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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Forest Ranger - Chapter 1
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The Forest Ranger - Chapter 1 Post by :esoteric Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :3145

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The Forest Ranger - Chapter 1

CHAPTER I

--Hardy son of the pioneers--representing the finer social order of the future, rides his lonely trail, guarding with single-hearted devotion the splendid heritage of us all.


THE FOREST RANGER

One April day some years ago, when the rustling of cattle (a picturesque name for stealing) was still going on in one of our central mountain states, Abe Kitsong, a rancher on the Shellfish, meeting Hanscom, the forest ranger of that district, called out:

"Say, mister, do you know that some feller has taken a claim in our valley right bang up against your boundary line?"

"Yes," replied Hanscom. "I've an eye on him. He's started a cabin already."

"I didn't know that land was open or I'd 'a' took it myself. Who is the old chap, anyway?"

"I don't know where he comes from, but his name is Kauffman--Pennsylvania Dutch, I reckon."

"Watson will be hot when he runs agin' the fence that feller's puttin' up."

"Well, the man's in there and on the way to a clear title, so what are you going to do about it?"

"I don't plan for to do anything, but Watson will sure be sore," repeated Kitsong.

The ranger smiled and rode on. He was a native of the West, a plain-featured, deliberate young fellow of thirty who sat his horse with the easy grace which marks the trailer, while Abe Kitsong, tall, gaunt, long-bearded, and sour-faced, was a Southerner, a cattleman of bad reputation with the alfalfa farmers farther down the valley. He was a notable survivor of the "good old days of the range," and openly resented the "punkin rollers" who were rapidly fencing all the lower meadows. Watson was his brother-in-law, and together they had controlled the upper waters of the Shellfish, making a last stand in the secluded valley.

The claim in question lay in a lonely spot at the very head of a narrow canyon, and included a lovely little meadow close clasped by a corner of the dark robe of forest which was Hanscom's especial care, and which he guarded with single-hearted devotion. The new cabin stood back from the trail, and so for several weeks its owner went about his work in undisturbed tranquillity. Occasionally he drove to town for supplies, but it soon appeared that he was not seeking acquaintance with his neighbors, and in one way or another he contrived to defend himself from visitors.

He was a short man, gray-mustached and somber, but his supposed wife (who dressed in the rudest fashion and covered her head, face, and shoulders with an old-fashioned gingham sunbonnet) was reported by Watson, her nearest neighbor, to be much younger than her husband and comely. "I came on her the other day without that dinged bunnit," said he, "and she's not so bad-looking, but she's shy. Couldn't lay a hand on her."

In spite of this report, for a month or two the men of the region, always alert on the subject of women, manifested but a moderate interest in the stranger. They hadn't much confidence in Watson's judgment, anyhow, and besides, the woman carried herself so ungracefully and dressed so plainly that even the saloon-door loafers cast contemptuous glances upon her as she hurried by the post-office on her way to the grocery. In fact, they put the laugh on Watson, and he would have been buying the drinks for them all had not the postmaster come to his rescue.

(Illustration: THE WOMAN CARRIED HERSELF SO UNGRACEFULLY AND DRESSED SO PLAINLY THAT EVEN THE SALOON-DOOR LOAFERS CAST CONTEMPTUOUS GLANCES UPON HER)

"Ed's right," said he. "She's younger than she looks, and has a right nice voice."

"Is it true that her letters come addressed in two different names?" queried one of the men.

"No. Her letters come addressed 'Miss Helen McLaren.' What that means I can't say. But the old man spoke of her as his daughter."

"I don't take much stock in that daughter's business," said one of the loafers. "There's a mouse in the meal somewhere."

Thereafter this drab and silent female, by her very wish to be left alone, became each day a more absorbing topic of conversation. She was not what she seemed--this was the verdict. As for Kauffman, he was considered a man who would bear watching, and when finally, being pressed to it, he volunteered the information that he was in the hills for his daughter's health, many sneered.

"Came away between two days, I'll bet," said Watson. "And as fer the woman, why should her mail come under another name from his? Does that look like she was his daughter?"

"She may be a stepdaughter," suggested the postmaster.

"More likely she's another man's wife," retorted Watson.

During the early autumn Kauffman published the fact that he had registered a brand, and from time to time those who happened to ride up the valley brought back a report that he owned a small but growing herd of cattle. Watson did not hesitate to say that he had never been able to find where the new-comer bought his stock--and in those days no man was quite free from the necessity of exhibiting a bill of sale.

However, the people of the town paid small attention to this slur, for Watson himself was not entirely above suspicion. He was considered a dangerous character. Once or twice he had been forced, at the mouth of a rifle, to surrender calves that had, as he explained, "got mixed" with his herd. In truth, he was nearly always in controversy with some one.

"Kauffman don't look to me like an 'enterprising roper,'" Hanscom reported to his supervisor. "And as for his wife, or daughter, or whatever she is, I've never seen anything out of the way about her. She attends strictly to her own affairs. Furthermore," he added, "Watson, as you know, is under 'wool-foot surveillance' right now by the Cattle Raisers' Syndicate, and I wouldn't take his word under oath."

The supervisor shared the ranger's view, and smiled at "the pot calling the kettle black." And so matters drifted along till in one way or another the Kitsongs had set the whole upper valley against the hermits and Watson (in his cups) repeatedly said: "That fellow has no business in there. That's my grass. He stole it from me."

His resentment grew with repetition of his fancied grievance, and at last he made threats. "He's an outlaw, that's what he is--and as for that woman, well, I'm going up there some fine day and snatch the bunnit off her and see what she really looks like!"

"Better go slow," urged one of his friends. "That chap looks to me like one of the old guard. _He may have something to say about your doings with his daughter."

Watson only grinned. "He ain't in no position to object if she don't--and I guess I can manage her," he ended with drunken swagger.

Occasionally Hanscom met the woman on the trail or in the town, and always spoke in friendly greeting. The first time he spoke she lifted her head like a scared animal, but after that she responded with a low, "Howdy, sir?" and her voice (coming from the shadow of her ugly headgear) was unexpectedly clear and sweet. Although he was never able to see her face, something in her bearing and especially in her accent pleased and stirred him.

Without any special basis for it, he felt sorry for her and resolved to help her, and when one day he met her on the street and asked, in friendly fashion, "How are you to-day?" she looked up at him and replied, "Very well, thank you, sir," and he caught a glimpse of a lovely chin and a sad and sensitive mouth.

"She's had more than her share of trouble, that girl has," he thought as he passed on.

Thereafter a growing desire to see her eyes, to hear her voice, troubled him.

Kauffman stopped him on the road next day and said: "I am Bavarian, and in my country we respect the laws of the forest. I honor your office, and shall regard all your regulations. I have a few cattle which will naturally graze in the forest. I wish to take out a permit for them."

To this Hanscom cordially replied: "Sure thing. That's what I'm here for. And if you want any timber for your corrals just let me know and I'll fix you out."

Kauffman thanked him and rode on.

As the weeks passed Hanscom became more and more conscious of the strange woman's presence in the valley. He gave, in truth, a great deal of thought to her, and twice deliberately rode around that way in the hope of catching sight of her. He could not rid himself of a feeling of pity. The vision of her delicately modeled chin and the sorrowful droop in the line of her lips never left him. He wished--and the desire was more than curiosity--to meet her eyes, to get the full view of her face.

Gradually she came to the exchange of a few words with him, and always he felt her dark eyes glowing in the shadow of her head-dress, and they seemed quite as sad as her lips. She no longer appeared afraid of him, and yet she did not express a willingness for closer contact. That she was very lonely he was sure, for she had few acquaintances in the town and no visitors at all. No one had ever been able to penetrate to the interior of the cabin in which she secluded herself, but it was reported that she spent her time in the garden and that she had many strange flowers and plants growing there. But of this Hanscom had only the most diffused hearsay.

Watson's thought concerning the lonely woman was not merely dishonoring--it was ruthless; and when he met her, as he occasionally did, he called to her in a voice which contained something at once savage and familiar. But he could never arrest her hurrying step. Once when he planted himself directly in her way she bent her head and slipped around him, like a partridge, feeling in him the enmity that knows no pity and no remorse.

His baseness was well known to the town, for he was one of those whose tongues reveal their degradation as soon as they are intoxicated. He boasted of his exploits in the city and of the women he had brought to his ranch, and these revelations made him the hero of a certain type of loafer. His cabin was recognized as a center of disorder and was generally avoided by decent people.

As he felt his dominion slipping away, as he saw the big farmers come in down below him and recognized the rule of the Federal government above him, he grew reckless in his roping and branding. He had not been convicted of dishonesty, but it was pretty certain that he was a rustler; in fact, the whole Shellfish community was under suspicion. As the ranger visited these cabins and came upon five or six big, hulking, sullen men, he was glad that he had little business with them. They were in a chronic state of discontent with the world and especially with the Forest Service.

With the almost maniacal persistency of the drunkard, Watson now fixed his mind upon the mysterious woman at the head of the valley. He talked of no one else, and his vile words came to Hanscom's ears. Watson's cronies considered his failure to secure even a word with the woman a great joke and reported that he had found the door locked when he finally followed her home.

Hanscom, indignant yet helpless to interfere, heard with pleasure that the old man had threatened Watson with bodily harm if he came to his door again, that with all his effrontery Watson had not yet been able to set his foot across the threshold, and that he had gone to Denver on business. "He'll forget that poor woman, maybe," he said.

Thereafter he thought of her as freed from persecution, although he knew that others of the valley held her in view as legitimate quarry.

His was a fine, serious, though uncultivated nature. A genuine lover of the wilderness, he had reached that time of life when love is cleansed of its devastating selfishness, and his feeling for the lonely woman of the Shellfish held something akin to great poetry.

His own solitary, vigorous employment, his constant warfare with wind and cloud, had made him a little of the seer and something of the poet. Woman to him was not merely the female of his species; she was a marvelous being, created for the spiritual as well as for the material need of man.

In this spirit he had lived, and, being but a plain, rather shy farmer and prospector, he had come to his thirtieth year with very little love history to his credit or discredit. He was, therefore, peculiarly susceptible to that sweet disease of the imagination which is able to transform the rudest woman into beauty. In this case the very slightness of the material on which his mind dwelt set the wings of his fancy free. He brooded and dreamed as he rode his trail as well as when he sat beside his rude fireplace at night, listening to the wind in the high firs. In all his thought he was honorable.

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