Some wasps built their nests during the week in a Scotch clergyman's best breeches. On the Sabbath as he warmed up to his preaching, the wasps, too, warmed up, with the result that presently the minister was leaping about like a jack in the box... Read more of Devil at Free Jokes.caInformational Site Network Informational
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The Forest Ranger








From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

From her makeshift bed in the middle of the floor Lee Virginia was
awakened next morning by the passing of some one down the hall calling at
each door, "Six o'clock!" She had not slept at all till after one. She was
lame, heart-weary, and dismayed, but she rose and dressed herself as
neatly as before. She had decided to return to Sulphur. "I cannot endure
this," she had repeated to herself a hundred times. "I will not!"

Hearing the clatter of dishes, she ventured (with desperate courage) into
the dining-room, which was again filled with cowboys, coal-miners,
ranchers and their tousled families, and certain nondescript town loafers
of tramp-like appearance. The flies were nearly as bad as ever--but not
quite, for under Mrs. Wetherford's dragooning the waiters had made a
nerveless assault upon them with newspaper bludgeons, and a few of them
had been driven out into the street.

Slipping into a seat at the end of the table which offered the cleanest
cloth, Lee Virginia glanced round upon her neighbors with shrinking eyes.
All were shovelling their food with knife-blades and guzzling their coffee
with bent heads; their faces scared her, and she dropped her eyes.

At her left, however, sat two men whose greetings were frank and manly,
and whose table-manners betrayed a higher form of life. One of them was a
tall man with a lean red face against which his blond mustache lay like a
chalk-mark. He wore a corduroy jacket, cut in Norfolk style, and in the
collar of his yellow shirt a green tie was loosely knotted. His hands were
long and freckled, but were manifestly trained to polite usages.

The other man was younger and browner, and of a compact, athletic figure.
On the breast of his olive-green coat hung a silver badge which bore a
pine-tree in the centre. His shirt was tan-colored and rough, but his head
was handsome. He looked like a young officer in the undress uniform of the
regular army. His hands were strong but rather small, and the lines of his
shoulders graceful. Most attractive of all were his eyes, so brown, so
quietly humorous, and so keen.

In the rumble of cheap and vulgar talk the voices of these men appealed to
the troubled girl with great charm. She felt more akin to them than to any
one else in the room, and from time to time she raised her eyes to their
faces.

They were aware of her also, and their gaze was frankly admiring as well
as wondering; and in passing the ham and eggs or the sugar they contrived
to show her that they considered her a lady in a rough place, and that
they would like to know more about her.

She accepted their civilities with gratitude, and listened to their talk
with growing interest. It seemed that the young man had come down from the
hills to meet his friend and take him back to his cabin.

"I can't do it to-day, Ross," said the older man. "I wish I could, but one
meal of this kind is all I can stand these days."

"You're getting finicky," laughed the younger man.

"I'm getting old. Time was when my fell of hair would rise at nothing, not
even flies in the butter, but now--"

"That last visit to the ancestral acres is what did it."

"No, it's age--age and prosperity. I know now what it is to have broiled
steak."

Mrs. Wetherford, seizing the moment, came down to do the honors. "You
fellers ought to know my girl. Virginny, this is Forest Supervisor
Redfield, and this is Ross Cavanagh, his forest ranger in this district.
You ought to know each other. My girl's just back from school, and she
don't think much of the Fork. It's a little too coarse for her."

Lee flushed under this introduction, and her distress was so evident that
both men came to her rescue.

The older man bowed, and said: "I didn't know you had a daughter, Mrs.
Wetherford," and Cavanagh, with a glance of admiration, added: "We've been
wondering who you might be."

Lize went on: "I thought I'd got rid of her. She's been away now for about
ten years. I don't know but it was a mistake--look's like she's grown a
little too fine-haired for us doughies out here."

"So much the worse for us," replied Redfield.

This little dialogue gave the girl time to recover herself, but as
Cavanagh watched the blush fade from her face, leaving it cold and white,
he sympathized with her--pitied her from the bottom of his heart. He
perceived that he was a chance spectator of the first scene in a painful
domestic drama--one that might easily become a tragedy. He wondered what
the forces might be which had brought such a daughter to this sloven, this
virago. To see a maid of this delicate bloom thrust into such a place as
Lize Wetherford's "hotel" had the reputation of being roused indignation.

"When did you reach town?" he asked, and into his voice his admiration
crept.

"Only last night."

"You find great changes here?"

"Not so great as in my mother. It's all----" She stopped abruptly, and he
understood.

Lize being drawn back to her cash-register, Redfield turned to say: "My
dear young lady, I don't suppose you remember me, but I knew you when you
were a tot of five or six. I knew your father very well."

"Did you?" Her face lighted up.

"Yes, poor fellow, he went away from here rather under a cloud, you
know."

"I remember a little of it. I was here when the shooting took place."

"So you were. Well, since then much has happened to us all," he explained
to the ranger. "There wasn't room for a dashing young blood such as Ed
Wetherford was in those days." He turned to Lee. "He was no worse than the
men on the other side--it was dog eat dog; but some way the people rather
settled on him as a scapegoat. He was forced out, and your mother has
borne the brunt of it since. Those were lawless days."

It was a painful subject, and Redfield's voice grew lower and more
hesitant as he went on. Looking at this charming girl through the smoke of
fried ham, with obscene insects buzzing about her fair head, made him feel
for the thousandth time, and more keenly than ever before, the amazing
combinations in American society. How could she be the issue of Edward and
Eliza Wetherford?

More and more Lee Virginia's heart went out in trust toward these two men.
Opposed to the malodorous, unshaven throng which filled the room, they
seemed wondrously softened and sympathetic, and in the ranger's gaze was
something else--something which made her troubles somehow less
intolerable. She felt that he understood the difficult situation in which
she found herself.

Redfield went on. "You find us horribly uncivilized after ten years'
absence?"

"I find this uncivilised," she replied, with fierce intensity, looking
around the room. Then, on the impulse, she added: "I can't stand it! I
came here to live with my mother, but this is too--too horrible!"

"I understand your repulsion," replied Redfield. "A thousand times I
repeat, apropos of this country, 'Where every prospect pleases and only
man is vile.'"

"Do you suppose it was as bad ten years ago?" she asked. "Was everything
as dirty--as mean? Were the houses then as full of flies and smells?"

"I'm afraid they were. Of course, the country isn't all like this, and
there are neat homes and gentle people in Sulphur; but most cattle-men
are--as they've always been--a shiftless, happy-go-lucky lot at best--and
some of them have been worse, as you know."

"I never dreamed of finding my mother in such a place," she went on. "I
don't know what to do or say. She isn't well. I ought to stay and help
her, and yet--oh, it is disheartening!"

Lize tapped Redfield on the shoulder. "Come over here, Reddy, if you've
finished your breakfast; I want to talk with you."

Redfield rose and followed his landlady behind the counter, and there sat
in earnest conversation while she made change. The tone in which her
mother addressed the Supervisor, her action of touching him as one man
lays hand upon another, was profoundly revealing to Lee Virginia. She
revolted from it without realizing exactly what it meant; and feeling
deeply but vaguely the forest ranger's sympathy, she asked:

"How can you endure this kind of life?"

"I can't, and I don't," he answered, cautiously, for they were being
closely observed. "I am seldom in town; my dominion is more than a mile
above this level. My cabin is nine thousand feet above the sea. It is
clean and quiet up there."

"Are all the other restaurants in the village like this?"

"Worse. I come here because it is the best."

She rose. "I can't stand this air and these flies any longer. They're too
disgusting."

He followed her into the other house, conscious of the dismay and
bitterness which burst forth the instant they were alone. "What am I to
do? She is my mother, but I've lost all sense of relationship to her. And
these people--except you and Mr. Redfield--are all disgusting to me. It
isn't because my mother is poor, it isn't because she's keeping boarders;
it's something else." At this point her voice failed her.

The ranger, deeply moved, stood helplessly silent. What could he say? He
knew a great deal better than she the essential depravity of her mother,
and he felt keenly the cruelty of fate which had plunged a fine young
spirit into this swamp of ill-smelling humanity.

"Let us go out into the air," he suggested, presently. "The mountain wind
will do you good."

She followed him trustfully, and as she stepped from the squalor of the
hotel into the splendor of the morning her head lifted. She drank the
clear, crisp wind as one takes water in the desert.

"The air is clean, anyway," she said.

Cavanagh, to divert her, pointed away to the mountains. "There is my
dominion. Up there I am sole ruler. No one can litter the earth with
corruption or poison the streams."

She did not speak, but as she studied the ranger her face cleared. "It
is beautiful up there."

He went on. "I hate all this scrap-heap quite as heartily as you do, but
up there is sweetness and sanity. The streams are germless, and the forest
cannot be devastated. That is why I am a ranger. I could not endure life
in a town like this."

He turned up the street toward the high hill to the south, and she kept
step with him. As she did not speak, he asked: "What did you expect to do
out here?"

"I hoped to teach," she replied, her voice still choked with her emotion.
"I expected to find the country much improved."

"And so it is; but it is still a long way from an Eastern State. Perhaps
you will find the people less savage than they appear at first glance."

"It isn't the town or the people, it is my mother!" she burst forth again.
"Tell me! A woman in the car yesterday accused my mother of selling
whiskey unlawfully. Is this so? Tell me!"

She faced him resolutely, and perceiving that she could not be evaded, he
made slow answer. "I don't know that she does, but I've heard it charged
against her."

"Who made the charge?"

"One of the clergymen, and then it's common talk among the rough men of
the town."

"Is that the worst they say of her? Be honest with me--I want to know the
worst."

He was quite decisive as he said: "Yes, that is the worst."

She looked relieved. "I'm glad to hear you say so. I've been imagining all
kinds of terrifying things."

"Then, too, her bad health is some excuse for her housekeeping," he added,
eager to lessen the daughter's humiliation, "and you must remember her
associations are not those which breed scrupulous regard for the
proprieties."

"But she's my mother!" wailed the girl, coming back to the central fact.
"She has sent me money--she has been kind to me--what am I to do? She
needs me, and yet the thought of staying here and facing her life
frightens me."

The rotten board walks, the low rookeries, the unshaven, blear-eyed men
sitting on the thresholds of the saloons, the slattern squaws wandering
abroad like bedraggled hens, made the girl stare with wonder and dismay.
She had remembered the town street as a highway filled with splendid
cavaliers, a list wherein heroic deeds were done with horse and pistol.

She recognized one of those "knights of the lariat" sitting in the sun,
flabby, grizzled, and inert. Another was trying to mount his horse with a
bottle in his hand. She recalled him perfectly. He had been her girlish
ideal of manly beauty. Now here he was, old and mangy with drink at forty.
In a most vivid and appealing sense he measured the change in her as well
as the decay of the old-time cowboy. His incoherent salutation as his eyes
fell upon her was like the final blasphemous word from the rear-guard of a
savage tribe, and she watched him ride away reeling limply in his saddle
as one watches a carrion-laden vulture take its flight.

She perceived in the ranger the man of the new order, and with this in her
mind she said: "You don't belong here? You're not a Western man."

"Not in the sense of having been born here," he replied. "I am, in fact, a
native of England, though I've lived nearly twenty years of my life in the
States."

She glanced at his badge. "How did you come to be a ranger--what does it
mean? It's all new to me."

"It is new to the West," he answered, smilingly, glad of a chance to turn
her thought from her own personal griefs. "It has all come about since you
went East. Uncle Sam has at last become provident, and is now 'conserving
his resources.' I am one of his representatives with stewardship over some
ninety thousand acres of territory--mostly forest."

She looked at him with eyes of changing light. "You don't talk like an
Englishman, and yet you are not like the men out here."

"I shouldn't care to be like some of them," he answered. "My being here is
quite logical. I went into the cattle business like many another, and I
went broke. I served under Colonel Roosevelt in the Cuban War, and after
my term was out, naturally drifted back. I love the wilderness and have
some natural taste for forestry, and I can ride and pack a horse as well
as most cowboys, hence my uniform. I'm not the best forest ranger in the
service, I'll admit, but I fancy I'm a fair average."

"And that is your badge--the pine-tree?"

"Yes, and I am proud of it. Some of the fellows are not, but so far as I
am concerned I am glad to be known as a defender of the forest. A tree
means much to me. I never mark one for felling without a sense of
responsibility to the future."

Her questions came slowly, like those of a child. "Where do you live?"

"Directly up the South Fork, about twenty miles."

"What do you do?"

He smiled. "Not much. I ride the trails, guard the game, put out fires,
scale lumber, burn brush, build bridges, herd cattle, count sheep, survey
land, and a few other odd chores. It's supposed to be a soft snap, but I
can't see it that way."

"Do you live alone?"

"Yes, for the larger part of the time. I have an assistant who is with me
during part of the summer months. Mostly I am alone. However, I am
supposed to keep open house, and I catch a visitor now and then."

They were both more at ease now, and her unaffected interest pleased him.

She went on, steadily: "Don't you get very lonely?"

"In winter, sometimes; in summer I'm too busy to get lonely. In the fire
season I'm in the saddle every day, and sometimes all night."

"Who cooks for you?"

"I do. That's part of a ranger's job. We have no 'servant problem' to
contend with."

"Do you expect to do this always?"

He smiled again. "There you touch my secret spring. I have the hope of
being Chief Forester some time--I mean we all have the prospect of
promotion to sustain us. The service is so new that any one with even a
knowledge of forestry is in demand; by and by real foresters will arise."

She returned abruptly to her own problem. "I dread to go back to my
mother, but I must. Oh, how I hate that hotel! I loathe the flies, the
smells, the people that eat there, the waiters--everything!" She
shuddered.

"Many of the evils you mention could be reformed--except, of course, some
of the people who come to eat. I fear several of them have gone beyond
reformation."

As they started back down the street she saw the motor-stage just leaving
the door of the office. "That settles one question," she said. "I can't
get away till to-morrow."

"Where would you go if you broke camp--back to the East?"

"No; my mother thinks there is a place for me in Sulphur City."

"Your case interests me deeply. I wish I could advise you to stay, but
this is a rough town for a girl like you. Why don't you talk the problem
over with the Supervisor?" His voice became firmer. "Mrs. Redfield is the
very one to help you."

"Where does she live?"

"Their ranch lies just above Sulphur, at the mouth of the Canon. May I
tell him what you've told me? He's a good sort, is Redfield--much better
able to advise than I am."

Cavanagh found himself enjoying the confidence of this girl so strangely
thrown into his care, and the curious comment of the people in the street
did not disturb him, except as it bore upon his companion's position in
the town.

At the door of the hotel some half-a-dozen men were clustered. As the
young couple approached they gave way, but a short, powerful man, whom Lee
Virginia recognized as Gregg the sheepman, called to the ranger:

"I want to see you before you leave town, Mr. Ranger."

"Very well. I shall be here all the forenoon," answered Cavanagh, in the
tone of a man accepting a challenge; then, turning to the girl, he said,
earnestly: "I want to help you. I shall be here for lunch, and meanwhile I
wish you would take Redfield into your confidence. He's a wise old boy,
and everybody knows him. No one doubts his motives; besides, he has a
family, and is rich and unhurried. Would you like me to talk with him?"

"If you will. I want to do right--indeed I do."

"I'm sure of that," he said, with eyes upon her flushed and quivering
face. "There's a way out, believe me."

They parted on the little porch of the hotel, and her eyes followed his
upright figure till he entered one of the shops. He had precisely the look
and bearing of a young lieutenant in the regular army, and she wondered
what Gregg's demand meant. In his voice was both menace and contempt.

She returned to her own room, strangely heartened by her talk with the
ranger. "If I stay here another night this room must be cleaned," she
decided, and approached the bed as though it harbored venomous reptiles.
"This is one of the things that must be reformed," she decided, harking
back to the ranger's quiet remark.

She was still pondering ways and means of making the room habitable when
her mother came in.

"How'd you sleep last night?"

Lee Virginia could not bring herself to lie. "Not very well," she
admitted.

"Neither did I. Fact of the matter is your coming fairly upset me. I've
been kind o' used up for three months. I don't know what ails me. I'd
ought to go up to Sulphur to see a doctor, but there don't seem to be any
free time. I 'pear to have lost my grip. Food don't give me any strength.
I saw you talking with Ross Cavanagh. There's a man--and Reddy. Reddy is
what you may call a fancy rancher--goes in for alfalfy and fruit, and all
that. He isn't in the forest service for the pay or for graft. He's got a
regular palace up there above Sulphur--hot and cold water all through the
house, a furnace in the cellar, and two bath-rooms, so they tell me; I
never was in the place. Well, I must go back--I can't trust them girls a
minute." She turned with a groan of pain. "'Pears like every joint in me
is a-creakin' to-day."

"Can't I take your place?" asked Lee Virginia, pity deepening in her heart
as she caught the look of suffering on her mother's face.

"No; you better keep out o' the caffy. It ain't a fit place for you. Fact
is, I weren't expecting anything so fine as you are. I laid awake till
three o'clock last night figurin' on what to do. I reckon you'd better go
back and give this outfit up as a bad job. I used to tell Ed you didn't
belong to neither of us, and you don't. I can't see where you did come
from--anyhow, I don't want the responsibility of havin' you here. Why,
you'll have half the men in the county hitchin' to my corral--and the
males out here are a fierce lot o' brutes." She studied the girl again,
finding her so dainty, so far above herself, that she added: "It would be
a cruel shame for me to keep you here, with all these he-wolves roamin'
around. You're too good to be meat for any of them. You just plan to pack
up and pull out to-morrow."

She went out with a dragging step that softened the girl's heart. It was
true there was little of real affection between them. Her memories of
Eliza up to this moment had been rather mixed. As a child she had seldom
been in her arms, and she had always been a little afraid of the bold,
bright, handsome creature who rode horses and shot pistols like a man. It
was hard to relate the Eliza Wetherford of those days with this flabby,
limping old woman, and yet her daughter came nearer to loving her at this
moment than at any time since her fifth year.





Next: Lee Virginia Wages War

Previous: The Desert Chariot



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