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The Poachers








From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

One morning, as he topped the rise between the sawmill and his own
station, Cavanagh heard two rifle-shots in quick succession snapping
across the high peak on his left. Bringing his horse to a stand, he
unslung his field-glasses, and slowly and minutely swept the tawny slopes
of Sheep Mountain from which the forbidden sounds seemed to come.

"A herder shooting coyotes," was his first thought; then remembering that
there were no camps in that direction, and that a flock of mountain-sheep
(which he had been guarding carefully) habitually fed round that grassy
peak, his mind changed. "I wonder if those fellows are after those sheep?"
he mused, as he angled down the slope. "I reckon it's up to me to see."

He was tired and hungry, a huge moraine lay between, and the trail was
long and rough. "To catch them in the act is impossible. However," he
reflected, "they have but two trails along which to descend. One of these
passes my door, and the other, a very difficult trail, leads down the
South Fork. I'll have time to get breakfast and change horses. They'll
probably wait till night before attempting to go out, anyway."

In less than three hours he was over on the trail in the canon, quite
certain that the hunters were still above him. He rode quietly up the
valley, pausing often to listen and to scrutinize the landscape; but no
sign of camp-fire and no further rifle-shots came, and at last he went
into camp upon the trail, resolved to wait till the poachers appeared, a
ward which his experience as a soldier helped him to maintain without
nodding.

In these long hours his thought played about the remembrance of his last
visit to the Fork and his hour with Lee. He wondered what she was doing at
the moment. How charming she had looked there at Redfields'--so girlish in
form, so serious and womanly of face!

He felt as never before the ineludible loneliness of the ranger's life.
Here he sat in the midst of a mighty forest with many hostile minds all
about him, and it must be confessed he began to wonder whether his
services to the nation were worth so much hardship, such complete
isolation. The stream sang of the eternities, and his own short span of
life (half gone already without any permanent accomplishment) seemed
pitifully ephemeral. The guardians of these high places must forever be
solitary. No ranger could rightfully be husband and father, for to bring
women and children into these solitudes would be cruel.

He put all this aside--for the time--by remembering that he was a soldier
under orders, and that marriage was a long way off, and so smoked his pipe
and waited for the dawn, persistent as a Sioux, and as silent as a fox.

At daylight, there being still no sign of his quarry, he saddled his
horse, and was about to ride up the trail when he caught the sound of
voices and the sharp click of iron hoofs on the rocks above him. With his
horse's bridle on his arm he awaited the approaching horseman, resolute
and ready to act.

As the marauders rounded the elbow in the trail, he was surprised to
recognize in the leader young Gregg. The other man was a stranger, an
older man, with a grizzled beard, and tall and stooping figure.

"Hello Joe," called the ranger, "you're astir early!"

The youth's fat face remained imperturbable, but his eyes betrayed
uneasiness. "Yes, it's a long pull into town."

"Been hunting?" queried the ranger, still with cheery, polite interest.

"Oh no; just visiting one of my sheep-camps."

Cavanagh's voice was a little less suave. "Not on this creek," he
declared. "I moved your herder last week." He walked forward. "That's a
heavy load for a short trip to a sheep-camp." He put his hand on the pack.
"I guess you'll have to open this, for I heard two shots yesterday morning
up where that flock of mountain-sheep is running, and, furthermore, I can
see blood-stains on this saddle-blanket."

Neither of the men made answer, but the old man turned an inquiring look
at his young leader.

The ranger flung his next sentence out like the lash of a whip. "Open this
sack or I cut the ropes!"

Gregg threw out a hand in command. "Open it up, Edwards!" he said,
sullenly.

With mechanical readiness the guide alighted from his horse, loosened the
cinch on the pack-horse, and disclosed the usual camp-bed.

"Put off that bedding!" insisted the ranger.

Off came the outfit, and under the tent lay the noble head of a wild
ram--a look of reproach still in his splendid yellow eyes.

Cavanagh's face hardened. "I thought so. Now heave it back and cinch up.
It's you to the nearest magistrate, which happens to be Higley, of Roaring
Fork. I'll make an example of you fellows."

There was nothing for Gregg to say and nothing for Edwards to do but obey,
for a resolute ranger with an excellent weapon of the latest and most
approved angular pattern stood ready to enforce his command; and when the
pack was recinched, Cavanagh waved an imperative hand. "I guess I'll have
to take charge of your guns," he said, and they yielded without a word of
protest. "Now march! Take the left-hand trail. I'll be close behind."

A couple of hours of silent travel brought them to the ranger's cabin, and
there he ordered a dismount.

As the coffee was boiling he lectured them briefly. "You fellows are not
entirely to blame," he remarked, philosophically. "You've been educated to
think a game warden a joke and Uncle Sam a long way off. But things have
changed a bit. The law of the State has made me game warden, and I'm going
to show you how it works. It's my duty to see that you go down the
road--and down you go!"

Edwards, the guide, was plainly very uneasy, and made several attempts to
reach Cavanagh's private ear, and at last succeeded. "I've been fooled
into this," he urged. "I was hard up and a stranger in the country, and
this young fellow hired me to guide him across the range. I didn't shoot a
thing. I swear I didn't. If you'll let me off, I'll hit the trail to the
West and never look back. For God's sake, don't take me down the road! Let
me off."

"I can't do that," replied Cavanagh; but his tone was kindlier, for he
perceived that the old fellow was thin, hollow-chested, and poorly clad.
"You knew you were breaking the laws, didn't you?"

This the culprit admitted. "But I was working for Sam Gregg, and when Joe
asked me to go show him the trail, I didn't expect to get cinched for
killing game. I didn't fire a shot--now that's the God's truth."

"Nevertheless," retorted Ross, "you were packing the head, and I must
count you in the game."

Edwards fell silent then, but something in his look deepened the ranger's
pity. His eyes were large and dark, and his face so emaciated that he
seemed fit only for a sanitarium.

The trip to the Fork (timed to the gait of a lazy pack-horse) was a
tedious eight hours' march, and it was nearly seven o'clock when they
arrived at the outskirts of the village. There had been very few words
spoken by Cavanagh, and those which the prisoners uttered were not
calculated to cheer the way. Joe blamed his guide for their mishap. "You
should have known how far the sound of our guns would carry," he said.

As they were nearing the village he called out: "See here, Cavanagh,
there's no use taking me through town under arrest. I'll cough up all we
got right now. How much is the damage?"

"I can't receive your fine," replied Ross, "and, besides, you took your
chances when you shot that sheep. You lost out, and I'm not going to let
you off. This poaching must stop. You go right along with your guide."

Again Edwards drew near, and pled in a low voice: "See here, Mr. Ranger, I
have special reasons why I don't want to go into this town under arrest. I
wish you'd let me explain."

There was deep emotion in his voice, but Ross was firm. "I'm sorry for
you," he said, "but my duty requires me to take you before a
magistrate--"

"But you don't know my case," he replied, with bitter intensity. "I'm out
'on parole.' I can't afford to be arrested in this way. Don't you see?"

Ross looked at him closely. "Are you telling me the truth?"

"Would you have mercy on me if I were?"

"I should be sorry for you, but I couldn't let you go."

"You won't believe me, but it's the God Almighty's truth: I didn't know
Joe intended to kill that sheep. He asked me to show him over the pass. I
had no intention of killing anything. I wish to God you would let me go!"
His voice was tense with pleading.

"How about this, Gregg?" called Ross. "Your guide insists he had no hand
in killing the ram?"

"He fired first, and I fired and finished him," retorted Gregg.

"'Twas the other way," declared Edwards. "The beast was crippled and
escaping--I killed him with my revolver. I didn't want to see him go off
and die--"

"I guess that settles it," said Cavanagh, decisively. "You take your
medicine with Joe. If the justice wants to let you off easy, I can't help
it, but to turn you loose now would mean disloyalty to the service. Climb
back into your saddle."

Edwards turned away with shaking hands and unsteady step. "All right," he
said, "I'll meet it." He came back to say: "There's no need of your saying
anything about what I've told you."

"No, you are a stranger to me. I know nothing of your life except that I
found you with Joe, with this pack on your horse."

"Much obliged," said he, with a touch of bitter humor.

To the casual observer in a town of this character there was nothing
specially noticeable in three horsemen driving a pack-horse, but to those
whose eyes were keen the true relationship of the ranger to his captives
was instantly apparent, and when they alighted at Judge Higley's office a
bunch of eager observers quickly collected.

"Hello Joe, what luck?" called Ballard.

"Our luck was a little too good--we caught a game warden," replied the
young scapegrace.

The ranger was chagrined to find the office of the justice closed for the
day, and, turning to his captives, said: "I'm hungry, and I've no doubt
you are. I'm going to take you into Mike Halsey's saloon for supper, but
remember you are my prisoners." And to the little old remittance man,
Sifton, who caught his eye, he explained his need of a justice and the
town marshal.

"I'll try to find the judge," replied Sifton, with ready good-will, and at
a sign from the ranger, Gregg and his herder entered the saloon.

In fifteen minutes the town was rumbling with the news. Under Ballard's
devilry, all the latent hatred of the ranger and all the concealed
opposition to the Forest Service came to the surface like the scum on a
pot of broth. The saloons and eating-houses boiled with indignant protest.
"What business is it of Ross Cavanagh's?" they demanded. "What call has he
to interfere? He's not a game warden."

"Yes he is. All these rangers are game wardens," corrected another.

"No, they're not. They have to be commissioned by the Governor."

"Well, he's been commissioned; he's warden all right."

"I don't believe it. Anyhow, he's too fresh. He needs to have a halt.
Let's do him. Let's bluff him out."

Lee Virginia was in the kitchen superintending the service when one of the
waiters came in, breathless with excitement. "Ross Cavanagh has shot Joe
Gregg for killing sheep!"

Lee faced her with blanched face. "Who told you so?"

"They're all talking about it out there. Gee! but they're hot. Some of 'em
want to lynch him."

Lee hurried out into the dining-room, which was crowded with men and
voicing deep excitement. Anger was in the air--a stormy rage, perceptible
as a hot blast; and as she passed one table after another she heard ugly
phrases applied to Cavanagh.

A half-dozen men were standing before the counter talking with Lize, but
Lee pushed in to inquire with white, inquiring face: "What is it all
about? What has happened?"

"Nothing much," Lize replied, contemptuously, "but you'd think a horse had
been stole. Ross has nipped Joe Gregg and one of his herders for killing
mountain-sheep."

"Do you mean he shot them?"

"Yes; he took their heads."

Lee stood aghast. "What do you mean? Whose heads?"

Lize laughed. "The sheeps' heads. Oh, don't be scared, no one is hurt
yet!"

The girl flushed with confusion as the men roared over her blunder. "One
of the girls told me Mr. Cavanagh had killed a man," she explained. "Where
is he?"

Lize betrayed annoyance. "They say he's taking supper at Mike Halsey's,
though why he didn't come here I don't see. What's he going to do?" she
asked. "Won't the marshal take the men off his hands?"

"Not without warrant from Higley, and Higley is out of town. Ross'll have
to hold 'em till Higley gets back, or else take 'em over to Chauvenet,"
Lize snorted. "Old Higley! Yes, he's been known to disappear before when
there was some real work to be done."

The girl looked about her with a sharpening realization of the fact that
all these men were squarely opposed to the ranger, and rather glad to know
that his guardianship of the poachers was to be rendered troublesome. She
could hear on all sides bitter curses openly directed against him. How
little of real manliness could be detected in these grinning or malignant
faces! Ill-formed, half-developed, bestial most of them, while others,
though weakly good-humored, were ready to go with whatever current of
strong passion blew upon them. Over against such creatures Ross Cavanagh
stood off in heroic contrast--a man with work to do, and doing it like a
patriot.

She went back to her own task with a vague sense of alarm. "Certainly they
will not dare to interfere with an officer in the discharge of his
duties," she thought. She was eager to see him, and the thought that he
might be obliged to ride away to Chauvenet without a word to her gave her
a deeper feeling of annoyance and unrest. That he was in any real danger
she could not believe.

It was disheartening to Cavanagh to see how some of the most influential
citizens contrived to give encouragement to the riotous element of the
town. A wink, a gesture, a careless word to the proper messenger, conveyed
to the saloon rounders an assurance of sympathy which inflamed their
resentment to the murderous point.

The truth is, this little village, sixty miles from the railway, still
retained in its dives and shanties the lingering miasma of the old-time
free-range barbarism. It trailed a dark history on its legal side as well
as on its openly violent side, for it had been one of the centres of the
Rustler's War, and one of the chief points of attack on the part of the
cattle-barons. It was still a rendezvous for desperate and shameless
characters--a place of derelicts, survivals of the days of deep drinking,
furious riding, and ready gun-play.

True, its famous desperadoes were now either dead or distantly occupied;
but the mantle of violence, the tradition of lawlessness, had fallen to
the seedy old cow-punchers and to the raw and vulgar youths from the
ill-conditioned homes of the middle West. The air of the reckless old-time
range still clung rancidly in the low groggeries, as a deadly gas hangs
about the lower levels of a mine. It was confessedly one of the worst
communities in the State.

"Let's run the sonovagun!" was the suggestion of several of Gregg's
friends.

The fact that the ranger was a commissioned officer of the law, and that
the ram's head had been found on the poacher's pack, made very little
difference to these irresponsible instigators to assault. It was wonderful
how highly that loafing young rascal, Joe Gregg, was prized at the moment.
"It's an outrage that the son of a leading citizen should be held up in
this way by one of the forestry Cossacks," declared one of the merchants.

The discussion which took place over the bars of the town was at the
riot-heat by nine o'clock, and soon after ten a crowd of howling, whooping
bad boys, and disreputable ranch-hands was parading the walks, breathing
out vile threats against the ranger.

Accustomed to men of this type, Cavanagh watched them come and go at
Halsey's bar with calculating eyes. "There will be no trouble for an hour
or two, but meanwhile what is to be done? Higley is not to be found, and
the town marshal is also 'out of town.'" To Halsey he said: "I am acting,
as you know, under both Federal and State authority, and I call upon you
as a law-abiding citizen to aid me in holding these men prisoners. I shall
camp right here till morning, or until the magistrate or the marshal
relieves me of my culprits."

Halsey was himself a sportsman--a genuine lover of hunting and a fairly
consistent upholder of the game laws; but perceiving that the whole town
had apparently lined up in opposition to the ranger, he lost courage. His
consent was half-hearted, and he edged away toward the front window of his
bar-room, nervously seeking to be neutral--"to carry water on both
shoulders," as the phrase goes.

The talk grew less jocular as the drinks took effect, and Neill Ballard,
separating himself from the crowd, came forward, calling loudly: "Come out
o' there, Joe! Youse a hell of a sport! Come out and have a drink!"

His words conveyed less of battle than his tone. He was, in fact, urging a
revolt, and Cavanagh knew it.

Gregg rose as if to comply. The ranger stopped him. "Keep your seat," said
he. And to Ballard he warningly remarked: "And you keep away from my
prisoners."

"Do you own this saloon?" retorted the fellow, truculently. "I reckon
Halsey's customers have some rights. What are you doing here, anyway? This
is no jail."

"Halsey has given me the privilege of holding my prisoners here till the
justice is found. It isn't my fault that the town is without judge or
jail." He was weakened by the knowledge that Halsey had only
half-consented to aid justice; but his pride was roused, and he was
determined upon carrying his arrest to its legitimate end. "I'm going to
see that these men are punished if I have to carry them to Sulphur City,"
he added.

"Smash the lights!" shouted some one at the back.

Here was the first real note of war, and Ross cried out sharply: "If a man
lifts a hand toward the light I'll cut it off!"

There was a stealthy movement in the crowd, and leaping upon the counter a
reckless cub reached for the lamp.

Cavanagh's revolver shattered the globe in the fellow's very palm. "Get
down from there!" he commanded.

The crowd surged back against the front door, several drawn weapons
shining in their hands. Some of the faces were a-grin, others were thrust
forward like the heads of snakes, their eyes glittering with hate.

It is an appalling moment to a man of discernment when he looks into the
faces of his fellows and hears only the laugh of the wolf, the hiss of the
snake, the snarl of the tiger. At the moment Cavanagh despised with a
measureless contempt the entire commonwealth and its long-established
school of violence; but fixing his thought on his far-away chief, he lost
all fear. His voice was perfectly calm as he said: "I am wearing the
uniform of the Federal service, and the man that interferes with me will
feel the vengeance of the Federal arm. You can get me, but I'll get some
of you at the same time, and the department will get the rest."

The mob had not found its leader. It hesitated and blustered but did not
strike, and eventually edged out of the door and disappeared; but the
silence which followed its retreat was more alarming to the ranger than
its presence. Some slyer mischief was in these minds. He feared that they
were about to cut the electric-light wires, and so plunge him into
darkness, and to prepare for that emergency he called upon the bartender
(Halsey having vanished) for a lamp or a lantern.

The fellow sullenly set about this task, and Ross, turning to Gregg, said:
"If you've any influence with this mob, you'd better use it to keep them
out of mischief, for I'm on this job to the bitter end, and somebody's
going to be hurt."

Gregg, who seemed quite detached from the action and rather delighted with
it, replied: "I have no influence. They don't care a hang about me; they
have it in for you, that's all."

Edwards remained silent, with his hat drawn low over his eyes. It was
evident that he was anxious to avoid being seen and quite willing to keep
out of the conflict; but with no handcuffs and the back door of the saloon
unguarded, Ross was aware that his guard must be incessant and alertly
vigilant. "Where are the law-abiding citizens of the town?" he asked of
Sifton, who remained in the saloon.

The dry little whisp of manhood had some spark of life in him, for he
said: "In their beds, the cowardly hounds!"

"They must know that this gang of hobos is threatening me."

"Certainly they do; but they don't intend to endanger their precious
hides. They would be well pleased to have you disabled."

It was incredible! Low as his estimate of the Fork had been, Cavanagh
could not believe that it would sit quietly by and see an officer of the
State defeated in his duty. "Such a thing could not happen under the
English flag," he said, and at the moment his adopted country seemed a
miserable makeshift. Only the thought of Redfield and the chief nerved him
for the long vigil. "The chief will understand if it comes up to him," he
said.

Lize Wetherford came hurrying in, looking as though she had just risen
from her bed. She was clothed in a long red robe, her grizzled hair was
loose, her feet were bare, and she carried a huge old-fashioned revolver
in her hand. Her mouth was stern.

Stopping abruptly as she caught sight of Ross standing in the middle of
the floor unhurt, she exclaimed: "There you are! Are you all right?"

"As a trivet," he replied.

She let her gun-hand relax. "What was the shooting?"

"A little bluff on my part."

"Anybody hurt?"

"No."

She was much relieved. "I was afraid they'd got you. I came as quick as I
could. I was abed. That fool doctor threw a chill into me, and I've been
going to roost early according to orders. I didn't hear your gun, but Lee
did, and she came to tell me. They're hell-roaring down the street yet.
Don't let 'em get behind you. If I was any good I'd stay and help. Where's
Mike?" She addressed the tender at the bar.

"I don't know. Gone home, I guess."

"Sneaked, has he?"

"So far as I know the only law-upholding citizen in the place, barring
yourself, is Sifton," said Ross, indicating the Englishman, who stood as
if cold, pressing his hands together to hide their trembling.

Lize perceived the irony of this. "Two Britishers and two women! Well, by
God, this is a fine old town! What you going to do--hold your men here all
night?"

"I don't see any other way. Halsey turned the place over to me--but--" He
looked about him suspiciously.

"Bring 'em into my place. Lee has had new locks put on our doors; they'll
help some."

"I don't like to do that, Mrs. Wetherford," he replied, with greater
respect than he had ever shown her before. "They may attack me there."

"All the better; I'll be on hand to help--but they're less likely to boil
in on you through a locked door."

"But your daughter? It will alarm her."

"She'll be in the other house, and, besides, she'd feel easier if you are
in my place. She's all wrought up by the attack on you."

Ross turned to his prisoners. "Follow Mrs. Wetherford and--eyes front!"

"You needn't worry about me," said Joe, "I won't run."

"I don't intend to give you a chance," replied Ross.

Edwards seemed to have lost in both courage and physical stature; he
slouched along with shuffling step, his head bent and his face pale. Ross
was now profoundly sorry for him, so utterly craven and broken was his
look.





Next: The Second Attack

Previous: The Voice From The Heights



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