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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 12. Cavanagh's Last Vigil Begins
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Cavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 12. Cavanagh's Last Vigil Begins Post by :jazkat Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :2599

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Cavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 12. Cavanagh's Last Vigil Begins

CHAPTER XII. CAVANAGH'S LAST VIGIL BEGINS

On his solitary ride upward and homeward the ranger searched his heart and found it bitter and disloyal. Love had interfered with duty, and pride had checked and defeated love. His path, no longer clear and definite, looped away aimlessly, lost in vague, obscure meanderings. His world had suddenly grown gray.

The magnificent plan of the Chief Forester (to which he had pledged such buoyant allegiance) was now a thing apart, a campaign in which he was to be merely an onlooker. It had once offered something congenial, helpful, inspiring; now it seemed fantastic and futile without the man who shaped it. "I am nearing forty," he said; "Eleanor is right. I am wasting my time here in these hills; but what else can I do?"

He had no trade, no business, no special skill, save in the ways of the mountaineer, and to return to his ancestral home at the moment seemed a woful confession of failure.

But the cause of his deepest dismay and doubt was the revelation to himself of the essential lawlessness of his love, a force within him which now made his duties as a law-enforcer sadly ironic. After all, was not the man who presumed upon a maiden's passion and weakness a greater malefactor than he who steals a pearl or strangles a man for his gold? To betray a soul, to poison a young life, is this not the unforgivable crime?

"Here am I, a son of the law, complaining of the lawlessness of the West--fighting it, conquering it--and yet at the same time I permit myself to descend to the level of Neill Ballard, to think as the barbaric man thinks."

He burned hot with contempt of himself, and his teeth set hard in the resolution to put himself beyond the reach of temptation. "Furthermore, I am concealing a criminal, cloaking a convict, when I should be arresting him," he pursued, referring back to Wetherford. "And why? Because of a girl's romantic notion of her father, a notion which can be preserved only by keeping his secret, by aiding him to escape." And even this motive, he was obliged to confess, had not all been on the highest plane. It was all a part of his almost involuntary campaign to win Virginia's love. The impulse had been lawless, lawless as the old-time West, and the admission cut deep into his self-respect.

It was again dusk as he rode up to his own hitching-pole and slipped from the saddle.

Wetherford came out, indicating by his manner that he had recovered his confidence once more. "How did you find things in the valley?" he inquired, as they walked away toward the corral.

"Bad," responded the ranger.

"In what way?"

"The chief has been dismissed and all the rascals are chuckling with glee. I've resigned from the service."

Wetherford was aghast. "What for?"

"I will not serve under any other chief. The best thing for you to do is to go out when I do. I think by keeping on that uniform you can get to the train with me."

"Did you see Lize and my girl?"

"No, I only remained in town a minute. It was too hot for me. I'm done with it. Wetherford, I'm going back to civilization. No more wild West for me." The bitterness of his voice touched the older man's heart, but he considered it merely a mood.

"Don't lose your nerve; mebbe this ends the reign of terror."

"Nothing will end the moral shiftlessness of this country but the death of the freebooter. You can't put new wine into old bottles. These cattle-men, deep in their hearts, sympathize with the wiping-out of those sheep-herders. The cry for justice comes from the man whose ear is not being chewed--the man far off--and from the town-builder who knows the State is being hurt by such atrocities; but the ranchers over on Deer Creek will conceal the assassins--you know that. You've had experience with these free-grass warriors; you know what they are capable of. That job was done by men who hated the dagoes--hated 'em because they were rival claimants for the range. It's nonsense to attempt to fasten it on men like Neill Ballard. The men who did that piece of work are well-known stock-owners."

"I reckon that's so."

"Well, now, who's going to convict them? I can't do it. I'm going to pull out as soon as I can put my books in shape, and you'd better go too."

They were standing at the gate of the corral, and the roar of the mountain stream enveloped them in a cloud of sound.

Wetherford spoke slowly: "I hate to lose my girl, now that I've seen her, but I guess you're right; and Lize, poor old critter! It's hell's shame the way I've queered her life, and I'd give my right arm to be where I was twelve years ago; but with a price on my head and old age comin' on, I don't see myself ever again getting up to par. It's a losing game for me now."

There was resignation as well as despair in his voice and Cavanagh felt it, but he said, "There's one other question that may come up for decision--if that Basque died of smallpox, you may possibly take it."

"I've figured on that, but it will take a day or two to show on me. I don't feel any ache in my bones yet. If I do come down, you keep away from me. You've got to live and take care of Virginia."

"She should never have returned to this accursed country," Cavanagh harshly replied, starting back toward the cabin.

The constable, smoking his pipe beside the fireplace, did not present an anxious face; on the contrary, he seemed plumply content as he replied to the ranger's greeting. He represented very well the type of officer which these disorderly communities produce. Brave and tireless when working along the line of his prejudices, he could be most laxly inefficient when his duties cut across his own or his neighbor's interests. Being a cattle-man by training, he was glad of the red herring which the Texas officer had trailed across the line of his pursuit.

This attitude still further inflamed Cavanagh's indignant hate of the country. The theory which the deputy developed was transparent folly. "It was just a case of plain robbery," he argued. "One of them dagoes had money, and Neill Ballard and that man Edwards just naturally follered him and killed the whole bunch and scooted--that's my guess."

Cavanagh's outburst was prevented by the scratching and whining of a dog at his door. For a moment he wondered at this; his perturbed mind had dropped the memory of the loyal collie.

As he opened the door, the brute, more than half human in his gaze, looked beseechingly at his new master, as if to say, "I couldn't help it--I was so lonely. And I love you."

"You poor beastie," the ranger called, pityingly, and the dog leaped up in a frenzy of joyous relief, putting his paws on his breast, then dropped to the ground, and, crouching low on his front paws, quivered and yawned with ecstasy of worship. It seemed that he could not express his passionate adoration, his relief, except by these grotesque contortions.

"Come in, Laddie!" Ross urged, but this the dog refused to do. "I am a creature of the open air," he seemed to say. "My duties are of the outer world. I have no wish for a fireside--all I need is a master's praise and a bit of bread."

Cavanagh brought some food, and, putting it down outside the door, spoke to him, gently: "Good boy! Eat that and go back to your flock. I'll come to see you in the morning."

When Cavanagh, a few minutes later, went to the door the dog was gone, and, listening, the ranger could hear the faint, diminishing bleating of the sheep on the hillside above the corral. The four-footed warden was with his flock.

An hour later the sound of a horse's hoofs on the bridge gave warning of a visitor, and as Cavanagh went to the door Gregg rode up, seeking particulars as to the death of the herder and the whereabouts of the sheep.

The ranger was not in a mood to invite the sheepman in, and, besides, he perceived the danger to which Wetherford was exposed. Therefore his answers were short. Gregg, on his part, did not appear anxious to enter.

"What happened to that old hobo I sent up?" he asked.

Cavanagh briefly retold his story, and at the end of it Gregg grunted. "You say you burned the tent and all the bedding?"

"Every thread of it. It wasn't safe to leave it."

"What ailed the man?"

"I don't know, but it looked and smelled like smallpox."

The deputy rose with a spring. "Smallpox! You didn't _handle the cuss?"

Cavanagh did not spare him. "Somebody had to lend a hand. I couldn't see him die there alone, and he had to be buried, so I did the job."

Gregg recoiled a step or two, but the deputy stood staring, the implication of all this sinking deep. "Were you wearing the same clothes you've got on?"

"Yes, but I used a slicker while working around the body."

"Good King!" The sweat broke out on the man's face. "You ought to be arrested."

Ross took a step toward him. "I'm at your service."

"Keep off!" shouted the sheriff.

Ross smiled, then became very serious. "I took every precaution, Mr. Deputy; I destroyed everything that could possibly carry the disease. I burned every utensil, including the saddle, everything but the man's horse and his dog!"

"The dog!" exclaimed the deputy, seized with another idea. "Not that dog you fed just now?"

"The very same," replied Cavanagh.

"Don't you know a dog's sure to carry the poison in his hair? Why, _he jumped on you_! Why didn't you shoot him?" he demanded, fiercely.

"Because he's a faithful guardian, and, besides, he was with the sheep, and never so much as entered the tent."

"Do you _know that?"

"Not absolutely, but he seemed to be on shy terms with the herder, and I'm sure--"

The officer caught up his hat and coat and started for the door. "It's me for the open air," said he.

As the men withdrew Ross followed them, and, standing in his door, delivered his final volley. "If this State does not punish those fiends, every decent man should emigrate out of it, turning the land over to the wolves, the wildcats, and other beasts of prey."

Gregg, as he retreated, called back: "That's all right, Mr. Ranger, but you'd better keep to the hills for a few weeks. The settlers down below won't enjoy having a man with smallpox chassayin' around town. They might rope and tie you."

Wetherford came out of his hiding-place with a grave face. "I wonder I didn't think of that collie. They say a cat's fur will carry disease germs like a sponge. Must be the same with a dog."

"Well, it's too late now," replied Cavanagh. "But they're right about our staying clear of town. They'll quarantine us sure. All the same, I don't believe the dog carried any germs of the disease."

Wetherford, now that the danger of arrest was over, was disposed to be grimly humorous. "There's no great loss without some small gain. I don't think we'll be troubled by any more visitors--not even by sheriffs or doctors. I reckon you and I are in for a couple of months of the quiet life--the kind we read about."

* * * * *

Cavanagh, now that he was definitely out of the Forest Service, perceived the weight of every objection which his friends and relatives had made against his going into it. It was a lonely life, and must ever be so. It was all very well for a young unmarried man, who loved the woods and hills beyond all things else, and who could wait for advancement, but it was a sad place for one who desired a wife. The ranger's place was on the trail and in the hills, and to bring a woman into these high silences, into these lone reaches of forest and fell, would be cruel. To bring children into them would be criminal.

All the next day, while Wetherford pottered about the cabin or the yard, Cavanagh toiled at his papers, resolved to leave everything in the perfect order which he loved. Whenever he looked round upon his belongings, each and all so redolent of the wilderness--he found them very dear. His chairs (which he had rived out of slabs), his guns, his robes, his saddles and their accoutrements--all meant much to him. "Some of them must go with me," he said. "And when I am settled down in the old home I'll have one room to myself which shall be so completely of the mountain America that when I am within it I can fancy myself back in the camp."

He thought of South Africa as a possibility, and put it aside, knowing well that no other place could have the same indefinable charm that the Rocky Mountains possessed, for the reason that he had come to them at his most impressionable age. Then, too, the United States, for all their faults, seemed merely an extension of the English form of government.

Wetherford was also moving in deep thought, and at last put his perplexity into a question. "What am I to do? I'm beginning to feel queer. I reckon the chances for my having smallpox are purty fair. Maybe I'd better drop down to Sulphur and report to the authorities. I've got a day or two before the blossoms will begin to show on me."

Cavanagh studied him closely. "Now don't get to thinking you've got it. I don't see how you could attach a germ. The high altitude and the winds up there ought to prevent infection. I'm not afraid for myself, but if you're able, perhaps we'd better pull out to-morrow."

Later in the day Wetherford expressed deeper dejection. "I don't see anything ahead of me anyhow," he confessed. "If I go back to the 'pen' I'll die of lung trouble, and I don't know how I'm going to earn a living in the city. Mebbe the best thing I could do would be to take the pox and go under. I'm afraid of big towns," he continued. "I always was--even when I had money. Now that I am old and broke I daren't go. No city for me."

Cavanagh's patience gave way. "But, man, you can't stay here! I'm packing up to leave. Your only chance of getting out of the country is to go when I go, and in my company." His voice was harsh and keen, and the old man felt its edge; but he made no reply, and this sad silence moved Cavanagh to repentance. His irritability warned him of something deeply changing in his own nature.

Approaching the brooding felon, he spoke gently and sadly. "I'm sorry for you, Wetherford, I sure am, but it's up to you to get clear away so that Lee will never by any possible chance find out that you are alive. She has a romantic notion of you as a representative of the old-time West, and it would be a dreadful shock to her if she knew you as you are. It's hard to leave her, I know, now that you've seen her, but that's the manly thing to do--the only thing to do."

"Oh, you're right--of course you're right. But I wish I could be of some use to her. I wish I could chore round for the rest of my life, where I could kind o' keep watch over her. I'd be glad enough to play the scullion in her kitchen. But if you're going to take her--"

"But I'm not," protested Ross. "I'm going to leave her right here. I can't take her."

Wetherford looked at him with steady eyes, into which a keen light leaped. "Don't you intend to marry her?"

Ross turned away. "No, I don't--I mean it is impossible!"

"Why not? Don't tell me you're already married?" He said this with menacing tone.

"No, I'm not married, but--" He stopped without making his meaning plain. "I'm going to leave the country and--"

Wetherford caught him up. "I reckon I understand what you mean. You consider Lize and me undersirable parents--not just the kind you'd cut out of the herd of your own free will. Well, that's all right, I don't blame you so far as I'm concerned. But you can forget me, consider me a dead one. I'll never bother her nor you."

Cavanagh threw out an impatient hand. "It is impossible," he protested. "It's better for her and better for me that I should do so. I've made up my mind. I'm going back to my own people."

Wetherford was thoroughly roused now. Some part of his old-time fire seemed to return to him. He rose from his chair and approached the ranger firmly. "I've seen you act like a man, Ross Cavanagh. You've been a good partner these last few days--a son couldn't have treated me better--and I hate like hell to think ill of you; but my girl loves you--I could see that. I could see her lean to you, and I've got to know something else right now. You're going to leave here--you're going to throw her off. What I want to know is this: Do you leave her as good as you found her? Come, now, I want an answer, as one man to another."

Cavanagh's eyes met his with firm but sorrowful gaze. "In the sense in which you mean, I leave her as I found her."

The old man's open hand shot out toward his rescuer. "Forgive me, my lad," he said, humbly; "for a minute I--doubted you."

Ross took his hand, but slowly replied: "It will be hard for you to understand, when I tell you that I care a great deal for your daughter, but a man like me--an Englishman--cannot marry--or he ought not to marry--to himself alone. There are so many others to consider--his friends, his sisters--"

Wetherford dropped his hand. "I see!" His tone was despairing. "When I was young we married the girls we loved in defiance of man, God, or the cupboard; but you are not that kind. You may be right. I'm nothing but a debilitated old cow-puncher branded by the State--a man who threw away his chance--but I can tell you straight, I've learned that nothing but the love of a woman counts. Furthermore," and here his fire flashed again, "I'd have killed you had you taken advantage of my girl!"

"Which would have been your duty," declared Cavanagh, wearily.

And in the face of this baffling mood, which he felt but could not understand, the old man fell silent.

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