VI. Back to Holston
 

Soon we were out of the forest, and riding across the sage-flat with Holston in sight. Both of us avoided the unpleasant subject of my enforced home-going. Evidently Dick felt cut up about it, and it caused me such a pang that I drove it from my mind. Toward the end of our ride Dick began again to talk of forestry.

"Ken, it's mighty interesting--all this you've said about trees. Some of the things are so simple that I wonder I didn't hit on them long ago; in fact, I knew a lot of what you might call forestry, but the scientific ideas--they stump me. Now, what you said about a pine-tree cleaning itself--come back at me with that."

"Why, that's simple enough, Dick," I answered. "Now, say here we have a clump of pine saplings. They stand pretty close--close enough to make dense shade, but not too crowded. The shade has prevented the lower branches from producing leaves. As a consequence these branches die. Then they dry, rot, and fall off, so when the trees mature they are clean-shafted. They have fine, clear trunks. They have cleaned themselves, and so make the best of lumber, free from knots."

So our talk went on. Once in town I was impatient to write to my father, for we had decided that we would not telegraph. Leaving our horses in Cless's corral, we went to the hotel and proceeded to compose the letter. This turned out more of a task than we had bargained for. But we got it finished at last, not forgetting to put in a word for Jim Williams, and then we both signed it.

"There!" I cried. "Dick, something will be doing round Holston before many days."

"That's no joke, you can bet," replied Dick, wiping his face. "Ken, it's made me sweat just to see that letter start East. Buell is a tough sort, and he'll make trouble. Well, he wants to steer clear of Jim and me."

After that we fell silent, and walked slowly back toward Cless's corral. Dick's lips were closed tight, and he did not look at me. Evidently he did not intend to actually put me aboard a train, and the time for parting had come. He watered his horses at the trough, and fussed over his pack and fumbled with his saddle-girths. It looked to me as though he had not the courage to say goodby.

"Ken, it didn't look so bad--so mean till now," he said. "I'm all broken up. . . . To get you way out here! Oh! what's the use? I'm mighty sorry. . . . Good-bye--maybe-"

He broke off suddenly, and, wringing my hand, he vaulted into the saddle. He growled at his pack-pony, and drove him out of the corral. Then he set off at a steady trot down the street toward the open country.

It came to me in a flash, as I saw him riding farther and farther away, that the reason my heart was not broken was because I did not intend to go home. Dick had taken it for granted that I would board the next train for the East. But I was not going to do anything of the sort. To my amaze I found my mind made up on that score. I had no definite plan, but I was determined to endure almost anything rather than give up my mustang and outfit.

"It's shift for myself now," I thought, soberly. "I guess I can make good. . . . I'm going back to Penetier."

Even in the moment of impulse I knew how foolish this would be. But I could not help it. That forest had bewitched me. I meant to go back to it.

"I'll stay away from the sawmill," I meditated, growing lighter of heart every minute. "I'll keep out of sight of the lumbermen. I'll go higher up on the mountain, and hunt, and study the trees. . . . I'll do it."

Whereupon I marched off at once to a store and bought the supply of provisions that Buell had decided against when he helped me with my outfit. This addition made packing the pony more of a problem than ever, but I contrived to get it all on to my satisfaction. It was nearing sunset when I rode out of Holston this second time. The sage flat was bare and gray. Dick had long since reached the pines, and would probably make camp at the spring where we had stopped for lunch. I certainly did not want to catch up with him, but as there was small chance of that; it caused me no concern.

Shortly after sunset twilight fell, and it was night when I reached the first pine-trees. Still, as the trail was easily to be seen, I kept on, for I did not want to camp without water. The forest was very dark, in some places like a huge black tent, and I had not ridden far when the old fear of night, the fancy of things out there in the darkness, once more possessed me. It made me angry. Why could I not have the same confidence that I had in the daytime? It was impossible. The forest was full of moving shadows. When the wind came up to roar in the pine-tips it was a relief because it broke the silence.

I began to doubt whether I could be sure of locating the spring, and I finally decided to make camp at once. I stopped Hal, and had swung my leg over the pommel when I saw a faint glimmer of light far ahead. It twinkled like a star, but was not white and cold enough for a star.

"That's Dick's campfire," I said. "I'll have to stop here. Maybe I'm too close now."

I pondered the question. The blaze was a long way off, and I concluded I could risk camping on the spot, provided I did not make a fire. Accordingly I dismounted, and was searching for a suitable place when I happened to think that the campfire might not be Dick's, after all. Perhaps Buell had sent the Mexican with Bud and Bill on my trail again. This would not do. But I did not want to go back or turn off the trail.

"I'll slip up and see who it is," I decided.

The idea pleased me; however, I did not yield to it without further consideration. I had a clear sense of responsibility. I knew that from now on I should be called upon to reason out many perplexing things. I did not want to make any mistakes. So I tied Hal and the pack-pony to a bush fringing the trail, and set off through the forest.

It dawned upon me presently that the campfire was much farther away than it appeared. Often it went out of sight behind trees. By degrees it grew larger and larger. Then I slowed down and approached more cautiously. Once when the trees obscured it I traveled some distance without getting a good view of it. Passing down into a little hollow I lost it again. When I climbed out I hauled up short with a sharp catch of my breath. There were several figures moving around the campfire. I had stumbled on a camp that surely was not Dick Leslie's.

The ground was as soft as velvet, and my footsteps gave forth no sound. When the wind lulled I paused behind a tree and waited for another gusty roar. I kept very close to the trail, for that was the only means by which I could return to my horses. I felt the skin tighten on my face. Suddenly, as I paused, I beard angry voices, pitched high. But I could not make out the words.

Curiosity got the better of me. If the men were hired by Buell I wanted to know what they were quarrelling about. I stole stealthily from tree to tree, and another hollow opened beneath me. It was so wide and the pines so overshadowed it that I could not tell how close the opposite side might be to the campfire. I slipped down along the edge of the trail. The blaze disappeared. Only a faint arc of light showed through the gloom.

I peered keenly into the blackness. At length I reached the slope. Here I dropped to my hands and knees.

It was a long crawl to the top. Reaching it, I cautiously peeped over. There were trees hiding the fire. But it was close. I heard the voices of men. I backed down the slope, crossed the trail, and came up on the other side. Pines grew thick on this level, and I stole silently from one to another. Finally I reached the black trunk of a tree close to the campfire.

For a moment I lay low. I did not seem exactly afraid, but I was all tense and hard, and my heart drummed in my ears. There was something ticklish about this scouting. Then I peeped out.

It added little to my excitement to recognize the Mexican. He sat near the fire smoking a cigarette. Near him were several men, one of whom was Bill. Facing them sat a man with his back to a small sapling. He was tied with a lasso.

One glance at his white face made me drop behind the tree, where I lay stunned and bewildered--for that man was Dick Leslie.