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Shadows On The Mist








From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

The decision which Cavanagh made between love and duty distinguished the
officer from the man, the soldier from the civilian. He did not hesitate
to act, and yet he suffered a mental conflict as he rode back toward the
scene of that inhuman sacrifice on the altar of greed. His heart went out
to Lee Virginia in longing. Her appealing voice still lay in his ear with
an effect like the touch of her soft lips, and his flagging horse suffered
from the unconscious pressure of his haste.

"It will be hours before any part of the sheriff's posse can reach the
falls, even though they take to the swiftest motors, and then other long
hours must intervene before I can ride down to her. Yes, at least a day
and a night must drag their slow course before I can hope to be of service
to her," and the thought drew a groan of anxiety from him. At such moments
of mental stress the trail is a torture and the mountain-side an
inexorable barrier.

Half-way to the hills he was intercepted by an old man who was at work on
an irrigating ditch beside the road. He seemed very nervous and very
inquisitive, and as he questioned the ranger his eyes were like those of a
dog that fears his master's hand. Ross wondered about this afterward, but
at the moment his mind was busy with the significance of this patient
toiler with a spade. He was a prophetic figure in the most picturesque and
sterile land of the stockman. "Here within twenty miles of this peaceful
fruit-grower," he said, "is the crowning infamy of the free-booting
cowboy. My God, what a nation we are!"

He wondered, as he rode on, whether the papers of the State would make a
jest of this deed. "Will this be made the theme for caustic comment in
the Eastern press for a day, and then be forgotten?"

As his hot blood cooled he lost faith in even this sacrifice. Could
anything change the leopard West into the tameness and serenity of the ox?
"No," he decided, "nothing but death will do that. This generation, these
fierce and bloody hearts, must die; only in that way can the tradition of
violence be overcome and a new State reared."

At the foot of the toilsome, upward-winding trail he dismounted, and led
his weary horse. Over his head, and about half-way to the first hilltop,
lay a roof of fleecy vapor, faint purple in color and seamless in texture.
Through this he must pass, and it symbolized to him the line of
demarkation between the plain and the mountain, between order and
violence.

Again he rose above it, to find it a fantastic sea lit by the sun, and
glowing with pink and gold and violet. Celestial in its ethereal beauty,
it threw into still more appalling shadow the smoking altar of passion
toward which he spurred. From moment to moment the surface rose and
shifted in swift, tumultuous, yet soundless waves, breaking round
pine-clad promontories in shimmering breakers, faint, and far, and
serene.

Down through a deep canon to the south a prodigious river of mist was
rushing, a silent cataract of ashy vapor plunging to a soundless beach.
Above and beyond it the high peaks shone in radiance so pure that the
heart of the lover ached with the pain of its evanescent beauty. It was as
if he were looking across a foaming flood upon the stupendous and shining
park of some imperial potentate whose ornate and splendid country home lay
just beyond. Rocky spires rose like cathedral towers, and fortresses
abutted upon the stream. And yet in the midst of that glorified plain the
smoke of the burning rose.

Slowly he led his horse along the mountain-side, grasping with eager
desire at every changing aspect of this marvellous scene. It was
infinitely more gorgeous, more compelling, than his moonlight experience
the night before, for here reality, definite and powerful, was interfused
with mystery. These foot-hills, hitherto pleasantly precipitous, had
suddenly become grandiose. All was made over upon a mightier scale, each
rock and tree being distorted by the passing translucent clouds into a
kind of monstrous yet epic proportion.

Ghostly white ledges broke from the darker mist like fields of distant
crusted snow. Castellated crags loomed from the mystic river like
fortified islands. Cattle, silent, enormously aggrandized, emerged like
fabled beasts of the eld, and stared upon him, their jaws dripping with
dew. Bulls roared from the obscure deeps. Dead trees, with stark and
sinister arms, menaced warningly. All was as unreal as the world of pain's
delirium, and yet was as beautiful as the poet's vision; and the ranger,
feeling that he was looking upon one of Nature's rarest displays, removed
his hat in worship of it, thrilling with pride and satisfaction over the
thought that this was his domain, his to guard and preserve.

The crowning glow of mystery and grace came as he led his horse out upon a
projecting point of rocky ledge to rest. Here the cliff descended abruptly
to an enormous depth, and upon the vaporous rolling flood beneath him a
dome of darker shadow rested. At the summit of this shadow an aureole of
rainbow light, a complete and glorious circle rested, in the midst of
which his own image was flung, grotesque and gigantic.

"The Shadows of the Brocken!" he exclaimed, in ecstasy, all his
bitterness, his care, forgotten. "Now I understand Goethe's lines." In all
his life in the hills he had never before witnessed such a combination of
peak and sun and cloud and shadow.

His love for the range came back upon him with such power that tears
misted his eyes and his throat ached. "Where else will I find such scenes
as this?" he asked himself. "Where in all the lowlands could such
splendors shine? How can I leave this high world in which these wonders
come and go? I will not! Here will I bring my bride and build my home.
This is my world."

But the mist grew gray, the aureole of fire faded, the sun went down
behind the hills, and the chill of evening deepened on the trail, and as
he reapproached the scene of man's inhumanity to man the thought of
camping there beside those charred limbs called for heroic resolution. He
was hungry, too, and as the air pinched, he shivered.

"At the best, the sheriff cannot reach here before midnight," he said, and
settled down to his unsought, revolting vigil.

His one relief lay in the mental composition of a long letter to Lee
Virginia, whose life at that moment was a comfort to him. "If such purity,
such sweetness, can come from violence and vulgarity, then surely a new
and splendid State can rise even out of the ashes of these murdered men.
Perhaps this is the end of the old," he mused, "perhaps this is the
beginning of the new," and as he pondered the last faint crimson died out
of the west. "So must the hate and violence die out of America," he said,
"leaving the clear, sweet air of liberty behind."

He was near to the poet at the moment, for he was also the lover. His
allegiance to the great republic stood the test. His faith in democracy
was shaken, but not destroyed. "I will wait," he decided. "This shall be
the sign. If this deed goes unavenged, then will I put off my badge and my
uniform, and go back to the land where for a hundred years at least such
deeds as these have been impossible."

He built a fire, as night fell, to serve both as beacon and as a defence
against the cold. He felt himself weirdly remote in this vigil. From his
far height he looked abroad upon the tumbled plain as if upon an ocean
dimly perceptible yet august. "At this moment," he said, "curious and
perhaps guilty eyes are wondering what my spark of firelight may mean."

His mind went again and again to that tall old man in the ditch. What was
the meaning of his scared and sorrowful glance? Why should one so
peacefully employed at such a time and in such a place wear the look of a
hunted deer? What meant the tremor in his voice?

Was it possible that one so gentle should have taken part in this deed?
"Preposterous suspicion, and yet he had a guilty look."

He was not a believer in ghosts, but he came nearer to a fear of the dark
that night than ever before in his life. He brought his horse close to the
fire for company, and was careful not to turn his back upon the dead. A
corpse lying peacefully would not have produced this overpowering horror.
He had seen battle-fields, but this pile of mangled limbs conquered even
the hardened campaigner. He shivered each time his memory went back to
what he had first looked upon--the charred hand, the helpless heel.

From his high hill of meditation he reviewed the history of the West.
Based in bloody wars between the primitive races, and between the trappers
and their allies, the land had passed through a thin adumbration of
civilization as the stockmen drove out the buffalo and their hunters.
Vigilantes, sheriff's posses (and now and again the regular army) had
swept over these grassy swells on errands of retributory violence, and so
the territory had been divided at last into populous States. Then
politics, the great national game, had made of them a power, with Senators
to represent a mere handful of miners and herdsmen. In the Congress of the
United States these commonwealths had played their unscrupulous games,
trading for this and for that local appropriation. Happily in some
instances these Senators had been higher than their State, but in other
cases they represented only too loyally the violent and conscienceless
cow-man or lumber king, and now, as Redfield had said, the land-boomer was
to have his term. The man who valued residents, not Wild West performers,
was about to govern and despoil; this promoter, almost as selfish as the
cattle king, was about to advance the State along the lines of his
conception of civilization; and so, perhaps, this monstrous deed, this
final inexcusable inhuman offence against law and humanity, was to stand
as a monument dividing the old from the new. Such, at least, was the
ranger's hope.

At last, far in the night, he heard the snort of a horse and the sound of
voices. The law (such as it was) was creeping up the mountain-side in the
person of the sheriff of Chauvenet County, and was about to relieve the
ranger from his painful responsibility as guardian of the dead.

At last he came, this officer of the law, attended (like a Cheyenne chief)
by a dozen lesser warriors of various conditions and kinds, but among
them--indeed, second only to the sheriff--was Hugh Redfield, the Forest
Supervisor, hot and eager with haste.

As they rode up to the fire, the officer called out: "Howdy, ranger! How
about it?"

Ross stated briefly, succinctly, what he had discovered; and as he talked
other riders came up the hill and gathered closely around to listen in
wordless silence--in guilty silence, the ranger could not help believing.

The sheriff, himself a cattle-man, heard Cavanagh without comment till he
had ended with a gesture. "And there they are; I turn them over to you
with vast relief. I am anxious to go back to my own peaceful world, where
such things do not happen."

The sheriff removed his hat and wiped his brow, then swore with a mutter
of awe. "Well, by God, this is the limit! You say there were three
bodies?"

"I lacked the courage to sort them out. I've been in battle, Mr. Sheriff,
and I've seen dead men tumbled in all shapes, but someway this took the
stiffening out of my knees. I rode away and left them. I don't care to see
them again. My part of this work is done."

Redfield spoke. "Sheriff Van Horne, you and I have been running cattle in
this country for nearly thirty years, and we've witnessed all kinds of
shooting and several kinds of hanging, but when it comes to chopping and
burning men, I get off. I shall personally offer a reward of a thousand
dollars for the apprehension of these miscreants, and I hope you'll make
it your solemn duty to hunt them to earth."

"You won't have far to go," remarked Ross, significantly.

"What do you mean?" asked the sheriff.

"I mean this slaughter, like the others that have taken place, was the
work of cattle-men who claim this range. Their names are known to us
all."

"Can it be possible!" exclaimed Redfield, looking round at the silent
throng, and in the wavering light certain eyes seemed to shift and fall.

"In what essential does it differ from the affair over on the Red Desert?"
demanded Cavanagh. "Who would kill these poor sheep-herders but cattle-men
warring for the grass on which we stand?"

"But they would not dare to do such work themselves."

"No one else would do it. Hired assassins would not chop and burn. Hate
and greed were both involved in this butchery--hate and greed made mad by
drink. I tell you, the men who did this are less than a day's ride of
where we stand."

A silence followed--so deep a silence that the ranger was convinced of the
fact that in the circle of his listeners stood those who, if they had not
shared in the slaughter, at least knew the names of the guilty men.

At last the sheriff spoke, this time with a sigh. "I hope you're all
wrong, Cavanagh. I'd hate to think any constituent of mine had sanctioned
this job. Give me that lantern, Curtis."

The group of ranchers dismounted, and followed the sheriff over to the
grewsome spot; but Redfield stayed with the ranger.

"Have you any suspicion, Ross?"

"No, hardly a suspicion. However, you know as well as I that this was not
a sudden outbreak. This deed was planned. It represents the feeling of
many cattle-men--in everything but the extra horror of its execution.
That was the work of drunken, infuriated men. But I am more deeply
concerned over Miss Wetherford's distress. Did she reach you by telephone
to-night?"

"No. What's the trouble?"

"Her mother is down again. I telephoned her, and she asked me to come to
her, but I cannot go, for I have a case of smallpox up on the hill. Ambro,
the Basque herder, is down with it, and another herder is up there alone
with him. I must go back to them. But meanwhile I wish you would go to the
Fork and see what you can do for her."

His voice, filled with emotion, touched Redfield, and he said: "Can't I go
to the relief of the herder?"

"No, you must not think of it; you are a man of a family. But if you can
find any one who has had the smallpox send him up; the old herder who is
nursing the patient is not strong, and may drop any moment. Then it's up
to me."

The men came back to the camp-fire conversing in low voices, some of them
cursing in tones of awe. One or two of them were small farmers from Deer
Creek, recent comers to the State, or men with bunches of milk-cows, and
to them this deed was awesome.

The sheriff followed, saying: "Well, there's nothing to do but wait till
morning. The rest of you men better go home. You can't be of any use
here."

For more than three hours the sheriff and Redfield sat with the ranger
waiting for daylight, and during this time the name of every man in the
region was brought up and discussed. Among others, Ross mentioned the old
man in the ditch.

"He wouldn't hurt a bumblebee!" declared the sheriff. "He's got a bunch of
cattle, but he's the mildest old man in the State. He's the last rancher
in the country to even stand for such work. What made you mention him?"

"I passed him as I was riding back," replied Cavanagh, "and he had a
scared look in his eyes."

The sheriff grunted. "You imagined all that. The old chap always has a
kind of meek look."

Cavanagh, tired, hungry, and rebellious, waited until the first faint
light in the east announced the dawn; then he rose, and, stretching his
hand out toward it, said: "Here comes the new day. Will it be a new day to
the State, or is it to be the same old round of savagery?"

Redfield expressed a word of hope, and in that spirit the ranger mounted
and rode away back toward the small teepee wherein Wetherford was doing
his best to expiate his past--a past that left him old and friendless at
fifty-five. The sheriff and his men took up the work of vengeance which
fell to them as officers of the law.

It was nearly noon of a glorious day as Cavanagh, very tired and very
hungry, rode up to the sheep-herder's tent. Wetherford was sitting in the
sun calmly smoking his pipe, the sheep were feeding not far away, attended
by the dog, and an air of peace covered his sunlit rocky world.

"How is the Basque?" asked the ranger.

Wetherford pointed upward. "All over."

"Then it wasn't smallpox?"

"I reckon that's what it was; it sure was fierce. I judge it's a case of
Injun burial--no ceremony--right here in the rocks. I'll let you dig the
hole (I'm just about all in), but mind you keep to the windward all the
time. I don't want you spotted."

Cavanagh understood the necessity for these precautions, but first of all
came his own need of food and rest. Turning his tired horse to grass, he
stretched himself along a grassy, sunny cranny between the rocks, and
there ate and afterward slept, while all about him the lambs called and
the conies whined.

He was awakened by a pebble tossed upon him, and when he arose, stiff and
sore, but feeling stronger and in better temper, the sun was wearing low.
Setting to work at his task, he threw the loose rock out of a hollow in
the ledge near by, and to this rude sepulchre Wetherford dragged the dead
man, refusing all aid, and there piled a cairn of rocks above his grave.

The ranger was deeply moved by the pitiless contrast of the scene and the
drama. The sun was still shining warmly aslant the heavens; the wind,
crisp and sweet, wandered by on laggard wings, the conies cried from the
ledges; the lambs were calling--and in the midst of it one tattered
fragment of humanity was heaping the iron earth upon another, stricken,
perhaps, by the same dread disease.

Wetherford himself paused to moralize. "I suppose that chap has a mother
somewhere who is wondering where her boy is. This isn't exactly Christian
burial, but it's all he'll get, I reckon; for whether it was smallpox or
plain fever, nobody's going to uselessly resurrect him. Even the coyotes
will fight shy of his meat."

Nevertheless, the ranger took a hand at the end and rolled some huge
bowlders upon the grave, to insure the wolves' defeat.

"Now burn the bedding," he commanded--"the whole camp has got to go--and
your clothing, too, after we get down the hill."

"What will we do with the sheep?"

"Drive them over the divide and leave them."

All these things Wetherford did, and leaving the camp in ashes behind him,
Cavanagh drove the sheep before him on his homeward way. As night fell,
the dog, at his command, rounded them up and put them to bed, and the men
went on down the valley, leaving the brave brute on guard, pathetic figure
of faithful guardianship.

"It hurts me to desert you, old fellow," called the ranger, looking back,
"but there's no help for it. I'll come up in the morning and bring you
some biscuit."

The collie seemed to understand. He waggled his tail and whined, as though
struggling to express his wonder and pain, and Ross, moved to pity,
called: "Come on, boy, never mind the sheep! Come along with us!"

But the dog, leaping from side to side, uttered a short howl and a sharp
bark, as if to say: "I can't! I can't!"

"He's onto his job," remarked Wetherford. "It beats all how human they
do seem sometimes. I've no manner of doubt that dago's booted him all over
the place many a time, and yet he seemed horrible sorry about his master's
trouble. Every few minutes, all night long, he'd come pattering and
whining round the door of the tent--didn't come in, seemed just trying to
ask how things were coming. He was like a child, lonesome and grieving."

It was long after dark when they entered the canon just above the cabin,
and Wetherford was shivering from cold and weakness.

"Now you pull up just outside the gate, and wait there till I bring out
some blankets; then you've got to strip to the skin and start the world
all over again," said Cavanagh. "I'll build a fire here, and we'll cremate
your past. How about it?"

"I'm willing," responded Wetherford. "You can burn everything that belongs
to me but my wife and my girl."

All through the ceremony which followed ran this self-banter. "I'll be all
ranger, barring a commission," he said, with a grin, as he put on the
olive-yellow shirt and a pair of dusty-green trousers. "And here goes my
past!" he added, as he tossed his contaminated rags upon the fire.

"What a corking opportunity to make a fresh start," commented Cavanagh. "I
hope you see it."

"I see it; but it's hard to live up to your mark."

When every precaution had been taken, the ranger led the freshly scrubbed,
scoured, and transformed fugitive to his cabin.

"Why, man, you're fit for the State Legislature," he exclaimed, as they
came into the full light. "My clothes don't precisely meet every demand
you make upon them, but they give you an air of command. I wish your wife
could see you now."

Wetherford was quite serious as he answered: "This uniform means more to
me than you think. I wish I was entitled to wear it. The wild-wood is just
about populous enough for me."

"Good for you!" responded Cavanagh. "To convert a man of your record to a
belief in conservation is to demonstrate once again the regenerative power
of an idea." Then, seeing that Wetherford was really in earnest, he added:
"You can stay with me as long as you wish. Perhaps in time you might be
able to work into the service as a guard, although the chief is getting
more and more insistent on real foresters."

There were tears in Wetherford's eyes as he said: "You cannot realize what
this clean, warm uniform means to me. For nine years I wore the prison
stripes; then I was turned loose with a shoddy suit and a hat a size too
big for me--an outfit that gave me away everywhere I went. Till my hair
and beard sprouted I had a hard rustle of it, but my clothes grew old
faster than my beard. At last I put every cent I had earned into a poor
old horse, and a faded saddle, and once mounted I kept a-moving north." He
smoothed the sleeve of his coat. "It is ten years since I was dressed like
a man."

"You need not worry about food or shelter for the present," replied
Cavanagh, gently. "Grub is not costly here, and house-rent is less than
nominal, so make yourself at home and get strong."

Wetherford lifted his head. "But I want to do something. I want to redeem
myself in some way. I don't want my girl to know who I am, but I'd like to
win her respect. I can't be what you say she thinks I was, but if I had a
chance I might show myself a man again. I wouldn't mind Lize knowing that
I am alive--it might be a comfort to her; but I don't want even her to be
told till I can go to her in my own duds."

"She's pretty sick," said Cavanagh. "I telephoned Lee Virginia last night,
and if you wish you may ride down with me to-morrow and see her."

The old man fell a-tremble. "I daren't do that. I can't bear to tell her
where I've been!"

"She needn't know. I will tell her you've been out of your mind. I'll say
anything you wish! You can go to her in the clothes you have on if you
like--she will not recognize you as the prisoner I held the other night.
You can have your beard trimmed, and not even the justice will know you."

All reserve had vanished out of the convict's heart, and with choking
voice he thanked his young host. "I'll never be a burden to you," he
declared, in firmer voice. "And if my lung holds out, I'll show you I'm
not the total locoe that I 'pear to be."

No further reference was made to Lee Virginia, but Ross felt himself to be
more deeply involved than ever by these promises; his fortunes seemed to
be inextricably bound up with this singular and unhappy family. Lying in
his bunk (after the lights were out), he fancied himself back in his
ancestral home, replying to the questions of his aunts and uncles, who
were still expecting him to bring home a rich and beautiful American
heiress. Some of the Cavanaghs were drunkards and some were vixens, but
they were on the whole rather decent, rather decorous and very dull, and
to them this broken ex-convict and this slattern old barmaid would seem
very far from the ideal they had formed of the family into which Ross was
certain to marry.

But as he recalled the spot in which he lay and the uniform which hung
upon the wall, he was frank to admit that the beautiful and rich heiress
of whom his family dreamed was a very unsubstantial vision indeed, and
that, to be honest with himself, he had nothing to offer for such shining
good-fortune.

At breakfast next morning he said: "I must ride back and take some bread
to the dog. I can't go away and leave him there without saying 'hello.'"

"Let me do that," suggested Wetherford. "I'm afraid to go down to the
Fork. I reckon I'd better go back and tend the sheep till Gregg sends some
one up to take my place."

"That might be too late to see Lize. Lee's voice showed great anxiety. She
may be on her death-bed. No; you'd better go down with me to-day," he
urged. And at last the old man consented.

Putting some bread in his pockets, Ross rode off up the trail to see how
the dog and his flock were faring. He had not gone far when he heard the
tinkle of the bells and the murmur of the lambs, and a few moments later
the collie came toward him with the air of a boy who, having assumed to
disregard the orders of his master, expects a scolding. He plainly said:
"I've brought my sheep to you because I was lonesome. Please forgive me."

Cavanagh called to him cheerily, and tossed him a piece of bread, which he
caught in his teeth but did not swallow; on the contrary, he held it while
leaping for joy of the praise he heard in his new-found master's voice.

Turning the flock upward again toward the higher peaks, the ranger
commanded the collie to their heels, and so, having redeemed his promise,
rode back to the cabin, where he found Wetherford saddled and ready for
his momentous trip to the valley. He had shaved away his gray beard, and
had Ross been unprepared for these changes he would have been puzzled to
account for this decidedly military figure sitting statuesquely on his
pony before the door.

"You can prove an alibi," he called, as he drew near. "Gregg himself would
never recognize you now."

Wetherford was in no mood for joking. "Lize will. I wore a mustache in the
old days, and there's a scar on my chin."

As he rode he confided this strange thing to Cavanagh. "I know," said he,
"that Lize is old and wrinkled, for I've seen her, but all the same I
can't realize it. That heavy-set woman down there is not Lize. My Lize is
slim and straight. This woman whom you know has stolen her name and face,
that's all. I can't explain exactly what I feel, but Lee Virginia means
more to me now than Lize."

"I think I understand you," said Cavanagh, with sympathy in his voice.

The nearer Wetherford came to the actual meeting with his wife the more he
shook. At last he stopped in the road. "I don't believe I can do it," he
declared. "I'll be like a ghost to her. What's the use of it? She'll only
be worried by my story. I reckon I'd better keep dark to everybody. Let me
go back. I'm plum scared cold."

While still he argued, two men on horseback rounded a sharp turn in the
trail and came face to face with the ranger. Wetherford's face went
suddenly gray. "My God, there's the deputy!"

"Keep quiet. I'll do the talking," commanded Cavanagh, who was instant in
his determination to shield the man. "Good-morning, gentlemen," he called,
cheerily, "you're abroad early!"

The man in front was the deputy sheriff of the county; his companion was a
stranger.

"That was a horrible mess you stumbled on over on Deer Creek," the deputy
remarked.

"It certainly was. Have any arrests been made?"

"Not yet, but we're on a clew. This is Marshal Haines, of Dallas, Mr.
Cavanagh," pursued the deputy. The two men nodded in token of the
introduction, and the deputy went on: "You remember that old cuss that
used to work for Gregg?"

Again Cavanagh nodded.

"Well, that chap is wanted by the Texas authorities. Mr. Haines, here,
wants to see him mighty bad. He's an escaped convict with a bad record."

"Is that so?" exclaimed Cavanagh. "I thought he seemed a bit gun-shy."

"The last seen of him was when Sam Gregg sent him up to herd sheep. I
think he was mixed up in that killing, myself--him and Ballard--and we're
going up to get some track of him. Didn't turn up at your station, did
he?"

"Yes, he came by some days ago, on his way, so he said, to relieve that
sick Basque, Ambro. I went up a couple of days ago, and found the Basque
dead and the old man gone. I buried the herder the best I could, and I'm
on my way down to report the case."

The deputy mused: "He may be hanging 'round some of the lumber-camps. I
reckon we had better go up and look the ground over, anyhow. We might just
chance to overhaul him."

"He may have pulled out over the range," suggested the ranger. "Anyhow,
it's a long way up there, and you'll probably have to camp at my place
to-night. You'll find the key hanging up over the door. Go in and make
yourself comfortable."

The deputy thanked him, and was about to ride on when Cavanagh added: "I
burned that Basque's tent and bedding for fear of contagion. His outfit
was worthless, anyhow. You'll find the sheep just above my cabin, and the
horse in my corral."

"The old man didn't take the horse, eh? Well, that settles it; he's sure
at one of the camps. Much obliged. Good-day."

As the two officers rode away Wetherford leaned heavily on his pommel and
stared at the ranger with wide eyes. His face was drawn and his lips dry.
"They'll get me! My God, they'll get me!" he said.

"Oh no, they won't," rejoined Cavanagh. "You're all right yet. They
suspected nothing. How could they, with you in uniform and in my
company?"

"All the same, I'm scared. That man Haines had his eyes on me every
minute. He saw right through me. They'll get me, and they'll charge me up
with that killing."

"No, they won't, I tell you," insisted the ranger. "Haines suspected
nothing. I had his eye. He never saw you before, and has nothing but a
description to go by. So cheer up. Your uniform and your position with me
will make you safe--perfectly safe. They'll find the Basque's camp burned
and the sheep in charge of the dog, and they'll fancy that you have
skipped across the range. But see here, old man," and he turned on him
sharply, "you didn't tell me the whole truth. You said you were out on
parole."

"I couldn't tell you the whole truth," replied the fugitive. "But I will
now. I was in for a life sentence. I was desperate for the open air and
homesick for the mountains, and I struck down one of the guards. I was
willing to do anything to get out. I thought if I could get back to this
country and my wife and child I'd be safe. I said I'd be willing to go
back to the pen if necessary, but I'm not. I can't do it. I'd die there in
that hell. You must save me for my girl's sake."

His voice and eyes were wild with a kind of desperate fury of fear, and
Cavanagh, moved to pity, assured him of his aid. "Now listen," he said.
"I'm going to shield you on account of your work for that poor shepherd
and for your daughter's sake. It's my duty to apprehend you, of course,
but I'm going to protect you. The safest thing for you to do is to go back
to my cabin. Ride slow, so as not to get there till they're gone. They'll
ride over to the sawmill, without doubt. If they come back this way,
remember that the deputy saw you only as a ragged old man with a long
beard, and that Haines has nothing but a printed description to go by.
There's no use trying to flee. You are a marked man in that uniform, and
you are safer right here with me than anywhere else this side of Chicago.
Haines is likely to cross the divide in the belief that you have gone that
way, and, if he does, you have no one but the deputy to deal with."

He succeeded at last in completely rousing the older man's courage.

Wetherford rose to meet his opportunity. "I'll do it," he said, firmly.

"That's the talk!" exclaimed Cavanagh, to encourage him. "You can throw
them off the track this time, and when I come back to-morrow I'll bring
some other clothing for you, and then we'll plan some kind of a scheme
that will get you out of the country. I'll not let them make a scapegoat
of you."

The ranger watched the fugitive, as he started back over the trail in this
desperate defiance of his pursuers, with far less confidence in the
outcome than he had put into words.

"All depends on Wetherford himself. If his nerve does not fail him, if
they take the uniform for granted, and do not carry the matter to the
Supervisor, we will pull the plan through." And in this hope he rode away
down the trail with bent head, for all this bore heavily upon his
relationship to the girl waiting for him in the valley. He had thought
Lize a burden, a social disability, but a convict father now made the
mother's faults of small account.

The nearer he drew to the meeting with Lee Virginia the more important
that meeting became. After all, woman is more important than war. The love
of home and the child persists through incredible vicissitudes; the
conqueror returns from foreign lands the lover still; and in the deep of
flooded mines and on the icy slopes of arctic promontories dead men have
been found holding in their rigid hands the pictured face of some fair
girl. In the presence of such irrefutable testimony, who shall deny the
persistence and the reality of love?

Cavanagh had seen Virginia hardly more than a score of times, and yet she
filled his thought, confused his plans, making of his brain a place of
doubt and hesitation. For her sake he had entered upon a plan to shield a
criminal, to harbor an escaped convict. It was of no avail to argue that
he was moved to shield Wetherford because of his heroic action on the
peak. He knew perfectly well that it was because he could not see that
fair, brave girl further disgraced by the discovery of her father's
identity, for in the searching inquiry which would surely follow his
secret would develop.

To marry her, knowing the character of her father and her mother, was
madness, and the voice within him warned him of his folly. "Pure water
cannot be drawn from corrupt sources," it is said. Nevertheless, the
thought of having the girl with him in the wilderness filled him with
divine recklessness. He was bewitched by the satin smoothness of her skin,
the liquid light of her eye, the curve of her cheek, the swell of her
bosom, and, most of all, by the involuntary movement of yielding which
betrayed her trust and her love. While still he debated, alternately
flushed with resolve to be happy and chilled by some strange dejection, he
met Swenson, the young guard who guarded the forest on the south Fork.

As he rode up, Cavanagh perceived in the other man's face something
profoundly serious. He did not smile in greeting, as was usual with him,
and, taking some letters from his pocket, passed them over in ominous
silence.

Cavanagh, upon looking them over, selected a letter evidently from Mrs.
Redfield, and stuffed the others into his coat-pocket. It was a closely
written letter, and contained in its first sentence something which deeply
affected him. Slipping from his saddle, he took a seat upon a stone, that
he might the better read and slowly digest what was contained therein. He
read on slowly, without any other movement than that which was required to
turn the leaves. It was a passionate plea from Eleanor Redfield against
his further entanglement with Lize Wetherford's girl.

"You cannot afford to marry her. You simply cannot. The old mother is too
dreadful, and may live on for years. The girl is attractive, I grant you,
but she's tainted. If there is anything in the law of heredity, she will
develop the traits of her mother or her father sooner or later. You must
not marry her, Ross; and if you cannot, what will you do? There's only one
thing to do. Keep away. I enclose a letter from your sister, pleading with
me to urge you to visit them this winter. She is not very strong, as you
can see by her writing, and her request will give you an excuse for
breaking off all connection with this girl. I am sorry for her, Ross, but
you can't marry her. You must not--you must not! Ride over and see us
soon, and we will talk it all out together."

He opened another letter, but did not read it. He was too profoundly
shaken by the first. He felt the pure friendship, the fine faith, and the
guardianship of the writer, and he acknowledged the good sense of all she
said, and yet--and yet--

When he looked up Swenson was staring down at him with a face of such
bitterness that it broke through even the absorbed and selfish meditation
into which he had been thrown.

"What's the matter, Swenson? You look as if you had lost a friend."

"I have," answered the guard, shortly, "and so have you. The chief is
out."

"What?"

"They've got him!" he exclaimed. "He's out."

Cavanagh sprang up. "I don't believe it! For what reason? Why?"

"Don't that letter tell you? The whole town is chuckling. Every criminal
and plug-ugly in the country is spitting in our faces this morning. Yes,
sir, the President has fired the chief--the man that built up this
Forestry Service. The whole works is goin' to hell, that's what it is.
We'll have all the coal thieves, water-power thieves, poachers, and
free-grass pirates piling in on us in mobs. They'll eat up the forest. I
see the finish of the whole business. They'll put some Western man in,
somebody they can work. Then where will we be?"

Cavanagh's young heart burned with indignation, but he tried to check the
other man's torrent of protest.

"I can't believe it. There's some mistake. Maybe they've made him the
secretary of the department or something."

"No, they haven't. They've thrown him out. They've downed him because he
tried to head off some thievery of coal-mines in Alaska." The man was
ready to weep with chagrin and indignant sorrow. His voice choked, and he
turned away to conceal his emotion.

Cavanagh put the letter back into his pocket and mounted his horse. "Well,
go on back to your work, Swenson. I'm going to town to get the Supervisor
on the wire, and find out what it all means."

He was almost as badly stunned by the significance of Swenson's news as
Swenson himself. Could it be possible that the man who had built up the
field service of the bureau--the man whose clean-handed patriotism had
held the boys together, making them every year more clearly a unit, a
little army of enthusiasts--could it be possible that the originator, the
organizer of this great plan, had been stricken down just when his
influence was of most account? He refused to believe it of an
administration pledged to the cause of conservation.

As he entered the town he was struck instantly by the change in the faces
turned toward him, in the jocular greetings hurled at him. "Hello, Mr.
Cossack! What do you think of your chief now?"

"This will put an end to your infernal nonsense," said another. "We'll
have a man in there now who knows the Western ways, and who's willing to
boom things along. The cork is out of your forest bottle."

Gregg was most offensive of all. "This means throwing open the forest to
anybody that wants to use it. Means an entire reversal of this fool
policy."

"Wait and see," replied Cavanagh, but his face was rigid with the
repression of the fear and anger he felt. With hands that trembled he
opened the door to the telephone-booth, closed it carefully behind him,
and called for the Supervisor's office. As soon as Redfield replied, he
burst forth in question: "Is it true that the chief is out?"

Redfield's voice was husky as he replied, "Yes, lad, they've got him."

"Good Lord! What a blow to the service!" exclaimed Cavanagh, with a groan
of sorrow and rage. "What is the President thinking of--to throw out the
only man who stood for the future, the man who had built up this corps,
who was its inspiration?" Then after a pause he added, with bitter
resolution: "This ends it for me. Here's where I get off."

"Don't say that, boy. We need you now more than ever."

"I'm through. I'm done with America--with the States. I shall write my
resignation at once. Send down another man to take my place."

Redfield's pleadings were of no avail. Cavanagh went directly from the
booth to the post-office, and there, surrounded by jeering and exultant
citizens, he penned his resignation and mailed it. Then, with stern and
contemptuous face, he left the place, making no reply to the jeers of his
enemies, and, mounting his horse, mechanically rode away out upon the
plains, seeking the quiet, open places in order to regain calmness and
decision. He did not deliberately ride away from Lee Virginia, but as he
entered upon the open country he knew that he was leaving her as he was
leaving the forests. He had cut himself off from her as he had cut himself
off from the work he loved. His heart was swollen big within his breast.
He longed for the return of "the Colonel" to the White House. "What manner
of ruler is this who is ready to strike down the man whose very name means
conservation, and who in a few years would have made this body of forest
rangers the most effective corps of its size in the world?" He groaned
again, and his throat ached with the fury of his indignation.

"Dismissed for insubordination," the report said. "In what way? Only in
making war on greed, in checking graft, in preserving the heritage of the
people."

The lash that cut deepest was the open exultation of the very men whose
persistent attempt to appropriate public property the chief had helped to
thwart. "Redfield will go next. The influence that got the chief will get
Hugh. He's too good a man to escape. Then, as Swenson says, the thieves
will roll in upon us to slash, and burn, and corrupt. What a country! What
a country!"

As he reached the end of this line of despairing thought, he came back to
the question of his remaining personal obligations. Wetherford must be
cared for, and then--and then! there was Virginia waiting for him at this
moment. In his weakness he confessed that he had never intended to marry
her, and yet he had never deliberately intended to do her wrong. He had
always stopped short of the hideous treachery involved in despoiling her
young love. "And for her sake, to save her from humiliation, I will help
her father to freedom."

This brought him back to the hideous tragedy of the heights, and with that
thought the last shred of faith in the sense of justice in the State
vanished.

"They will never discover those murderers. They will permit this outrage
to pass unpunished, like the others. It will be merely another 'dramatic
incident' in the history of the range."

His pony of its own accord turned, and by a circuitous route headed at
last for the home canon as if it knew its master's wavering mind. Cavanagh
observed what he was doing, but his lax hand did not intervene. Helpless
to make the decision himself, he welcomed the intervention of the homing
instinct of his horse. With bent head and brooding face he returned to the
silence of the trail and the loneliness of the hills.





Next: Cavanagh's Last Vigil Begins

Previous: The Smoke Of The Burning



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