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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Man Of The Forest - Chapter 25
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The Man Of The Forest - Chapter 25 Post by :gabby Category :Long Stories Author :Zane Grey Date :May 2012 Read :3211

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The Man Of The Forest - Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV

Las Vegas Carmichael was a product of his day.

The Pan Handle of Texas, the old Chisholm Trail along which were driven the great cattle herds northward, Fort Dodge, where the cowboys conflicted with the card-sharps -- these hard places had left their marks on Carmichael. To come from Texas was to come from fighting stock. And a cowboy's life was strenuous, wild, violent, and generally brief. The exceptions were the fortunate and the swiftest men with guns; and they drifted from south to north and west, taking with them the reckless, chivalrous, vitriolic spirit peculiar to their breed.

The pioneers and ranchers of the frontier would never have made the West habitable had it not been for these wild cowboys, these hard-drinking, hard-riding, hard-living rangers of the barrens, these easy, cool, laconic, simple young men whose blood was tinged with fire and who possessed a magnificent and terrible effrontery toward danger and death.

Las Vegas ran his horse from Widow Cass's cottage to Turner's saloon, and the hoofs of the goaded steed crashed in the door. Las Vegas's entrance was a leap. Then he stood still with the door ajar and the horse pounding and snorting back. All the men in that saloon who saw the entrance of Las Vegas knew what it portended. No thunderbolt could have more quickly checked the drinking, gambling, talking crowd. They recognized with kindred senses the nature of the man and his arrival. For a second the blue-hazed room was perfectly quiet, then men breathed, moved, rose, and suddenly caused a quick, sliding crash of chairs and tables.

The cowboy's glittering eyes flashed to and fro, and then fixed on Mulvey and his Mexican companion. That glance singled out these two, and the sudden rush of nervous men proved it. Mulvey and the sheep-herder were left alone in the center of the floor.

"Howdy, Jeff ! Where's your boss?" asked Las Vegas. His voice was cool, friendly; his manner was easy, natural; but the look of him was what made Mulvey pale and the Mexican livid.

"Reckon he's home," replied Mulvey.

"Home? What's he call home now?"

"He's hangin' out hyar at Auchincloss's," replied Mulvey. His voice was not strong, but his eyes were steady, watchful.

Las Vegas quivered all over as if stung. A flame that seemed white and red gave his face a singular hue.

"Jeff, you worked for old Al a long time, an' I've heard of your differences," said Las Vegas. "Thet ain't no mix of mine. . . . But you double-crossed Miss Helen!"

Mulvey made no attempt to deny this. He gulped slowly. His hands appeared less steady, and he grew paler. Again Las Vegas's words signified less than his look. And that look now included the Mexican.

"Pedro, you're one of Beasley's old hands," said Las Vegas, accusingly. "An' -- you was one of them four greasers thet --"

Here the cowboy choked and bit over his words as if they were a material poison. The Mexican showed his guilt and cowardice. He began to jabber.

"Shet up!" hissed Las Vegas, with a savage and significant jerk of his arm, as if about to strike. But that action was read for its true meaning. Pell-mell the crowd split to rush each way and leave an open space behind the three.

Las Vegas waited. But Mulvey seemed obstructed. The Mexican looked dangerous through his fear. His fingers twitched as if the tendons running up into his arms were being pulled.

An instant of suspense -- more than long enough for Mulvey to be tried and found wanting -- and Las Vegas, with laugh and sneer, turned his back upon the pair and stepped to the bar. His call for a bottle made Turner jump and hold it out with shaking hands. Las Vegas poured out a drink, while his gaze was intent on the scarred old mirror hanging behind the bar.

This turning his back upon men he had just dared to draw showed what kind of a school Las Vegas had been trained in. If those men had been worthy antagonists of his class he would never have scorned them. As it was, when Mulvey and the Mexican jerked at their guns, Las Vegas swiftly wheeled and shot twice. Mulvey's gun went off as he fell, and the Mexican doubled up in a heap on the floor. Then Las Vegas reached around with his left hand for the drink he had poured out.

At this juncture Dale burst into the saloon, suddenly to check his impetus, to swerve aside toward the bar and halt. The door had not ceased swinging when again it was propelled inward, this time to admit Helen Rayner, white and wide-eyed.

In another moment then Las Vegas had spoken his deadly toast to Beasley's gang and had fiercely flung the glass at the writhing Mexican on the floor. Also Dale had gravitated toward the reeling Helen to catch her when she fainted.

Las Vegas began to curse, and, striding to Dale, he pushed him out of the saloon.

"--! What 're you doin' heah?" he yelled, stridently. "Hevn't you got thet girl to think of? Then do it, you big Indian! Lettin' her run after you heah -- riskin' herself thet way! You take care of her an' Bo an' leave this deal to me!"

The cowboy, furious as he was at Dale, yet had keen, swift eyes for the horses near at hand, and the men out in the dim light. Dale lifted the girl into his arms, and, turning without a word, stalked away to disappear in the darkness. Las Vegas, holding his gun low, returned to the bar-room. If there had been any change in the crowd it was slight. The tension had relaxed. Turner no longer stood with hands up.

"You-all go on with your fun," called the cowboy, with a sweep of his gun. "But it'd be risky fer any one to start leavin'."

With that he backed against the bar, near where the black bottle stood. Turner walked out to begin righting tables and chairs, and presently the crowd, with some caution and suspense, resumed their games and drinking. It was significant that a wide berth lay between them and the door. From time to time Turner served liquor to men who called for it.

Las Vegas leaned with back against the bar. After a while he sheathed his gun and reached around for the bottle. He drank with his piercing eyes upon the door. No one entered and no one went out. The games of chance there and the drinking were not enjoyed. It was a hard scene -- that smoky, long, ill-smelling room, with its dim, yellow lights, and dark, evil faces, with the stealthy-stepping Turner passing to and fro, and the dead Mulvey staring in horrible fixidity at the ceiling, and the Mexican quivering more and more until he shook violently, then lay still, and with the drinking, somber, waiting cowboy, more fiery and more flaming with every drink, listening for a step that did not come.

Time passed, and what little change it wrought was in the cowboy. Drink affected him, but he did not become drunk. It seemed that the liquor he drank was consumed by a mounting fire. It was fuel to a driving passion. He grew more sullen, somber, brooding, redder of eye and face, more crouching and restless. At last, when the hour was so late that there was no probability of Beasley appearing, Las Vegas flung himself out of the saloon.

All lights of the village had now been extinguished. The tired horses drooped in the darkness. Las Vegas found his horse and led him away down the road and out a lane to a field where a barn stood dim and dark in the starlight. Morning was not far off. He unsaddled the horse and, turning him loose, went into the barn. Here he seemed familiar with his surroundings, for he found a ladder and climbed to a loft, where be threw himself on the hay.

He rested, but did not sleep. At daylight he went down and brought his horse into the barn. Sunrise found Las Vegas pacing to and fro the short length of the interior, and peering out through wide cracks between the boards. Then during the succeeding couple of hours he watched the occasional horseman and wagon and herder that passed on into the village.

About the breakfast hour Las Vegas saddled his horse and rode back the way he had come the night before. At Turner's he called for something to eat as well as for whisky. After that he became a listening, watching machine. He drank freely for an hour; then he stopped. He seemed to be drunk, but with a different kind of drunkenness from that usual in drinking men. Savage, fierce, sullen, he was one to avoid. Turner waited on him in evident fear.

At length Las Vegas's condition became such that action was involuntary. He could not stand still nor sit down. Stalking out, he passed the store, where men slouched back to avoid him, and he went down the road, wary and alert, as if he expected a rifle-shot from some hidden enemy. Upon his return down that main thoroughfare of the village not a person was to be seen. He went in to Turner's. The proprietor was there at his post, nervous and pale. Las Vegas did not order any more liquor.

"Turner, I reckon I'll bore you next time I run in heah," he said, and stalked out.

He had the stores, the road, the village, to himself; and he patrolled a beat like a sentry watching for an Indian attack.

Toward noon a single man ventured out into the road to accost the cowboy.

"Las Vegas, I'm tellin' you -- all the greasers air leavin' the range," he said.

"Howdy, Abe!" replied Las Vegas. "What 'n hell you talkin' about?"

The man repeated his information. And Las Vegas spat out frightful curses.

"Abe -- you heah what Beasley's doin'?"

"Yes. He's with his men -- up at the ranch. Reckon he can't put off ridin' down much longer."

That was where the West spoke. Beasley would be forced to meet the enemy who had come out single-handed against him. Long before this hour a braver man would have come to face Las Vegas. Beasley could not hire any gang to bear the brunt of this situation. This was the test by which even his own men must judge him. All of which was to say that as the wildness of the West had made possible his crimes, so it now held him responsible for them.

"Abe, if thet -- greaser don't rustle down heah I'm goin' after him."

"Sure. But don't be in no hurry," replied Abe.

"I'm waltzin' to slow music. . . . Gimme a smoke."

With fingers that slightly trembled Abe rolled a cigarette, lit it from his own, and handed it to the cowboy.

"Las Vegas, I reckon I hear hosses," he said, suddenly.

"Me, too," replied Las Vegas, with his head high like that of a listening deer. Apparently he forgot the cigarette and also his friend. Abe hurried back to the store, where he disappeared.

Las Vegas began his stalking up and down, and his action now was an exaggeration of all his former movements. A rational, ordinary mortal from some Eastern community, happening to meet this red-faced cowboy, would have considered him drunk or crazy. Probably Las Vegas looked both. But all the same he was a marvelously keen and strung and efficient instrument to meet the portending issue. How many thousands of times, on the trails, and in the wide-streeted little towns all over the West, had this stalk of the cowboy's been perpetrated! Violent, bloody, tragic as it was, it had an importance in that pioneer day equal to the use of a horse or the need of a plow.

At length Pine was apparently a deserted village, except for Las Vegas, who patrolled his long beat in many ways -- he lounged while he watched; he stalked like a mountaineer; he stole along Indian fashion, stealthily, from tree to tree, from corner to corner; he disappeared in the saloon to reappear at the back; he slipped round behind the barns to come out again in the main road; and time after time he approached his horse as if deciding to mount.

The last visit he made into Turner's saloon he found no one there. Savagely he pounded on the bar with his gun. He got no response. Then the long-pent-up rage burst. With wild whoops he pulled another gun and shot at the mirror, the lamps. He shot the neck off a bottle and drank till be choked, his neck corded, bulging, and purple. His only slow and deliberate action was the reloading of his gun. Then he crashed through the doors, and with a wild yell leaped sheer into the saddle, hauling his horse up high and goading him to plunge away.

Men running to the door and windows of the store saw a streak of dust flying down the road. And then they trooped out to see it disappear. The hour of suspense ended for them. Las Vegas had lived up to the code of the West, had dared his man out, had waited far longer than needful to prove that man a coward. Whatever the issue now, Beasley was branded forever. That moment saw the decline of whatever power he had wielded. He and his men might kill the cowboy who had ridden out alone to face him, but that would not change the brand.

The preceding night Beasley bad been finishing a late supper at his newly acquired ranch, when Buck Weaver, one of his men, burst in upon him with news of the death of Mulvey and Pedro.

"Who's in the outfit? How many?" he had questioned, quickly.

"It's a one-man outfit, boss," replied Weaver.

Beasley appeared astounded. He and his men had prepared to meet the friends of the girl whose property he had taken over, and because of the superiority of his own force he had anticipated no bloody or extended feud. This amazing circumstance put the case in very much more difficult form.

"One man!" he ejaculated.

"Yep. Thet cowboy Las Vegas. An,' boss, he turns out to be a gun-slinger from Texas. I was in Turner's. Hed jest happened to step in the other room when Las Vegas come bustin' in on his boss an' jumped off. . . . Fust thing he called Jeff an' Pedro. They both showed yaller. An' then, damn if thet cowboy didn't turn his back on them an' went to the bar fer a drink. But he was lookin' in the mirror an' when Jeff an' Pedro went fer their guns why he whirled quick as lightnin' an' bored them both. . . . I sneaked out an --"

"Why didn't you bore him?" roared Beasley.

Buck Weaver steadily eyed his boss before he replied. "I ain't takin' shots at any fellar from behind doors. An' as fer meetin' Las Vegas -- excoose me, boss! I've still a hankerin' fer sunshine an' red liquor. Besides, I 'ain't got nothin' ag'in' Las Vegas. If he's rustled over here at the head of a crowd to put us off I'd fight, jest as we'd all fight. But you see we figgered wrong. It's between you an' Las Vegas! . . . You oughter seen him throw thet hunter Dale out of Turner's."

"Dale! Did he come?" queried Beasley.

"He got there just after the cowboy plugged Jeff. An' thet big-eyed girl, she came runnin' in, too. An' she keeled over in Dale's arms. Las Vegas shoved him out -- cussed him so hard we all heerd. . . . So, Beasley, there ain't no fight comin, off as we figgered on."

Beasley thus heard the West speak out of the mouth of his own man. And grim, sardonic, almost scornful, indeed, were the words of Buck Weaver. This rider had once worked for Al Auchincloss and had deserted to Beasley under Mulvey's leadership. Mulvey was dead and the situation was vastly changed.

Beasley gave Weaver a dark, lowering glance, and waved him away. From the door Weaver sent back a doubtful, scrutinizing gaze, then slouched out. That gaze Beasley had not encountered before.

It meant, as Weaver's cronies meant, as Beasley's long-faithful riders, and the people of the range, and as the spirit of the West meant, that Beasley was expected to march down into the village to face his single foe.

But Beasley did not go. Instead he paced to and fro the length of Helen Rayner's long sitting-room with the nervous energy of a man who could not rest. Many times he hesitated, and at others he made sudden movements toward the door, only to halt. Long after midnight he went to bed, but not to sleep. He tossed and rolled all night, and at dawn arose, gloomy and irritable.

He cursed the Mexican serving-women who showed their displeasure at his authority. And to his amaze and rage not one of his men came to the house. He waited and waited. Then he stalked off to the corrals and stables carrying a rifle with him. The men were there, in a group that dispersed somewhat at his advent. Not a Mexican was in sight.

Beasley ordered the horses to be saddled and all hands to go down into the village with him. That order was disobeyed. Beasley stormed and raged. His riders sat or lounged, with lowered faces. An unspoken hostility seemed present. Those who had been longest with him were least distant and strange, but still they did not obey. At length Beasley roared for his Mexicans.

"Boss, we gotta tell you thet every greaser on the ranch hes sloped -- gone these two hours -- on the way to Magdalena," said Buck Weaver.

Of all these sudden-uprising perplexities this latest was the most astounding. Beasley cursed with his questioning wonder.

"Boss, they was sure scared of thet gun-slingin' cowboy from Texas," replied Weaver, imperturbably.

Beasley's dark, swarthy face changed its hue. What of the subtle reflection in Weaver's slow speech! One of the men came out of a corral leading Beasley's saddled and bridled horse. This fellow dropped the bridle and sat down among his comrades without a word. No one spoke. The presence of the horse was significant. With a snarling, muttered curse, Beasley took up his rifle and strode back to the ranch-house.

In his rage and passion he did not realize what his men had known for hours -- that if he had stood any chance at all for their respect as well as for his life the hour was long past.

Beasley avoided the open paths to the house, and when he got there he nervously poured out a drink. Evidently something in the fiery liquor frightened him, for he threw the bottle aside. It was as if that bottle contained a courage which was false.

Again he paced the long sitting-room, growing more and more wrought-up as evidently he grew familiar with the singular state of affairs. Twice the pale serving-woman called him to dinner.

The dining-room was light and pleasant, and the meal, fragrant and steaming, was ready for him. But the women had disappeared. Beasley seated himself -- spread out his big hands on the table.

Then a slight rustle -- a clink of spur -- startled him. He twisted his head.

"Howdy, Beasley!" said Las Vegas, who had appeared as if by magic.

Beasley's frame seemed to swell as if a flood had been loosed in his veins. Sweat-drops stood out on his pallid face.

"What -- you -- want?" he asked, huskily.

"Wal now, my boss, Miss Helen, says, seein' I am foreman heah, thet it'd be nice an' proper fer me to drop in an' eat with you -- THE LAST TIME!" replied the cowboy. His drawl was slow and cool, his tone was friendly and pleasant. But his look was that of a falcon ready to drive deep its beak.

Beasley's reply was loud, incoherent, hoarse.

Las Vegas seated himself across from Beasley.

"Eat or not, it's shore all the same to me," said Las Vegas, and he began to load his plate with his left hand. His right hand rested very lightly, with just the tips of his vibrating fingers on the edge of the table; and he never for the slightest fraction of a second took his piercing eyes off Beasley.

"Wal, my half-breed greaser guest, it shore roils up my blood to see you sittin' there -- thinkin' you've put my boss, Miss Helen, off this ranch," began Las Vegas, softly. And then he helped himself leisurely to food and drink. "In my day I've shore stacked up against a lot of outlaws, thieves, rustlers, an' sich like, but fer an out an' out dirty low-down skunk, you shore take the dough! . . . I'm goin, to kill you in a minit or so, jest as soon as you move one of them dirty paws of yourn. But I hope you'll be polite an' let me say a few words. I'll never be happy again if you don't. . . . Of all the -- yaller greaser dogs I ever seen, you're the worst! . . . I was thinkin' last night mebbe you'd come down an' meet me like a man, so 's I could wash my hands ever afterward without gettin' sick to my stummick. But you didn't come. . . . Beasley, I'm so ashamed of myself thet I gotta call you -- when I ought to bore you, thet -- I ain't even second cousin to my old self when I rode fer Chisholm. It don't mean nuthin' to you to call you liar! robber! blackleg! a sneakin' coyote! an' a cheat thet hires others to do his dirty work! . . . By Gawd! --"

"Carmichael, gimme a word in," hoarsely broke out Beasley. "You're right, it won't do no good to call me. . . . But let's talk. . . . I'll buy you off. Ten thousand dollars --"

"Haw! Haw! Haw!" roared Las Vegas. He was as tense as a strung cord and his face possessed a singular pale radiance. His right hand began to quiver more and more.

"I'll -- double -- it!" panted Beasley. "I'll -- make over -- half the ranch -- all the stock --"

"Swaller thet!" yelled Las Vegas, with terrible strident ferocity.

"Listen -- man! . . . I take -- it back! . . . I'll give up -- Auchincloss's ranch!" Beasley was now a shaking, whispering, frenzied man, ghastly white, with rolling eyes.

Las Vegas's left fist pounded hard on the table.

"GREASER, COME ON!" he thundered.

Then Beasley, with desperate, frantic action, jerked for his gun.

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