The Young Forester by Zane Grey
VI. Dick Leslie, Ranger
Which end of the street I entered I had no idea. The cabins were all alike, and in my hurry I would have passed the cook's shack had it not been for the sight of a man standing in the door. That stalwart figure I would have known anywhere.
"Dick!" I cried, rushing at him.
What Dick's welcome was I did not hear, but judging from the grip he put on my shoulders and then on my hands, he was glad to see me.
"Ken, blessed if I'd have known you," he said, shoving me back at arm's-length. "Let's have a look at you. . . . Grown I say, but you're a husky lad!"
While he was looking at me I returned the scrutiny with interest. Dick had always been big, but now he seemed wider and heavier. Among these bronzed Westerners he appeared pale, but that was only on account of his fair skin.
"Ken, didn't you get my letter--the one telling you not to come West yet a while?"
"No," I replied, blankly. "The last one I got was in May--about the middle. I have it with me. You certainly asked me to come then. Dick, don't you want me--now?"
Plain it was that my friend felt uncomfortable; he shifted from one foot to another, and a cloud darkened his brow. But his blue eyes burned with a warm light as he put his hand on my shoulder.
"Ken, I'm glad to see you," he said, earnestly. "It's like getting a glimpse of home. But I wrote you not to come. Conditions have changed-- there's something doing here--I'll--"
"You needn't explain, Dick," I replied, gravely. "I know. Buell and--" I waved my hand from the sawmill to the encircling slash.
Dick's face turned a fiery red. I believed that was the only time Dick Leslie ever failed to look a fellow in the eye.
"Ken! . . . You're on," he said, recovering his composure. "Well, wait till you hear-- Hello! here's Jim Williams, my pardner."
A clinking of spurs accompanied a soft step.
"Jim, here's Ken Ward, the kid pardner I used to have back in the States," said Dick. "Ken, you know Jim."
If ever I knew anything by heart it was what Dick had written me about this Texan, Jim Williams.
"Ken, I shore am glad to see you," drawled Jim, giving my hand a squeeze that I thought must break every bone in it.
Though Jim Williams had never been described to me, my first sight of him fitted my own ideas. He was tall and spare; his weather-beaten face seemed set like a dark mask; only his eyes moved, and they had a quivering alertness and a brilliancy that made them hard to look into. He wore a wide sombrero, a blue flannel shirt with a double row of big buttons, overalls, top-boots with very high heels, and long spurs. A heavy revolver swung at his hip, and if I had not already known that Jim Williams had fought Indians and killed bad men, I should still have seen something that awed me in the look of him.
I certainly felt proud to be standing with those two rangers, and for the moment Buell and all his crew could not have daunted me.
"Hello! what's this?" inquired Dick, throwing back my coat; and, catching sight of my revolver, he ejaculated: "Ken Ward!"
"Wal, Ken, if you-all ain't packin' a gun!" said Jim, in his slow, careless drawl. "Dick, he shore is!"
It was now my turn to blush.
"Yes, I've got a gun," I replied, "and I ought to have had it the other night."
"How so?" inquired Dick, quickly.
It did not take me long to relate the incident of the Mexican.
Dick looked like a thunder-cloud, but Jim swayed and shook with laughter.
"You knocked him off the roof? Wal, thet shore is dee-lightful. It shore is!"
"Yes; and, Dick," I went on, breathlessly, "the Greaser followed me, and if I hadn't missed the trail, I don't know what would have happened. Anyway, he got here first."
"The Greaser trailed you?" interrupted Dick, sharply.
When I replied he glanced keenly at me. "How do you know?"
"I suspected it when I saw him with two men in the forest. But now I know it."
"I beard Buell tell Stockton he had put the Greaser on my trail."
"Buell--Stockton!" exclaimed Dick. "What'd they have to do with the Greaser?"
"I met Buell on the train. I told him I had come West to study forestry. Buell's afraid I'll find out about this lumber steal, and he wants to shut my mouth."
Dick looked from me to Jim, and Jim slowly straitened his tall form. For a moment neither spoke. Dick's white face caused me to look away from him. Jim put a hand on my arm.
"Ken, you shore was lucky; you shore was."
"I guess he doesn't know how lucky," added Dick, somewhat huskily. "Come on, we'll look up the Mexican."
"It shore is funny how bad I want to see thet Greaser."
Dick's hard look and tone were threatening enough, yet they did not affect me so much as the easy, gay manner of the Texan. Little cold quivers ran over me, and my knees knocked together. For the moment my animosity toward the Mexican vanished, and with it the old hunger to be in the thick of Wild Western life. I was afraid that I was going to see a man killed without being able to lift a hand to prevent it.
The rangers marched me between them down the street and into the corner saloon. Dick held me half behind him with his left hand while Jim sauntered ahead. Strangest of all the things that had happened was the sudden silencing of the noisy crowd.
The Mexican was not there. His companions, Bud and Bill, as Buell had called them, were sitting at a table, and as Jim Williams walked into the center of the room they slowly and gradually rose to their feet. One was a swarthy man with evil eyes and a scar on his cheek; the other had a brick- red face and a sandy mustache with a vicious curl. Neither seemed to be afraid, only cautious.
"We're all lookin' for thet Greaser friend of yourn," drawled Jim. "I shore want to see him bad."
"He's gone, Williams," replied one. "Was in somethin' of a rustle, an' didn't leave no word."
"Wal, I reckon he's all we're lookin' for this pertickler minnit."
Jim spoke in a soft, drawling voice, and his almost expressionless tone seemed to indicate pleasant indifference; still, no one could have been misled by it, for the long, steady gaze he gave the men and his cool presence that held the room quiet meant something vastly different. No reply was offered. Bud and Bill sat down, evidently to resume their card-playing. The uneasy silence broke to a laugh, then to subdued voices, and finally the clatter and hum began again. Dick led me outside, where we were soon joined by Jim.
"He's holed up," suggested Dick.
"Shore. I don't take no stock in his hittin' the trail. He's layin' low."
"Let's look around a bit, anyhow."
Dick took me back to the cook's cabin and, bidding me remain inside, strode away. I beard footsteps so soon after his departure that I made certain he had returned, but the burly form which blocked the light in the cabin door was not Dick's. I was astounded to recognize Buell.
"Hello!" he said, in his blustering voice. "Heard you had reached camp, an' have been huntin' you up."
I greeted him pleasantly enough--more from surprise than from a desire to mislead him. It seemed to me then that a child could have read Buell. He'd an air of suppressed excitement; there was a glow on his face and a kind of daring flash in his eyes. He seemed too eager, too glad to see me.
"I've got a good job for you," he went on, glibly. "jest what you want, an' you're jest what I need. Come into my office an' help me. There'll be plenty of outside work--measurin' lumber, markin' trees, an' such."
"Why, Mr. Buell--I--you see, Dick--he might not--"
I hesitated, not knowing how to proceed. But at my halting speech Buell became even more smiling and voluble.
"Dick? Oh, Dick an' I stand all right; take thet from me. Dick'll agree to what I want. I need a young feller bad. Money's no object. You're a bright youngster. You'll look out for my interests. Here!" He pulled out a large wad of greenbacks, and then spoke in a lower voice. "You understand that money cuts no ice 'round this camp. We've a big deal. We need a smart young feller. There's always some little irregularities about these big timber deals out West. But you'll wear blinkers, an' make some money while you're studyin' forestry. See?"
"Irregularities? What kind of irregularities?"
For the life of me I could not keep a little scorn out of my question. Buell slowly put the bills in his pocket while his eyes searched; I could not control my rising temper.
"You mean you want to fix me?"
He made no answer, and his face stiffened.
"You mean you want to buy my silence, shut my mouth about this lumber steal?"
He drew in his breath audibly, yet still he did not speak. Either he was dull of comprehension or else he was astonished beyond words. I knew I was mad to goad him like that, but I could not help it. I grew hot with anger, and the more clearly I realized that he had believed he could "fix" me with his dirty money the hotter I got.
"You told Stockton you were leary of Washington, and were afraid I'd queer your big deal. . . . Well, Mr. Buell, that's exactly what I'm going to do-- queer it!"
He went black in the face, and, cursing horribly, grasped me by the arm. I struggled, but I could not loose that iron hand. Suddenly I felt a violent wrench that freed me. Then I saw Dick swing back his shoulder and shoot out his arm. He knocked Buell clear across the room, and when the man fell I thought the cabin was coming down in the crash. He appeared stunned, for he groped about with his hands, found a chair, and, using it as a support, rose to his feet, swaying unsteadily.
"Leslie, I'll get you for this--take it from me," he muttered.
Dick's lips were tight, and he watched Buell with flaming eyes. The lumberman lurched out of the door, and we heard him cursing after he had disappeared. Then Dick looked at me with no little disapproval.
"What did you say to make Buell wild like that?"
I told Dick, word for word. First he looked dumfounded, then angry, and he ended up with a grim laugh.
"Ken, you're sure bent on starting something, as Jim would say. You've started it all right. And Jim'll love you for it. But I'm responsible to your mother. Ken, I remember your mother--and you're going back home."
"You're going back home as fast as I can get you to Holston and put you on a train, that's all."
"I won't go!" I cried.
Without any more words Dick led me down the street to a rude corral; here he rapidly saddled and packed his horses. The only time he spoke was when he asked me where I had tied my mustangs. Soon we were hurrying out through the slash toward the forest. Dick's troubled face kept down my resentment, but my heart grew like lead. What an ending to my long-cherished trip to the West! It had lasted two days. The disappointment seemed more than I could bear.
We found the mustangs as I had left them, and the sight of Hal and the feeling of the saddle made me all the worse. We did not climb the foot-hill by the trail which the Mexican had used, but took a long, slow ascent far round to the left. Dick glanced back often, and when we reached the top he looked again in a way to convince me that he had some apprehensions of being followed.
Twilight of that eventful day found us pitching camp in a thickly timbered hollow. I could not help dwelling on how different my feelings would have been if this night were but the beginning of many nights with Dick. It was the last, and the more I thought about it the more wretched I grew. Dick rolled in his blanket without saying even good-night, and I lay there watching the veils and shadows of firelight flicker on the pines, and listening, to the wind. Gradually the bitterness seemed to go away; my body relaxed and sank into the soft, fragrant pine-needles; the great shadowy trees mixed with the surrounding darkness. When I awoke it was broad daylight, and Dick was shaking my arm.
"Hunt up the horses while I get the grub ready," he said, curtly.
As the hollow was carpeted with thick grass our horses had not strayed. I noticed that here the larger trees had been cut, and the forest resembled a fine park. In the sunny patches seedlings were sprouting, many little bushy pines were growing, and the saplings had sufficient room and light to prosper. I commented to Dick upon the difference between this part of Penetier and the hideous slash we had left.
"There were a couple of Government markers went through here and marked the timber to be cut," said Dick.
"Was the timber cut in the mill I saw?"
"No. Buell's just run up that mill. The old one is out here a ways, nearer Holston."
"Is it possible, Dick, that any of those loggers back there don't know the Government is being defrauded?"
"Ken, hardly any of them know it, and they wouldn't care if they did. You see, this forest-preserve business is new out here. Formerly the lumbermen bought so much land and cut over it--skinned it. Two years ago, when the National Forests were laid out, the lumbering men--that is, the loggers, sawmill hands, and so on--found they did not get as much employment as formerly. So generally they're sore on the National Forest idea."
"But, Dick, if they understand the idea of forestry they'd never oppose it."
"Maybe. I don't understand it too well myself. I can fight fire--that's my business; but this ranger work is new. I doubt if the Westerners will take to forestry. There've been some shady deals all over the West because of it. Buell, now, he's a timber shark. He bought so much timber from the Government, and had the markers come in to mark the cut; then after they were gone, he rushed up a mill and clapped on a thousand hands."
"And the rangers stand for it? Where'll their jobs be when the Government finds out?"
"I was against it from the start. So was Jim, particularly. But the other rangers persuaded us."
It began to dawn upon me that Dick Leslie might, after all, turn out to be good soil in which to plant some seeds of forestry. I said no more then, as we were busy packing for the start, but when we had mounted I began to talk. I told him all I had learned about trees, how I loved them, and how I had determined to devote my life to their study, care, and development. As we rode along under the wide-spreading pines I illustrated my remarks by every example I could possibly use. The more I talked the more interested Dick became, and this spurred me on. Perhaps I exaggerated, but my conscience never pricked me. He began to ask questions.
We reached a spring at midday, and halted for a rest. I kept on pleading, and presently I discovered, to my joy, that I had made a strong impression upon Dick. It seemed a strange thing for me to be trying to explain forestry to a forest ranger, but so it was.
"Ken, it's all news to me. I've been on Penetier about a year, and I never heard a word of what you've been telling me. My duties have been the practical ones that any woodsman knows. Jim and the other rangers--why, they don't know any more than I. It's a great thing, and I've queered my chance with the Government."
"No, you haven't--neither has Jim--not if you'll be straight from now on. You can't keep faith with Buell. He tried to kidnap me. That lets you out. We'll spoil Buell's little deal and save Penetier. A letter to father will do it. He has friends in the Forestry Department at Washington. Dick, what do you say? It's not too late!"
The dark shade lifted from the ranger's face, and he looked at me with the smile of the old fishing days.
"Say? I say yes!" he exclaimed, in ringing voice, "Ken, you've made a man of me!"