VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Old Sheep-herder








From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

The ranger was awakened in the first faint dawn by the passing of the
girl's light feet as she went across the hall to her mother's room, and a
moment later he heard the low murmur of her voice. Throwing off his
blankets and making such scant toilet as he needed, he stepped into the
hall and waited for her to return.

Soon she came toward him, a smile of confidence and pleasure on her lips.

"How is she?" he asked.

"Quite comfortable."

"And you?" His voice was very tender.

"I am a little tired," she acknowledged. "I didn't sleep very well."

"You didn't sleep at all," he declared, regretfully.

"Oh yes, I did," she replied, brightly.

She appeared a little pale but by no means worn. Indeed, her face had
taken on new charm with its confession of feminine weakness, its
expression of trust in him.

These two ardent souls confronted each other in absorbed silence with
keener perception, with new daring, with new intimacy, till he recalled
himself with effort. "You must let me help you if there's anything I can
do. Remember, I'm your big brother."

"I remember," she answered, smilingly, "and I'm going out to see what my
big brother is to have for breakfast."

Cavanagh found the street empty, silent, and utterly commonplace. And as
he walked past Halsey's saloon the tumult of the night seemed born of a
vision in disordered sleep--and yet it had happened! From these reeking
little dens a score of foul tatterdemalions had issued, charged with
malicious fury. Each of these shacks seemed the lurking-place of a species
of malevolent insect whose sting was out for every comer.

The rotting sidewalks, the tiny shops, with their dusty fly-specked
windows, the groggeries, from whose open doors a noisome vapor streamed,
poisoning the morning air--all these typed the old-time West as Redfield
and his farmstead typed the new.

"Once I would have laughed at this town," he said; "but now it is
disgusting--something to be wiped out as one expunges an obscene mark upon
a public wall."

As for the attack upon himself, terrifying as it had seemed to Lee
Virginia, it was in reality only another lively episode in the history of
the town, another disagreeable duty in the life of a ranger. It was all a
part of his job.

He went forth to his duties with a deepened conviction of the essential
lawlessness of the State and of America in general; for this spirit of mob
law was to be found in some form throughout the land. He was disgusted,
but not beaten. His resolution to carry out the terms of his contract with
the Government remained unshaken.

He carried with him, also, a final disturbing glimpse of Eliza
Wetherford's girl that did indeed threaten his peace of mind. There was an
involuntary appeal, a wistful depth, to her glance which awakened in him
an indignant pity, and also blew into flame something not so
creditable--something which smoldered beneath his conscious will. He
perceived in her a spirit of yielding which was difficult to resist. He
understood, much more clearly than at his first meeting with her, how
impossible it was for her to remain in this country (where law was a joke
and women a ribald jest) without being corrupted. She had not escaped her
heritage of passion, and her glances, innocent as they were, roused, even
in him, something lawless.

As he climbed the long hill he grappled deeply with this new and
inexplicable weakness. He had always been a decent fellow as respects
women, and had maintained the same regard for the moral code that he
instinctively bore toward the laws of his adopted country. He could not,
therefore, regard this girl (low as her parentage seemed) in the light of
license; for (he thought) whatever of evil may have been planted deep in
her nature by her ill-assorted father and mother, she is at the moment
sweet and fine, and the man who would awaken her other self should be
accursed.

In this mood, too, he acknowledged the loneliness of his life for the
first time, and rode his silent way up the trail like one in a dream. He
went over his life story in detail, wondering if he had not made a mistake
in leaving England, in taking out his American citizenship. He considered
again, very seriously, the question of going back to live on the estate of
his mother, and once more decided that its revenue was too small. To
return to it meant an acceptance of the restricted life of an English
farmer, and, worst of all, an acquiescence in the social despotism which
he had come to feel and to hate.

The English empire to him was falling apart. Its supremacy was already
threatened by Germany, whereas the future of the States appealed to his
imagination. Here the problems of popular government and of industry were
to be worked out on the grandest scale. The West inspired him. "Some day
each of these great ranges will be a national forest, and each of these
canons will contain its lake, its reservoir." There was something fine in
this vision of man's conquest of nature. "Surely in this development there
is a place for me," he said.

Start at any place he pleased, his mind circled and came back to Lee
Virginia. He reproached himself for not having remained one more day to
help her. She was in the midst of a most bleak and difficult pass, and
whether she came through or not depended on something not derived from
either her father or her mother. The test of her character was being
made.

"Happily the father is dead, and his exploits fading to a dim legend; but
the mother may live for years to dishearten and corrupt. It is foolish of
the girl to stay, and yet to have her go would leave me and the whole
valley poorer."

He perceived in her a symbol. "She is the new West just as the mother
represents the old, and the law of inheritance holds in her as it holds in
the State. She is a mixture of good and evil, of liberty and license. She
must still draw forward, for a time, the dead weight of her past, just as
the West must bear with and gradually slough off its violent moods."

His pony plodded slowly, and the afternoon was half-spent before he came
in sight of the long, low log-cabin which was the only home he possessed
in all America. For the first time since he built it, the station seemed
lonely and disheartening. "Would any woman, for love of me, come to such a
hearthstone?" he asked himself. "And if she consented to do so, could I be
so selfish as to exact such sacrifice? No, the forest ranger in these
attitudes must be young and heart-free; otherwise his life would be
miserably solitary."

He unsaddled his horse and went about his duties with a leaden pall over
his spirit, a fierce turmoil in his brain. He was no longer single-hearted
in his allegiance to the forest. He could not banish that appealing
girlish face, that trusting gaze. Lee Virginia needed him as he needed
her; and yet--and yet--the people's lands demanded his care, his social
prejudices forbade his marriage.

He was just dishing out his rude supper when the feet of a horse on the
log bridge announced a visitor.

With a feeling of pleasure as well as relief, he rose to greet the
stranger. "Any visitor is welcome this night," he said.

The horseman proved to be his former prisoner, the old man Edwards, who
slipped from his saddle with the never-failing grace of the cow-man, and
came slowly toward the cabin. He smiled wearily as he said: "I'm on your
trail, Mr. Ranger, but I bear no malice. You were doing your duty. Can you
tell me how far it is to Ambro's camp?"

There was something forlorn in the man's attitude, and Cavanagh's heart
softened. "Turn your horse into the corral and come to supper," he
commanded, with Western bluntness; "we'll talk about all that later."

Edwards accepted his hospitality without hesitation, and when he had
disposed of his mount and made himself ready for the meal, he came in and
took a seat at the table in silence, while the ranger served him and
waited for his explanation.

"I'm going up to take Ambro's place," he began, after a few minutes of
silent eating. "Know where his camp is?"

"I do," replied Ross, to whom the stranger now appeared in pathetic guise.
"Any man of his age consenting to herd sheep is surely hard hit by the
rough hand of the world," he reasoned, and the closer he studied his
visitor the plainlier he felt his ungoverned past. His chest was hollow,
his eyes unnaturally large, and his hands thin, but he still displayed
faint lines of the beauty and power he had once gloried in. His clothing
was worn and poor, and Ross said: "You'll need plenty of bedding up
there."

"Is it high?"

"About eleven thousand feet."

"Jehosaphat! How will I stand that kind of air? Still, it may be it's what
I need. I've been living down in the low country for ten years, and I'm a
little bit hide-bound."

"Lung trouble?"

"Oh no; old age, I reckon."

"You're not old--not more than fifty-five."

"I'm no colt," he admitted; "and, besides, I've lived pretty swift."

In this was the hint of a confession, but Cavanagh did not care to have
him proceed further in that line. "I suppose Gregg paid your fine?"

"Yes."

"In any other town in the State you'd have gone down the line."

He roused himself. "See here, Mr. Ranger, you've no warrant to believe me,
but I told you the God's truth. Young Gregg got me to ride into the range
and show him the trail. I didn't intend to get mixed up with a game
warden. I've had all the confinement I need."

"Well, it's a closed incident now," interposed Ross; "we won't reopen it.
Make yourself at home."

The stranger, hungry as he was, ate with unexpected gentility, and, as the
hot coffee sent its cheerful glow through his body, he asked, with
livening interest, a good many questions about the ranger and the Forest
Service. "You fellers have to be all-round men. The cowboys think you have
a snap, but I guess you earn your money."

"A man that builds trail, lays bridges, burns brush, fights fire, rides
the round-up, and covers seventy-five miles of trail every week on eighty
dollars per month, and feeds himself and his horses, isn't what I would
call enjoying a soft snap."

"What do you do it for?"

"God knows! I've been asking myself that question all day to-day."

"This playin' game warden has some outs, too. That was a wild crowd last
night. The town is the same old hell-hole it was when I knew it years ago.
Fine girl of Lize Wetherford's. She blocked me all right." He smiled
wanly. "I certainly was on my way to the green timber when she put the
bars up."

Ross made no comment, and the other went on, in a tone of reminiscent
sadness. "Lize has changed terribly. I used to know her when she was a
girl. Judas Priest! but she could ride and shoot in those days!" His eyes
kindled with the memory of her. "She could back a horse to beat any woman
that ever crossed the range, but I didn't expect to see her have such a
skein of silk as that girl. She sure looks the queen to me."

Cavanagh did not greatly relish this line of conversation, but the pause
enabled him to say: "Miss Wetherford is not much Western; she got her
training in the East. She's been with an aunt ever since her father's
death."

"He's dead, is he?"

"So far as anybody knows, he is."

"Well, he's no loss. I knew him, too. He was all kinds of a fool; let a
few slick ones seduce him with fizz-water and oysters on the
half-shell--that's the kind of a weak sister he was. He got on the wrong
side of the rustler line-up--you know all about that, I reckon? Fierce old
days, those. We didn't know anything about forest rangers or game wardens
in them days."

The stranger's tone was now that of a man quite certain of himself. He had
become less furtive under the influence of the food and fire.

Ross defended Wetherford for Virginia's sake. "He wasn't altogether to
blame, as I see it. He was the Western type in full flower, that's all. He
had to go like the Indian and the buffalo. And these hobos like Ballard
and Gregg will go next."

Edwards sank back into his chair. "I reckon that's right," he agreed, and
made offer to help clear away the supper dishes.

"No, you're tired," replied Ross; "rest and smoke. I'll soon be done."

The poacher each moment seemed less of the hardened criminal, and more and
more of the man prematurely aged by sickness and dissipation, and
gradually the ranger lost all feeling of resentment.

As he sat down beside the fire, Edwards said: "Them Wetherford women think
a whole lot of you. 'Pears like they'd both fight for you. Are you sweet
on the girl?"

"Now, see here, old man," Ross retorted, sharply, "you want to do a lot of
thinking before you comment on Miss Wetherford. I won't stand for any
nasty clack."

Edwards meekly answered: "I wasn't going to say anything out of the way. I
was fixin' for to praise her."

"All the same, I don't intend to discuss her with you," was Cavanagh's
curt answer.

The herder fell back into silence while the ranger prepared his bunk for
the night. The fact that he transferred some of the blankets from his own
bed to that of his visitor did not escape Edwards's keen eyes, and with
grateful intent he said:

"I can give you a tip, Mr. Ranger," said he, breaking out of a silence.
"The triangle outfit is holding more cattle on the forest than their
permits call for."

"How do you know?"

"I heard one of the boys braggin' about it."

"Much obliged," responded Ross. "I'll look into it."

Edwards went on: "Furthermore, they're fixing for another sheep-kill over
there, too; all the sheepmen are armed. That's why I left the country. I
don't want to run any more chances of being shot up. I've had enough of
trouble; I can't afford to be hobnobbing with judges and juries."

"When does your parole end?" asked Ross.

Edwards forced a grin. "I was handing you one when I said that," he
declared, weakly. "I was workin' up sympathy. I'm not out on parole; I'm
just a broken-down old cow-puncher herdin' sheep in order to keep clear of
the liquor belt."

This seemed reasonable, and the ranger remarked, by way of dropping the
subject: "I've nothing to say further than this--obey the rules of the
forest, and you won't get into any further trouble with me. And as for
being shot up by the cow-men, you'll not be disturbed on any national
forest. There never has been a single herder shot nor a sheep destroyed on
this forest."

"I'm mighty glad to hear that," replied Edwards, with sincere relief.
"I've had my share of shooting up and shooting down. All I ask now is
quiet and the society of sheep. I take a kind of pleasure in protecting
the fool brutes. It's about all I'm good for."

He did, indeed, look like a man in the final year of life as he spoke.
"Better turn in," he said, in kindlier tone; "I'm an early riser."

The old fellow rose stiffly, and, laying aside his boots and trousers,
rolled into his bunk and was asleep in three minutes.

Cavanagh himself was very tired, and went to bed soon after, to sleep
dreamlessly till daylight. He sprang from his bed, and after a plunge in
the stream set about breakfast; while Edwards rose from his bunk, groaning
and sighing, and went forth to wrangle the horses, rubbing his hands and
shivering as he met the keen edge of the mountain wind. When he returned,
breakfast was ready, and again he expressed his gratitude.

"Haven't you any slicker?" asked Cavanagh. "It looks like rain."

"No, I'm run down pretty low," he replied. "The truth is, Mr. Ranger, I
blew in all my wages at roulette last week."

Ross brought out a canvas coat, well worn but serviceable. "Take this
along with you. It's likely to storm before we reach the sheep-camp. And
you don't look very strong. You must take care of yourself."

Edwards was visibly moved by this kindness. "Sure you can spare it?"

"Certain sure; I've another," returned the ranger, curtly.

It was hardly more than sunrise as they mounted their ponies and started
on their trail, which led sharply upward after they left the canon. The
wind was strong and stinging cold. Over the high peaks the gray-black
vapor was rushing, and farther away a huge dome of cloud was advancing
like an army in action. It was all in the day's work of the ranger, but
the plainsman behind him turned timorous eyes toward the sky. "It looks
owly," he repeated. "I didn't know I was going so high--Gregg didn't say
the camp was so near timber-line."

"You've cut out a lonesome job for yourself," Ross assured him, "and if
you can find anything else to do you'd better give this up and go back."

"I'm used to being lonesome," the stranger said, "but I can't stand the
cold and the wet as I used to. I never was a mountaineer."

Taking pity on the shivering man, Cavanagh turned off the trail into a
sheltered nook behind some twisted pine-trees. "How do you expect to take
care of your sheep a thousand feet higher than this?" he demanded as they
entered the still place, where the sun shone warm.

"That's what I'm asking myself," replied Edwards. He slipped from his
horse and crouched close to the rock. "My blood is mostly ditch-water,
seems like. The wind blows right through me."

"How do you happen to be reduced to herding sheep? You look like a man who
has seen better days."

Edwards, chafing his thin fingers to warm them, made reluctant answer:
"It's a long story, Mr. Ranger, and it concerns a whole lot of other
people--some of them decent folks--so I'd rather not go into it."

"John Barleycorn was involved, I reckon."

"Sure thing--he's generally always in it."

"You'd better take my gloves--it's likely to snow in half an hour. Go
ahead--I'm a younger man than you are."

The other made a decent show of resistance, but finally accepted the
offer, saying: "You certainly are white to me. I want to apologize for
making that attempt to sneak away that night--I had a powerful good reason
for not staying any longer."

Ross smiled a little. "You showed bad judgment--as it turned out."

"I sure did. That girl can shoot. Her gun was steady as a door-knob. She
filled the door. Where did she learn to hold a gun like that?"

"Her father taught her, so she said."

"She wouldn't remember me--an old cuss like me--but I've seen her with
Wetherford when she was a kidlet. I never thought she'd grow up into such
a 'queen.' She's a wonder."

Strange to say, Ross no longer objected to the old man's words of
admiration; on the contrary, he encouraged him to talk on.

"Her courage is greater than you know. When she came to that hotel it was
a place of dirt and vermin. She has transformed it. She's now engaged on
the reformation of her mother."

"Lize was straight when I knew her," remarked the other, in the tone of
one who wishes to defend a memory. "Straight as a die."

"In certain ways she's straight now, but she's been hard pushed at times,
and has traded in liquor to help out--then she's naturally a slattern."

"She didn't used to be," asserted Edwards; "she was a mighty handsome
woman when I used to see her riding around with Ed."

"She's down at the heel now, quite like the town."

"She looked sick to me. You shouldn't be too hard on a sick woman, but she
ought to send her girl away or get out. As you say, the Fork is no kind of
a place for such a girl. If I had a son, a fine young feller like that
girl is, do you suppose I'd let him load himself up with an old soak like
me? No, sir; Lize has no right to spoil that girl's life. I'm nothing but
a ham-strung old cow-puncher, but I've too much pride to saddle my pack on
the shoulders of my son the way Lize seems to be doin' with that girl."

He spoke with a good deal of feeling, and the ranger studied him with
deepening interest. He had taken on dignity in the heat of his protest,
and in his eyes blazed something that was both manly and admirable.

Cavanagh took his turn at defending Lize. "As a matter of fact, she tried
to send her daughter away, but Lee refuses to go, insisting that it is her
duty to remain. In spite of her bad blood the girl is surprisingly true
and sweet. She makes me wonder whether there is as much in heredity as we
think."

"Her blood ain't so bad. Wetherford was a fool and a daredevil, but he
came of good Virginia stock--so I've heard."

"Well, whatever was good in both sire and dame this girl seems to have
mysteriously gathered to herself."

The old man looked at him with a bright sidelong glance. "You are a little
sweet on the girl, eh?"

Ross began to regret his confidence. "She's making a good fight, and I
feel like helping her."

"And she rather likes being helped by you. I could see that when she
brought the coffee to you. She likes to stand close--"

Ross cut him short. "We'll not discuss her any further."

"I don't mean any harm, Mr. Ranger; we hobos have a whole lot of time to
gossip, and I'm old enough to like a nice girl in a fatherly way. I reckon
the whole valley rides in to see her, just the way you do."

Cavanagh winced. "You can't very well hide a handsome woman in a cattle
country."

Edwards smiled again, sadly. "Not in my day you couldn't. Why, a girl like
that would 'a' been worth a thousand head o' steers. I've seen a man come
in with a span of mules and three ordinary female daughters, and without
cinching a saddle to a pony accumulate five thousand cattle." Then he grew
grave again. "Don't happen to have a picture of the girl, do you?"

"If I did, would I show it to you?"

"You might. You might even give it to me."

Cavanagh looked at the man as if he were dreaming. "You must be crazy."

"Oh no, I'm not. Sheep-herders do go twisted, but I'm not in the business
long enough for that. I'm just a bit nutty about that girl."

He paused a moment. "So if you have a picture, I wish you'd show it to
me."

"I haven't any."

"Is that right?"

"That's right. I've only seen her two or three times, and she isn't the
kind that distributes her favors."

"So it seems. And yet you're just the kind of figure to catch a girl's
eye. She likes you--I could see that, but you've got a good opinion of
yourself. You're an educated man--do you intend to marry her?"

"See here, Mr. Sheep-herder, you better ride on up to your camp," and Ross
turned to mount his horse.

"Wait a minute," called the other man, and his voice surprised the ranger
with a note of authority. "I was terribly taken with that girl, and I owe
you a whole lot; but I've got to know one thing. I can see you're full of
her, and jealous as a bear of any other suitor. Now I want to know whether
you intend to marry her or whether you're just playing with her?"

Ross was angry now. "What I intend to do is none of your business."

The other man was suddenly ablaze with passion. His form had lost its
stoop. His voice was firm. "I merely want to say that if you play the goat
with that girl, I'll kill you!"

Ross stared at him quite convinced that he had gone entirely mad. "That's
mighty chivalrous of you, Mr. Sheep-herder," he replied, cuttingly; "but
I'm at a loss to understand this sudden indignation on your part."

"You needn't be--I'm her father!"

Cavanagh fairly reeled before this retort. His head rang as if he had been
struck with a club. He perceived the truth of the man's words instantly.
He gasped: "Good God, man! are you Ed Wetherford?"

The answer was quick. "That's who I am!" Then his voice changed. "But I
don't want the women to know I'm alive--I didn't intend to let anybody
know it. My fool temper has played hell with me again"--then his voice
grew firmer--"all the same, I mean it. If you or any man tries to abuse
her, I'll kill him! I've loaded her up with trouble, as you say, but I'm
going to do what I can to protect her--now that I'm in the county again."

Ross, confused by this new complication in the life of the girl he was
beginning to love, stared at his companion in dismay. Was it not enough
that Virginia's mother should be a slattern and a termagant? At last he
spoke: "Where have you been all these years?"

"In the Texas 'pen.' I served nine years there."

"What for?"

"Shooting a man. It was a case of self-defence, but his family had more
money and influence than I did, so I went down the road. As soon as I was
out I started north--just the way a dog will point toward home. I didn't
intend to come here, but some way I couldn't keep away. I shied round the
outskirts of the Fork, picking up jobs of sheep-herding just to have time
to turn things over. I know what you're thinking about--you're saying to
yourself, 'Well, here's a nice father-in-law?' Well, now, I don't know
anything about your people, but the Wetherfords are as good as anybody. If
I hadn't come out into this cursed country, where even the women go
shootin' wild, I would have been in Congress; but being hot-headed, I must
mix in. I'm not excusing myself, you understand; I'm not a desirable
addition to any man's collection of friends, but I can promise you
this--no one but yourself shall ever know who I am. At the same time, you
can't deceive my girl without my being named in the funeral that will
follow."

It was a singular place for such an exchange of confidences. Wetherford
stood with his back against his pony, his face flushed, his eyes bright as
though part of his youth had returned to him, while the ranger, slender,
erect, and powerful, faced him with sombre glance. Overhead the detached
clouds swept swift as eagles, casting shadows cold as winter, and in the
dwarfed century-old trees the wind breathed a sad monody. Occasionally the
sun shone warm and golden upon the group, and then it seemed spring, and
the far-off plain a misty sea.

At last Cavanagh said: "You are only a distant and romantic figure to
Lee--a part of the dead past. She remembers you as a bold rider and a
wondrously brave and chivalrous father."

"Does she?" he asked, eagerly.

"Yes, and she loves to talk of you. She knows the town's folk despise your
memory, but that she lays to prejudice."

"She must never know. You must promise never to tell her."

"I promise that," Cavanagh said, and Edwards went on:

"If I could bring something to her--prove to her I'm still a man--it might
do to tell her, but I'm a branded man now, and an old man, and there's no
hope for me. I worked in one of the machine-shops down there, and it took
the life out of me. Then, too, I left a bad name here in the Fork--I know
that. Those big cattle-men fooled me into taking their side of the war. I
staked everything I had on them, and then they railroaded me out of the
county. So, you see, I'm double-crossed, no matter where I turn."

Every word he uttered made more apparent to Cavanagh that Lee Virginia
would derive nothing but pain and disheartenment from a knowledge that her
father lived. "She must be spared this added burden of shameful
inheritance," he decided.

The other man seemed to understand something of the ranger's indignant
pity, for he repeated: "I want you to swear not to let Lee know I'm
alive, no matter what comes; she must not be saddled with my record. Let
her go on thinking well of me. Give me your word!" He held out an
insistent palm.

Ross yielded his hand, and in spite of himself his tenderness for the
broken man deepened. The sky was darkening to the west, and with a glance
upward he said: "I reckon we'd better make your camp soon or you'll be
chilled to the bone."

They mounted hastily and rode away, each feeling that his relationship to
the other had completely changed. Wetherford marvelled over the evident
culture and refinement of the ranger. "He's none too good for her, no
matter who he is," he said.

Upon leaving timber-line they entered upon a wide and sterile slope high
on the rocky breast of the great peak, whose splintered crest lorded the
range. Snow-fields lay all about, and a few hundred feet higher up the
canons were filled with ice. It was a savage and tempest-swept spot in
which to pitch a tent, but there among the rocks shivered the minute
canvas home of the shepherd, and close beside it, guarded by a lone dog,
and lying like a thick-spread flock of rimy bowlders (almost unnoticeable
in their silent immobility) huddled the sheep.

"There's your house," shouted Ross to Wetherford.

The older man, with white face of dismay, looked about him, unable to make
reply.

The walls of the frail teepee, flapping in the breeze, appeared hardly
larger than a kerchief caught upon a bush, and the disheartened collie
seemed nervously apprehensive of its being utterly swept away. The great
peaks were now hid by the rain, and little could be seen but wet rocks,
twisted junipers, and the trickling gray streams of icy water. The eastern
landscape was naked, alpine, splendid yet appalling, and the voices of the
sheep added to the dreary message of the scene.

"Hello there!" shouted Ross, wondering at the absence of human life about
the camp. "Hello the house!"

Receiving no answer to his hail, he turned to Wetherford. "Looks like Joe
has pulled out and left the collie to 'tend the flock. He's been kind o'
seedy for some days."

Dismounting, he approached the tent. The collie, who knew him, seemed to
understand his errand, for he leaped upon him as if to kiss his cheek.
Ross put him down gently. "You're almost too glad to see me, old fellow. I
wonder how long you've been left here alone?"

Thereupon he opened the tied flap, but started back with instant
perception of something wrong, for there, on his pile of ragged quilts,
lay the Basque herder, with flushed face and rolling eyes, crazed with
fever and entirely helpless. "You'd better not come in here, Wetherford,"
Ross warned. "Joe is here, horribly sick, and I'm afraid it's something
contagious. It may be smallpox."

Wetherford recoiled a step. "Smallpox! What makes you think that?"

"Well, these Basques have been having it over in their settlement, and,
besides, it smells like it." He listened a moment. "I'm afraid Joe's in
for it. He's crazy with it. But he's a human being, and we can't let him
die here alone. You rustle some wood for the stove, and I'll see what I
can do for him."

Wetherford was old and wasted and thin-blooded, but he had never been a
coward, and in his heart there still burned a small flame of his youthful,
reckless, generous daring. Pushing Cavanagh one side, he said, with firm
decision: "You keep out o' there. I'm the one to play nurse. This is my
job."

"Nonsense; I am younger and stronger than you."

"Get away!" shouted the older man. "Gregg hired me to do this work, and it
don't matter whether I live or die; but you've got something to do in the
world. My girl needs you, and she don't need me, so get out o' here and
stay out. Go bring me that wood, and I'll go in and see what's the
matter."

Cavanagh looked him in the face an instant. "Very well," said he, "I'll do
as you say. There's no use of our both taking chances."

It was beginning to rain, and the tent was dark and desolate, but as the
fire in the little stove commenced to snarl, and the smoke to pour out of
the pipe, the small domicile took on cheer. Wetherford knew how to care
for the sick, and in the shelter of the canvas wall developed unforeseen
vigor and decision. It was amazing to Cavanagh to witness his change of
manner.

Soon a pan of water was steaming, and some hot stones were at the
sufferer's feet, and when Wetherford appeared at the door of the tent his
face was almost happy. "Kill a sheep. There isn't a thing but a heel of
bacon and a little flour in the place."

As the ranger went about his outside duties he had time to take into full
account the tragic significance of the situation. He was not afraid of
death, but the menace of sickness under such surroundings made his blood
run cold. It is such moments as these that the wilderness appalls. Twenty
miles of most difficult trail lay between his own cabin and this spot. To
carry the sick man on his horse would not only be painful to the sufferer
but dangerous to the rescuer, for if the Basque were really ill of
smallpox contagion would surely follow. On the other hand, to leave him to
die here unaided seemed inhuman, impossible.

"There is only one thing to do," he called to Wetherford, "and that is for
me to ride back to the station and bring up some extra bedding and my own
tent, and so camp down beside you."

"All right; but remember I've established a quarantine. I'll crack your
head if you break over the line an inch."

There was no longer any feeling of reaching up or reaching down between
the two men--they were equals. Wetherford, altogether admirable, seemed to
have regained his manhood as he stood in the door of the tent confronting
the ranger. "This Basque ain't much of a find, but, as you say, he's
human, and we can't let him lie here and die, I'll stay with him till you
can find a doctor or till he dies."

"I take off my hat to you," responded Cavanagh. "You are a man."





Next: The Smoke Of The Burning

Previous: The Second Attack



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 408