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Adventure, March 3, 1920

The Weight of Reputation

By Harrison R. Howard

FEW are they, leading active lives, who have not learned the great truth that difficulties and dangers appear far more forbidding in the advancing future than in the immediate present. Paradoxically, distance exerts a magnifying influence. Men look ahead to untoward events with fear or misgiving, only to find when the events take place that they can be met gracefully and with equanimity. Fore-fear is the very madness of fear; the leaven of imagination raises it out of all just proportion.

Ranger Elmer Randolph of the old Forest Service had not learned this truth—simply because he had never permitted danger to get out of the distance and close to him. He had viewed it at a distance times without number, but there his relation with it ceased; and he had never had opportunity of comparing its appearance afar with its appearance at close hand—the only method by which one may discover the great truth.

From which it must not be assumed that Ranger Randolph was a coward. Indeed, he did not possess so much as the fundamentals of cowardice. Simply he was cautious. He gracefully sidestepped difficulties; dangers he rode around; diligently he pursued the lines of least resistance. In the popular phrase, he very carefully observed his footing.

Now in a more modern day, in the quiet functioning of an established and efficient—if not wholly effective—Service, Ranger Randolph would doubtless have achieved modest success and in the fullness of time would have been promoted to District Ranger or perhaps to the soft cushions of a luxurious office in San Francisco or Portland. But in the riotous old days when the Service was still in the very hell of birthpangs and opposition to it was various and lusty, the pioneers who bore its idealistic though tattered banners had to be men of pertinacity rather than tact, eager to carry out its principles to the last syllable no matter at what personal hazard.

Therefore like all those born before their time, Ranger Elmer Randolph was a square peg in a round hole; and when, at the fag end of a beautiful August day, he tracked his quarry to a homestead in a pine clearing he did not attempt to carry the stronghold by heroic measures, but seated himself in safe thicket at the clearing's edge and calmly waited for darkness.

When the dim, last-quarter moon slipped above the tips of the encircling pines, Randolph unstrapped his hand ax from the saddle of his mount and cut several light hazel boughs which he bound securely together. The foliage of the completed whole was intended to furnish a screen behind which he could not be seen, and which was light enough to be easily pushed forward along the ground from a prone position behind it.

He circled the cabin thrice before deciding upon the most effective and protective sector of attack. He determined finally upon the north wall, from which approach he could command a view of the front doorway which would prove of tactical benefit in the event that the miscreant attempted a dash for the open.

He dragged the screen to a position opposite the north wall of the structure, pushed it cautiously out into the open, and dropped on hands and knees behind it. He crawled slowly forward, pushing the boughs ahead of him.

The northern approach to the dwelling possessed other virtues as well as that of commanding the front entrance. For one thing the ground was broken here and there by detached growths of small shrubs, and his mobile bough-screen should not be so readily detected among them as upon the bare earth of the other points of approach. He crawled on with extreme caution, keen to the fact that the success of his expedition depended upon intriguing the watcher within the house into considering the screen as one of the stationary growths about him.

Ranger Randolph knew the house well. During the preceding Winter he had been a constant caller at the White homestead, sitting through the stormy evenings before the big fireplace pursuing a courtship of Florence White, the daughter of the house.

He felt a positive sense of satisfaction at the knowledge that the Whites were not at home. The Homestead Law permitted settlers to absent themselves from their holdings for a portion of each year, and the White family had gone to the distant city where Florence was attending a school of stenography.

He was quite content that his pursuit of the present task was unobserved by any of his acquaintances. Disrepute had already attached itself to his name in the district. He was far from approving his method; he knew that the limited traditions of the Service which tolerated his membership demanded more rigorous treatment; he should have taken his chance at storming the stronghold without waiting for the protection of darkness. He was thoroughly glad that Florence White was far away from home.

Halfway to the northern wall of the building the shrubs ended, and with added caution he pushed out beyond. Inch by inch the screen advanced before him. He thought he detected movement in the window and quickly ceased his progress. After a time he gave the screen a tentative push; then with the suddenness of a thunderclap flame spurted from a rifle barrel at the window.

Randolph halted and crouched low. Another flash illuminated the clearing and another ball tore with a whine through the hazel boughs. Fifty yards separated him from the near wall of the house. He realized that by all th...

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