VIII. The Lumbermen

For a full moment I just lay still, hugging the ground, and I did not seem to think at all. Voices loud in anger roused me. Raising myself, I guardedly looked from behind the tree.

One of the lumbermen threw brush on the fire, making it blaze brightly. He was tall and had a red beard. I recognized Stockton, Buell's right hand in the lumber deal.

"Leslie, you're a liar!" he said.

Dick's eyes glinted from his pale face.

"Yes, that's your speed, Stockton," he retorted. "You bring your thugs into my camp pretending to be friendly. You grab a fellow behind his back, tie him up, and then call him a liar. Wait, you timber shark!"

"You're lying about that kid, Ward," declared the other. "You sent him back East, that's what. He'll have the whole forest service down here. Buell will be wild. Oh, he won't do a thing when he learns Ward has given us the slip!"

"I tell you, Ken Ward gave me the slip," replied Dick. "I'll admit I meant to see him safe in Holston. But he wouldn't go. He ran off from me right here in this forest."

What could have been Dick's object in telling such a lie? It made me wonder. Perhaps these lumbermen were more dangerous than I had supposed, and Dick did not wish them to believe I had left Penetier. Maybe he was playing for time, and did not want them to get alarmed and escape before the officers came.

"Why did he run off?" asked Stockton.

"Because I meant to send him home, and he didn't want to go. He's crazy to camp out, to hunt and ride."

"If that's true, Leslie, there's been no word sent to Washington."

"How could there be?"

"Well, I've got to hold you anyway till we see Buell. His orders were to keep you and Ward prisoners till this lumber deal is pulled off. We're not going to be stopped now."

Leslie turned crimson, and strained on the lasso that bound him to the sapling. "Somebody is going to pay for this business!" he declared, savagely. "You forget I'm an officer in this forest."

"I'll hold you, Leslie, whatever comes of it," answered the lumberman. "I'd advise you to cool down."

"You and Buell have barked up the wrong tree, mind that, Stockton. Jim Williams, my pardner, is wise. He expects me back tomorrow."

"See hyar, Stockton," put in Bill, "you're new in Arizona, an' I want to give you a hunch. If Jim Williams hits this trail, you ain't goin' to be well enough to care about any old lumber steal."

"Jim hit the trail all right," went on Dick. "He's after Greaser. It'd go hard with you if Jim happened to walk in now."

"I don't want to buck against Williams, that's certain," replied Stockton. "I know his record. But I'll take a chance--anyway, till Buell knows. It's his game."

Dick made no answer, and sat there eyeing his captors. There was little talk after this. Bud threw a log on the fire. Stockton told the Mexican to take a look at the horses. Greaser walked within twenty feet of where I lay, and I held my breath while be passed. The others rolled in their blankets. It was now so dark that I could not distinguish anything outside of the campfire circle. But I heard Greaser's soft, shuffling footsteps as he returned. Then his dark, slim figure made a shadow between me and the light. He sat down before the fire and began to roll a cigarette. He did not seem sleepy.

A daring scheme flashed into my mind. I would crawl into camp and free Dick. Not only would I outwit the lumber thieves, but also make Dick think well of me. What would Jim Williams say of a trick like that? The thought of the Texan banished what little hesitation I felt. Glancing round the bright circle, I made my plan; it was to crawl far back into the darkness, go around to the other side of the camp, and then slip up behind Dick. Already his head was nodding on his breast. It made me furious to see him sitting so uncomfortably, sagging in the lasso.

I tried to beat down my excitement, but there was a tingling all over me that would not subside. But I soon saw that I might have a long wait. The Mexican did not go to sleep, so I had time to cool off.

The campfire gradually burned out, and the white glow changed to red. One of the men snored in a way that sounded like a wheezy whistle. Coyotes howled in the woods, and the longer I listened to the long, strange howls the better I liked them. The roar in the wind had died down to a moaning. I thought of myself lying there, with my skin prickling and my eyes sharp on the darkening forms. I thought of the nights I had spent with Hal in the old woods at home. How full the present seemed! My breast swelled, my hand gripped my revolver, my eyes pierced the darkness, and I would not have been anywhere else for the world.

Greaser smoked out his cigarette, and began to nod. That was the signal for me. I crawled noiselessly from the tree. When I found myself going down into the hollow, I stopped and rose to my feet. The forest was so pitchy black that I could not tell the trees from the darkness. I groped to the left, trying to circle. Once I snapped a twig; it cracked like a pistol-shot, and my heart stopped beating, then began to thump. But Greaser never stirred as he sat in the waning light. At last I had half circled the camp.

After a short rest I started forward, slow and stealthy as a creeping cat. When within fifty feet of the fire I went down on all-fours and began to crawl. Twice I got out of line. But at last Dick's burly shoulders loomed up between me and the light.

Then I halted. My breast seemed bursting, and I panted so hard that I was in a terror lest I should awaken some one. Again I thought of what I was doing, and fought desperately to gain my coolness,

Now the only cover I had was Dick's broad back, for the sapling to which he was tied was small. I drew my hunting-knife. One more wriggle brought me close to Dick, with my face near his hands, which were bound behind him. I slipped the blade under the lasso, and cut it through.

Dick started as if he had received an electric shock. He threw back his head and uttered a sudden exclamation.

Although I was almost paralyzed with fright I put my hand on his shoulder and whispered: "S-s-s-h! It's Ken!"

Greaser uttered a shrill cry. Dick leaped to his feet. Then I grew dizzy, and my sight blurred. I heard hoarse shouts and saw dark forms rising as if out of the earth. All was confusion. I wanted to run, but could not get up. There was a wrestling, whirling mass in front of me.

But this dimness of sight and weakness of body did not last. I saw two men on the ground, with Dick standing over them. Stockton was closing in. Greaser ran around them with something in his hand that glittered in the firelight. Stockton dived for Dick's legs and upset him. They went down together, and the Mexican leaped on them, waving the bright thing high over his head.

I bounded forward, and, grasping his wrist with both hands, I wrenched his arm with all my might. Some one struck me over the head. I saw a million darting points of light--then all went black.

When I opened my eyes the sun was shining. I had a queer, numb feeling all over, and my head hurt terribly. Everything about me was hazy. I did not know where I was. After a little I struggled to sit up, and with great difficulty managed it. My hands were tied. Then it all came back to me. Stockton stood before me holding a tin cup of water toward my lips. My throat was parched, and I drank. Stockton had a great bruise on his forehead; his nostrils were crusted with blood, and his shirt was half torn off.

"You're all right?" he said.

"Sure," I replied, which was not true.

I imagined that a look of relief came over his face. Next I saw Bill nursing his eye, and bathing it with a wet handkerchief. It was swollen shut, puffed out to the size of a goose-egg, and blue as indigo. Dick had certainly landed hard on Bill. Then I turned round to see Dick sitting against the little sapling, bound fast with a lasso. His clean face did not look as if he had been in a fight; he was smiling, yet there was anxiety in his eyes.

"Ken, now you've played hob," he said. It was a reproach, but his look made me proud.

"Oh, Dick, if you hadn't called out!" I exclaimed.

"Darned if you're not right! But it was a slick job, and you'll tickle Jim to death. I was an old woman. But that cold knife-blade made me jump."

I glanced round the camp for the Mexican and Bud and the fifth man, but they were gone. Bill varied his occupation of the moment by kneading biscuit dough in a basin. Then there came such a severe pain in my head that I went blind for a little while. "What's the matter with my head? Who hit me?" I cried.

"Bud slugged you with the butt of his pistol," said Dick. "And, Ken, I think you saved me from being knifed by the Greaser. You twisted his arm half off. He cursed all night. . . . Ha! there he comes now with your outfit."

Sure enough, the Mexican appeared on the trail, leading my horses. I was so glad to see Hal that I forgot I was a prisoner. But Greaser's sullen face and glittering eyes reminded me of it quickly enough. I read treachery in his glance.

Bud rode into camp from the other direction, and he brought a bunch of horses, two of which I recognized as Dick's. The lumbermen set about getting breakfast, and Stockton helped me to what little I could eat and drink. Now that I was caught he did not appear at all mean or harsh. I did not shrink from him, and had the feeling that he meant well by me.

The horses were saddled and bridled, and Dick and I, still tied, were bundled astride our mounts. The pack-ponies led the way, with Bill following; I came next, Greaser rode behind me, and Dick was between Bud and Stockton. So we traveled, and no time was wasted. I noticed that the men kept a sharp lookout both to the fore and the rear. We branched off the main trail and took a steeper one leading up the slope. We rode for hours. There were moments when I reeled in my saddle, but for the greater while I stood my pain and weariness well enough. Some time in the afternoon a shrill whistle ahead attracted my attention. I made out two horsemen waiting on the trail.

"Huh! about time!" growled Bill. "Hyar's Buell an' Herky-Jerky."

As we approached I saw Buell, and the fellow with the queer name turned out to be no other than the absent man I had been wondering about. He had been dispatched to fetch the lumberman.

Buell was superbly mounted on a sleek bay, and he looked very much the same jovial fellow I had met on the train. He grinned at the disfigured men.

"Take it from me, you fellers wouldn't look any worse bunged up if you'd been jolted by the sawlogs in my mill."

"We can't stand here to crack jokes," said Stockton, sharply. "Some ranger might see us. Now what?"

"You ketched the kid in time. That's all I wanted. Take him an' Leslie up in one of the canyons an' keep them there till further orders. You needn't stay, Stockton, after you get them in a safe place. An' you can send up grub."

Then he turned to me.

"You'll not be hurt if--"

"Don't you speak to me!" I burst out. It was on my lips to tell him of the letter to Washington, but somehow I kept silent.

"Leslie," went on Buell, "I'll overlook your hittin' me an' let you go if you'll give me your word to keep mum about this."

Dick did not speak, but looked at the lumberman with a dark gleam in his eyes.

"There's one thing, Buell," said Stockton. "Jim Williams is wise. You've got to look out for him."

Buell's ruddy face blanched. Then, without another word, he waved his hand toward the slope, and, wheeling his horse, galloped down the trail.