IV. Lost in the Forest
 

For a moment I was dazed. And then came panic. I ran up this ridge and that one, I rushed to and fro over ground which looked, whatever way I turned, exactly the same. And I kept saying, "I'm lost! I'm lost!" Not until I dropped exhausted against a pine-tree did any other thought come to me.

The moment that I stopped running about so aimlessly the panicky feeling left me. I remembered that for a ranger to be lost in the forest was an every-day affair, and the sooner I began that part of my education the better. Then it came to me how foolish I had been to get alarmed, when I knew that the general slope of the forest led down to the open country.

This put an entirely different light upon the matter. I still had some fears that I might not soon find Dick Leslie, but these I dismissed for the present, at least. A suitable place to camp for the night must be found. I led the mustang down into the hollows, keeping my eye sharp for grass. Presently I came to a place that was wet and soggy at the bottom, and, following this up for quite a way, I found plenty of grass and a pool of clear water.

Often as I had made camp back in the woods of Pennsylvania, the doing of it now was new. For this was not play; it was the real thing, and it made the old camping seem tame. I took the saddle off Hal and tied him with my lasso, making as long a halter as possible. Slipping the pack from the pony was an easier task than the getting it back again was likely to prove. Next I broke open a box of cartridges and loaded the Winchester. My revolver was already loaded, and hung on my belt. Remembering Dick's letters about the bears and mountain-lions in Penetier Forest, I got a good deal of comfort out of my weapons. Then I built a fire, and while my supper was cooking I scraped up a mass of pine-needles for a bed. Never had I sat down to a meal with such a sense of strange enjoyment.

But when I had finished and had everything packed away and covered, my mind began to wander in unexpected directions. Why was it that the twilight seemed to move under the giant pines and creep down the hollow? While I gazed the gray shadows deepened to black, and night came suddenly. My campfire seemed to give almost no light, yet close at hand the flickering gleams played hide-and-seek among the pines and chased up the straight tree trunks. The crackling of my fire and the light steps of the grazing mustangs only emphasized the silence of the forest. Then a low moaning from a distance gave me a chill. At first I had no idea what it was, but presently I thought it must be the wind in the pines. It bore no resemblance to any sound I had ever before heard in the woods. It would murmur from different parts of the forest; sometimes it would cease for a little, and then travel and swell toward me, only to die away again. But it rose steadily, with shorter intervals of silence, until the intermittent gusts swept through the tree-tops with a rushing roar. I had listened to the crash of the ocean surf, and the resemblance was a striking one.

Listening to this mournful wind with all my ears I was the better prepared for any lonesome cries of the forest; nevertheless, a sudden, sharp "Ki-yi-i!" seemingly right at my back, gave me a fright that sent my tongue to the roof of my mouth.

Fumbling at the hammer of my rifle, I peered into the black-streaked gloom of the forest. The crackling of dry twigs brought me to my feet. At the same moment the mustangs snorted. Something was prowling about just beyond the light. I thought of a panther. That was the only beast I could think of which had such an unearthly cry.

Then another bowl, resembling that of a dog, and followed by yelps and barks, told me that I was being visited by a pack of coyotes. I spent the good part of an hour listening to their serenade. The wild, mournful notes sent quivers up my back. By-and-by they went away, and as my fire had burned down to a red glow and the night wind had grown cold I began to think of sleep.

But I was not sleepy. When I had stretched out on the soft bed of pine-needles with my rifle close by, and was all snug and warm under the heavy blanket, it seemed that nothing was so far away from me as sleep. The wonder of my situation kept me wide awake, my eyes on the dim huge pines and the glimmer of stars, and my ears open to the rush and roar of the wind, every sense alert. Hours must have passed as I lay there living over the things that had happened and trying to think out what was to come. At last, however, I rolled over on my side, and with my hand on the rifle and my cheek close to the sweet-smelling pine-needles I dropped asleep.

When I awoke the forest was bright and sunny.

"You'll make a fine forester," I said aloud, in disgust at my tardiness. Then began the stern business of the day. While getting breakfast I turned over in my mind the proper thing for me to do. Evidently I must pack and find the trail. The pony had wandered off into the woods, but was easily caught--a fact which lightened my worry, for I knew how dependent I was upon my mustangs. When I had tried for I do not know how long to get my pack to stay on the pony's back I saw where Mr. Cless had played a joke on me. All memory of the diamond-hitch had faded into utter confusion. First the pack fell over the off-side; next, on top of me; then the saddle slipped awry, and when I did get the pack to remain stationary upon the patient pony, how on earth to tie it there became more and more of a mystery. Finally, in sheer desperation, I ran round the pony, pulled, tugged, and knotted the lasso; more by luck than through sense I had accomplished something in the nature of the diamond-hitch.

I headed Hal up the gentle forest slope, and began the day's journey wherever chance might lead me. As confidence came, my enjoyment increased. I began to believe I could take care of myself. I reasoned out that, as the peaks were snow-capped, I should find water, and very likely game, up higher. Moreover, I might climb a foothill or bluff from which I could get my bearings.

It seemed to me that I passed more pine-trees than I could have imagined there were in the whole world. Miles and miles of pines! And in every mile they grew larger and ruggeder and farther apart, and so high that I could hardly see the tips. After a time I got out of the almost level forest into ground ridged and hollowed, and found it advisable to turn more to the right. On the sunny southern slopes I saw trees that dwarfed the ones on the colder and shady north sides. I also found many small pines and seedlings growing in warm, protected places. This showed me the value of the sun to a forest. Though I kept a lookout for deer or game of any kind, I saw nothing except some black squirrels with white tails. They were beautiful and very tame, and one was nibbling at what I concluded must have been a seed from a pine-cone.

Presently I fancied that I espied a moving speck far down through the forest glades. I stopped Hal, and, watching closely, soon made certain of it. Then it became lost for a time, but reappeared again somewhat closer. It was like a brown blur and scarcely moved. I reined Hal more to the right. Not for quite a while did I see the thing again, and when I did it looked so big and brown that I took up my Winchester. Then it disappeared once more.

I descended into a hollow, and tying Hal, I stole forward on foot, hoping by that means to get close to the strange object without being seen myself.

I waited behind a pine, and suddenly three horsemen rode across a glade not two hundred yards away. The foremost rider was no other than the Mexican whom I had reason to remember.

The huge trunk amply concealed me, but, nevertheless, I crouched down. How strange that I should run into that Mexican again! Where was he going? Had he followed me? Was there a trail?

As long as the three men were in sight I watched them. When the last brown speck had flitted and disappeared far away in the forest I retraced my steps to my mustang, pondering upon this new turn in my affairs.

"Things are bound to happen to me," I concluded, "and I may as well make up my mind to that."

While standing beside Hal, undecided as to my next move, I heard a whistle. It was faint, perhaps miles away, yet unmistakably it was the whistle of an engine. I wondered if the railroad turned round this side of the peaks. Mounting Hal, I rode down the forest to the point where I had seen the men, and there came upon a trail. I proceeded along this in the direction the men had taken. I had come again to the slow-rising level that I had noted earlier in my morning's journey. After several miles a light or opening in the forest ahead caused me to use more caution. As I rode forward I saw a vast area of tree-tops far below, and then I found myself on the edge of a foot-hill.

Right under me was a wide, yellow, bare spot, miles across, a horrible slash in the green forest, and in the middle of it, surrounded by stacks on stacks of lumber, was a great sawmill.

I stared in utter amazement. A sawmill on Penetier! Even as I gazed a train of fresh-cut lumber trailed away into the forest.