The Smoke Of The Burning





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.





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