Histories.ca - Download the EBook History of the BalkansInformational Site Network Informational
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories

The Pest-house

From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

Cavanagh had kept a keen watch over Wetherford, and when one night the old
man began to complain of the ache in his bones his decision was instant.

"You've got it," he said. "It's up to us to move down the valley

Wetherford protested that he would as soon die in the hills as in the
valley. "I don't want Lee Virginia to know, but if I seem liable to fade
out, I'd like Lize to be told that I didn't forget her, and that I came
back to find out how she was. I hate to be a nuisance to you, and so I'll
go down the valley if you say so."

As he was about to turn in that night Ross heard a horse cross the bridge,
and with intent to warn the rider of his danger, went to the door and
called out: "Halt! Who's there?"

"A friend," replied the stranger, in a weak voice.

Ross permitted his visitor to ride up to the pole. "I can't ask you in,"
he explained. "I've a sick man inside. Who are you, and what can I do for

Notwithstanding this warning the rider dropped from his saddle, and came
into the light which streamed from the door.

"My name is Dunn," he began. "I'm from Deer Creek."

"I know you," responded the ranger. "You're that rancher I saw working in
the ditch the day I went to telephone, and you've come to tell me
something about that murder."

The other man broke into a whimper. "I'm a law-abiding man, Mr. Cavanagh,"
he began, tremulously. "I've always kept the law, and never intended to
have anything to do with that business. I was dragged into it against my
will. I've come to you because you're an officer of the Federal law. You
don't belong here. I trust you. You represent the President, and I want to
tell you what I know--only I want you to promise not to bring me into it.
I'm a man of a family, and I can't bear to have them know the truth."

There was deep agitation and complete sincerity in the rancher's choked
and hesitant utterance, and Cavanagh turned cold with a premonition of
what he was about to disclose. "I am not an officer of the law, Mr. Dunn,
not in the sense you mean, but I will respect your wishes."

"I know that you are not an officer of the county law, but you're not a
cattle-man. It is your business to keep the peace in the wild country, and
you do it, everybody knows that; but I can't trust the officers of this
country, they're all afraid of the cowboys. You're not afraid, and you
represent the United States, and I'll tell you. I can't bear it any
longer!" he wailed. "I must tell somebody. I can't sleep and I can't eat.
I've been like a man in a nightmare ever since. I had no hand in the
killing--I didn't even see it done; but I knew it was going to happen. I
saw the committee appointed. The meeting that decided it was held in my
barn, but I didn't know what they intended to do. You believe me, don't
you?" He peered up at Cavanagh with white face and wild eyes.

"Go on," replied the ranger; "I'll protect you--if I can. Go on. It's your
duty--tell all you know."

The troubled man, after a little silence, resumed. "Sometimes I feel that
I'd be happier in jail than I am walking about in the sunshine. I never
dreamed civilized men could do such deeds. I thought they were only going
to scare the herders and drive them out, as they've done so many times
before. I can see now that they used my barn for a meeting-place because
everybody believed me to be a man of peace. And I am. I'm over seventy
years of age, Mr. Cavanagh, and I've been a law-abiding citizen all my

His mind, shattered by the weight of his ghastly secret, was in confusion,
and, perceiving this, Cavanagh began to question him gently. One by one he
procured the names of those who voted to "deal with" the herders. One by
one he obtained also the list of those named on "the Committee of
Reprisal," and as the broken man delivered himself of these accusing facts
he grew calmer. "I didn't know--I couldn't believe--that the men on that
committee could chop and burn--" His utterance failed him again, and he
fell silent abruptly.

"They must have been drunk--mad drunk," retorted Cavanagh. "And yet who
would believe that even drink could inflame white men to such devil's
work? When did you first know what had been done?"

"That night after it was done one of the men, my neighbor, who was drawn
on the committee, came to my house and asked me to give him a bed. He was
afraid to go home. 'I can't face my wife and children,' he said. He told
me what he'd seen, and then when I remembered that it had all been decided
in my stable, and the committee appointed there, I began to tremble. You
believe I'm telling the truth, don't you?" he again asked, with piteous

"Yes, I believe you. You must tell this story to the judge. It will end
the reign of the cattle-men."

"Oh no, I can't do that."

"You must do that. It is your duty as a Christian man and citizen."

"No, no; I'll stay and help you--I'll do anything but that. I'm afraid to
tell what I know. They would burn me alive. I'm not a Western man. I've
never been in a criminal court. I don't belong to this wild country. I
came out here because my daughter is not strong, and now--" He broke down
altogether, and leaning against his horse's side, sobbed pitifully.

Cavanagh, convinced that the old man's mind was too deeply affected to
enable him to find his way back over the rough trail that night, spoke to
him gently. "I'll get you something to eat," he said. "Sit down here, and
rest and compose yourself."

Wetherford turned a wild eye on the ranger as he reentered. "Who's out
there?" he asked. "Is it the marshal?"

"No, it's only one of the ranchers from below; he's tired and hungry, and
I'm going to feed him," Ross replied, filled with a vivid sense of the
diverse characters of the two men he was serving.

Dunn received the food with an eager hand, and after he had finished his
refreshment, Cavanagh remarked: "The whole country should be obliged to
you for your visit to me. I shall send your information to Supervisor

"Don't use my name," he begged. "They will kill me if they find out that I
have told. We were all sworn to secrecy, and if I had not seen that
fire--that pile of bodies--"

"I know, I know! It horrified me. It made me doubt humanity," responded
Cavanagh. "We of the North cry out against the South for lynching black
rapers; but here, under our eyes, goes on an equally horrible display of
rage over the mere question of temporary advantage, over the appropriation
of free grass, which is a Federal resource--something which belongs
neither to one claimant nor to the other, but to the people, and should be
of value to the people. There is some excuse for shooting and burning a
man who violates a woman, but what shall we say of those who kill and
dismember men over the possession of a plot of grass? You must bring these
men to punishment."

Dunn could only shiver in his horror and repeat his fear. "They'll kill me
if I do."

Cavanagh at last said: "You must not attempt to ride back to-night. I
can't give you lodging in the cabin, because my patient is sick of
smallpox, but you can camp in the barn till morning, then ride straight
back to my friend Redfield, and tell him what you've told me. He will see
that you are protected. Make your deposition and leave the country, if you
are afraid to remain."

In the end the rancher promised to do this, but his tone was that of a
broken and distraught dotard. All the landmarks of his life seemed
suddenly shifted. All the standards of his life hitherto orderly and fixed
were now confused and whirling, and Cavanagh, understanding something of
his plight, pitied him profoundly. It was of a piece with this ironic
story that the innocent man should suffer madness and the guilty go calmly
about their business of grazing their cattle on the stolen grass.

Meanwhile the sufferings of his other patient were increasing, and he was
forced to give up all hope of getting him down the trail next morning; and
when Swenson, the Forest Guard from the south Fork, knocked at the door to
say that he had been to the valley, and that the doctor was coming up with
Redfield and the District Forester, Ross thanked him, but ordered him to
go into camp across the river, and to warn everybody to keep clear of the
cabin. "Put your packages down outside the door," he added, "and take
charge of the situation on the outside. I'll take care of the business

Wetherford was in great pain, but the poison of the disease had misted his
brain, and he no longer worried over the possible disclosure of his
identity. At times he lost the sense of his surroundings and talked of his
prison life, or of the long ride northward. Once he rose in his bed to
beat off the wolves which he said were attacking his pony.

He was a piteous figure as he struggled thus, and it needed neither his
relationship to Lee nor his bravery in caring for the Basque herder to
fill the ranger's heart with a desire to relieve his suffering. "Perhaps I
should have sent for Lize at once," he mused, as the light brought out the
red signatures of the plague.

Once the old man looked up with wide, dark, unseeing eyes and murmured, "I
don't seem to know you."

"I'm a friend--my name is Cavanagh."

"I can't place you," he sadly admitted. "I feel pretty bad. If I ever get
out of this place I'm going back to the Fork; I'll get a gold-mine, then
I'll go back and make up for what Lize has gone through. I'm afraid to go
back now."

"All right," Ross soothingly agreed; "but you'll have to keep quiet till
you get over this fever you're suffering from."

"If Lize weren't so far away, she'd come and nurse me--I'm pretty sick.
This stone-cutting--this inside work is hell on an old cow-puncher like

Swenson came back to say that probably Redfield and the doctor would reach
The Station by noon, and thereafter, for the reason that Cavanagh expected
their coming, the hours dragged wofully. It was after one o'clock before
Swenson announced that two teams were coming with three men and two women
in them. "They'll be here in half an hour."

The ranger's heart leaped. Two women! Could one of them be Lee Virginia?
What folly--what sweet, desperate folly! And the other--she could not be
Lize--for Lize was too feeble to ride so far. "Stop them on the other side
of the bridge," he commanded. "Don't let them cross the creek on any

As he stood in the door the flutter of a handkerchief, the waving of a
hand, made his pulses glow and his eyes grow dim. It was Virginia!

Lize did not flutter a kerchief or wave a hand, but when Swenson stopped
the carriage at the bridge she said: "No, you don't! I'm going across. I'm
going to see Ross, and if he needs help, I'm going to roll up my sleeves
and take hold."

Cavanagh saw her advancing, and, as she came near enough for his voice to
reach her, he called out: "Don't come any closer! Stop, I tell you!" His
voice was stern. "You must not come a step nearer. Go back across the
dead-line and stay there. No one but the doctor shall enter this door. Now
that's final."

"I want to help!" she protested.

"I know you do; but I won't have it. This quarantine is real, and it

"But suppose you yourself get sick?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. I'm all right so far, and
I'll call for help when I need it."

His tone was imperative, and she obeyed, grumbling about his youth and the
value of his life to the service.

"That's all very nice," he replied; "but I'm in it, and I don't intend to
expose you or any one else to the contagion."

"I've had it once," she asserted.

He looked at her, and smiled in recognition of her subterfuge.

"No matter; you're ailing, and might take it again, so toddle back. It's
mighty good of you, and of Lee, to come--but there isn't a thing you can
do, and here's the doctor," he added, as he recognized the young student
who passed for a physician in the Fork. He was a beardless youth of small
experience and no great courage, and as he approached with hesitant feet
he asked:

"Are you sure it's smallpox?"

Cavanagh smiled. "The indications are all that way. That last importation
of Basques brought it probably from the steerage of the ship. I'm told
they've had several cases over in the Basin."

"Have you been vaccinated?"

"Yes; when I was in the army."

"Then you're all right."

"I hope so."

There was a certain comic relief in this long-distance diagnosing of a
"case" by a boy, and yet the tragic fact beneath it all was that
Wetherford was dying, a broken and dishonored husband and father, and that
his identity must be concealed from his wife and daughter, who were much
more deeply concerned over the ranger than over the desperate condition of
his patient. "And this must continue to be so," Cavanagh decided. And as
he stood there looking toward the girl's fair figure on the bridge, he
came to the final, fixed determination never to speak one word or make a
sign that might lead to the dying man's identification. "Of what use is
it?" he asked himself. "Why should even Lize be made to suffer?
Wetherford's poor misspent life is already over for her, and for Lee he is
only a dim memory."

Redfield came near enough to see that the ranger's face, though tired,
showed no sign of illness, and was relieved. "Who is this old herder?" he
asked. "Hasn't he any relatives in the country?"

"He came from Texas, so he said. You're not coming in?" he broke off to
say to the young physician, whom Lize had shamed into returning to the

"I suppose I'll have to," he protested, weakly.

"I don't see the need of it. The whole place reeks of the poison, and you
might carry it away with you. Unless you insist on coming in, and are sure
you can prevent further contagion, I shall oppose your entrance. You are
in the company of others--I must consider their welfare."

The young fellow was relieved. "Well, so long as we know what it is I can
prescribe just as well right here," he said, and gave directions for the
treatment, which the ranger agreed to carry out.

"I tried to bring a nurse," explained Redfield, "but I couldn't find
anybody but old Lize who would come."

"I don't blame them," replied Ross. "It isn't a nice job, even when you've
got all the conveniences."

His eyes, as he spoke, were on the figure of Lee, who still stood on the
bridge awed and worshipful, barred of approach by Lize. "She shall not
know," he silently vowed. "Why put her through useless suffering and
shame? Edward Wetherford's disordered life is near its end. To betray him
to his wife and daughter would be but the reopening of an old wound."

He was stirred to the centre of his heart by the coming of Lee Virginia,
so sweet and brave and trustful. His stern mood melted as he watched her
there waiting, with her face turned toward him, longing to help. "She
would have come alone if necessary," he declared, with a fuller revelation
of the self-sacrificing depth of her love, "and she would come to my side
this moment if I called her."

To the District Forester he said no more than to Redfield. "Edwards is
evidently an old soldier," he declared. "He was sent up here by Gregg to
take the place of a sick herder. He took care of that poor herder till he
died, and then helped me to bury him; now here he lies a victim to his own
sense of duty, and I shall not desert him." And to himself he added: "Nor
betray him."

He went back to his repulsive service sustained and soothed by the little
camp of faithful friends on the other side of the stream. The tender grace
of the girl's attitude, her air of waiting, of anxiety, of readiness to
serve, made him question the basis of his family pride. He recognized in
her the spirit of her sire, tempered, sweetened, made more stable, by
something drawn from unknown sources. At the moment he felt that Lee was
not merely his equal but his superior in purity of character and in
purpose. "What nonsense we talk of heredity, of family," he thought.

Standing over the wasted body of his patient, he asked again: "Why let
even Lize know? To her Ed Wetherford is dead. She remembers him now as a
young, dashing, powerful horseman, a splendid animal, a picturesque lover.
Why wring her heart by permitting her to see this wreck of what was once
her pride?"

As for Wetherford himself, nothing mattered very much. He spoke of the
past now and then, but not in the phrase of one who longs for the return
of happy days--rather in the voice of one who murmurs a half-forgotten
song. He called no more for his wife and child, and if he had done so
Cavanagh would have reasoned that the call arose out of weakness, and that
his better self, his real self, would still desire to shield his secret
from his daughter.

And this was true, for during one of his clearest moments Wetherford
repeated his wish to die a stranger. "I'm goin' out like the old-time
West, a rag of what I once was. Don't let them know--put no name over
me--just say: 'An old cow-puncher lies here.'"

Cavanagh's attempt to change his hopeless tone proved unavailing.
Enfeebled by his hardships and his prison life, he had little reserve
force upon which to draw in fighting such an enemy. He sank soon after
this little speech into a coma which continued to hold him in its unbroken
grasp as night fell.

Meantime, seeing no chance of aiding the ranger, Redfield and the Forester
prepared to return, but Lee, reinforced by her mother, refused to
accompany them. "I shall stay here," she said, "till he is safely out of
it--till I know that he is beyond all danger."

Redfield did not urge her to return as vigorously as Dalton expected him
to do, but when he understood the girl's desire to be near her lover, he
took off his hat and bowed to her. "You are entirely in the right," he
said. "Here is where you belong."

Redfield honored Lize for her sympathetic support of her daughter's
resolution, and expressed his belief that Ross would escape the plague. "I
feel that his splendid vigor, combined with the mountain air, will carry
him through--even if he should prove not to be immune. I shall run up
again day after to-morrow. I shall be very anxious. What a nuisance that
the telephone-line is not extended to this point. Ross has been insisting
on its value for months."

Lee saw the doctor go with some dismay. Young as he was, he was at least a
reed to cling to in case the grisly terror seized upon the ranger. "Mr.
Redfield, can't you send a real doctor? It seems so horrible to be left
here without instructions."

The Forester, before going, again besought Cavanagh not to abandon his
work in the Forestry Service, and intimated that at the proper time
advancement would be offered him. "The whole policy is but beginning,"
said he, "and a practical ranger with your experience and education will
prove of greatest value."

To this Ross made reply. "At the moment I feel that no promise of
advancement could keep me in this country of grafters, poachers, and
assassins. I'm weary of it, and all it stands for. However, if I could aid
in extending the supervision of the public ranges and in stopping forever
this murder and burning that goes on outside the forestry domain, I might
remain in the West."

"Would you accept the supervisorship of the Washakie Forest?" demanded

Taken by surprise, he stammered: "I might; but am I the man?"

"You are. Your experience fits you for a position where the fight is hot.
The Washakie Forest is even more a bone of contention than this. We have
laid out the lines of division between the sheep and the cows, and it will
take a man to enforce our regulations. You will have the support of the
best citizens. They will all rally, with you as leader, and so end the
warfare there."

"It can never end till Uncle Sam puts rangers over every section of public
lands and lays out the grazing lines as we have done in this forest,"
retorted Cavanagh.

"I know; but to get that requires a revolution in the whole order of
things." Then his fine young face lighted up. "But we'll get it. Public
sentiment is coming our way. The old order is already so eaten away that
only its shell remains."

"It may be. If these assassins are punished I shall feel hopeful of the

"I shall recommend you for the supervisorship of the Washakie Forest,"
concluded Dalton, decisively. "And so good-bye and good-luck."

England, his blood relatives, even the Redfields, seemed very remote to
the ranger, as he stood in his door that night and watched the sparkle of
Swenson's camp-fire through the trees. With the realization that there
waited a brave girl of the type that loves single-heartedly, ready to
sacrifice everything to the welfare of her idealized subject, he felt
unworthy, selfish, vain.

"If I should fall sick she would insist on nursing me. For her sake I must
give Swenson the most rigid orders not to allow her--no matter what
happens--to approach. I will not have her touched by this thing."

Beside the blaze Lee and her mother sat for the most part in silence, with
nothing to do but to wait the issue of the struggle going on in the cabin,
so near and yet so inaccessible to their will. It was as if a magic wall,
crystal-clear yet impenetrable, shut them away from the man whose quiet
heroism was the subject of their constant thought.

To the girl this ride up into her lover's world had been both exalting and
awesome--not merely because the rough and precipitous road took her closer
to her lover while placing her farther from medical aid, but also because
it was so vast a world, so unpeopled and so beautiful.

It was marvellous, as the dusk fell and the air nipped keen, to see how
Lize Wetherford renewed her youth. The excitement seemed to have given her
a fresh hold on life. She was wearied but by no means weakened by her
ride, and ate heartily of the rude fare which Swenson set before her.
"This is what I needed," she exultantly said; "the open air and these
trout. I feel ten years younger already. Many's the night I've camped on
the range with your father with nothing but a purp-tent to cover us both,
and the wolves howling round us. I'd feel pretty fairly gay if it weren't
for Ross over there in that cabin playin' nurse and cook all by his

Lee expressed a deep satisfaction from the fact of their nearness. "If he
is ill we can help him," she reiterated.

She had put behind her all the doubt and fear which his abrupt desertion
of her had caused, and, though he had not been able to speak a word to
her, his self-sacrifice had made amends. She excused it all as part of his
anxious care. Whatever the mood of that other day had been, it had given
way to one that was lofty and deeply altruistic. Her one anxiety now was
born of a deepening sense of his danger, but against this she bent the
full strength of her will. "He shall not die," she declared beneath her
breath. "God will not permit it."

There was a touch of frost in the air as they went to their beds, and,
though she shivered, Lize was undismayed. "There's nothing the matter with
my heart," she exulted. "I don't believe there was anything really serious
the matter with me, anyway. I reckon I was just naturally grouchy and
worried over you and Ross."

Lee Virginia was now living a romance stranger and more startling than any
she had ever read. In imagination she was able to look back and down upon
the Fork as if she had been carried into another world--a world that was
at once primeval yet peaceful: a world of dreaming trees, singing streams,
and silent peaks; a realm in which law and order reigned, maintained by
one determined young man whose power was derived from the President
himself. She felt safe--entirely safe--for just across the roaring
mountain torrent the two intrepid guardians of the forest were encamped.
One of them, it is true, came of Swedish parentage and the other was a
native of England, but they were both American in the high sense of being
loyal to the Federal will, and she trusted them more unquestioningly than
any other men in all that West save only Redfield. She had no doubt there
were others equally loyal, equally to be trusted, but she did not know

She rose to a complete understanding of Cavanagh's love for "the high
country" and his enthusiasm for the cause, a cause which was able to bring
together the student from Yale and the graduates of Bergen and of Oxford,
and make them comrades in preserving the trees and streams of the mountain
States against the encroachments of some of their own citizens, who were
openly, short-sightedly, and cynically bent upon destruction, spoliation,
and misuse.

She had listened to the talk of the Forester and the Supervisor, and she
had learned from them that Cavanagh was sure of swift advancement, now
that he had shown his courage and his skill; and the thought that he might
leave the State to take charge of another forest brought her some
uneasiness, for she and Lize had planned to go to Sulphur City. She had
consented to this because it still left to her the possibility of
occasionally seeing or hearing from Cavanagh. But the thought that he
might go away altogether took some of the music out of the sound of the
stream and made the future vaguely sad.

Next: Wetherford Passes On

Previous: Cavanagh Asks For Help

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

Viewed 422