The Man of the Forest (Chapter 2, page 1 of 9)


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Chapter 2

Milt Dale quietly sat up to gaze, with thoughtful eyes, into the gloom.

He was thirty years old. As a boy of fourteen he had run off from his school and home in Iowa and, joining a wagon-train of pioneers, he was one of the first to see log cabins built on the slopes of the White Mountains. But he had not taken kindly to farming or sheep-raising or monotonous home toil, and for twelve years he had lived in the forest, with only infrequent visits to Pine and Show Down and Snowdrop. This wandering forest life of his did not indicate that he did not care for the villagers, for he did care, and he was welcome everywhere, but that he loved wild life and solitude and beauty with the primitive instinctive force of a savage.

And on this night he had stumbled upon a dark plot against the only one of all the honest white people in that region whom he could not call a friend.

"That man Beasley!" he soliloquized. "Beasley--in cahoots with Snake Anson!... Well, he was right. Al Auchincloss is on his last legs. Poor old man! When I tell him he'll never believe ME, that's sure!"

Discovery of the plot meant to Dale that he must hurry down to Pine.

"A girl--Helen Rayner--twenty years old," he mused. "Beasley wants her made off with.... That means--worse than killed!"

Dale accepted facts of life with that equanimity and fatality acquired by one long versed in the cruel annals of forest lore. Bad men worked their evil just as savage wolves relayed a deer. He had shot wolves for that trick. With men, good or bad, he had not clashed. Old women and children appealed to him, but he had never had any interest in girls. The image, then, of this Helen Rayner came strangely to Dale; and he suddenly realized that he had meant somehow to circumvent Beasley, not to befriend old Al Auchincloss, but for the sake of the girl. Probably she was already on her way West, alone, eager, hopeful of a future home. How little people guessed what awaited them at a journey's end! Many trails ended abruptly in the forest--and only trained woodsmen could read the tragedy.

"Strange how I cut across country to-day from Spruce Swamp," reflected Dale. Circumstances, movements, usually were not strange to him. His methods and habits were seldom changed by chance. The matter, then, of his turning off a course out of his way for no apparent reason, and of his having overheard a plot singularly involving a young girl, was indeed an adventure to provoke thought. It provoked more, for Dale grew conscious of an unfamiliar smoldering heat along his veins. He who had little to do with the strife of men, and nothing to do with anger, felt his blood grow hot at the cowardly trap laid for an innocent girl.

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