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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Forest Ranger - Chapter 2
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The Forest Ranger - Chapter 2 Post by :esoteric Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1214

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The Forest Ranger - Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

One day in early autumn, as he was returning to his station, Hanscom met Abe Kitsong just below Watson's cabin, riding furiously down the hill. Drawing his horse to a stand, the rancher called out:

"Just the man I need!"

"What's the trouble?"

"Ed Watson's killed!"

Hanscom stared incredulously. "No! Where--when?"

"Last night, I reckon. You see, Ed had promised to ride down to my place this morning and help me to raise a shed, and when he didn't come I got oneasy and went up to see what kept him, and the first thing I saw when I opened the door was him layin' on the floor, shot through and through." Here his voice grew savage. "And by that Kauffman woman!"

"Hold on, Abe!" called the ranger, sharply. "Go slow on that talk. What makes you think that woman--any woman--did it?"

"Well, it jest happened that Ed had spilled some flour along the porch, and in prowling around the window that woman jest naturally walked over it. You can see the print of her shoes where she stopped under the window. You've got to go right up there--you're a gover'ment officer--and stand guard over the body while I ride down the valley and get the coroner and the sheriff."

"All right. Consider it done," said Hanscom, and Kitsong continued his frenzied pace down the valley.

The ranger, his blood quickening in spite of himself, spurred his horse into a gallop and was soon in sight of the Shellfish Ranch, where Watson had lived for several years in unkempt, unsavory bachelorhood, for the reason that his wife had long since quit him, and only the roughest cowboys would tolerate the disorder of his bed and board. Privately, Hanscom was not much surprised at the rustler's death (although the manner of it seemed unnecessarily savage), for he was quarrelsome and vindictive.

The valley had not yet emerged from the violent era, and every man in the hills went armed. The canyons round about were still safe harbors for "lonesome men," and the herders of opposition sheep and cattle outfits were in bitter competition for free grass. Watson had many enemies, and yet it was hard to think that any one of them would shoot him at night through an open window, for such a deed was contrary to all the established rules of the border.

Upon drawing rein at the porch the ranger first examined the footsteps in the flour and under the window, and was forced to acknowledge that all signs pointed to a woman assailant. The marks indicated small, pointed, high-heeled shoes, and it was plain that the prowler had spent some time peering in through the glass.

For fear that the wind might spring up and destroy the evidence, Hanscom measured the prints carefully, putting down the precise size and shape in his note-book. He studied the position of the dead man, who lay as he had fallen from his chair, and made note of the fact that a half-emptied bottle of liquor stood on the table. The condition of the room, though disgusting, was not very different from its customary disorder.

Oppressed by the horror of the scene, the ranger withdrew a little way, lit his pipe, and sat down to meditate on the crime.

"I can't believe a woman did it," he said. And yet he realized that under certain conditions women can be more savage than men. "If Watson had been shot on a woman's premises it wouldn't seem so much like slaughter. But to kill a man at night in his own cabin is tolerably fierce."

That the sad, lonely woman in the ranch above had anything to do with this he would not for a moment entertain.

He turned away from the problem at last and dozed in the sunshine, calculating with detailed knowledge of the trail and its difficulties just how long it would take Kitsong to reach the coroner and start back up the hill.

It was nearly four o'clock when he heard the feet of horses on the bridge below the ranch, and a few minutes later Kitsong came into view, heading a motley procession of horsemen and vehicles. It was evident that he had notified all his neighbors along the road, for they came riding in as if to a feast, their eyes alight with joyous interest.

The coroner, a young doctor named Carmody, took charge of the case with brisk, important pomp, seconded by Sheriff Throop, a heavy man with wrinkled, care-worn brow, who seemed burdened with a sense of personal responsibility for Watson's death. He was all for riding up and instantly apprehending the Kauffmans, but the coroner insisted on looking the ground over first.

"You study the case from the outside," said he, "and I'll size it up from the inside."

As the dead man had neither wife nor children to weep for him, Mrs. Kitsong, his sister, a tall, gaunt woman, assumed the role of chief mourner, while Abe went round uttering threats about "stringing the Kauffmans up," till the sheriff, a good man and faithful officer, jealous of his authority, interfered.

"None of that lynching talk! There'll be no rope work in this county while I am sheriff," he said, with noticeable decision.

In a few moments Carmody, having finished his examination of the body, said to the sheriff: "Go after this man Kauffman and his daughter. It seems they've had some trouble with Watson and I want to interrogate them. Search the cabin for weapons and bring all the woman's shoes," he added. And while the sheriff rode away up the trail on his sinister errand, Hanscom with sinking heart remained to testify at the inquest.

A coroner in the mountains seven thousand feet above the sea-level and twenty miles from a court-house must be excused for slight informalities in procedure, and Carmody confidentially said to the ranger:

"I don't expect for a minute the sheriff will find the Kauffmans. If they did for Watson, they undoubtedly pulled out hotfoot. But we've got to make a bluff at getting 'em, anyway."

To this the ranger made no reply, but a sense of loss filled his heart.

As soon as the jury was selected the condition of the body was noted, and Abe Kitsong, as witness, was in the midst of his testimony (and the shadows of the great peaks behind the cabin had brought the evening chill into the air) when the sheriff reappeared, escorting a mountain wagon in which Kauffman and his daughter were seated.

Hanscom stared in mingled surprise and dismay--surprise that they had not fled and dismay at the girl's predicament--and muttered: "Now what do you think of that! It takes an Eastern tenderfoot to kill a man and then go quietly home and wait for results."

Kauffman glared about him defiantly, but the face of the girl remained hidden in her bonnet; only her bowed head indicated the despair into which she had fallen.

With a deep sense of pity and regret, Hanscom went to meet her. "Don't be scared," he said. "I'll see that you have a square deal."

She peered down into his face as he spoke, but made no reply, and he conceived of her as one burdened with grief and shame and ready for any fate.

The sheriff, his face showing an agony of perplexity, turned over to the coroner all the weapons and other "plunder" he had brought from the house, and querulously announced that he couldn't find a shotgun anywhere around, and only one small rifle. "And there wasn't a pointed shoe on the place," he added, forcibly.

"That proves nothing," insisted Abe. "They've had time to hide 'em or burn 'em."

"Well, bring them both over here and let's get to business," said the coroner. "It's getting late."

As Hanscom assisted the accused woman from the wagon he detected youth and vigor in her arm. "Don't be afraid," he repeated. "I will see that you are treated right."

Her hand clung to his for an instant as she considered the throng of hostile spectators, for she apprehended their hatred quite as clearly as she perceived the chivalrous care of the ranger, and she kept close to his side as he led the way to the cabin.

Kauffman was at once taken indoors, but the young woman, under guard of a deputy, was given a seat on the corner of the porch just out of hearing of the coroner's voice.

Carmody, who carried all the authority, if not all the forms, of a court into his interrogation, sharply questioned the old man, who said that his name was Frederick Kauffman and that he was a teacher of music.

"I was born near Munich," he added, "but I have lived in this country forty years, mostly in Cincinnati. This young lady is my stepdaughter. It is for her health that I came here. She has been very ill."

Carmody nodded to the sheriff, and Throop with a deep sigh and most dramatic gesture lifted the shroud which concealed the dead man. "Approach the body," commanded the coroner, and the jurors watched every motion with wide, excited eyes, as though expecting involuntary signs of guilt; but Kauffman calmly gazed upon the still face beneath him.

"Do you recognize this body?" demanded the coroner.

"I do," said Kauffman.

"When did you see him last?"

"Oh, two or three days ago," answered Kauffman.

"You may be seated," said the coroner.

Under close interrogation the old man admitted that he had had some trouble with Watson. "Once I forced him to leave my premises," he said. "He was drunk and insulting."

"Did you employ a weapon?"

"Only this "--here he lifted a sturdy fist--"but it was sufficient. I have not forgotten my gymnastic training."

Prompted by Kitsong, who had assumed something of the attitude of a prosecuting attorney, the coroner asked, "Has your daughter ever been in an asylum?"

Although this question plainly disturbed him, Kauffman replied, after a moment's hesitation, "No, sir."

"Where were you last night?"

"At home."

"Was your daughter there?"

"Yes."

"All the evening?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are you sure she did not leave the house?"

"Perfectly sure."

The coroner took up a small rifle which the sheriff had leaned against the wall. "Is this your rifle?"

The old man examined it. "I think so--yes, sir."

"Have you another?"

"No, sir."

"That is all for the present, Mr. Kauffman. Sheriff, ask Miss Kauffman to come in."

As the woman (without the disfiguring head-dress which she habitually wore) stepped to the center of the room a murmur of surprise arose from the jury and the few spectators who were permitted to squat along the walls. She not only appeared young; she was comely. Her face, though darkly tanned, was attractive, and her hair, combed rigidly away from her brow, was abundant and glossy. The line of her lips was firm yet sweet, and her long, straight nose denoted the excellence of her strain. Even her hands, reddened and calloused by labor, were well kept and shapely. But it was through her bearing that she appealed most strongly to the ranger and the coroner. She was very far from being humble. On the contrary, the glance which she directed toward Carmody was remote and haughty. She did not appear to notice the still, sheeted shape in the corner.

In answer to a query she informed the jury that her name was Helen McLaren; that she was a native of Kentucky and twenty-six years of age. "I came to the mountains for my health," she said, curtly.

"You mean your mental health?" queried the coroner.

"Yes. I wanted to get away from the city for a while. I needed rest and a change."

The coroner, deeply impressed with her dignity and grace, leaned back in his chair and said: "Now before I ask the next question, Miss McLaren, I want to tell you that what you say in answer may be used against you in court, and according to law you need not incriminate yourself. You understand that, do you?"

"Yes, sir. I think I do."

"Very well. Now one thing more. It is usual in cases of this kind to have some one to represent you, and if you wish Mr. Hanscom, the forest ranger, will act for you."

The glance she turned on Hanscom confused him, but he said: "I'm no lawyer, but I'll do my best to see that you are treated fairly."

She thanked him with a trustful word, and the coroner began.

"You have had a great sorrow recently, I believe?"

"Yes, sir."

"A very bitter bereavement?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have you any near relatives living?"

"Yes, sir. A sister and several aunts and uncles."

"Do they know where you are?"

"No, sir--at least, not precisely. They know I am in the mountains."

"Will you give me the names and addresses of these relatives?"

"I would rather not, if you please. I do not care to involve them in any troubles of mine."

"Well, I won't insist on that at this point. But I would like to understand whether, if I require it, you will furnish this information?"

"Certainly. Only I would rather not disturb them unnecessarily."

Her manner not only profoundly affected the coroner; it soon softened the prejudices of the jury, although four of them were immediate friends and neighbors of Kitsong. They all were manifestly astonished at the candor of her replies.

The coroner himself rose and solemnly disclosed the corpse. "Do you recognize this man?" he asked.

She paled and shrank from the face, which was brutal even in death, but answered, quietly, "I do."

"Did you know him when alive?"

"I did not."

This answer surprised both the coroner and his jury.

"Your stepfather testified that he came to your home."

"So he did. But I refused to see him. My stepfather met him outside the door. I never spoke to him in my life."

"You may be seated again," said Carmody, and after a slight pause proceeded: "Why did you dislike the deceased? Was he disrespectful to you?"

"He was."

"In what way?"

She hesitated and flushed. "He wrote to me."

"More than once?"

"Yes, several times."

"Have you those letters?"

"No; I destroyed them."

"Could you give me an idea of those letters?"

Hanscom interposed: "She can't do that, Mr. Coroner. It is evident that they were vile."

The coroner passed this point. "You say he called at your house--how many times?"

"Two or three, I think."

"Was your father at home each time?"

"Once I was alone."

"Did you meet Watson then?"

"No. I saw him coming in the gate and I went inside and locked the door."

"What happened then?"

"He beat on the door, and when I failed to reply he went away."

"Was he drunk?"

"He might have been. He seemed more like an insane man to me."

Kitsong broke in, "I don't believe all this--"

"When was that?"

"Night before last, at about this time or a little earlier."

"Was he on foot?"

"No; he came on horseback."

"Did he ride away on horseback?"

"Yes, though he could scarcely mount. I was surprised to see how well he was able to manage his horse."

"Did you tell your father of this?"

"No."

"Why not?"

She hesitated. "He would have been very--very much disturbed."

"You mean he would have been angry?"

"Yes."

The coroner suddenly turned the current of his inquiry. "Do you always wear shoes such as you now have on?"

Every eye in the room was directed toward her feet, which were shod in broad-toed, low-heeled shoes.

She was visibly embarrassed, but she answered, composedly: "I do--yes, sir. In fact, I go barefoot a great deal while working in the garden. The doctor ordered it, and, besides, the ordinary high-heeled shoes seem foolish up here in the mountains."

"Will you be kind enough to remove your shoe? I would like to take some measurements from it."

She flushed slightly, but bent quickly, untied the laces, and removed her right shoe.

The coroner took it. "Please remain where you are, Miss McLaren." Then to the jury, who appreciated fully the importance of the moment, "We will now compare this shoe with the footprints."

"Don't be disturbed, miss," whispered the ranger. "I know the size and shape of those footprints."

The sheriff cleared the way to the porch, where the little patch of flour had been preserved by ropes stretched from post to post, and the outside crowd, pressing closer, watched breathlessly while the jury bent together and compared the shoes and the marks.

It required but a few moments' examination to demonstrate that the soles of the accused woman's shoes were larger and broader and entirely different in every way.

"She may have worn another shoe," Kitsong put in.

"Of course! We'll find that out," retorted the coroner.

As they returned to the room Hanscom said to the witness: "Now be very careful what you reply. Take plenty of time before you answer. If you are in doubt, say nothing."

In the sympathy of his glance her haughty pose relaxed and her eyes softened. "You are very kind," she said.

"I don't know a thing about law," he added, apologetically, "but I may be able to help you."

The coroner now told the jury that Mr. Hanscom, as representing the witness at the hearing, would be allowed to ask any questions he pleased before the end of the hearing.

"But I must insist upon taking measurements of your bare feet, Miss McLaren."

The jury grinned and the girl flushed with anger, but at a word from the ranger yielded and drew off her stocking.

Hanscom, while assisting the coroner in measurements, said, "I'm sorry, miss, but it is necessary."

The examination proved that her bare foot was nearly two sizes wider and at least one size longer than the footprints in the flour. Furthermore, it needed but a glance for the jury, as well as the doctor, to prove that she had been going barefoot, as she claimed, for many weeks. Her foot was brown and her toes showed nothing of the close confinement of a pointed shoe.

Carmody, returning to his seat, conferred with the jury, designating the difference between the telltale marks on the porch and the feet of the witness, and Hanscom argued that the woman who made the telltale tracks must have been small.

"Miss McLaren could not possibly wear the shoe that left those marks in the flour," he said.

"We are on the wrong trail, I guess," one of the jury frankly stated. "I don't believe that girl was ever on the place. If she or the old man had been guilty, they wouldn't have been hanging around home this morning. They'd have dusted out last night."

And to this one other agreed. Four remained silent.

The ranger seized on these admissions. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to connect the tracks in the flour with the person who did the shooting. It may have been done by another visitor at another time."

"Well," decided the coroner, "it's getting dark and not much chance for hotel accommodations up here, so I guess we'd better adjourn this hearing." He turned to Helen. "That's all, Miss McLaren."

As Hanscom handed back her shoe he said: "I hope you won't worry another minute about this business, miss. The jury is certain to report for 'persons unknown.'"

"I'm very grateful for your kindness," she answered, feelingly. "I felt so utterly helpless when I came into the room."

"You've won even the jury's sympathy," he said.

Nevertheless, as she left the room, he followed closely, for the Kitsongs, who had been denied admittance, were openly voicing their dissatisfaction with the coroner's verdict. "She ought to be held, and the old man ought to be held," they insisted.

"One or the other of them shot Watson," declared Abe to Carmody. "No matter if the girl's foot doesn't just exactly fit the tracks. She could jam her foot into a narrow shoe if she tried, couldn't she? If you let that girl pull the wool over your eyes like that you ain't fit to be coroner."

Carmody's answer was to the point. "The thing for your crowd to do is to quit chewing the rag and get this body down the valley and decently buried. I can't stand around here all night listening to amateur attorneys for the prosecution."

"Vamose!" called the sheriff, and in ten minutes the crowd was clattering down the trail in haste to reach food and shelter, leaving the Kauffmans to take their homeward way alone.

Hanscom helped the girl into the wagon and rode away up the valley close behind her, his mind filled with the singular story which she had so briefly yet powerfully suggested. That she was a lady masquerading in rough clothing was evident even before she spoke, and the picture she made, sitting in the midst of that throng of rough men and slatternly women, had profoundly stirred his imagination. He longed to know more of her history, and it was the hope of still further serving her which led him to ride up alongside the cart and say:

"Here's where my trail forks, but I shall be very glad to go up and camp down at your gate if you feel at all nervous about staying alone."

Kauffman, who had regained his composure, answered, "We have no fear, but we are deeply grateful for your offer."

The ranger dismounted and approached the wagon, as if to bring himself within reach, and the girl, looking down at him from her seat with penetrating glance, said:

"Yes, we are greatly indebted to you."

"If I can be of any further help at any time," the young forester said, a little hesitatingly, "I hope you will let me know." His voice so sincere, his manner so unassuming, softened her strained mood.

"You are very kind," she answered, with gentle dignity. "But the worst of this trial is over for us. I cannot conceive that any one will trouble us further. But it is good to know that we have in you a friend. The valley has always resented us."

He was not yet satisfied. "I wish you'd let me drop around to-morrow or next day and see how you all are. It would make me feel a whole lot better."

The glance which she gave him puzzled and, at the moment, daunted him. She seemed to search his soul, as if in fear of finding something unworthy there. At last she gave him her strong, brown hand.

"Come when you can. We shall always be glad to see you."

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