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The memory of a woman had ruined Milt Dale's peace, had confounded his philosophy of self-sufficient, lonely happiness in the solitude of the wilds, had forced him to come face to face with his soul and the fatal significance of life.
When he realized his defeat, that things were not as they seemed, that there was no joy for him in the coming of spring, that he had been blind in his free, sensorial, Indian relation to existence, he fell into an inexplicably strange state, a despondency, a gloom as deep as the silence of his home. Dale reflected that the stronger an animal, the keener its nerves, the higher its intelligence, the greater must be its suffering under restraint or injury. He thought of himself as a high order of animal whose great physical need was action, and now the incentive to action seemed dead. He grew lax. He did not want to move. He performed his diminishing duties under compulsion.
He watched for spring as a liberation, but not that he could leave the valley. He hated the cold, he grew weary of wind and snow; he imagined the warm sun, the park once more green with grass and bright with daisies, the return of birds and squirrels and deer to heir old haunts, would be the means whereby he could break this spell upon him. Then he might gradually return to past contentment, though it would never be the same.
But spring, coming early to Paradise Park, brought a fever to Dale's blood -- a fire of unutterable longing. It was good, perhaps, that this was so, because he seemed driven to work, climb, tramp, and keep ceaselessly on the move from dawn till dark. Action strengthened his lax muscles and kept him from those motionless, senseless hours of brooding. He at least need not be ashamed of longing for that which could never be his -- the sweetness of a woman -- a home full of light, joy, hope, the meaning and beauty of children. But those dark moods were sinkings into a pit of hell.
Dale had not kept track of days and weeks. He did not know when the snow melted off three slopes of Paradise Park. All he knew was that an age had dragged over his head and that spring had come. During his restless waking hours, and even when he was asleep, there seemed always in the back of his mind a growing consciousness that soon he would emerge from this trial, a changed man, ready to sacrifice his chosen lot, to give up his lonely life of selfish indulgence in lazy affinity with nature, and to go wherever his strong hands might perform some real service to people. Nevertheless, he wanted to linger in this mountain fastness until his ordeal was over -- until he could meet her, and the world, knowing himself more of a man than ever before.
One bright morning, while he was at his camp-fire, the tame cougar gave a low, growling warning. Dale was startled. Tom did not act like that because of a prowling grizzly or a straying stag. Presently Dale espied a horseman riding slowly out of the straggling spruces. And with that sight Dale's heart gave a leap, recalling to him a divination of his future relation to his kind. Never had he been so glad to see a man!
This visitor resembled one of the Beemans, judging from the way he sat his horse, and presently Dale recognized him to be John.
At this juncture the jaded horse was spurred into a trot, soon reaching the pines and the camp.
"Howdy, there, you ole b'ar-hunter!" called John, waving his hand.
For all his hearty greeting his appearance checked a like response from Dale. The horse was mud to his flanks and John was mud to his knees, wet, bedraggled, worn, and white. This hue of his face meant more than fatigue.
"Howdy, John?" replied Dale.
They shook hands. John wearily swung his leg over the pommel, but did not at once dismount. His clear gray eyes were wonderingly riveted upon the hunter.
"Milt -- what 'n hell's wrong?" he queried.
"Bust me if you ain't changed so I hardly knowed you. You've been sick -- all alone here!"
"Do I look sick?"
"Wal, I should smile. Thin an' pale an' down in the mouth! Milt, what ails you?"
"I've gone to seed."
"You've gone off your head, jest as Roy said, livin' alone here. You overdid it, Milt. An' you look sick."
"John, my sickness is here," replied Dale, soberly, as he laid a hand on his heart.
"Lung trouble!" ejaculated John. "With thet chest, an' up in this air? . . . Get out!"
"No -- not lung trouble," said Dale.
"I savvy. Had a hunch from Roy, anyhow."
"What kind of a hunch?"
"Easy now, Dale, ole man. . . . Don't you reckon I'm ridin' in on you pretty early? Look at thet hoss!" John slid off and waved a hand at the drooping beast, then began to unsaddle him. "Wal, he done great. We bogged some comin' over. An' I climbed the pass at night on the frozen snow."
"You're welcome as the flowers in May. John, what month is it?"
"By spades! are you as bad as thet? . . . Let's see. It's the twenty-third of March."
"March! Well, I'm beat. I've lost my reckonin' -- an' a lot more, maybe."
"Thar!" declared John, slapping the mustang. "You can jest hang up here till my next trip. Milt, how 're your hosses?"
"Wal, thet's good. We'll need two big, strong hosses right off."
"What for?" queried Dale, sharply. He dropped a stick of wood and straightened up from the camp-fire.
"You're goin' to ride down to Pine with me -- thet's what for."
Familiarly then came back to Dale the quiet, intent suggestiveness of the Beemans in moments foreboding trial.
At this certain assurance of John's, too significant to be doubted, Dale's though of Pine gave slow birth to a strange sensation, as if he had been dead and was vibrating back to life.
"Tell what you got to tell!" he broke out.
Quick as a flash the Mormon replied: "Roy's been shot. But he won't die. He sent for you. Bad deal's afoot. Beasley means to force Helen Rayner out an' steal her ranch."
A tremor ran all through Dale. It seemed another painful yet thrilling connection between his past and this vaguely calling future. His emotions had been broodings dreams, longings. This thing his friend said had the sting of real life.
"Then old Al's dead?" he asked.
"Long ago -- I reckon around the middle of February. The property went to Helen. She's been doin' fine. An' many folks say it's a pity she'll lose it."
"She won't lose it," declared Dale. How strange his voice sounded to his own ears! It was hoarse and unreal, as if from disuse.
"Wal, we-all have our idees. I say she will. My father says so. Carmichael says so."
"Reckon you remember thet cow-puncher who came up with Roy an' Auchincloss after the girls -- last fall?"
"Yes. They called him Las -- Las Vegas. I liked his looks."
"Humph! You'll like him a heap when you know him. He's kept the ranch goin' for Miss Helen all along. But the deal's comin' to a head. Beasley's got thick with thet Riggs. You remember him?"
"Wal, he's been hangin' out at Pine all winter, watchin' for some chance to get at Miss Helen or Bo. Everybody's seen thet. An' jest lately he chased Bo on hossback -- gave the kid a nasty fall. Roy says Riggs was after Miss Helen. But I think one or t'other of the girls would do thet varmint. Wal, thet sorta started goin's-on. Carmichael beat Riggs an' drove him out of town. But he come back. Beasley called on Miss Helen an' offered to marry her so's not to take the ranch from her, he said."
Dale awoke with a thundering curse.
"Shore!" exclaimed John. "I'd say the same -- only I'm religious. Don't thet beady-eyed greaser's gall make you want to spit all over yourself? My Gawd! but Roy was mad! Roy's powerful fond of Miss Helen an' Bo. . . . Wal, then, Roy, first chance he got, braced Beasley an' give him some straight talk. Beasley was foamin' at the mouth, Roy said. It was then Riggs shot Roy. Shot him from behind Beasley when Roy wasn't lookin'! An' Riggs brags of bein' a gun-fighter. Mebbe thet wasn't a bad shot for him!"
"I reckon," replied Dale, as he swallowed hard. "Now, just what was Roy's message to me?"
"Wal, I can't remember all Roy said," answered John, dubiously. "But Roy shore was excited an' dead in earnest. He says: 'Tell Milt what's happened. Tell him Helen Rayner's in more danger than she was last fall. Tell him I've seen her look away acrost the mountains toward Paradise Park with her heart in her eyes. Tell him she needs him most of all!'"
Dale shook all over as with an attack of ague. He was seized by a whirlwind of passionate, terrible sweetness of sensation, when what he wildly wanted was to curse Roy and John for their simple-minded conclusions.
"Roy's -- crazy!" panted Dale.
"Wal, now, Milt -- thet's downright surprisin' of you. Roy's the level-headest of any fellars I know."
"Man! if he made me believe him -- an' it turned out untrue -- I'd -- I'd kill him," replied Dale.
"Untrue! Do you think Roy Beeman would lie?"
"But, John -- you fellows can't see my case. Nell Rayner wants me -- needs me! . . . It can't be true!"
"Wal, my love-sick pard -- it jest is true!" exclaimed John, feelingly. "Thet's the hell of life -- never knowin'. But here it's joy for you. You can believe Roy Beeman about women as quick as you'd trust him to track your lost hoss. Roy's married three girls. I reckon he'll marry some more. Roy's only twenty-eight an' he has two big farms. He said he'd seen Nell Rayner's heart in her eyes, lookin' for you -- an' you can jest bet your life thet's true. An' he said it because he means you to rustle down there an' fight for thet girl."
"I'll -- go," said Dale, in a shaky whisper, as he sat down on a pine log near the fire. He stared unseeingly at the bluebells in the grass by his feet while storm after storm possessed his breast. They were fierce and brief because driven by his will. In those few moments of contending strife Dale was immeasurably removed from that dark gulf of self which had made his winter a nightmare. And when he stood erect again it seemed that the old earth had a stirring, electrifying impetus for his feet. Something black, bitter, melancholy, and morbid, always unreal to him, had passed away forever. The great moment had been forced upon him. He did not believe Roy Beeman's preposterous hint regarding Helen; but he had gone back or soared onward, as if by magic, to his old true self.
Mounted on Dale's strongest horses, with only a light pack, an ax, and their weapons, the two men had reached the snow-line on the pass by noon that day. Tom, the tame cougar, trotted along in the rear.
The crust of the snow, now half thawed by the sun, would not hold the weight of a horse, though it upheld the men on foot. They walked, leading the horses. Travel was not difficult until the snow began to deepen; then progress slackened materially. John had not been able to pick out the line of the trail, so Dale did not follow his tracks. An old blaze on the trees enabled Dale to keep fairly well to the trail; and at length the height of the pass was reached, where the snow was deep. Here the horses labored, plowing through foot by foot. When, finally, they sank to their flanks, they had to be dragged and goaded on, and helped by thick flat bunches of spruce boughs placed under their hoofs. It took three hours of breaking toil to do the few hundred yards of deep snow on the height of the pass. The cougar did not have great difficulty in following, though it was evident he did not like such traveling.
That behind them, the horses gathered heart and worked on to the edge of the steep descent, where they had all they could do to hold back from sliding and rolling. Fast time was made on this slope, at the bottom of which began a dense forest with snow still deep in places and windfalls hard to locate. The men here performed Herculean labors, but they got through to a park where the snow was gone. The ground, however, soft and boggy, in places was more treacherous than the snow; and the travelers had to skirt the edge of the park to a point opposite, and then go on through the forest. When they reached bare and solid ground, just before dark that night, it was high time, for the horses were ready to drop, and the men likewise.
Camp was made in an open wood. Darkness fell and the men were resting on bough beds, feet to the fire, with Tom curled up close by, and the horses still drooping where they had been unsaddled. Morning, however, discovered them grazing on the long, bleached grass. John shook his head when he looked at them.
"You reckoned to make Pine by nightfall. How far is it -- the way you'll go?"
"Fifty mile or thereabouts," replied Dale.
"Wal, we can't ride it on them critters."
"John, we'd do more than that if we had to."
They were saddled and on the move before sunrise, leaving snow and bog behind. Level parks and level forests led one after another to long slopes and steep descents, all growing sunnier and greener as the altitude diminished. Squirrels and grouse, turkeys and deer, and less tame denizens of the forest grew more abundant as the travel advanced. In this game zone, however, Dale had trouble with Tom. The cougar had to be watched and called often to keep him off of trails.
"Tom doesn't like a long trip," said Dale. "But I'm goin' to take him. Some way or other he may come in handy."
"Sic him onto Beasley's gang," replied John. "Some men are powerful scared of cougars. But I never was."
"Nor me. Though I've had cougars give me a darn uncanny feelin'."
The men talked but little. Dale led the way, with Tom trotting noiselessly beside his horse. John followed close behind. They loped the horses across parks, trotted through the forests, walked slow up what few inclines they met, and slid down the soft, wet, pine-matted descents. So they averaged from six to eight miles an hour. The horses held up well under that steady travel, and this without any rest at noon.
Dale seemed to feel himself in an emotional trance. Yet, despite this, the same old sensorial perceptions crowded thick and fast upon him, strangely sweet and vivid after the past dead months when neither sun nor wind nor cloud nor scent of pine nor anything in nature could stir him. His mind, his heart, his soul seemed steeped in an intoxicating wine of expectation, while his eyes and ears and nose had never been keener to register the facts of the forest-land. He saw the black thing far ahead that resembled a burned stump, but he knew was a bear before it vanished; he saw gray flash of deer and wolf and coyote, and the red of fox, and the small, wary heads of old gobblers just sticking above the grass; and he saw deep tracks of game as well as the slow-rising blades of bluebells where some soft-footed beast had just trod. And he heard the melancholy notes of birds, the twitter of grouse, the sough of the wind, the light dropping of pine-cones, the near and distant bark of squirrels, the deep gobble of a turkey close at hand and the challenge from a rival far away, the cracking of twigs in the thickets, the murmur of running water, the scream of an eagle and the shrill cry of a hawk, and always the soft, dull, steady pads of the hoofs of the horses.
The smells, too, were the sweet, stinging ones of spring, warm and pleasant -- the odor of the clean, fresh earth cutting its way through that thick, strong fragrance of pine, the smell of logs rotting in the sun, and of fresh new grass and flowers along a brook of snow-water.
"I smell smoke," said Dale, suddenly, as he reined in, and turned for corroboration from his companion.
John sniffed the warm air.
"Wal, you're more of an Injun than me," he replied, shaking his head.
They traveled on, and presently came out upon the rim of the last slope. A long league of green slanted below them, breaking up into straggling lines of trees and groves that joined the cedars, and these in turn stretched on and down in gray-black patches to the desert, that glittering and bare, with streaks of somber hue, faded in the obscurity of distance.
The village of Pine appeared to nestle in a curve of the edge of the great forest, and the cabins looked like tiny white dots set in green.
"Look there," said Dale, pointing.
Some miles to the right a gray escarpment of rock cropped out of the slope, forming a promontory; and from it a thin, pale column of smoke curled upward to be lost from sight as soon as it had no background of green.
"Thet's your smoke, shore enough," replied John, thoughtfully. "Now, I jest wonder who's campin' there. No water near or grass for hosses."
"John, that point's been used for smoke signals many a time."
"Was jest thinkin' of thet same. Shall we ride around there an' take a peek?"
"No. But we'll remember that. If Beasley's got his deep scheme goin', he'll have Snake Anson's gang somewhere close."
"Roy said thet same. Wal, it's some three hours till sundown. The hosses keep up. I reckon I'm fooled, for we'll make Pine all right. But old Tom there, he's tired or lazy."
The big cougar was lying down, panting, and his half-shut eyes were on Dale.
"Tom's only lazy an' fat. He could travel at this gait for a week. But let's rest a half-hour an' watch that smoke before movin' on. We can make Pine before sundown."
When travel had been resumed, half-way down the slope Dale's sharp eyes caught a broad track where shod horses had passed, climbing in a long slant toward the promontory. He dismounted to examine it, and John, coming up, proceeded with alacrity to get off and do likewise. Dale made his deductions, after which he stood in a brown study beside his horse, waiting for John.
"Wal, what 'd you make of these here tracks?" asked that worthy.
"Some horses an' a pony went along here yesterday, an' to-day a single horse made, that fresh track."
"Wal, Milt, for a hunter you ain't so bad at hoss tracks," observed John, "But how many hosses went yesterday ?"
"I couldn't make out -- several -- maybe four or five."
"Six hosses an' a colt or little mustang, unshod, to be strict-correct. Wal, supposin' they did. What 's it mean to us?"
"I don't know as I'd thought anythin' unusual, if it hadn't been for that smoke we saw off the rim, an' then this here fresh track made along to-day. Looks queer to me."
"Wish Roy was here," replied John, scratching his head. "Milt, I've a hunch, if he was, he'd foller them tracks."
"Maybe. But we haven't time for that. We can backtrail them, though, if they keep clear as they are here. An' we'll not lose any time, either."
That broad track led straight toward Pine, down to the edge of the cedars, where, amid some jagged rocks, evidences showed that men had camped there for days. Here it ended as a broad trail. But from the north came the single fresh track made that very day, and from the east, more in a line with Pine, came two tracks made the day before. And these were imprints of big and little hoofs. Manifestly these interested John more than they did Dale, who had to wait for his companion.
"Milt, it ain't a colt's -- thet little track," avowed John.
"Why not -- an' what if it isn't?" queried Dale.
"Wal, it ain't, because a colt always straggles back, an' from one side to t'other. This little track keeps close to the big one. An', by George! it was made by a led mustang."
John resembled Roy Beeman then with that leaping, intent fire in his gray eyes. Dale's reply was to spur his horse into a trot and call sharply to the lagging cougar.
When they turned into the broad, blossom-bordered road that was the only thoroughfare of Pine the sun was setting red and gold behind the mountains. The horses were too tired for any more than a walk. Natives of the village, catching sight of Dale and Beeman, and the huge gray cat following like a dog, called excitedly to one another. A group of men in front of Turner's gazed intently down the road, and soon manifested signs of excitement. Dale and his comrade dismounted in front of Widow Cass's cottage. And Dale called as he strode up the little path. Mrs. Cass came out. She was white and shaking, but appeared calm. At sight of her John Beeman drew a sharp breath.
"Wal, now --" he began, hoarsely, and left off.
"How's Roy?" queried Dale.
"Lord knows I'm glad to see you, boys! Milt, you're thin an' strange-lookin'. Roy's had a little setback. He got a shock to-day an' it throwed him off. Fever -- an' now he's out of his head. It won't do no good for you to waste time seein' him. Take my word for it he's all right. But there's others as -- For the land's sakes, Milt Dale, you fetched thet cougar back! Don't let him near me!"
"Tom won't hurt you, mother," said Dale, as the cougar came padding up the path. "You were sayin' somethin' -- about others. Is Miss Helen safe? Hurry!"
"Ride up to see her -- an' waste no more time here."
Dale was quick in the saddle, followed by John, but the horses had to be severely punished to force them even to a trot. And that was a lagging trot, which now did not leave Torn behind.
The ride up to Auchincloss's ranch-house seemed endless to Dale. Natives came out in the road to watch after he had passed. Stern as Dale was in dominating his feelings, he could not wholly subordinate his mounting joy to a waiting terrible anticipation of catastrophe. But no matter what awaited -- nor what fateful events might hinge upon this nameless circumstance about to be disclosed, the wonderful and glorious fact of the present was that in a moment he would see Helen Rayner.
There were saddled horses in the courtyard, but no riders. A Mexican boy sat on the porch bench, in the seat where Dale remembered he had encountered Al Auchincloss. The door of the big sitting-room was open. The scent of flowers, the murmur of bees, the pounding of hoofs came vaguely to Dale. His eyes dimmed, so that the ground, when he slid out of his saddle, seemed far below him. He stepped upon the porch. His sight suddenly cleared. A tight fullness at his throat made incoherent the words he said to the Mexican boy. But they were understood, as the boy ran back around the house. Dale knocked sharply and stepped over the threshold.
Outside, John, true to his habits, was thinking, even in that moment of suspense, about the faithful, exhausted horses. As he unsaddled them he talked: "Fer soft an' fat hosses, winterin' high up, wal, you've done somethin'!"
Then Dale heard a voice in another room, a step, a creak of the door. It opened. A woman in white appeared. He recognized Helen. But instead of the rich brown bloom and dark-eyed beauty so hauntingly limned on his memory, he saw a white, beautiful face, strained and quivering in anguish, and eyes that pierced his heart. He could not speak.
"Oh! my friend -- you've come!" she whispered.
Dale put out a shaking hand. But she did not see it. She clutched his shoulders, as if to feel whether or not he was real, and then her arms went up round his neck.
"Oh, thank God! I knew you would come!" she said, and her head sank to his shoulder.
Dale divined what he had suspected. Helen's sister had been carried off. Yet, while his quick mind grasped Helen's broken spirit -- the unbalance that was reason for this marvelous and glorious act -- he did not take other meaning of the embrace to himself. He just stood there, transported, charged like a tree struck by lightning, making sure with all his keen senses, so that he could feel forever, how she was clinging round his neck, her face over his bursting heart, her quivering form close pressed to his.
"It's -- Bo," he said, unsteadily.
"She went riding yesterday -- and -- never -- came -- back!" replied Helen, brokenly.
"I've seen her trail. She's been taken into the woods. I'll find her. I'll fetch her back," he replied, rapidly.
With a shock she seemed to absorb his meaning. With another shock she raised her face -- leaned back a little to look at him.
"You'll find her -- fetch her back?"
"Yes," he answered, instantly.
With that ringing word it seemed to Dale she realized how she was standing. He felt her shake as she dropped her arms and stepped back, while the white anguish of her face was flooded out by a wave of scarlet. But she was brave in her confusion. Her eyes never fell, though they changed swiftly, darkening with shame, amaze, and with feelings he could not read.
"I'm almost -- out of my head," she faltered.
"No wonder. I saw that. . . . But now you must get clear-headed. I've no time to lose."
He led her to the door.
"John, it's Bo that's gone," he called. "Since yesterday. . . . Send the boy to get me a bag of meat an' bread. You run to the corral an' get me a fresh horse. My old horse Ranger if you can find him quick. An' rustle."
Without a word John leaped bareback on one of the horses he had just unsaddled and spurred him across the courtyard.
Then the big cougar, seeing Helen, got up from where he lay on the porch and came to her.
"Oh, it's Tom!" cried Helen, and as he rubbed against her knees she patted his head with trembling hand. "You big, beautiful pet! Oh, how I remember! Oh, how Bo would love to --"
"Where's Carmichael?" interrupted Dale. "Out huntin' Bo?"
"Yes. It was he who missed her first. He rode everywhere yesterday. Last night when he came back he was wild. I've not seen him to-day. He made all the other men but Hal and Joe stay home on the ranch."
"Right. An' John must stay, too, declared Dale. "But it's strange. Carmichael ought to have found the girl's tracks. She was ridin' a pony?"
"Bo rode Sam. He's a little bronc, very strong and fast."
"I come across his tracks. How'd Carmichael miss them?"
"He didn't. He found them -- trailed them all along the north range. That's where he forbade Bo to go. You see, they're in love with each other. They've been at odds. Neither will give in. Bo disobeyed him. There's hard ground off the north range, so he said. He was able to follow her tracks only so far."
"Were there any other tracks along with hers?"
"Miss Helen, I found them 'way southeast of Pine up on the slope of the mountain. There were seven other horses makin' that trail -- when we run across it. On the way down we found a camp where men had waited. An' Bo's pony, led by a rider on a big horse, come into that camp from the east -- maybe north a little. An' that tells the story."
"Riggs ran her down -- made off with her!" cried Helen, passionately. "Oh, the villain! He had men in waiting. That's Beasley's work. They were after me."
"It may not be just what you said, but that's close enough. An' Bo's in a bad fix. You must face that an' try to bear up under -- fears of the worst."
"My friend! You will save her!"
"I'll fetch her back, alive or dead."
"Dead! Oh, my God!" Helen cried, and closed her eyes an instant, to open them burning black. "But Bo isn't dead. I know that -- I feel it. She'll not die very easy. She's a little savage. She has no fear. She'd fight like a tigress for her life. She's strong. You remember how strong. She can stand anything. Unless they murder her outright she'll live -- a long time -- through any ordeal. . . . So I beg you, my friend, don't lose an hour -- don't ever give up!"
Dale trembled under the clasp of her hands. Loosing his own from her clinging hold, he stepped out on the porch At that moment John appeared on Ranger, coming at a gallop.
"Nell, I'll never come back without her," said Dale. "I reckon you can hope -- only be prepared. That's all. It's hard. But these damned deals are common out here in the West."
"Suppose Beasley comes -- here!" exclaimed Helen, and again her hand went out toward him.
"If he does, you refuse to get off ," replied Dale. "But don't let him or his greasers put a dirty hand on you. Should he threaten force -- why, pack some clothes -- an' your valuables -- an' go down to Mrs. Cass's. An' wait till I come back!"
"Wait -- till you -- come back!" she faltered, slowly turning white again. Her dark eyes dilated. "Milt -- you're like Las Vegas. You'll kill Beasley!"
Dale heard his own laugh, very cold and strange, foreign to his ears. A grim, deadly hate of Beasley vied with the tenderness and pity he felt for this distressed girl. It was a sore trial to see her leaning there against the door -- to be compelled to leave her alone. Abruptly be stalked off the porch. Tom followed him. The black horse whinnied his recognition of Dale and snorted at sight of the cougar. Just then the Mexican boy returned with a bag. Dale tied this, with the small pack, behind the saddle.
"John, you stay here with Miss Helen," said Dale. "An' if Carmichael comes back, keep him, too! An' to-night, if any one rides into Pine from the way we come, you be sure to spot him."
"I'll do thet, Milt," responded John.
Dale mounted, and, turning for a last word to Helen, he felt the words of cheer halted on his lips as he saw her standing white and broken-hearted, with her hands to her bosom. He could not look twice.
"Come on there, you Tom," he called to the cougar. Reckon on this track you'll pay me for all my trainin' of you"
"Oh, my friend!" came Helen's sad voice, almost a whisper to his throbbing ears. "Heaven help you -- to save her! I --"
Then Ranger started and Dale heard no more. He could not look back. His eyes were full of tears and his breast ached. By a tremendous effort he shifted that emotion -- called on all the spiritual energy of his being to the duty of this grim task before him.
He did not ride down through the village, but skirted the northern border, and worked round to the south, where, coming to the trail he had made an hour past, he headed on it, straight for the slope now darkening in the twilight. The big cougar showed more willingness to return on this trail than he had shown in the coming. Ranger was fresh and wanted to go, but Dale held him in.
A cool wind blew down from the mountain with the coming of night. Against the brightening stars Dale saw the promontory lift its bold outline. It was miles away. It haunted him, strangely calling. A night, and perhaps a day, separated him from the gang that held Bo Rayner prisoner. Dale had no plan as yet. He had only a motive as great as the love he bore Helen Rayner.
Beasley's evil genius had planned this abduction. Riggs was a tool, a cowardly knave dominated by a stronger will. Snake Anson and his gang had lain in wait at that cedar camp; had made that broad hoof track leading up the mountain. Beasley had been there with them that very day. All this was as assured to Dale as if he had seen the men.
But the matter of Dale's recovering the girl and doing it speedily strung his mental strength to its highest pitch. Many outlines of action flashed through his mind as he rode on, peering keenly through the night, listening with practised ears. All were rejected. And at the outset of every new branching of thought he would gaze down at the gray form of the cougar, long, graceful, heavy, as he padded beside the horse. From the first thought of returning to help Helen Rayner he had conceived an undefined idea of possible value in the qualities of his pet. Tom had performed wonderful feats of trailing, but he had never been tried on men. Dale believed he could make him trail anything, yet he had no proof of this. One fact stood out of all Dale's conjectures, and it was that he had known men, and brave men, to fear cougars.
Far up on the slope, in a little hollow where water ran and there was a little grass for Ranger to pick, Dale haltered him and made ready to spend the night. He was sparing with his food, giving Tom more than he took himself. Curled close up to Dale, the big cat went to sleep.
But Dale lay awake for long.
The night was still, with only a faint moan of wind on this sheltered slope. Dale saw hope in the stars. He did not seem to have promised himself or Helen that he could save her sister, and then her property. He seemed to have stated something unconsciously settled, outside of his thinking. Strange how this certainty was not vague, yet irreconcilable with any plans he created! Behind it, somehow nameless with inconceivable power, surged all his wonderful knowledge of forest, of trails, of scents, of night, of the nature of men lying down to sleep in the dark, lonely woods, of the nature of this great cat that lived its every action in accordance with his will.
He grew sleepy, and gradually his mind stilled, with his last conscious thought a portent that he would awaken to accomplish his desperate task.
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