The Young Forester by Zane Grey
IX. Taken into the Mountains
We climbed to another level bench where we branched off the trail. The forest still kept its open, park-like character. Under the great pines the ground was bare and brown with a thick covering of pine-needles, but in the glades were green grass and blue flowers.
Once across this level we encountered a steeper ascent than any I had yet climbed. Here the character of the forest began to change. There were other trees than pines, and particularly one kind, cone-shaped, symmetrical, and bright, which Dick called a silver spruce. I was glad it belonged to the conifers, or pine-tree family, because it was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. We climbed ridges and threaded through aspen thickets in hollows till near sunset. Then Stockton ordered a halt for camp.
It came none too soon for me, and I was so exhausted that I had to be helped off my mustang. Stockton arranged my blankets, fed me, and bathed the bruise on my head, but I was too weary and sick to be grateful or to care about anything except sleep. Even the fact that my hands were uncomfortably bound did not keep me awake.
When some one called me next morning my eyes did not want to stay open. I had a lazy feeling and a dull ache in my bones, but the pain had gone from my head. That made everything else seem all right.
Soon we were climbing again, and my interest in my surroundings grew as we went up. For a while we brushed through thickets of scrub oak. The whole slope of the mountain was ridged and hollowed, so that we were always going down and climbing up. The pines and spruces grew smaller, and were more rugged and gnarled.
"Hyar's the canyon!" sang out Bill, presently.
We came out on the edge of a deep hollow. It was half a mile wide. I looked down a long incline of sharp tree-tips. The roar of water rose from below, and in places a white rushing torrent showed. Above loomed the snow-clad peak, glistening in the morning sun. How wonderfully far off and high it still was!
To my regret it was shut off from my sight as we descended into the canyon. However, I soon forgot that. I saw a troop of coyotes, and many black and white squirrels. From time to time huge birds, almost as big as turkeys, crashed out of the thickets and whirred away. They flew swift as pheasants, and I asked Dick what they were.
"Blue grouse," he replied. "Look sharp now, Ken, there are deer ahead of us. See the tracks?"
Looking down I saw little, sharp-pointed, oval tracks. Presently two foxes crossed an open patch not fifty yards from us, but I did not get a glimpse of the deer. Soon we reached the bottom of the canyon, and struck into another trail. The air was full of the low roar of tumbling water. This mountain-torrent was about twenty feet wide, but its swiftness and foam made it impossible to tell its depth. The trail led up-stream, and turned so constantly that half the time Bill, the leader, was not in sight. Once the sharp crack of his rifle halted the train. I heard crashings in the thicket. Dick yelled for me to look up the slope, and there I saw three gray deer with white tails raised. I heard a strange, whistling sound.
On going forward we found that Bill had killed a deer and was roping it on his pack-horse. As we proceeded up the canyon it grew narrower, and soon we entered a veritable gorge. It was short, but the floor was exceedingly rough, and made hard going for the horses. Suddenly I was amazed to see the gorge open out into a kind of amphitheatre several hundred feet across. The walls were steep, and one side shelved out, making a long, shallow cave, In the center of this amphitheatre was a deep hole from which the mountain stream boiled and bubbled.
"Hyar we are," said Bill, and swung out of his saddle. The other men followed suit, and helped Dick and me down. Stockton untied our hands, saying he reckoned we would be more comfortable that way. Indeed we were. My wrists were swollen and blistered. Stockton detailed the Mexican to keep guard over us.
"Ken, I've heard of this place," said Dick. "How's that for a spring? Twenty yards wide, and no telling how deep! This is snow-water straight from the peaks. We're not a thousand feet below the snow-line."
"I can tell that. Look at those Jwari pines," I replied, pointing up over the wall. A rugged slope rose above our camp-site, and it was covered with a tangled mass of stunted pines. Many of them were twisted and misshapen; some were half dead and bleached white at the tops. "It's my first sight of such trees," I went on, "but I've studied about them. Up here it's not lack of moisture that stunts and retards their growth. It's fighting the elements--cold, storm-winds, snowslides. I suppose not one in a thousand seedlings takes root and survives. But the forest fights hard to live."
"Well, Ken, we may as well sit back now and talk forestry till Buell skins all he wants of Penetier," said Dick. "It's really a fine camping-spot. Plenty of deer up here and bear, too."
"Dick, couldn't we escape?" I whispered.
"We're not likely to have a chance. But I say, Ken, how did you happen to turn up? I thought you were going to hop on the first train for home."
"Dick, you had another think coming. I couldn't go home. I'll have a great time yet--I'm having it now."
"Yes, that lump on your head looks like it," replied Dick, with a laugh. "If Bud hadn't put you out we'd have come closer to licking this bunch. Ken, keep your eye on Greaser. He's treacherous. His arm's lame yet."
"We've had two run-ins already," I said. "The third time is the worst, they say. I hope it won't come. . . . But, Dick, I'm as big--I'm bigger than he is."
"Hear the kid talk! I certainly ought to have put you on that train--"
"What train?" asked Stockton, sharply, from our rear. He took us in with suspicious eyes.
"I was telling Ken I ought to have put him on a train for home," answered Dick.
Stockton let the remark pass without further comment; still, he appeared to be doing some hard thinking. He put Dick at one end of the long cave, me at the other. Our bedding was unpacked and placed at our disposal. We made our beds. After that I kept my eyes open and did not miss anything.
"Leslie, I'm going to treat you and Ward white," said Stockton. "You'll have good grub. Herky-Jerky's the best cook this side of Holston, and you'll be left untied in the daytime. But if either of you attempts to get away it means a leg shot off. Do you get that?"
"All right, Stockton; that's pretty square of you, considering," replied Dick. "You're a decent sort of chap to be mixed up with a thief like Buell. I'm sorry."
Stockton turned away at this rather abruptly. Then Bill appeared on the wall above, and began to throw down firewood. Bud returned from the canyon, where he had driven the horses. Greaser sat on a stone puffing a cigarette. It was the first time I had taken a good look at him. He was smaller than I had fancied; his feet and hands and features resembled those of a woman, but his eyes were live coals of black fire. In the daylight I was not in the least afraid of him.
Herky-Jerky was the most interesting one of our captors. He had a short, stocky figure, and was the most bow-legged man I ever saw. Never on earth could he have stopped a pig in a lane. A stubby beard covered the lower half of his brick-red face. The most striking thing about Herky-Jerky, however, was his perpetual grin. He looked very jolly, yet every time he opened his mouth it was to utter bad language. He cursed the fire, the pans, the coffee, the biscuits, all of which he handled most skillfully. It was disgusting, and yet aside from this I rather liked him.
It grew dark very quickly while we were eating, and the wind that dipped down into the gorge was cold. I kept edging closer and closer to the blazing campfire. I had never tasted venison before, and rather disliked it at first. But I soon cultivated a liking for it.
That night Stockton tied me securely, but in a way which made it easy for me to turn. I slept soundly and awoke late. When I sat up Stockton stood by his saddled horse, and was giving orders to the men. He spoke sharply. He made it clear that they were not to be lax in their vigilance. Then, without a word to Dick or me, he rode down the gorge and disappeared behind a corner of yellow wall.
Bill untied the rope that held Dick's arms, but left his feet bound. I was freed entirely, and it felt so good to have the use of all my limbs once more that I pranced round in a rather lively way. Either my antics annoyed Herky-Jerky or he thought it a good opportunity to show his skill with a lasso, for he shot the loop over me so hard that it stung my back.
"I'm all there as a roper!" he said, pulling the lasso tight round my middle. The men all laughed as I tumbled over in the gravel.
"Better keep a half-hitch on the colt," remarked Bud.
So they left the lasso fast about my waist, and it trailed after me as I walked. Herky-Jerky put me to carrying Dick's breakfast from the campfire up into the cave. This I did with alacrity. Dick and I exchanged commonplace remarks aloud, but we had several little whispers.
"Ken, we may get the drop on them or give them the slip yet," whispered Dick, in one of these interludes.
This put ideas into my head. There might be a chance for me to escape, if not for Dick. I made up my mind to try if a good chance offered, but I did not want to go alone down that canyon without a gun. Stockton had taken my revolver and hunting-knife, but I still had the little leather case which Hal and I had used so often back on the Susquehanna. Besides a pen-knife this case contained salt and pepper, fishing hooks and lines, matches--a host of little things that a boy who had never been lost might imagine he would need in an emergency. While thinking and planning I sat on the edge of the great hole where the spring was. Suddenly I saw a swirl in the water, and then a splendid spotted fish. It broke water twice. It was two feet long.
"Dick, there's fish in this hole!" I yelled, eagerly.
"Shouldn't wonder," replied he. "Sure, kid, thet hole's full of trout-- speckled trout," said Herky-Jerky. "But they can't be ketched."
"Why not?" I demanded. I had not caught little trout in the Pennsylvania hills for nothing. "They eat, don't they? That fish I saw was a whale, and he broke water for a bug. Get me a pole and some bugs or worms!"
When I took out my little case and showed the fishing-line, Herky-Jerky said he would find me some bait.
While he was absent I studied that spring with new and awakened eyes. It was round and very deep, and the water bulged up in great greenish swirls. The outlet was a narrow little cleft through which the water flowed slowly, as though it did not want to take its freedom. The rush and roar came from the gorge below.
Herky-Jerky returned with a long, slender pole. It was as pliant as a buggy-whip, and once trimmed and rigged it was far from being a poor tackle. Herky-Jerky watched me with extreme attention, all the time grinning. Then he held out a handful of grubs.
"If you ketch a trout on thet I'll swaller the pole!" he exclaimed.
I stooped low and approached the spring, being careful to keep out of sight.
"You forgot to spit on yer bait, kid," said Bill.
They all laughed in a way to rouse my ire. But despite it I flipped the bait into the water with the same old thrilling expectancy.
The bait dropped with a little spat. An arrowy shadow, black and gold, flashed up. Splash! The line hissed. Then I jerked hard. The pole bent double, wobbled, and swayed this way and that. The fish was a powerful one; his rushes were like those of a heavy bass. But never had a bass given me such a struggle. Every instant I made sure the tackle would be wrecked. Then, just at the breaking-point, the fish would turn. At last he began to tire. I felt that he was rising to the surface, and I put on more strain. Soon I saw him; then he turned, flashing like a gold bar. I led my captive to the outlet of the spring, where I reached down and got my fingers in his gills. With that I lifted him. Dick whooped when I held up the fish; as for me, I was speechless. The trout was almost two feet long, broad and heavy, with shiny sides flecked with color.
Herky-Jerky celebrated my luck with a generous outburst of enthusiasm, whereupon his comrades reminded him of his offer to swallow my fishing pole.
I put on a fresh bait and instantly hooked another fish, a smaller one, which was not so bard to land. The spring hole was full of trout. They made the water boil when I cast. Several large ones tore the hook loose; I had never dreamed of such fishing. Really it was a strange situation. Here I was a prisoner, with Greaser or Bud taking turns at holding the other end of the lasso. More than once they tethered me up short for no other reason than to torment me. Yet never in my life had I so enjoyed fishing.
By-and-by Bill and Herky-Jerky left the camp. I heard Herky tell Greaser to keep his eye on the stew-pots, and it occurred to me that Greaser had better keep his eye on Ken Ward. When I saw Bud lie down I remembered what Dick had whispered. I pretended to be absorbed in my fishing, but really I was watching Greaser. As usual, he was smoking, and appeared listless, but he still held on to the lasso.
Suddenly I saw a big blue revolver lying on a stone and I could even catch the glint of brass shells in the cylinder. It was not close to Bud nor so very close to Greaser. If he should drop the lasso! A wild idea possessed me--held me in its grip. just then the stew-pot boiled over. There was a sputter and a cloud of steam, Greaser lazily swore in Mexican; he got up to move the stew-pot and dropped the lasso.
When he reached the fire I bounded up, jerking the lasso far behind me. I ran and grabbed the revolver. Greaser heard me and wheeled with a yell. Bud sat up quickly. I pointed the revolver at him, then at Greaser, and kept moving it from one side to the other.
"Don't move! I'll shoot!" I cried.
"Good boy!" yelled Dick. "You've got the drop. Keep it, Ken, keep it! Don't lose your nerve. Edge round here and cut me loose. . . . Bud, if you move I'll make him shoot. Come on, Ken."
"Greaser, cut him loose!" I commanded the snarling Mexican.
I trembled so that the revolver wabbled in my hand. Trying to hold it steadied, I squeezed it hard. Bang! It went off with a bellow like a cannon. The bullet scattered the gravel near Greaser. His yellow face turned a dirty white. He jumped straight up in his fright.
"Cut him loose!" I ordered.
Greaser ran toward Dick.
"Look out, Ken! Behind you! Quick!" yelled Dick.
I beard a crunching of gravel. Even as I wheeled I felt a tremendous pull on the lasso and I seemed to be sailing in the air. I got a blurred glimpse of Herky-Jerky leaning back on the taut lasso. Then I plunged down, slid over the rocks, and went souse into the spring.