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The Smoke Of The Burning








From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

The reader will observe that the forest ranger's job is that of a man and
a patriot, and such a ranger was Cavanagh, notwithstanding his foreign
birth. He could ride all day in the saddle and fight fire all night. While
not a trained forester, he was naturally a reader, and thoroughly
understood the theories of the department. As a practical ranger he stood
half-way between the cowboy (who was at first the only available material)
and the trained expert who is being educated to follow him.

He was loyal with the loyalty of a soldier, and his hero was the colonel
of the Rough-riders, under whom he had campaigned. The second of his
admirations was the Chief Forester of the department.

The most of us are getting so thin-skinned, so dependent upon steam-heat
and goloshes, that the actions of a man like this riding forth upon his
trail at all hours of the day and night self-sufficing and serene, seem
like the doings of an epic, and so indeed they are.

On the physical side the plainsman, the cowboy, the poacher, are all
admirable, but Cavanagh went far beyond their physical hardihood. He
dreamed, as he rode, of his responsibilities. The care of the poor Basque
shepherd he had accepted as a matter of routine without Wetherford's
revelation of himself, which complicated an exceedingly pitiful case. He
could not forget that it was Lee Virginia's father who stood in danger of
contracting the deadly disease, and as he imagined him dying far up there
on that bleak slope, his heart pinched with the tragedy of the old man's
life. In such wise the days of the ranger were smouldering to this end.

On the backward trail he turned aside to stamp out a smoking log beside a
deserted camp-fire, and again he made a detour into a lovely little park
to visit a fisherman and to warn him of the danger of fire. He was the
forest guardian, alert to every sign, and yet all the time he was being
drawn on toward his temptation. Why not resign and go East, taking the
girl with him? "After all, the life up here is a lonely and hard one, in
no sense a vocation for an ambitious man. Suppose I am promoted to Forest
Supervisor? That only means a little more salary and life in a small city
rather than here. District Supervisor would be better, but can I hope to
secure such a position?"

Up to this month he had taken the matter of his promotion easily; it was
something to come along in the natural course of things. "There is no
haste; I can wait." Now haste seemed imperative. "I am no longer so young
as I was," he admitted.

Once back at his cabin he laid aside his less tangible problems, and set
himself to cooking some food to take back with him to the peak. He brought
in his pack-horse, and burdened him with camp outfit and utensils, and
extra clothing. He filled his pockets with such medicines as he possessed,
and so at last, just as night was falling, he started back over his
difficult trail.

The sky was black as the roof of a cavern, for the stars were hid by a
roof of cloud which hung just above his head, and the ranger was obliged
to feel his way through the first quarter of his journey. The world grew
lighter after he left the canon and entered the dead timber of the glacial
valley, but even in the open the going was wearisome and the horses
proceeded with sullen caution.

"The Basque is a poor, worthless little peasant, but he is a human being,
and to leave him to die up there would be monstrous," he insisted, as the
horses stumbled upward over the rocks of a vast lateral moraine toward the
summit, blinded by the clouds through which they were forced to pass. He
was dismounted now and picking his way with a small lantern, whose feeble
ray (like that of a firefly) illuminated for a small space the dripping
rocks; all else was tangible yellow mist which possessed a sulphurous odor
and clung to everything it touched. The wind had died out entirely, and
the mountain-side was as silent as the moon.

Foot by foot he struggled up the slope, hoping each moment to break
through this blanket of vapor into the clear air. He knew from many
previous experiences that the open sky existed a little way above, that
this was but a roof.

At last he parted the layer of mist and burst into the moonlit heights
above. He drew a deep breath of awe as he turned and looked about him.
Overhead the sky was sparkling with innumerable stars, and the crescent
moon was shining like burnished silver, while level with his breast rolled
a limitless, silent, and mystical ocean of cloud which broke against the
dark peaks in soundless surf, and spread away to the east in ever-widening
shimmer. All the lesser hills were covered; only the lords of the range
towered above the flood in sullen and unmoved majesty.

For a long time Cavanagh stood beside his weary horses, filling his soul
with the beauty of this world, so familiar yet so transformed. He wished
for his love; she would feel and know and rejoice with him. It was such
experiences as these that made him content with his work. For the ranger
Nature plays her profoundest dramas--sometimes with the rush of winds, the
crash of thunder; sometimes like this, in silence so deep that the act of
breathing seems a harsh, discordant note.

Slowly the mystic waters fell away, sinking with slightly rolling action
into the valleys, and out of the wool-white waves sudden sharp dark forms
upthrust like strange masters of the deep. Towers took shape and islands
upheaved, crowned with dark fortresses. To the west a vast and inky-black
Gibraltar magically appeared. Soon the sea was but a prodigious river
flowing within the high walls of an ancient glacier, a ghost of the icy
stream that once ground its slow way between these iron cliffs.

With a shudder of awe the ranger turned from the intolerable beauty of
this combination of night, cloud, and mountain-crest, and resumed his
climb. Such scenes, by their majesty, their swift impermanency, their
colossal and heedless haste, made his heart ache with indefinable regret.
Again and again he looked back, longing for some power which would enable
him to record and reproduce for the eyes of his love some part of this
stupendous and noiseless epic. He was no longer content to enjoy Nature's
splendors alone.

On the cold and silent side of the great divide the faint light of the
shepherd's teepee shone, and with a returning sense of his duty to his
fellows on the roof of the continent, Cavanagh pushed onward.

Wetherford met him at the door, no longer the poor old tramp, but a
priest, one who has devoted himself to Christ's service.

"How is he?" asked the ranger.

"Delirious," replied the herder. "I've had to hold him to his bed. I'm
glad you've come. It's lonesome up here. Don't come too near. Set your
tent down there by the trees. I can't have you infected. Keep clear of me
and this camp."

"I've got some food and some extra clothing for you."

"Put 'em down here, and in the morning drive these sheep away. That noise
disturbs the dago, and I don't like it myself; they sound lonesome and
helpless. That dog took 'em away for a while, but brought 'em back again;
poor devil, he don't know what to think of it all."

Ross did as Wetherford commanded him to do, and withdrew a little way down
the slope; and without putting up his tent, rolled himself in his blankets
and went to sleep.

The sun rose gloriously. With mountain fickleness the wind blew gently
from the east, the air was precisely like late March, and the short and
tender grass, the small flowers in the sheltered corners of the rocks, and
the multitudinous bleatings of the lambs were all in keeping. It was
spring in the world and it was spring in the heart of the ranger, in spite
of all his perplexities. The Basque would recover, the heroic ex-convict
would not be stricken, and all would be well. Of such resiliency is the
heart of youth.

His first duty was to feed the faithful collie, and to send him forth with
the flock. His next was to build a fire and cook some breakfast for
Wetherford, and as he put it down beside the tent door he heard the wild
pleading of the Basque, who was struggling with his nurse--doubtless in
the belief that he was being kept a prisoner. Only a few words like "go
home" and "sheep" were intelligible to either the nurse or the ranger.

"Keep quiet now--quiet, boy! It's all right. I'm here to take care of
you," Wetherford repeated, endlessly.

Cavanagh waited till a silence came; then called, softly: "Here's your
breakfast, Wetherford."

"Move away," retorted the man within. "Keep your distance."

Ross walked away a little space and Wetherford came to the door. "The dago
is sure sick, there's no two ways about that. How far is it to the nearest
doctor?"

"I could reach one by 'phone from the Kettle Ranch, about twenty miles
below here."

"If he don't get better to-day I reckon we'll have to have a doctor." He
looked so white and old that Cavanagh said:

"You need rest. Now I think I've had the smallpox--I know I've been
vaccinated, and if you go to bed--"

"If you're saying all that preliminary to offering to come in here, you're
wasting your breath. I don't intend to let you come any nearer than you
are. There is work for you to do. Besides, there's my girl; you're
detailed to look after her."

"Would a doctor come?" asked Ross, huskily, moved by Wetherford's words.
"It's a hard climb. Would they think the dago worth it?"

Wetherford's face darkened with a look of doubt. "It is a hard trip for
a city man, but maybe he would come for you--for the Government."

"I doubt it, even if I were to offer my next month's salary as a fee.
These hills are very remote to the townsfolk, and one dago more or less of
no importance, but I'll see what I can do."

Ross was really more concerned for Wetherford himself than for the Basque.
"If the fever is something malignant, we must have medical aid," he said,
and went slowly back to his own camp to ponder his puzzling problem.

One thing could certainly be done, and that was to inform Gregg and Murphy
of their herder's illness; surely they would come to the rescue of the
collie and his flock. To reach a telephone involved either a ride over
into Deer Creek or a return to the Fork. He was tempted to ride all the
way to the Fork, for to do so would permit another meeting with Lee; but
to do this would require many hours longer, and half a day's delay might
prove fatal to the Basque, and, besides, each hour of loneliness and toil
rendered Wetherford just so much more open to the deadly attack of the
disease.

Here was the tragic side of the wilderness. At such moments even the Fork
seemed a haven. The mountains offer a splendid camping-place for the young
and the vigorous, but they are implacable foes to the disabled man or the
aged. They do not give loathsome diseases like pox, but they do not aid in
defence of the sick. Coldly aloof, its clouds sail by. The night winds
bite. Its rains fall remorselessly. Sheltering rocks there are, to be
sure, but their comfort is small to the man smitten with the scourge of
the crowded city. In such heights man is of no more value than the wolf or
the cony.

It was hard to leave an old and broken man in such a drear and
wind-contested spot, and yet it had to be done. So fastening his tent
securely behind a clump of junipers, Cavanagh mounted his horse and rode
away across the boundary of the forest into the Deer Creek Basin, which
had been the bone of much contention for nearly four years.

It was a high, park-like expanse, sparsely wooded, beautiful in summer,
but cold and bleak in winter. The summers were short, and frost fell
almost every week even in July and August. It had once been a part of the
forest, but under pressure the President had permitted it to be restored
to the public lands open for entry. It was not "agricultural grounds," as
certain ranchers claimed, but it was excellent summer pasture, and the
sheepmen and cattle-men had leaped at once into warfare to possess it.
Sheep were beaten to death with clubs by hundreds, herders were hustled
out of the park with ropes about their necks and their outfits
destroyed--and all this within a few miles of the forest boundary, where
one small sentinel kept effective watch and ward.

Cavanagh had never been over this trail but once, and he was trying to
locate the cliff from which a flock of sheep had been hurled by cattle-men
some years before, when he perceived a thin column of smoke rising from a
rocky hillside. With habitual watchfulness as to fire, he raised his glass
to his eyes and studied the spot. It was evidently a camp-fire and
smouldering dangerously, and turning his horse's head he rode toward it to
stamp it out. It was not upon his patrol; but that did not matter, his
duty was clear.

As he drew near he began to perceive signs of a broken camp; the ground
was littered with utensils. It was not an ordinary camp-fire, and the
ranger's heart quickened. "Another sheep-herder has been driven out, and
his tent and provisions burned!" he exclaimed, wrathfully.

His horse snorted and shied as he rode nearer, and then a shudder passed
through the ranger's heart as he perceived in the edge of the smouldering
embers a boot heel, and then--a charred hand! In the smoke of that fire
was the reek of human flesh.

For a long time the ranger sat on his horse, peering down into those ashes
until at last it became evident to his eyes that at least two
sheep-herders had been sacrificed on the cattle-man's altar of hate and
greed.

All about on the sod the story was written, all too plain. Two men,
possibly three, had been murdered--cut to pieces and burned--not many
hours before. There stood the bloody spade with which the bodies had been
dismembered, and there lay an empty can whose oil had been poured upon the
mingled camp utensils, tent, and wagon of the herders, in the attempt to
incinerate the hacked and dismembered limbs of the victims. The
lawlessness of the range had culminated. The ferocity of the herder had
gone beyond the savage. Here in the sweet autumn air the reek of the
cattle-man's vengeance rose like some hideous vapor, poisonous and
obscene.

The ranger sickened as the bloody tale unfolded itself before him. Then a
fierce hate of such warfare flamed in his heart. Could this enormity be
committed under any other civilized flag? Would any other Government
intermingle so foolishly, so childishly its State and Federal authority as
to permit such diabolism?

Here lay the legitimate fruit of the State's essential hoodlumism. Here
was the answer to local self-government--to democracy. Such a thing could
not happen in Australia or Canada; only in America could lynch law become
a dramatic pastime, a jest, an instrument of private vengeance. The South
and the West were alike stained with the blood of the lynched, and the
whole nation was covered with shame.

In his horror, his sense of revolt, he cursed the State of which he was a
citizen. He would have resigned his commission at the moment, so intense
was his resentment of the supine, careless, jovial, slattern Government
under which he was serving.

"By the Lord!" he breathed, with solemn intensity, "if this does not shame
the people of this State into revolt, if these fiends are not hounded and
hung, I will myself harry them. I cannot live and do my duty here unless
this crime is avenged by law."

It did not matter to him that these herders were poor Basques; it was the
utter, horrifying, destructive disregard of law which raised such tumult
in his blood. His English education, his soldier's training, his native
refinement--all were outraged. Then, too, he loved the West. He had
surrendered his citizenship under the British flag--for this!

Chilled, shaking, and numb, he set spurs to his horse and rode furiously
down the trail toward the nearest town, so eager to spread the alarm that
he could scarcely breathe a deep breath. On the steep slopes he was forced
to walk, and his horse led so badly, that his agony of impatience was
deepened. He had a vision of the murderers riding fast into far countries.
Each hour made their apprehension progressively the more difficult.

"Who were they?" he asked himself, again and again. "What kind of man did
this thing? Was the leader a man like Ballard? Even so, he was hired. By
whom? By ranchers covetous of the range; that was absolutely certain."

It was long after noon before he came to the end of the telephone-line in
a little store and post-office at the upper falls of Deer Creek. The
telephone had a booth fortunately, and he soon had Redfield's ear, but his
voice was so strained and unnatural that his chief did not recognize it.

"Is that you, Ross? What's the matter? Your voice sounds hoarse."

Ross composed himself, and told his story briefly. "I'm at Kettle Ranch
post-office. Now listen. The limit of the cattle-man's ferocity has been
reached. As I rode down here, to get into communication with a doctor for
a sick herder, I came upon the scene of another murder and burning. The
fire is still smouldering; at least two bodies are in the embers."

At last, bit by bit, from hurried speech, the supervisor derived the fact,
the location, the hour, and directed the herder to ride back and guard the
remains till the sheriff arrived.

"Keep it all quiet," warned Ross, "and get the sheriff and a doctor to
come up here as quick as you can. What in the name of God is this country
coming to?" he cried, in despair. "Will this deed go unpunished, like the
rest?"

Redfield's voice had lost its optimistic ring. "I don't know; I am stunned
by it all. Don't do anything rash, Ross. Wait till I come. Perhaps this is
the turning-point out here. I'll be up at the earliest moment."

The embittered and disheartened ranger then called up Lee Virginia, and
the sound of her sweet voice turned his thoughts to other and, in a sense,
more important matters; for when she heard his name she cried out with
such eager longing and appeal that his heart leaped. "Oh, I wish you were
here! Mother has been worse to-day. She is asking for you. Can't you come
down and see us? She wants to tell you something."

"I can't--I can't!" he stammered. "I--I--I'm a long way off, and I have
important work to do. Tell her I will come to-morrow."

Her voice was filled with disappointment and fear as she said: "Oh, I need
you so! Can't you come?"

"Yes, I will come as soon as I can. I will try to reach you by daylight
to-morrow. My heart is with you. Call up the Redfields; they will help
you."

"Mother wants you. She says she must see you. Come as soon as you can.
I don't know what she wants to tell you--but I do know we need you."

Her meaning was as clear as if she said: "I need you, for I love you. Come
to me." And her prayer filled him with pain as well as pleasure. He was a
soldier and under orders from his chief, therefore he said: "Dear girl,
there is a sick man far up on the mountain-side with no one to care for
him but a poor old herder who is in danger of falling sick himself. I must
go back to them; but, believe me, I will come just as soon as my duties
will let me. You understand me, don't you?"

Her voice was fainter as she said: "Yes, but I--it seems hard to wait."

"I know. Your voice has helped me. I was in a black mood when I came here.
I'm going back now to do my work, and then I will come to you. Good-bye."

Strangely beautiful and very subtle was the vibrant stir of that wire as
it conveyed back to his ear the little sigh with which she made answer to
his plea. He took his way upward in a mood which was meditative but no
longer bitter.





Next: Shadows On The Mist

Previous: The Old Sheep-herder



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