At sunset hour the forest was still, lonely, sweet with tang of fir and spruce, blazing in gold and red and green; and the man who glided on under the great trees seemed to blend with the colors and, disappearing, to have become a part of the wild woodland.
Old Baldy, highest of the White Mountains, stood up round and bare, rimmed bright gold in the last glow of the setting sun. Then, as the fire dropped behind the domed peak, a change, a cold and darkening blight, passed down the black spear-pointed slopes over all that mountain world.
It was a wild, richly timbered, and abundantly watered region of dark forests and grassy parks, ten thousand feet above sea-level, isolated on all sides by the southern Arizona desert — the virgin home of elk and deer, of bear and lion, of wolf and fox, and the birthplace as well as the hiding-place of the fierce Apache.
September in that latitude was marked by the sudden cool night breeze following shortly after sundown. Twilight appeared to come on its wings, as did faint sounds, not distinguishable before in the stillness.
Milt Dale, man of the forest, halted at the edge of a timbered ridge, to listen and to watch. Beneath him lay a narrow valley, open and grassy, from which rose a faint murmur of running water. Its music was pierced by the wild staccato yelp of a hunting coyote. From overhead in the giant fir came a twittering and rustling of grouse settling for the night; and from across the valley drifted the last low calls of wild turkeys going to roost.
To Dale's keen ear these sounds were all they should have been, betokening an unchanged serenity of forestland. He was glad, for he had expected to hear the clipclop of white men's horses — which to hear up in those fastnesses was hateful to him. He and the Indian were friends. That fierce foe had no enmity toward the lone hunter. But there hid somewhere in the forest a gang of bad men, sheep-thieves, whom Dale did not want to meet.
As he started out upon the slope, a sudden flaring of the afterglow of sunset flooded down from Old Baldy, filling the valley with lights and shadows, yellow and blue, like the radiance of the sky. The pools in the curves of the brook shone darkly bright. Dale's gaze swept up and down the valley, and then tried to pierce the black shadows across the brook where the wall of spruce stood up, its speared and spiked crest against the pale clouds. The wind began to moan in the trees and there was a feeling of rain in the air. Dale, striking a trail, turned his back to the fading afterglow and strode down the valley.
With night at hand and a rain-storm brewing, he did not head for his own camp, some miles distant, but directed his steps toward an old log cabin. When he reached it darkness had almost set in. He approached with caution. This cabin, like the few others scattered in the valleys, might harbor Indians or a bear or a panther. Nothing, however, appeared to be there. Then Dale studied the clouds driving across the sky, and he felt the cool dampness of a fine, misty rain on his face. It would rain off and on during the night. Whereupon he entered the cabin.
And the next moment he heard quick hoof-beats of trotting horses. Peering out, he saw dim, moving forms in the darkness, quite close at hand. They had approached against the wind so that sound had been deadened. Five horses with riders, Dale made out — saw them loom close. Then he heard rough voices. Quickly he turned to feel in the dark for a ladder he knew led to a loft; and finding it, he quickly mounted, taking care not to make a noise with his rifle, and lay down upon the floor of brush and poles. Scarcely had he done so when heavy steps, with accompaniment of clinking spurs, passed through the door below into the cabin.
"Wal, Beasley, are you here?" queried a loud voice.
There was no reply. The man below growled under his breath, and again the spurs jingled.
"Fellars, Beasley ain't here yet," he called. "Put the hosses under the shed. We'll wait."
"Wait, huh!" came a harsh reply. "Mebbe all night — an' we got nuthin' to eat."
"Shut up, Moze. Reckon you're no good for anythin' but eatin'. Put them hosses away an' some of you rustle fire-wood in here."
Low, muttered curses, then mingled with dull thuds of hoofs and strain of leather and heaves of tired horses.
Another shuffling, clinking footstep entered the cabin.
"Snake, it'd been sense to fetch a pack along," drawled this newcomer.
"Reckon so, Jim. But we didn't, an' what's the use hollerin'? Beasley won't keep us waitin' long."
Dale, lying still and prone, felt a slow start in all his blood — a thrilling wave. That deep-voiced man below was Snake Anson, the worst and most dangerous character of the region; and the others, undoubtedly, composed his gang, long notorious in that sparsely settled country. And the Beasley mentioned — he was one of the two biggest ranchers and sheep-raisers of the White Mountain ranges. What was the meaning of a rendezvous between Snake Anson and Beasley? Milt Dale answered that question to Beasley's discredit; and many strange matters pertaining to sheep and herders, always a mystery to the little village of Pine, now became as clear as daylight.
Other men entered the cabin.
"It ain't a-goin' to rain much," said one. Then came a crash of wood thrown to the ground.
"Jim, hyar's a chunk of pine log, dry as punk," said another.
Rustlings and slow footsteps, and then heavy thuds attested to the probability that Jim was knocking the end of a log upon the ground to split off a corner whereby a handful of dry splinters could be procured.
"Snake, lemme your pipe, an' I'll hev a fire in a jiffy."
"Wal, I want my terbacco an' I ain't carin' about no fire," replied Snake.
"Reckon you're the meanest cuss in these woods," drawled Jim.
Sharp click of steel on flint — many times — and then a sound of hard blowing and sputtering told of Jim's efforts to start a fire. Presently the pitchy blackness of the cabin changed; there came a little crackling of wood and the rustle of flame, and then a steady growing roar.
As it chanced, Dale lay face down upon the floor of the loft, and right near his eyes there were cracks between the boughs. When the fire blazed up he was fairly well able to see the men below. The only one he had ever seen was Jim Wilson, who had been well known at Pine before Snake Anson had ever been heard of. Jim was the best of a bad lot, and he had friends among the honest people. It was rumored that he and Snake did not pull well together.
"Fire feels good," said the burly Moze, who appeared as broad as he was black-visaged. "Fall's sure a-comin'… Now if only we had some grub!"
"Moze, there's a hunk of deer meat in my saddle-bag, an' if you git it you can have half," spoke up another voice.
Moze shuffled out with alacrity.
In the firelight Snake Anson's face looked lean and serpent-like, his eyes glittered, and his long neck and all of his long length carried out the analogy of his name.
"Snake, what's this here deal with Beasley?" inquired Jim.
"Reckon you'll l'arn when I do," replied the leader. He appeared tired and thoughtful.
"Ain't we done away with enough of them poor greaser herders — for nothin'?" queried the youngest of the gang, a boy in years, whose hard, bitter lips and hungry eyes somehow set him apart from his comrades.
"You're dead right, Burt — an' that's my stand," replied the man who had sent Moze out. "Snake, snow 'll be flyin' round these woods before long," said Jim Wilson. "Are we goin' to winter down in the Tonto Basin or over on the Gila?"
"Reckon we'll do some tall ridin' before we strike south," replied Snake, gruffly.
At the juncture Moze returned.
"Boss, I heerd a hoss comin' up the trail," he said.
Snake rose and stood at the door, listening. Outside the wind moaned fitfully and scattering raindrops pattered upon the cabin.
"A-huh!" exclaimed Snake, in relief.
Silence ensued then for a moment, at the end of which interval Dale heard a rapid clip-clop on the rocky trail outside. The men below shuffled uneasily, but none of them spoke. The fire cracked cheerily. Snake Anson stepped back from before the door with an action that expressed both doubt and caution.
The trotting horse had halted out there somewhere.
"Ho there, inside!" called a voice from the darkness.
"Ho yourself!" replied Anson.
"That you, Snake?" quickly followed the query.
"Reckon so," returned Anson, showing himself.
The newcomer entered. He was a large man, wearing a slicker that shone wet in the firelight. His sombrero, pulled well down, shadowed his face, so that the upper half of his features might as well have been masked. He had a black, drooping mustache, and a chin like a rock. A potential force, matured and powerful, seemed to be wrapped in his movements.
"Hullo, Snake! Hullo, Wilson!" he said. "I've backed out on the other deal. Sent for you on — on another little matter … particular private."
Here he indicated with a significant gesture that Snake's men were to leave the cabin.
"A-huh! ejaculated Anson, dubiously. Then he turned abruptly. Moze, you an' Shady an' Burt go wait outside. Reckon this ain't the deal I expected… . An' you can saddle the hosses."
The three members of the gang filed out, all glancing keenly at the stranger, who had moved back into the shadow.
"All right now, Beasley," said Anson, low-voiced. "What's your game? Jim, here, is in on my deals."
Then Beasley came forward to the fire, stretching his hands to the blaze.
"Nothin' to do with sheep," replied he.
"Wal, I reckoned not," assented the other. "An' say — whatever your game is, I ain't likin' the way you kept me waitin' an' ridin' around. We waited near all day at Big Spring. Then thet greaser rode up an' sent us here. We're a long way from camp with no grub an' no blankets."
"I won't keep you long," said Beasley. "But even if I did you'd not mind — when I tell you this deal concerns Al Auchincloss — the man who made an outlaw of you!"
Anson's sudden action then seemed a leap of his whole frame. Wilson, likewise, bent forward eagerly. Beasley glanced at the door — then began to whisper.
"Old Auchincloss is on his last legs. He's goin' to croak. He's sent back to Missouri for a niece — a young girl — an' he means to leave his ranches an' sheep — all his stock to her. Seems he has no one else… . Them ranches — an' all them sheep an' hosses! You know me an' Al were pardners in sheep-raisin' for years. He swore I cheated him an' he threw me out. An' all these years I've been swearin' he did me dirt — owed me sheep an' money. I've got as many friends in Pine — an' all the way down the trail — as Auchincloss has… . An' Snake, see here —"
He paused to draw a deep breath and his big hands trembled over the blaze. Anson leaned forward, like a serpent ready to strike, and Jim Wilson was as tense with his divination of the plot at hand.
"See here," panted Beasley. "The girl's due to arrive at Magdalena on the sixteenth. That's a week from to-morrow. She'll take the stage to Snowdrop, where some of Auchincloss's men will meet her with a team."
"A-huh!" grunted Anson as Beasley halted again. "An' what of all thet?"
"She mustn't never get as far as Snowdrop!"
"You want me to hold up the stage — an' get the girl?"
"Wal — an' what then?"
"Make off with her… . She disappears. That's your affair… . I'll press my claims on Auchincloss — hound him — an' be ready when he croaks to take over his property. Then the girl can come back, for all I care… . You an' Wilson fix up the deal between you. If you have to let the gang in on it don't give them any hunch as to who an' what. This 'll make you a rich stake. An' providin', when it's paid, you strike for new territory."
"Thet might be wise," muttered Snake Anson. "Beasley, the weak point in your game is the uncertainty of life. Old Al is tough. He may fool you."
"Auchincloss is a dyin' man," declared Beasley, with such positiveness that it could not be doubted.
"Wal, he sure wasn't plumb hearty when I last seen him… . Beasley, in case I play your game — how'm I to know that girl?"
"Her name's Helen Rayner," replied Beasley, eagerly. "She's twenty years old. All of them Auchinclosses was handsome an' they say she's the handsomest."
"A-huh! … Beasley, this 's sure a bigger deal — an' one I ain't fancyin'… . But I never doubted your word… . Come on — an' talk out. What's in it for me?"
"Don't let any one in on this. You two can hold up the stage. Why, it was never held up… . But you want to mask… . How about ten thousand sheep — or what they bring at Phenix in gold?"
Jim Wilson whistled low.
"An' leave for new territory?" repeated Snake Anson, under his breath.
"You've said it."
"Wal, I ain't fancyin' the girl end of this deal, but you can count on me… . September sixteenth at Magdalena — an' her name's Helen — an' she's handsome?"
"Yes. My herders will begin drivin' south in about two weeks. Later, if the weather holds good, send me word by one of them an' I'll meet you."
Beasley spread his hands once more over the blaze, pulled on his gloves and pulled down his sombrero, and with an abrupt word of parting strode out into the night.
"Jim, what do you make of him?" queried Snake Anson.
"Pard, he's got us beat two ways for Sunday," replied Wilson.
"A-huh! … Wal, let's get back to camp." And he led the way out.
Low voices drifted into the cabin, then came snorts of horses and striking hoofs, and after that a steady trot, gradually ceasing. Once more the moan of wind and soft patter of rain filled the forest stillness.