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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 10. The Smoke Of The Burning
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Cavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 10. The Smoke Of The Burning Post by :salonmar Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1933

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Cavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 10. The Smoke Of The Burning


The reader will observe that the forest ranger's job is that of a man and a patriot, and such a ranger was Cavanagh, notwithstanding his foreign birth. He could ride all day in the saddle and fight fire all night. While not a trained forester, he was naturally a reader, and thoroughly understood the theories of the department. As a practical ranger he stood half-way between the cowboy (who was at first the only available material) and the trained expert who is being educated to follow him.

He was loyal with the loyalty of a soldier, and his hero was the colonel of the Rough-riders, under whom he had campaigned. The second of his admirations was the Chief Forester of the department.

The most of us are getting so thin-skinned, so dependent upon steam-heat and goloshes, that the actions of a man like this riding forth upon his trail at all hours of the day and night self-sufficing and serene, seem like the doings of an epic, and so indeed they are.

On the physical side the plainsman, the cowboy, the poacher, are all admirable, but Cavanagh went far beyond their physical hardihood. He dreamed, as he rode, of his responsibilities. The care of the poor Basque shepherd he had accepted as a matter of routine without Wetherford's revelation of himself, which complicated an exceedingly pitiful case. He could not forget that it was Lee Virginia's father who stood in danger of contracting the deadly disease, and as he imagined him dying far up there on that bleak slope, his heart pinched with the tragedy of the old man's life. In such wise the days of the ranger were smouldering to this end.

On the backward trail he turned aside to stamp out a smoking log beside a deserted camp-fire, and again he made a detour into a lovely little park to visit a fisherman and to warn him of the danger of fire. He was the forest guardian, alert to every sign, and yet all the time he was being drawn on toward his temptation. Why not resign and go East, taking the girl with him? "After all, the life up here is a lonely and hard one, in no sense a vocation for an ambitious man. Suppose I am promoted to Forest Supervisor? That only means a little more salary and life in a small city rather than here. District Supervisor would be better, but can I hope to secure such a position?"

Up to this month he had taken the matter of his promotion easily; it was something to come along in the natural course of things. "There is no haste; I can wait." Now haste seemed imperative. "I am no longer so young as I was," he admitted.

Once back at his cabin he laid aside his less tangible problems, and set himself to cooking some food to take back with him to the peak. He brought in his pack-horse, and burdened him with camp outfit and utensils, and extra clothing. He filled his pockets with such medicines as he possessed, and so at last, just as night was falling, he started back over his difficult trail.

The sky was black as the roof of a cavern, for the stars were hid by a roof of cloud which hung just above his head, and the ranger was obliged to feel his way through the first quarter of his journey. The world grew lighter after he left the canon and entered the dead timber of the glacial valley, but even in the open the going was wearisome and the horses proceeded with sullen caution.

"The Basque is a poor, worthless little peasant, but he is a human being, and to leave him to die up there would be monstrous," he insisted, as the horses stumbled upward over the rocks of a vast lateral moraine toward the summit, blinded by the clouds through which they were forced to pass. He was dismounted now and picking his way with a small lantern, whose feeble ray (like that of a firefly) illuminated for a small space the dripping rocks; all else was tangible yellow mist which possessed a sulphurous odor and clung to everything it touched. The wind had died out entirely, and the mountain-side was as silent as the moon.

Foot by foot he struggled up the slope, hoping each moment to break through this blanket of vapor into the clear air. He knew from many previous experiences that the open sky existed a little way above, that this was but a roof.

At last he parted the layer of mist and burst into the moonlit heights above. He drew a deep breath of awe as he turned and looked about him. Overhead the sky was sparkling with innumerable stars, and the crescent moon was shining like burnished silver, while level with his breast rolled a limitless, silent, and mystical ocean of cloud which broke against the dark peaks in soundless surf, and spread away to the east in ever-widening shimmer. All the lesser hills were covered; only the lords of the range towered above the flood in sullen and unmoved majesty.

For a long time Cavanagh stood beside his weary horses, filling his soul with the beauty of this world, so familiar yet so transformed. He wished for his love; she would feel and know and rejoice with him. It was such experiences as these that made him content with his work. For the ranger Nature plays her profoundest dramas--sometimes with the rush of winds, the crash of thunder; sometimes like this, in silence so deep that the act of breathing seems a harsh, discordant note.

Slowly the mystic waters fell away, sinking with slightly rolling action into the valleys, and out of the wool-white waves sudden sharp dark forms upthrust like strange masters of the deep. Towers took shape and islands upheaved, crowned with dark fortresses. To the west a vast and inky-black Gibraltar magically appeared. Soon the sea was but a prodigious river flowing within the high walls of an ancient glacier, a ghost of the icy stream that once ground its slow way between these iron cliffs.

With a shudder of awe the ranger turned from the intolerable beauty of this combination of night, cloud, and mountain-crest, and resumed his climb. Such scenes, by their majesty, their swift impermanency, their colossal and heedless haste, made his heart ache with indefinable regret. Again and again he looked back, longing for some power which would enable him to record and reproduce for the eyes of his love some part of this stupendous and noiseless epic. He was no longer content to enjoy Nature's splendors alone.

On the cold and silent side of the great divide the faint light of the shepherd's teepee shone, and with a returning sense of his duty to his fellows on the roof of the continent, Cavanagh pushed onward.

Wetherford met him at the door, no longer the poor old tramp, but a priest, one who has devoted himself to Christ's service.

"How is he?" asked the ranger.

"Delirious," replied the herder. "I've had to hold him to his bed. I'm glad you've come. It's lonesome up here. Don't come too near. Set your tent down there by the trees. I can't have you infected. Keep clear of me and this camp."

"I've got some food and some extra clothing for you."

"Put 'em down here, and in the morning drive these sheep away. That noise disturbs the dago, and I don't like it myself; they sound lonesome and helpless. That dog took 'em away for a while, but brought 'em back again; poor devil, he don't know what to think of it all."

Ross did as Wetherford commanded him to do, and withdrew a little way down the slope; and without putting up his tent, rolled himself in his blankets and went to sleep.

The sun rose gloriously. With mountain fickleness the wind blew gently from the east, the air was precisely like late March, and the short and tender grass, the small flowers in the sheltered corners of the rocks, and the multitudinous bleatings of the lambs were all in keeping. It was spring in the world and it was spring in the heart of the ranger, in spite of all his perplexities. The Basque would recover, the heroic ex-convict would not be stricken, and all would be well. Of such resiliency is the heart of youth.

His first duty was to feed the faithful collie, and to send him forth with the flock. His next was to build a fire and cook some breakfast for Wetherford, and as he put it down beside the tent door he heard the wild pleading of the Basque, who was struggling with his nurse--doubtless in the belief that he was being kept a prisoner. Only a few words like "go home" and "sheep" were intelligible to either the nurse or the ranger.

"Keep quiet now--quiet, boy! It's all right. I'm here to take care of you," Wetherford repeated, endlessly.

Cavanagh waited till a silence came; then called, softly: "Here's your breakfast, Wetherford."

"Move away," retorted the man within. "Keep your distance."

Ross walked away a little space and Wetherford came to the door. "The dago is sure sick, there's no two ways about that. How far is it to the nearest doctor?"

"I could reach one by 'phone from the Kettle Ranch, about twenty miles below here."

"If he don't get better to-day I reckon we'll have to have a doctor." He looked so white and old that Cavanagh said:

"You need rest. Now I _think I've had the smallpox--I know I've been vaccinated, and if you go to bed--"

"If you're saying all that preliminary to offering to come in here, you're wasting your breath. I don't intend to let you come any nearer than you are. There is work for you to do. Besides, there's my girl; you're detailed to look after her."

"Would a doctor come?" asked Ross, huskily, moved by Wetherford's words. "It's a hard climb. Would they think the dago worth it?"

Wetherford's face darkened with a look of doubt. "It _is a hard trip for a city man, but maybe he would come for you--for the Government."

"I doubt it, even if I were to offer my next month's salary as a fee. These hills are very remote to the townsfolk, and one dago more or less of no importance, but I'll see what I can do."

Ross was really more concerned for Wetherford himself than for the Basque. "If the fever is something malignant, we must have medical aid," he said, and went slowly back to his own camp to ponder his puzzling problem.

One thing could certainly be done, and that was to inform Gregg and Murphy of their herder's illness; surely they would come to the rescue of the collie and his flock. To reach a telephone involved either a ride over into Deer Creek or a return to the Fork. He was tempted to ride all the way to the Fork, for to do so would permit another meeting with Lee; but to do this would require many hours longer, and half a day's delay might prove fatal to the Basque, and, besides, each hour of loneliness and toil rendered Wetherford just so much more open to the deadly attack of the disease.

Here was the tragic side of the wilderness. At such moments even the Fork seemed a haven. The mountains offer a splendid camping-place for the young and the vigorous, but they are implacable foes to the disabled man or the aged. They do not give loathsome diseases like pox, but they do not aid in defence of the sick. Coldly aloof, its clouds sail by. The night winds bite. Its rains fall remorselessly. Sheltering rocks there are, to be sure, but their comfort is small to the man smitten with the scourge of the crowded city. In such heights man is of no more value than the wolf or the cony.

It was hard to leave an old and broken man in such a drear and wind-contested spot, and yet it had to be done. So fastening his tent securely behind a clump of junipers, Cavanagh mounted his horse and rode away across the boundary of the forest into the Deer Creek Basin, which had been the bone of much contention for nearly four years.

It was a high, park-like expanse, sparsely wooded, beautiful in summer, but cold and bleak in winter. The summers were short, and frost fell almost every week even in July and August. It had once been a part of the forest, but under pressure the President had permitted it to be restored to the public lands open for entry. It was not "agricultural grounds," as certain ranchers claimed, but it was excellent summer pasture, and the sheepmen and cattle-men had leaped at once into warfare to possess it. Sheep were beaten to death with clubs by hundreds, herders were hustled out of the park with ropes about their necks and their outfits destroyed--and all this within a few miles of the forest boundary, where one small sentinel kept effective watch and ward.

Cavanagh had never been over this trail but once, and he was trying to locate the cliff from which a flock of sheep had been hurled by cattle-men some years before, when he perceived a thin column of smoke rising from a rocky hillside. With habitual watchfulness as to fire, he raised his glass to his eyes and studied the spot. It was evidently a camp-fire and smouldering dangerously, and turning his horse's head he rode toward it to stamp it out. It was not upon his patrol; but that did not matter, his duty was clear.

As he drew near he began to perceive signs of a broken camp; the ground was littered with utensils. It was not an ordinary camp-fire, and the ranger's heart quickened. "Another sheep-herder has been driven out, and his tent and provisions burned!" he exclaimed, wrathfully.

His horse snorted and shied as he rode nearer, and then a shudder passed through the ranger's heart as he perceived in the edge of the smouldering embers a boot heel, and then--_a charred hand! In the smoke of that fire was the reek of human flesh.

For a long time the ranger sat on his horse, peering down into those ashes until at last it became evident to his eyes that at least two sheep-herders had been sacrificed on the cattle-man's altar of hate and greed.

All about on the sod the story was written, all too plain. Two men, possibly three, had been murdered--cut to pieces and burned--not many hours before. There stood the bloody spade with which the bodies had been dismembered, and there lay an empty can whose oil had been poured upon the mingled camp utensils, tent, and wagon of the herders, in the attempt to incinerate the hacked and dismembered limbs of the victims. The lawlessness of the range had culminated. The ferocity of the herder had gone beyond the savage. Here in the sweet autumn air the reek of the cattle-man's vengeance rose like some hideous vapor, poisonous and obscene.

The ranger sickened as the bloody tale unfolded itself before him. Then a fierce hate of such warfare flamed in his heart. Could this enormity be committed under any other civilized flag? Would any other Government intermingle so foolishly, so childishly its State and Federal authority as to permit such diabolism?

Here lay the legitimate fruit of the State's essential hoodlumism. Here was the answer to local self-government--to democracy. Such a thing could not happen in Australia or Canada; only in America could lynch law become a dramatic pastime, a jest, an instrument of private vengeance. The South and the West were alike stained with the blood of the lynched, and the whole nation was covered with shame.

In his horror, his sense of revolt, he cursed the State of which he was a citizen. He would have resigned his commission at the moment, so intense was his resentment of the supine, careless, jovial, slattern Government under which he was serving.

"By the Lord!" he breathed, with solemn intensity, "if this does not shame the people of this State into revolt, if these fiends are not hounded and hung, I will myself harry them. I cannot live and do my duty here unless this crime is avenged by law."

It did not matter to him that these herders were poor Basques; it was the utter, horrifying, destructive disregard of law which raised such tumult in his blood. His English education, his soldier's training, his native refinement--all were outraged. Then, too, he loved the West. He had surrendered his citizenship under the British flag--for this!

Chilled, shaking, and numb, he set spurs to his horse and rode furiously down the trail toward the nearest town, so eager to spread the alarm that he could scarcely breathe a deep breath. On the steep slopes he was forced to walk, and his horse led so badly, that his agony of impatience was deepened. He had a vision of the murderers riding fast into far countries. Each hour made their apprehension progressively the more difficult.

"Who were they?" he asked himself, again and again. "What kind of man did this thing? Was the leader a man like Ballard? Even so, he was hired. By whom? By ranchers covetous of the range; that was absolutely certain."

It was long after noon before he came to the end of the telephone-line in a little store and post-office at the upper falls of Deer Creek. The telephone had a booth fortunately, and he soon had Redfield's ear, but his voice was so strained and unnatural that his chief did not recognize it.

"Is that you, Ross? What's the matter? Your voice sounds hoarse."

Ross composed himself, and told his story briefly. "I'm at Kettle Ranch post-office. Now listen. The limit of the cattle-man's ferocity has been reached. As I rode down here, to get into communication with a doctor for a sick herder, I came upon the scene of another murder and burning. The fire is still smouldering; at least two bodies are in the embers."

At last, bit by bit, from hurried speech, the supervisor derived the fact, the location, the hour, and directed the herder to ride back and guard the remains till the sheriff arrived.

"Keep it all quiet," warned Ross, "and get the sheriff and a doctor to come up here as quick as you can. What in the name of God is this country coming to?" he cried, in despair. "Will this deed go unpunished, like the rest?"

Redfield's voice had lost its optimistic ring. "I don't know; I am stunned by it all. Don't do anything rash, Ross. Wait till I come. Perhaps this is the turning-point out here. I'll be up at the earliest moment."

The embittered and disheartened ranger then called up Lee Virginia, and the sound of her sweet voice turned his thoughts to other and, in a sense, more important matters; for when she heard his name she cried out with such eager longing and appeal that his heart leaped. "Oh, I wish you were here! Mother has been worse to-day. She is asking for you. Can't you come down and see us? She wants to tell you something."

"I can't--I can't!" he stammered. "I--I--I'm a long way off, and I have important work to do. Tell her I will come to-morrow."

Her voice was filled with disappointment and fear as she said: "Oh, I need you so! Can't you come?"

"Yes, I will come as soon as I can. I will try to reach you by daylight to-morrow. My heart is with you. Call up the Redfields; they will help you."

"Mother wants _you_. She says she _must see you. Come as soon as you can. I don't know what she wants to tell you--but I do know we need you."

Her meaning was as clear as if she said: "I need you, for I love you. Come to me." And her prayer filled him with pain as well as pleasure. He was a soldier and under orders from his chief, therefore he said: "Dear girl, there is a sick man far up on the mountain-side with no one to care for him but a poor old herder who is in danger of falling sick himself. I must go back to them; but, believe me, I will come just as soon as my duties will let me. You understand me, don't you?"

Her voice was fainter as she said: "Yes, but I--it seems hard to wait."

"I know. Your voice has helped me. I was in a black mood when I came here. I'm going back now to do my work, and then I will come to you. Good-bye."

Strangely beautiful and very subtle was the vibrant stir of that wire as it conveyed back to his ear the little sigh with which she made answer to his plea. He took his way upward in a mood which was meditative but no longer bitter.

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