III. The Trail
 

A short dash brought me to the end of the block; the side street was not so dark, and after I had crossed this open space I glanced backward.

Soon I sped into a wan circle of light, and, reaching a door upon which was a hotel sign, I burst in. Chairs were scattered about a bare office; a man stirred on a couch, and then sat up, blinking.

"I'm afraid--I believe some one's chasing me," I said.

He sat there eying me, and then drawled, sleepily:

"Thet ain't no call to wake a feller, is it?"

The man settled himself comfortably again, and closed his eyes.

"Say, isn't this a hotel? I want a room!" I cried.

"Up-stairs; first door." And with that the porter went to sleep in good earnest.

I made for the stairs, and, after a backward look into the street, I ran up. A smelly lamp shed a yellowish glare along a hall. I pushed open the first door, and, entering the room, bolted myself in. Then all the strength went out of my legs. When I sat down on the bed I was in a cold sweat and shaking like a leaf. Soon the weakness passed, and I moved about the room, trying to find a lamp or candle. Evidently the hotel, and, for that matter, the town of Holston, did not concern itself with such trifles as lights. On the instant I got a bad impression of Holston. I had to undress in the dark. When I pulled the window open a little at the top the upper sash slid all the way down. I managed to get it back, and tried raising the lower sash. It was very loose, but it stayed up. Then I crawled into bed.

Though I was tired and sleepy, my mind whirled so that I could not get to sleep. If I had been honest with myself I should have wished myself back home. Pennsylvania seemed a long way off, and the adventures that I had dreamed of did not seem so alluring, now that I was in a lonely room in a lonely, dark town. Buell had seemed friendly and kind--at least, in the beginning. Why had he not answered my call? The incident did not look well to me. Then I fell to wondering if the Mexican had really followed me. The first thing for me in the morning would be to buy a revolver. Then if any Mexicans--

A step on the tin roof outside frightened me stiff. I had noticed a porch, or shed, under my window. Some one must have climbed upon it. I stopped breathing to listen. For what seemed moments there was no sound. I wanted to think that the noise might have been made by a cat, but I couldn't. I was scared--frightened half to death.

If there had been a bolt on the window the matter would not have been so disturbing. I lay there a-quiver, eyes upon the gray window space of my room. Dead silence once more intervened. All I heard was the pound of my heart against my ribs.

Suddenly I froze at the sight of a black figure against the light of my window. I recognized the strange bat, the grotesque outlines. I was about to shout for help when the fellow reached down and softly began to raise the sash.

That made me angry. Jerking up in bed, I caught the heavy pitcher from the wash-stand and flung it with all my might.

Crash!

Had I smashed out the whole side of the room it could scarcely have made more noise. Accompanied by the clinking of glass and the creaking of tin, my visitor rolled off the roof. I waited, expecting an uproar from the other inmates of the hotel. No footstep, no call sounded within hearing. Once again the stillness settled down.

Then, to my relief, the gray gloom lightened, and dawn broke. Never had I been so glad to see the morning. While dressing I cast gratified glances at the ragged hole in the window. With the daylight my courage had returned, and I began to have a sort of pride in my achievement.

"If that fellow had known how I can throw a baseball he'd have been careful," I thought, a little cockily.

I went down-stairs into the office. The sleepy porter was mopping the floor. Behind the desk stood a man so large that he made Buell seem small. He was all shoulders and beard.

"Can I get breakfast?"

"Nobody's got a half-hitch on you, has they?" he replied, jerking a monstrous thumb over his shoulder toward a door.

I knew the words half-hitch had something to do with a lasso, and I was rather taken back by the hotel proprietor's remark. The dining-room was more attractive than anything I had yet seen about the place: the linen was clean, and the ham and eggs and coffee that were being served to several rugged men gave forth a savory odor. But either the waiter was blind or he could not bear, for he paid not the slightest attention to me. I waited, while trying to figure out the situation. Something was wrong, and, whatever it was, I guessed that it must be with me. After about an hour I got my breakfast. Then I went into the office, intending to be brisk, businesslike, and careful about asking questions.

"I'd like to pay my bill, and also for a little damage," I said, telling what had happened.

"Somebody'll kill thet Greaser yet," was all the comment the man made.

I went outside, not knowing whether to be angry or amused with these queer people. In the broad light of day Holston looked as bad as it had made me feel by night. All I could see were the station and freight-sheds, several stores with high, wide signs, glaringly painted, and a long block of saloons. When I had turned a street corner, however, a number of stores came into view with some three-storied brick buildings, and, farther out, many frame houses.

Moreover, this street led my eye to great snowcapped mountains, and I stopped short in my tracks, for I realized they were the Arizona peaks. Up the swelling slopes swept a black fringe that I knew to be timber. The mountains appeared to be close, but I knew that even the foot-bills were miles away. Penetier, I remembered from one of Dick's letters, was on the extreme northern slope, and it must be anywhere from forty to sixty miles off. The sharp, white peaks glistened in the morning sun; the air had a cool touch of snow and a tang of pine. I drew in a full breath, with a sense on being among the pines.

Now I must buy my outfit and take the trail for Penetier. This I resolved to do with as few questions as possible. I never before was troubled by sensitiveness, but the fact had dawned upon me that I did not like being taken for a tenderfoot. So, with this in mind, I entered a general merchandise store.

It was very large, and full of hardware, harness, saddles, blankets-- everything that cowboys and ranchmen use. Several men, two in shirt-sleeves, were chatting near the door. They saw me come in, and then, for all that it meant to them, I might as well not have been in existence at all. So I sat down to wait, determined to take Western ways and things as I found them. I sat there fifteen minutes by my watch. This was not so bad; but when a lanky, red-faced, leather-legged individual came in to he at once supplied with his wants, I began to get angry. I waited another five minutes, and still the friendly chatting went on. Finally I could stand it no longer.

"Will somebody wait on me?" I demanded.

One of the shirt-sleeved men leisurely got up and surveyed me.

"Do you want to buy something?" he drawled.

"Yes, I do."

"Why didn't you say so?"

The reply trembling on my lips was cut short by the entrance of Buell.

"Hello!" he said in a loud voice, shaking hands with me. "You've trailed into the right place. Smith, treat this lad right. It's guns an' knives an' lassoes he wants, I'll bet a hoss."

"Yes, I want an outfit," I said, much embarrassed. " I'm going to meet a friend out in Penetier, a ranger--Dick Leslie."

Buell started violently, and his eyes flashed. "Dick--Dick Leslie!" he said, and coughed loudly. "I know Dick. . . . So you're a friend of his'n? . . . Now, let me help you with the outfit."

Anything strange in Buell's manner was forgotten, in the absorbing interest of my outfit. Father had given me plenty of money, so that I had but to choose. I had had sense enough to bring my old corduroys and boots, and I had donned them that morning. One after another I made my purchases--Winchester, revolver, bolsters, ammunition, saddle, bridle, lasso, blanket. When I got so far, Buell said: "You'll need a mustang an' a pack-pony. I know a feller who's got jest what you want." And with that he led me out of the store.

"Now you take it from me," he went on, in a fatherly voice, "Holston people haven't got any use for Easterners. An' if you mention your business-- forestry an' that--why, you wouldn't be safe. There's many in the lumberin' business here as don't take kindly to the Government. See! That's why I'm givin' you advice. Keep it to yourself an' hit the trail today, soon as you can. I'll steer you right."

I was too much excited to answer clearly; indeed, I hardly thanked him. However, be scarcely gave me the chance. He kept up his talk about the townspeople and their attitude toward Easterners until we arrived at a kind of stock-yard full of shaggy little ponies. The sight of them drove every other thought out of my head.

"Mustangs!" I exclaimed.

"Sure. Can you ride?"

"Oh yes. I have a horse at home. . . . What wiry little fellows! They're so wild-looking."

"You pick out the one as suits you, an' I'll step into Cless's here. He's the man who owns this bunch."

It did not take me long to decide. A black mustang at once took my eye. When he had been curried and brushed he would be a little beauty. I was trying to coax him to me when Buell returned with a man.

"Thet your pick?" he asked, as I pointed. "Well, now, you're not so much of a tenderfoot. Thet's the best mustang in the lot. Cless, how much for him, an' a pack-pony an' pack-saddle?"

"I reckon twenty dollars'll make it square," replied the owner.

This nearly made me drop with amazement. I had only about seventy-five dollars left, and I had been very much afraid that I could not buy the mustang, let alone the pack-pony and saddle.

"Cless, send round to Smith for the lad's outfit, an' saddle up for him at once." Then he turned to me. "Now some grub, an' a pan or two."

Having camped before, I knew how to buy supplies. Buell, however, cut out much that I wanted, saying the thing to think of was a light pack for the pony.

"I'll hurry to the hotel and get my things," I said, "and meet you here. I'll not be a moment."

But Buell said it would be better for him to go with me, though he did not explain. He kept with me, still he remained in the office while I went up-stairs. Somehow this suited me, for I did not want him to see the broken window. I took a few things from my grip and rolled them in a bundle. Then I took a little leather case of odds and ends I had always carried when camping and slipped it into my pocket. Hurrying down-stairs I left my grip with the porter, wrote and mailed a postal card to my father, and followed the impatient Buell.

"You see, it's a smart lick of a ride to Penetier, and I want to get there before dark," he explained, kindly.

I could have shouted for very glee when I saw the black mustang saddled and bridled.

"He's well broke," said Cless. "Keep his bridle down when you ain't in the saddle. An' find a patch of grass fer him at night. The pony'll stick to him."

Cless fell to packing a lean pack-pony.

"Watch me do this," said he; "you'll hev trouble if you don't git the hang of the diamondhitch."

I watched him set the little wooden criss-cross on the pony's back, throw the balance of my outfit (which he had tied up in a canvas) over the saddle, and then pass a long rope in remarkable turns and wonderful loops round pony and pack.

"What's the mustang's name?" I inquired.

"Never had any," replied the former owner.

"Then it's Hal." I thought how that name would please my brother at home.

"Climb up. Let's see if you fit the stirrups," said Cless. "Couldn't be better."

"Now, young feller, you can hit the trail," put in Buell, with his big voice. "An' remember what I told you. This country ain't got much use for a feller as can't look out for himself."

He opened the gate, and led my mustang into the road and quite some distance. The pony jogged along after us. Then Buell stopped with a finger outstretched.

"There, at the end of this street, you'll find a trail. Hit it an' stick to it. All the little trail's leadin' into it needn't bother you."

He swept his hand round to the west of the mountain. The direction did not tally with the idea I had gotten from Dick's letter.

"I thought Penetier was on the north side of the mountains."

"Who said so?" he asked, staring. "Don't I know this country? Take it from me."

I thanked him, and, turning, with a light heart I faced the black mountain and my journey.

It was about ten o'clock when Hal jogged into a broad trail on the outskirts of Holston. A gray flat lay before me, on the other side of which began the slow rise of the slope. I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to run the mustang, but did not for the sake of the burdened pony. That sage-flat was miles wide, though it seemed so narrow. The back of the lower slope began to change to a dark green, which told me I was surely getting closer to the mountains, even if it did not seem so. The trail began to rise, and at last I reached the first pine-trees. They were a disappointment to me, being no larger than many of the white oaks at home, and stunted, with ragged dead tops. They proved to me that trees isolated from their fellows fare as poorly as trees overcrowded. Where pines grow closely, but not too closely, they rise straight and true, cleaning themselves of the low branches, and making good lumber, free of knots. Where they grow far apart, at the mercy of wind and heat and free to spread many branches, they make only gnarled and knotty lumber.

As I rode on the pines became slowly more numerous and loftier. Then, when I had surmounted what I took to be the first foot-hill, I came upon a magnificent forest. A little farther on the trail walled me in with great seamed trunks, six feet in diameter, rising a hundred feet before spreading a single branch.

Meanwhile my mustang kept steadily up the slow-rising trail, and the time passed. Either the grand old forest had completely bewitched me or the sweet smell of pine had intoxicated me, for as I rode along utterly content I entirely forgot about Dick and the trail and where I was heading. Nor did I come to my senses until Hal snorted and stopped before a tangled windfall.

Then I glanced down to see only the clean, brown pine-needles. There was no trail. Perplexed and somewhat anxious, I rode back a piece, expecting surely to cross the trail. But I did not. I went to the left and to the right, then circled in a wide curve. No trail! The forest about me seemed at once familiar and strange.

It was only when the long shadows began to creep under the trees that I awoke fully to the truth.

I had missed the trail! I was lost in the forest!