everything else.
The big man with the heavy watch-chain was still on the train, and after he had read his newspaper he began to talk to me.
"This road follows the old trail that the goldseekers took in forty-nine," he said. "We're comin' soon to a place, Apache Pass, where the Apaches used to ambush the wagon-trains, It's somewheres along here."
Presently the train wound into a narrow yellow ravine, the walls of which grew higher and higher.
"Them Apaches was the worst redskins ever in the West. They used to hide on top of this pass an' shoot down on the wagon-trains."
Later in the day he drew my attention to a mountain standing all by itself. It was shaped like a cone, green with trees almost to the summit, and ending in a bare stone peak that had a flat top.
"Starvation Peak," he said. "That name's three hundred years old, dates back to the time the Spaniards owned this land. There's a story about it that's likely true enough. Some Spaniards were attacked by Indians an' climbed to the peak, expectin' to be better able to defend themselves up there. The Indians camped below the peak an' starved the Spaniards. Stuck there till they starved to death! That's where it got its name."
"Those times you tell of must have been great," I said, regretfully. "I'd like to have been here then. But isn't the country all settled now? Aren't the Indians dead? There's no more fighting?"
"It's not like it used to be, but there's still warm places in the West. Not that the Indians break out often any more. But bad men are almost as bad, if not so plentiful, as when Billy the Kid run these parts. I saw two men shot an' another knifed jest before I went East to St. Louis."
"In Arizona. Holston is the station where I get off, an' it happened near there."
"Holston is where I'm going."
"You don't say. Well, I'm glad to meet you, young man. My name's Buell, an' I'm some known in Holston. What's your name?"
He eyed me in a sharp but not unfriendly manner, and seemed pleased to learn of my destination.
"Ward. Kenneth Ward. I'm from Pennsylvania."
"You haven't got the bugs. Any one can see that," he said, and as I looked puzzled he went on with a smile, and a sounding rap on his chest: "Most young fellers as come out here have consumption. They call it bugs. I reckon you're seekin' your fortune."'
"Yes, in a way."
"There's opportunities for husky youngsters out here. What're you goin' to rustle for, if I may ask?"
"I'm going in for forestry."
"Forestry? Do you mean lumberin'?"
"No. Forestry is rather the opposite of lumbering. I'm going in for Government forestry--to save the timber, not cut it."
It seemed to me he gave a little start of surprise; he certainly straightened up and looked at me hard.
"What's Government forestry?"
I told him to the best of my ability. He listened attentively enough, but thereafter he had not another word for me, and presently he went into the next car. I took his manner to be the Western abruptness that I had heard of, and presently forgot him in the scenery along the line. At Albuquerque I got off for a trip to a lunch-counter, and happened to take a seat next to him.
"Know anybody in Holston?" he asked.
As I could not speak because of a mouthful of sandwich I shook my head. For the moment I had forgotten about Dick Leslie, and when it did occur to me some Indians offering to sell me beads straightway drove it out of my mind again.
When I awoke the next day, it was to see the sage ridges and red buttes of Arizona. We were due at Holston at eight o'clock, but owing to a crippled engine the train was hours late. At last I fell asleep to be awakened by a vigorous shake.
"Holston. Your stop. Holston," the conductor was saying.
"All right," I said, sitting up and then making a grab for my grip. "We're pretty late, aren't we?"
"Six hours. It's two o'clock."
"Hope I can get a room," I said, as I followed him out on the platform. He held up his lantern so that the light would shine in my face. "There's a hotel down the street a block or so. Better hurry and look sharp. Holston's not a safe place for a stranger at night."
I stepped off into a windy darkness. A lamp glimmered in the station window. By its light I made out several men, the foremost of whom had a dark, pointed face and glittering eyes. He wore a strange hat, and I knew from pictures I had seen that he was a Mexican. Then the bulky form of Buell loomed up. I called, but evidently he did not hear me. The men took his grips, and they moved away to disappear in the darkness. While I paused, hoping to see some one to direct me, the train puffed out, leaving me alone on the platform.
When I turned the corner I saw two dim lights, one far to the left, the other to the right, and the black outline of buildings under what appeared to be the shadow of a mountain. It was the quietest and darkest town I had ever struck.
I decided to turn toward the right-hand light, for the conductor had said "down the street." I set forth at a brisk pace, but the loneliness and strangeness of the place were rather depressing.
Before I had gone many steps, however, the sound of running water halted me, and just in the nick of time, for I was walking straight into a ditch. By peering hard into the darkness and feeling my way I found a bridge. Then it did not take long to reach the light. But it was a saloon, and not the hotel. One peep into it served to make me face about in double-quick time, and hurry in the opposite direction.
Hearing a soft footfall, I glanced over my shoulder, to see the Mexican that I had noticed at the station. He was coming from across the street. I wondered if he were watching me. He might be. My heart began to beat violently. Turning once again, I discovered that the fellow could not be seen in the pitchy blackness. Then I broke into a run.