Although rarely a day went by during the whole season that one or more parties did not pass through, or camp over night at the Meadow Lake, it was a fact that, after passing Baldy, these hundreds could scatter so far through the labyrinth of the Sierras that in a whole summer's journeying they were extremely unlikely to see each other—or indeed any one else, save when they stumbled on one of the established cow camps. The vastness of the California mountains cannot be conveyed to one who has not travelled them. Men have all summer pastured illegally thousands of head of sheep undiscovered, in spite of the fact that rangers and soldiers were out looking for them. One may journey diligently throughout the season, and cover but one corner of the three great maps that depict about one-half of them. If one wills he can, to all intents and purposes, become sole and undisputed master of kingdoms in extent. He can occupy beautiful valleys miles long, guarded by cliffs rising thousands of feet, threaded by fish-haunted streams, spangled with fair, flower-grown lawns, cool with groves of trees, neck high in rich feed. Unless by sheer chance, no one will disturb his solitude. Of course he must work for his kingdom. He must press on past the easy travel, past the wide cattle country of the middle elevations, into the splintered, frowning granite and snow, over the shoulders of the mighty peaks of the High Sierras. Nevertheless, the reward is sure for the hardy voyager.
Most men, however, elect to spend their time in the easier middle ground. There the elevations run up to nine or ten thousand feet; the trails are fairly well defined and travelled; the streams are full of fish; meadows are in every moist pocket; the great box canons and peaks of the spur ranges offer the grandeur of real mountain scenery.
From these men, as they ended their journeys on the way out, came tales and rumours. There was no doubt whatever that the country had too many cattle in it. That was brought home to each and every man by the scarcity of horse feed on meadows where usually an abundance for everybody was to be expected. The cattle were thin and restless. It was unsafe to leave a camp unprotected; the half-wild animals trampled everything into the ground. The cattlemen, of whatever camp, appeared sullen and suspicious of every comer.
"It's mighty close to a cattle war," said one old lean and leathery individual to Bob; "I know, for I been thar. Used to run cows in Montana. I hear everywhar talk about Wright's cattle dyin' in mighty funny ways. I know that's so, for I seen a slather of dead cows myself. Some of 'em fall off cliffs; some seem to have broke their legs. Some bogged down. Some look like to have just laid down and died."
"Well, if they're weak from loss of feed, isn't that natural?" asked Bob.
"Wall," said the old cowman, "in the first place, they're pore, but they ain't by no means weak. But the strange part is that these yere accidents always happens to Wright's cattle."
He laughed and added:
"The carcasses is always so chawed up by b'ar and coyote—or at least that's what they say done it—that you can't sw'ar as to how they did come to die. But I heard one funny thing. It was over at the Pollock boys' camp. Shelby, Wright's straw boss, come ridin' in pretty mad, and made a talk about how it's mighty cur'ous only Wright's cattle is dyin'.
"'It shorely looks like the country is unhealthy for plains cattle,' says George Pollock; 'ours is brought up in the hills.'
"'Well,' says Shelby, 'if I ever comes on one of these accidents a-happenin', I'll shore make some one hard to catch!'
"'Some one's likely one of these times to make you almighty easy to catch!' says George.
"Now," concluded the old cattleman, "folks don't make them bluffs for the sake of talkin' at a mark—not in this country."
Nevertheless, in spite of that prediction, the summer passed without any personal clash. The cattle came out from the mountains rather earlier than usual, gaunt, wiry, active. They were in fine shape, as far as health was concerned; but absolutely unfit, as they then stood, for beef. The Simeon Wright herds were first, thousands of them, in charge of many cowboys and dogs. The punchers were a reckless, joyous crew, skylarking in anticipation of the towns of the plains. They kissed their hands and waved their hats at all women, old and young, in the mill settlement; they played pranks on each other; they charged here and there on their wiry ponies, whirling to right and left, 'turning on a ten-cent piece,' throwing their animals from full speed to a stand, indulging in the cowboys' spectacular 'flash riding' for the sheer joy of it. The leading cattle, eager with that strange instinct that, even early in the fall, calls all ruminants from good mountain feed to the brown lower country, pressed forward, their necks outstretched, their eyes fixed on some distant vision. Their calls blended into an organ note. Occasionally they broke into a little trot. At such times the dogs ran forward, yelping, to turn them back into their appointed way. At an especially bad break to right or left one or more of the men would dash to the aid of the dogs, riding with a splendid recklessness through the timber, over fallen trees, ditches, rocks, boulders and precipitous hills. The dust rose chokingly. At the rear of the long procession plodded the old, the infirm, the cripples and the young calves. Three or four men rode compactly behind this rear guard, urging it to keep up. Their means of persuasion were varied. Quirts, ropes, rattles made of tin cans and pebbles, strong language were all used in turn and simultaneously. Long after the multitude had passed, the vast and composite voice of it reechoed through the forest; the dust eddied and swirled among the trees.
The mountain men's cattle, on the other hand, came out sullenly, in herds of a few hundred head. There was more barking of dogs; more scurrying to and fro of mounted men, for small bands are more difficult to drive than large ones. There were no songs, no boisterous high spirits, no flash riding. In contrast to the plains cowboys, even the herders' appearance was poor. They wore blue jeans overalls, short jeans jumpers, hats floppy and all but disintegrated by age and exposure to the elements. Wright's men, being nothing but cowboys, without other profession, ties or interests, gave more attention to details of professional equipment. Their wide hats were straight of brim and generally encircled by a leather or hair or snakeskin band; their shirts were loose; they wore handkerchiefs around their necks, and oiled leather "chaps" on their legs. Their distinguishing and especial mark, however, was their boots. These were made of soft leather, were elaborately stitched or embroidered in patterns, possessed exaggeratedly wide and long straps like a spaniel's ears, and were mounted on thin soles and very high heels. They were footwear such as no mountain man, nor indeed any man who might ever be required to go a mile afoot, would think of wearing. The little herds trudged down the mountains. While the plainsmen anticipated easy duty, the pleasures of the town, fenced cattle growing fat on alfalfa raised during the summer by irrigation, these sober-faced mountaineers looked forward to a winter range much depleted, a market closed against such wiry, active animals as they herded, and an impossibility of rounding into shape for sale any but a few old cows.
"If it wasn't for this new shake-up," said Jim Pollock, "I'd shore be gettin' discouraged. But if they keep out Simeon Wright's cattle this spring, we'll be all right. It's cost us money, though."
"A man with a wife and child can't afford to lose money," said George Pollock.
"You and your new kid!" he mocked. "No, I suppose he can't. Neither can a man with a wife and six children. But I reckon we'll be all right as long as there's a place to crawl under when it rains."
The autumn passed, and winter closed down. Plant continued his administration. For a month the countryside was on a tip-toe of expectation. It counted on no immediate results, but the "suspension pending investigation" was to take place within a few weeks. As far as surface indications were concerned nothing happened. Expectation was turned back on itself. Absolute confidence in Plant's removal and criminal conviction gave place to scepticism and doubt, finally to utter disbelief. And since Thorne had succeeded in arousing a real faith and enthusiasm, the reaction was by so much the stronger. Tolerance gave way to antagonism; distrust to bitterness; grievance to open hostility. The Forest Reserves were cursed as a vicious institution created for the benefit of the rich man, depriving the poor man of his rights and privileges, imposing on him regulations that were at once galling and senseless.
The Forest Rangers suddenly found themselves openly unpopular. Heretofore a ranger had been tolerated by the mountaineers as either a good-for-nothing saloon loafer enjoying the fats of political perquisite; or as a species of inunderstandable fanatic to be looked down upon with good-humoured contempt. Now a ranger became a partisan of the opposing forces, and as such an enemy. Men ceased speaking to him, or greeted him with the curtest of nods. Plant's men were ostracized in every way, once they showed themselves obstinate in holding to their positions. Every man was urged to resign. Many did so. Others hung on because the job was too soft to lose. Some, like Ross Fletcher, California John, Tom Carroll, Charley Morton and a few others, moved on their accustomed way.
One of the inspiring things in the later history of the great West is the faith and insight, the devotion and self-sacrifice of some of the rough mountain men in some few of the badly managed reserves to truths that were but slowly being recognized by even the better educated of the East. These men, year after year, without leadership, without encouragement, without the support and generally against the covered or open hostility of their neighbours, under most disheartening official conditions kept the torch alight. They had no wide theory of forestry to sustain their interest; they could certainly have little hope of promotion and advancement to a real career; their experience with a bureaucratic government could not arouse in their breasts any expectation of a broad, a liberal, or even an enlightened policy of conservation or use. They were set in opposition to their neighbours without receiving the support of the power that so placed them. Nevertheless, according to their knowledge they worked faithfully. Five times out of ten they had little either of supervision or instruction. Turned out in the mountains, like a bunch of stock, each was free to do as much or as little of whatever he pleased. Each improved his district according to his ideas or his interests. One cared most for building trails; another for chasing sheep trespassers; a third for construction of bridges, cabins and fences. All had occasionally to fight fires. Each was given the inestimable privilege of doing what he could. Everything he did had to be reported on enormous and complicated forms. If he made a mistake in any of these, he heard from it, and perhaps his pay was held up. This pay ran somewhere about sixty or seventy-five dollars a month, and he was required to supply his own horses and to feed them. Most rangers who were really interested in their profession spent some of this in buying tools with which to work.[A] The Government supplied next to nothing. In 1902 between the King's River and the Kaweah, an area of somewhere near a million acres, the complete inventory of fire-fighting tools consisted of two rakes made from fifty cents' worth of twenty-penny nails.
But these negative discouragements were as nothing compared to the petty rebuffs and rulings that emanated from the Land Office itself.
One spring Ross Fletcher, following specific orders, was sent out after twenty thousand trespassing sheep. It was early in the season. His instructions took him up into the frozen meadows, so he had to carry barley for his horses. He used three sacks and sent in a bill for one. Item refused. Feed was twenty dollars a thousand. Salary seventy-five dollars.
One of Simeon Wright's foremen broke down government fences and fed out all the ranger horse feed. Tom Carroll wrote to Superintendent Smith; later to Washington. The authorities, however, refused to revoke the cattleman's licence. At Christmas time, when Carroll was in White Oaks the foreman and his two sons jeered at and insulted the ranger in regard to this matter until the latter lost his temper and thrashed all three, one after the other. For this he was severely reprimanded by Washington.
Charley Morton was ordered to Yosemite to consult with the military officers there. He was instructed to do so in a certain number of days. To keep inside his time limit he had to hire a team. Item refused.
California John fought fire alone for two days and a night, then had to go outside for help. Docked a day for going off the reserve.
Why did these men prefer to endure neglect and open hostility to the favour of their neighbours and easier work? Bob, with a growing wonder and respect, tried to find out.
He did not succeed. There certainly was no overwhelming love for the administration of Henry Plant; nor loyalty to the Land Office. Indeed for the latter, one and all entertained the deep contempt of the out-of-door man for the red-tape clerk.
"What do you think is the latest," asked California John one day, "from them little squirts? I just got instructions that during of the fire season I must patrol the whole of my district every day!" The old man grinned. "I only got from here to Pumice Mountain! I wonder if those fellows ever saw a mountain? I suppose they laid off an inch on the map and let it go at that. Patrol every day!"
"How long would it take you?" asked Bob.
"By riding hard, about a week."
Rather the loyalty seemed to be gropingly to the idea back of it all, to something broad and dim and beautiful which these rough, untutored men had drawn from their native mountains and which thus they rendered back.
As Bob gradually came to understand more of the situation his curiosity grew. The lumberman's instinctive hostility to government control and interference had not in the slightest degree modified; but he had begun to differentiate this small, devoted band from the machinery of the Forest Reserves as they were then conducted. He was a little inclined to the fanatic theory; he knew by now that the laziness hypothesis would not apply to these.
"What is there in it?" he asked. "You surely can't hope for a boost in salary; and certainly your bosses treat you badly."
At first he received vague and evasive answers. They liked the work; they got along all right; it was a lot better than the cattle business just now, and so on. Then as it became evident that the young man was genuinely interested, California John gradually opened up. One strange and beautiful feature of American partisanship for an ideal is its shyness. It will work and endure, will wait and suffer, but it will not go forth to proselyte.
"The way I kind of look at it is this," said the old man one evening. "I always did like these here mountains—and the big trees—and the rocks and water and the snow. Everywhere else the country belongs to some one: it's staked out. Up here it belongs to me, because I'm an American. This country belongs to all of us—the people—all of us. We most of us don't know we've got it, that's all. I kind of look at it this way: suppose I had a big pile of twenty-dollar gold pieces lying up, say in Siskiyou, that I didn't know nothing whatever about; and some fellow come along and took care of it for me and hung onto it even when I sent out word that anybody was welcome to anything I owned in Siskiyou—I not thinking I really owned anything there, you understand—why—well, you see, I sort of like to feel I'm one of those fellows!"
"What good is there in hanging onto a lot of land that would be better developed?" asked Bob.
But California John refused to be drawn into a discussion. He had his faith, but he would not argue about it. Sometime or other the people would come to that same faith. In the meantime there was no sense in tangling up with discussions.
"They send us out some reading that tells about it," said California John. "I'll give you some."
He was as good as his word. Bob carried away with him a dozen government publications of the sort that, he had always concluded, everybody received and nobody read. Interested, not in the subject matter of the pamphlets, but in their influence on these mountain men, he did read them. In this manner he became for the first time acquainted with the elementary principles of watersheds and water conservation. This was actually so. Nor did he differ in this respect from any other of the millions of well-educated youth of the country. In a vague way he knew that trees influence climate. He had always been too busy with trees to bother about climate.
The general facts interested him, and appealed to his logical common sense. He saw for the first time, because for the first time it had been presented to his attention, the real use and reason for the forest reserves. Hitherto he had considered the whole institution as semi-hostile, at least as something in potential antagonism. Now he was willing fairly to recognize the wisdom of preserving some portion of the mountain cover. He had not really denied it; simply he hadn't considered it.
Early in this conviction he made up to Ross Fletcher for his brusqueness in ordering the ranger off the mill property.
"I just classed you with your gang, which was natural," said Bob.
"I am one of my gang, of course," said Fletcher.
"Do you consider yourself one of the same sort of dicky bird as Plant and that crew?" demanded Bob.
"There ain't no humans all alike," replied the mountaineer.
Although Bob was thus rebuffed in immediately getting inside of the man's loyalty to his service and his superiors, he was from that moment made to feel at his ease. Later, in a fuller intimacy, he was treated more frankly.
Welton laughed openly at Bob's growing interest in these matters.
"You're the first man I ever saw read any of those things," said he in regard to the government reports. "I once read one," he went on in delightful contradiction to his first statement. "It told how to cut timber. When you cut down a tree, you pile up the remains in a neat pile and put a little white picket fence around them. It would take a thousand men and cost enough to buy a whole new tract to do all the monkey business they want you to do. I've only been in the lumber business forty years! When a college boy can teach me, I'm willing to listen; but he can't teach me the A B C of the business."
Bob laughed. "Well, I can't just see us taking time in a short season to back-track and pile up ornamental brush piles," he admitted.
"Experimental farms, and experimental chickens, and experimental lumbering are all right for the gentleman farmer and the gentleman poultry fancier and the gentleman lumberman—if there are any. But when it comes to business——"
Bob laughed. "Just the same," said he, "I'm beginning to see that it's a good thing to keep some of this timber standing; and the only way it can be done is through the Forest Reserves."
"That's all right," agreed Welton. "Let'em reserve. I don't care. But they are a nuisance. They keep stepping on my toes. It's too good a chance to annoy and graft. It gives a hard lot of loafers too good a chance to make trouble."
"They are a hard lot in general," agreed Bob, "but there's some good men among them, men I can't help but admire."
Welton rolled his eyes drolly at the younger man.
"Who?" he inquired.
"Well, there's old California John."
"There's three or four mossbacks in the lot that are honest," cut in Welton, "but it's because they're too damn thick-headed to be anything else. Don't get kiddish enough to do the picturesque mountaineer act, Bobby. I can dig you up four hundred of that stripe anywhere—and holding down just about as valuable jobs. Don't get too thick with that kind. In the city you'll find them holding open-air meetings. I suppose our friend Plant has been pinched?"
"Not yet," grinned Bob, a trifle shamefacedly.
"Don't get the reform bug, Bob," said Welton kindly, "That's all very well for those that like to amuse themselves, but we're busy."
[Footnote A: The accounts of one man showed that for a long period he had so disbursed from his own pocket an average of thirty dollars a month. His salary was sixty dollars.]
The following spring found Plant still in command. No word had come from the silence of political darkness. His only concession to the state of affairs had been an acknowledgment under coercion that the cattle ranges had been overstocked, and that outside cattle would not be permitted to enter, at least for the coming season. This was just the concession to relieve the immediate pressure against him, and to give the Supervisor time to apply all his energies to details within the shades.
Details were important, in spite of the absence of surface indications. Many considerations were marshalled. On one side were arrayed plain affidavits of fraud. In the lower ranks of the Land Office it was necessary to corrupt men, by one means or another. These lesser officials in the course of routine would come face to face with the damaging affidavits, and must be made to shut their eyes deliberately to what they know. The cases of the higher officials were different. They must know of the charges, of course, but matters must be so arranged that the evidence must never meet their eyes, and that they must adopt en bloc the findings of their subordinates. Bribery was here impossible; but influence could be brought to bear.
Chairman Gay upheld his cousin, Henry Plant, because of the relationship. This implied a good word, and personal influence. After that Chairman Gay forgot the matter. But a great number of people were extremely anxious to please Chairman Gay. These exerted themselves. They came across evidence that would have caused Chairman Gay to throw his beloved cousin out neck and crop, but they swallowed it and asked for more simply because Gay possessed patronage, and it was not to their interest to bring disagreeable matters before the great man. Nor was the Land Office unlikely to listen to reason. A strong fight was at that time forward to transfer control of the Forest Reserves from a department busy in other lines to the Bureau of Forestry where it logically belonged. This transfer was violently opposed by those to whom the distribution of supervisorships, ranger appointments and the like seemed valuable. The Land Office adherents needed all the political backing they could procure; and the friends of Chairman Gay epitomized political backing. So the Land Office, too, was anxious to please the Chairman.
At the same time Simeon Wright had bestirred himself. There seems to be no good and valid reason for owning a senator if you don't use him. Wright was too shrewd to think it worth while to own a senator from California. That was too obvious. Few knew how closely affiliated were the Wright and the Barrow interests. Wright dropped a hint to the dignified senator; the senator paid a casual call to an official high up in the Land Office. Senators would by their votes ultimately decide the question of transfer. The official agreed to keep an eye on the recommendations in this case.
Thus somebody submerged beneath the Gay interests saw obscurely somebody equally submerged beneath the Wright and Barrow interests. In due course all Thorne's careful work was pigeonholed. An epitome of the charges was typed and submitted to the High Official. On the back of them had been written:
"I find the charges not proved."
This was signed by the very obscure clerk who had filed away the Thorne affidavits and who happened to be a friend of the man to whom in devious ways and through many mouths had come an expression of the Gay wishes. It was O.K.'d by a dozen others. The High Official added his O.K. to the others. Then he promptly forgot about it, as did every one else concerned, save the men most vitally interested.
In due time Thorne, then in Los Angeles, received a brief communication from Stafford, the obscure clerk.
"In regard to your charges against Supervisor H.M. Plant, the Department begs to advise you that, after examining carefully the evidence for the defence, it finds the charges not proven."
Thorne stared at the paper incredulously, then he did something he had never permitted himself before; he wrote in expostulation to the Higher Official.
"I cannot imagine what the man's defence could be," he wrote, in part, "but my evidence a mere denial could hardly controvert. The whole countryside knows the man is crooked; they know he was investigated; they are now awaiting with full confidence the punishment for well-understood peculation. I can hardly exaggerate the body blow to the Service such a decision would give. Nobody will believe in it again."
On reading this the Higher Official called in one of his subordinates.
"I have this from Thorne," said he. "What do you think of it?"
The subordinate read it through.
"I'll look it up," said he.
"Do so and bring me the papers," advised the Higher Official.
The Higher Official knew Thorne's work and approved it. The inspector was efficient, and throughout all his reforming of conditions in the West, the Department had upheld him. The Department liked efficiency, and where the private interests of its own grafters were not concerned, it gave good government.
In due time the subordinate came back, but without the papers.
"Stafford says he'll look them up, sir," said he. "He told me to tell you that the case was the one you were asking Senator Barrow about."
"Ah!" said the Higher Official.
He sat for some time in deep thought. Then he called through the open door to his stenographer.
"In re your's 21st," he dictated, "I repose every confidence in Mr. Stafford's judgment; and unless I should care to supersede him, it would hardly be proper for me to carry any matter over his head."
Thorne immediately resigned, and shortly went into landlooking for a lumbering firm in Oregon. Chairman Gay wrote a letter advising Plant to "adopt a policy of conciliation toward the turbulent element."
Shortly after Bob's return in the early spring, George Pollock rode to Auntie Belle's in some disorder to say that the little girl, now about a year old, had been taken sick.
"Jenny has a notion it's something catching," said he, "so she won't let Jim send Mary over. There's too many young-uns in that family to run any risks."
"How does she seem?" called Auntie Belle from the bedroom where she was preparing for departure.
"She's got a fever, and is restless, and won't eat," said George anxiously. "She looks awful sick to me."
"They all do at that age," said Auntie Belle comfortably; "don't you worry a mite."
Nevertheless Auntie Belle did not return that day, nor the next, nor the next. When finally she appeared, it was only to obtain certain supplies and clothes. These she caused to be brought out and laid down where she could get them. She would allow nobody to come near her.
"It's scarlet fever," she said, "and Lord knows where the child got it. But we won't scatter it, so you-all stay away. I'll do what I can. I've been through it enough times, Lord knows."
Three days later she appeared again, very quietly.
"How's the baby?" asked Bob. "Better, I hope?"
"The poor little thing is dead," said Auntie Belle shortly, "and I want you or somebody to ride down for the minister."
The community attended the funeral in a body. It was held in the open air, under a white oak tree, for Auntie Belle, with unusual caution and knowledge for the mountains, refused to permit even a chance of spreading the contagion. The mother appeared dazed. She sat through the services without apparent consciousness of what was going on; she suffered herself to be led to the tiny enclosure where all the Pollocks of other generations had been buried; she allowed herself to be led away again. There was in the brief and pathetic ceremony no meaning and no pain for her. The father, on the other hand, seemed crushed. So broken was his figure that, after the services, Bob was impelled to lay his hand on the man's shoulder and mutter a few incoherent but encouraging words. The mountaineer looked up dully, but sharpened to comprehension and gratitude as his eyes met those of the tall, vigorous young man leaning over him.
"I mean it," said Bob; "any time—any place."
On the way back to Sycamore Flats Auntie Belle expressed her mind to the young man.
"Nobody realizes how things are going with those Pollocks," said she. "George sold his spurs and that Cruces bit of his to get medicine. He wouldn't take anything from me. They're proud folks, and nobody'd have a chance to suspect anything. I tell you," said the good lady solemnly, "it don't matter where that child got the fever; it's Henry Plant, the old, fat scoundrel, that killed her just as plain as if he'd stuck a gun to her head. He has a good deal to answer for. There's lots of folks eating their own beef cattle right now; and that's ruinous. I suppose Washington ain't going to do anything. We might have known it. I don't suppose you heard anything outside about it?"
"Only that Thorne had resigned."
"That so!" Auntie Belle ruminated on this a moment. "Well, I'm right glad to hear it. I'd hate to think I was fooled on him. Reckon 'resign' means fired for daring to say anything about His High-and-mightiness?" she guessed.
Bob shook his head. "Couldn't say," said he.
The busy season was beginning. Every day laden teams crawled up the road bringing supplies for the summer work. Woodsmen came in twos, in threes, in bunches of a dozen or more. Bob was very busy arranging the distribution and forwarding, putting into shape the great machinery of handling, so that when, a few weeks later, the bundles of sawn lumber should begin to shoot down the flume, they would fall automatically into a systematic scheme of further transportation. He had done this twice before, and he knew all the steps of it, and exactly what would be required of him. Certain complications were likely to arise, requiring each their individual treatments, but as Bob's experience grew these were becoming fewer and of lesser importance. The creative necessity was steadily lessening as the work became more familiar. Often Bob found his eagerness sinking to a blank; his attention economizing itself to the bare needs of the occasion. He caught himself at times slipping away from the closest interest in what he had to do. His spirit, although he did not know it, was beginning once more to shake itself restlessly, to demand, as it had always demanded in the past from the time of his toy printing press in his earliest boyhood, fresh food for the creative instinct that was his. Bobby Orde, the child, had been thorough. No superficial knowledge of a subject sufficed. He had worked away at the mechanical difficulties of the cheap toy press after Johnny English, his partner in enterprise, had given up in disgust. By worrying the problem like a terrier, Bobby had shaken it into shape. Then when the commercial possibilities of job printing for parents had drawn Johnny back ablaze with enthusiasm, Bobby had, to his partner's amazement, lost completely all interest in printing presses. The subject had been exhausted; he had no desire for repetitions.
So it had gone. One after another he had with the utmost fervour taken up photography, sailing, carpentry, metal working—a dozen and one occupations—only to drop them as suddenly. This restlessness of childhood came to be considered a defect in young manhood. It indicated instability of character. Only his mother, wiser in her quiet way, saw the thoroughness with which he ransacked each subject. Bobby would read and absorb a dozen technical books in a week, reaching eagerly for the vital principles of his subject. She alone realized, although but dimly, that the boy did not relinquish his subject until he had grasped those vital principles.
"He's learning all the time," she ventured.
"'Jack of all trades: master of none,'" quoted Orde doubtfully.
The danger being recognized, little Bobby's teaching was carefully directed. He was not discouraged in his varied activities; but the bigger practical principles of American life were inculcated. These may be very briefly stated. An American must not idle; he must direct his energies toward success; success means making one's way in life; nine times out of ten, for ninety-nine men out of a hundred, that means the business world. To seize the business opportunity; to develop that opportunity through the business virtues of attention to detail, industry, economy, persistence, and enthusiasm—these represented the plain and manifest duty of every citizen who intended to "be somebody."
Now Bob realized perfectly well that here he was more fortunate than most. A great many of his friends had to begin on small salaries in indoor positions of humdrum and mechanical duty. He had started on a congenial out-of-door occupation of great interest and picturesqueness, one suited to his abilities and promising a great future. Nevertheless, he had now been in the business five years. He was beginning to see through and around it. As yet he had not lost one iota of his enthusiasm for the game; but here and there, once in a while, some of the necessary delays and slow, long repetitions of entirely mechanical processes left him leisure to feel irked, to look above him, beyond the affairs that surrounded him. At such times the old blank, doped feeling fell across his mind. It had always been so definite a symptom in his childhood of that state wherein he simply could not drag himself to blow up the embers of his extinguished enthusiasm, that he recoiled from himself in alarm. He felt his whole stability of character on trial. If he could not "make good" here, what excuse could there be for him; what was there left for him save the profitless and honourless life of the dilettante and idler? He had caught on to a big business remarkably well, and it was worse than childish to lose his interest in the game even for the fraction of a second. Of course, it amounted to nothing but that. He never did his work better than that spring.
A week after the burial of the Pollock baby, Mrs. Pollock was reported seriously ill. Bob rode up a number of times to inquire, and kept himself fully informed. The doctor came twice from White Oaks, but then ceased his visits. Bob did not know that such visits cost fifty dollars apiece. Mary, Jim's wife, shared the care of the sick woman with George. She was reported very weak, but getting on. The baby's death, together with the other anxieties of the last two years, had naturally pulled her down.
Before the gray dawn one Sunday morning Bob, happening to awaken, heard a strange, rumbling, distant sound to the west. His first thought was that the power dam had been opened and was discharging its waters, but as his senses came to him, he realized that this could not be so. He stretched himself idly. A mocking bird uttered a phrase outside. No dregs of drowsiness remained in him, so he dressed and walked out into the freshness of the new morning. Here the rumbling sound, which he had concluded had been an effect of his half-conscious imagination, came clearer to his ears. He listened for a moment, then walked rapidly to the Lone Pine Hill from whose slight elevation he could see abroad over the low mountains to the west. The gray light before sunrise was now strengthening every moment. By the time Bob had reached the summit of the knoll it had illuminated the world.
A wandering suction of air toward the higher peaks brought with it the murmur of a multitude. Bob topped the hill and turned his eyes to the west. A great cloud of dust arose from among the chaparral and oaks, drifting slowly but certainly toward the Ranges. Bob could now make out the bawling, shouting, lowing of great herds on the march. In spite of pledges and promises, in spite of California John's reports, of Thorne's recommendations, of Plant's assurances, Simeon Wright's cattle were again coming in!
Bob shook his head sadly, and his clear-cut young face was grave. No one knew better than himself what this must mean to the mountain people, for his late spring and early fall work had brought him much in contact with them. He walked thoughtfully down the hill.
When just on the outskirts of the little village he was overtaken by George Pollock on horseback. The mountaineer was jogging along at a foot pace, his spurs jingling, his bridle hand high after the Western fashion. When he saw Bob he reined in, nodding a good morning. Bob noticed that he had strapped on a blanket and slicker, and wore his six-shooter.
"You look as though you were going on a journey," remarked Bob.
"Thinking of it," said Pollock. Bob glanced up quickly at the tone of his voice, which somehow grated unusually on the young man's ear, but the mountaineer's face was placid under the brim of his floppy old hat. "Might as well," continued the cattleman after a moment. "Nothin' special to keep me."
"I'm glad Mrs. Pollock is better," ventured Bob.
"She's dead," stated Pollock without emotion. "Died this morning about two o'clock."
Bob cried out at the utterly unexpected shock of this statement. Pollock looked down on him as though from a great height.
"I sort of expected it," he answered Bob's exclamation. "I reckon we won't talk of it. 'Spose you see that Wright's cattle is coming in again? I'm sorry on account of Jim and the other boys. It wipes me out, of course, but it don't matter as far as I'm concerned, because I'm going away, anyway."
Bob laid his hand on the man's stirrup leather and walked alongside, thinking rapidly. He did not know how to take hold of the situation.
"Where are you thinking of going?" he asked.
Pollock looked down at him.
"What's that to you?" he demanded roughly.
"Why—nothing—I was simply interested," gasped Bob in astonishment.
The mountaineer's eyes bored him through and through. Finally the man dropped his gaze.
"I'll tell you," said he at last, "'cause you and Jim are the only square ones I know. I'm going to Mexico. I never been there. I'm going by Vermilion Valley, and Mono Pass. If they ask you, you can tell 'em different. I want you to do something for me."
"Gladly," said Bob. "What is it?"
"Just hold my horse for me," requested Pollock, dismounting. "He stands fine tied to the ground, but there's a few things he's plumb afraid of, and I don't want to take chances on his getting away. He goes plumb off the grade for freight teams; he can't stand the crack of their whips. Sounds like a gun to him, I reckon. He won't stand for shooting neither."
While talking the mountaineer handed the end of his hair rope into Bob's keeping.
"Hang on to him," he said, turning away.
George Pollock sauntered easily down the street. At Supervisor Plant's front gate, he turned and passed within. Bob saw him walk rapidly up the front walk, and pound on Plant's bedroom door. This, as usual in the mountains, opened directly out on the verandah. With an exclamation Bob sprang forward, dropping the hair rope. He was in time to see the bedroom door snatched open from within, and Plant's huge figure, white-robed, appear in the doorway. The Supervisor was evidently angry.
"What in hell do you want?" he demanded.
"You," said the mountaineer.
He dropped his hand quite deliberately to his holster, flipped the forty-five out to the level of his hip, and fired twice, without looking at the weapon. Plant's expression changed; turned blank. For an appreciable instant he tottered upright, then his knees gave out beneath him and he fell forward with a crash. George Pollock leaned over him. Apparently satisfied after a moment's inspection, the mountaineer straightened, dropped his weapon into the holster, and turned away.
All this took place in so short a space of time that Bob had not moved five feet from the moment he guessed Pollock's intention to the end of the tragedy. As the first shot rang out, Bob turned and seized again the hair rope attached to Pollock's horse. His habit of rapid decision and cool judgment showed him in a flash that he was too late to interfere, and revealed to him what he must do.
Pollock, looking neither to the right nor the left, took the rope Bob handed him and swung into the saddle. His calm had fallen from him. His eyes burned and his face worked. With a muffled cry of pain he struck spurs to his horse and disappeared.
Considerably shaken, Bob stood still, considering what he must do. It was manifestly his duty to raise the alarm. If he did so, however, he would have to bear witness to what he knew; and this, for George Pollock's sake, he desired to avoid. He was the only one who could know positively and directly and immediately how Plant had died. The sound of the shots had not aroused the village. If they had been heard, no one would have paid any attention to them; the discharge of firearms was too common an occurrence to attract special notice. It was better to let the discovery come in the natural course of events.
However, Bob was neither a coward nor a fool. He wanted to save George Pollock if he could, but he had no intention of abandoning another plain duty in the matter. Without the slightest hesitation he opened Plant's gate and walked to the verandah where the huge, unlovely hulk huddled in the doorway. There, with some loathing, he determined the fact that the man was indeed dead. Convinced as to this point, he returned to the street, and looked carefully up and down it. It was still quite deserted.
His mind in a whirl of horror, pity, and an unconfessed, hidden satisfaction, he returned to Auntie Belle's. The customary daylight breakfast for the teamsters had been omitted on account of the Sabbath. A thin curl of smoke was just beginning to rise straight up from the kitchen stovepipe. Bob, his mouth suddenly dry and sticky, went around to the back porch, where a huge olla hung always full of spring water. He rounded the corner to run plump against Oldham, tilted back in a chair smoking the butt of a cigar.
In his agitation of mind, Bob had no stomach for casual conversation. By an effort he smoothed out his manner and collected his thoughts.
"How are you, Mr. Oldham?" he greeted the older man; "when did you get in?"
"About an hour ago," replied Oldham. His spare figure in the gray business suit did not stir from its lazy posture, nor did the expression of his thin sardonic face change, but somehow, after swallowing his drink, Bob decided to revise his first intention of escaping to his room.
"An hour ago," he repeated, when the import of the words finally filtered through his mental turmoil. "You travelled up at night then?"
"Yes. It's getting hot on the plains."
"Got in just before daylight, then?"
"Just before. I'd have made it sooner, but I had to work my way through the cattle."
"Where's your team?"
"I left it down at the Company's stables; thought you wouldn't mind."
"Sure not," said Bob.
The Company's stables were at the other end of the village. Oldham must have walked the length of the street. He had said it was before daylight; but the look of the man's eyes was quizzical and cold behind the glasses. Still, it was always quizzical and cold. Bob called himself a panicky fool. Just the same, he wished now he had looked for footprints in the dust of the street. While his brain was thus busy with swift conjecture and the weighing of probabilities, his tongue was making random conversation, and his vacant eye was taking in and reporting to his intelligence the most trivial things. Generally speaking, his intelligence did not catch the significance of what his eyes reported until after an appreciable interval. Thus he noted that Oldham had smoked his cigar down to a short butt. This unimportant fact meant nothing, until his belated mind told him that never before had he seen the man actually smoking. Oldham always held a cigar between his lips, but he contented himself with merely chewing it or rolling it about. And this was very early, before breakfast.
"Never saw you smoke before," he remarked abruptly, as this bubble of irrelevant thought came to the surface.
"No?" said Oldham, politely.
"It would make me woozy all day to smoke before I ate," said Bob, his voice trailing away, as his inner ear once more took up its listening for the hubbub that must soon break.
As the moments went by, the suspense of this waiting became almost unbearable. A small portion of him kept up its semblance of conversation with Oldham; another small portion of him made minute and careful notes of trivial things; all the rest of him, body and soul, was listening, in the hope that soon, very soon, a scream would break the suspense. From time to time he felt that Oldham was looking at him queerly, and he rallied his faculties to the task of seeming natural.
"Aren't you feeling well?" asked the older man at last. "You're mighty pale. You want to watch out where you drink water around some of these places."
Bob came to with a snap.
"Didn't sleep well," said he, once more himself.
"Well, that wouldn't trouble me," yawned Oldham; "if it hadn't been for cigars I'd have dropped asleep in this chair an hour ago. You said you couldn't smoke before breakfast; neither can I ordinarily. This isn't before breakfast for me, it's after supper; and I've smoked two just to keep awake."
"Why keep awake?" asked Bob.
"When I pass away, it'll be for all day. I want to eat first."
There, at last, it had come! A man down the street shouted. There followed a pounding at doors, and then the murmur of exclamations, questions and replies.
"It sounds like some excitement," yawned Oldham, bringing his chair down with a thump. "They haven't even rung the first bell yet; let's wander out and stretch our legs."
He sauntered off the wide back porch toward the front of the house. Bob followed. When near the gate Bob's mind grasped the significance of one of the trivial details that his eyes had reported to it some moments before. He uttered an exclamation, and returned hurriedly to the back porch to verify his impressions. They had been correct. Oldham had stated definitely that he had arrived before daylight, that he had been sitting in his chair for over an hour; that during that time he had smoked two cigars through.
Neither on the broad porch, nor on the ground near it, nor in any possible receptacle were there any cigar ashes.
The hue and cry rose and died; the sheriff from the plains did his duty; but no trace of the murderer was found. Indeed, at the first it was not known positively who had done the deed; a dozen might have had motive for the act. Only by the process of elimination was the truth come at. No one could say which way the fugitive had gone. Jim Pollock, under pressure, admitted that his brother had stormed against the door, had told the awakened inmates that his wife was dead and that he was going away. Immediately on making this statement, he had clattered off. Jim steadfastly maintained that his brother had given no inkling of whither he fled. Simeon Wright's cattle, on their way to the high country, filed past. The cowboys listened to the news with interest, and a delight which they did not attempt to conceal. They denied having seen the fugitive. The sheriff questioned them perfunctorily. He knew the breed. George Pollock might have breakfasted with them for all that the denials assured him.
There appeared shortly on the scene of action a United States marshal. The murder of a government official was serious. Against the criminal the power of the nation was deployed. Nevertheless, in the long run, George Pollock got clean away. Nobody saw him from that day—or nobody would acknowledge to have seen him.
For awhile Bob expected at any moment to be summoned for his testimony. He was morally certain that Oldham had been an eye-witness to the tragedy. But as time went on, and no faintest indication manifested itself that he could have been connected with the matter, he concluded himself mistaken. Oldham could have had no motive in concealment, save that of the same sympathy Bob had felt for Pollock. But in that case, what more natural than that he should mention the matter privately to Bob? If, on the other hand, he had any desire to further the ends of the law, what should prevent him from speaking out publicly? In neither case was silence compatible with knowledge.
But Bob knew positively the man had lied, when he stated that he had for over an hour been sitting in the chair on Auntie Belle's back porch. Why had he done so? Where had he been? Bob could not hazard even the wildest guess. Oldham's status with Baker was mysterious; his occasional business in these parts—it might well be that Oldham thought he had something to conceal from Bob. In that case, where had the elder man been, and what was he about during that fatal hour that Sunday morning? Bob was not conversant with the affairs of the Power Company, but he knew vaguely that Baker was always shrewdly reaching out for new rights and privileges, for fresh opportunities which the other fellow had not yet seen and which he had no desire that the other fellow should see until too late. It might be that Oldham was on some such errand. In the rush of beginning the season's work, the question gradually faded from Bob's thoughts.
Forest Reserve matters locally went into the hands of a receiver. That is to say, the work of supervision fell to Plant's head-ranger, while Plant's office was overhauled and straightened out by a clerk sent on from Washington. Forest Reserve matters nationally, however, were on a different footing. The numerous members of Congress who desired to leave things as they were, the still more numerous officials of the interested departments, the swarming petty politicians dealing direct with small patronage—all these powerful interests were unable satisfactorily to answer one common-sense question; why is the management of our Forest Reserves left to a Land Office already busy, already doubted, when we have organized and equipped a Bureau of Forestry consisting of trained, enthusiastic and honest men? Reluctantly the transfer was made. The forestry men picked up the tangle that incompetent, perfunctory and often venal management had dropped.
To most who heard of it this item of news was interesting, but not especially important; Bob could not see where it made much difference who held the reins three thousand miles away. To others it came as the unhoped-for, dreamed-of culmination of aspiration.
California John got the news from Martin. The old man had come in from a long trip.
"You got to take a brace now and be scientific," chaffed Martin. "You old mossback! Don't you dare fall any more trees without measuring out the centre of gravity; and don't you split any more wood unless you calculate first the probable direction of riving; and don't you let any doodle-bug get away without looking at his teeth."
California John grinned slowly, but his eyes were shining.
"And what's more, you old grafters'll get bounced, sure pop," continued Martin. "They won't want you. You don't wear spectacles, and you eat too many proteids in your beans."
"You ain't heard who's going to be sent out for Supervisor?" asked old John.
"They haven't found any one with thick enough glasses yet," retorted Martin.
California John made some purchases, packed his mule, and climbed back up the mountain to the summer camp. Here he threw off his saddle and supplies, and entered the ranger cabin. A rusty stove was very hot. Atop bubbled a capacious kettle. California John removed the cover and peered in.
"Chicken 'n' dumpling!" said he.
He drew a broken-backed chair to the table and set to business. In ten minutes his plate contained nothing but chicken bones. He contemplated them with satisfaction.
"I reckon that'll even up for that bacon performance," he remarked in reference to some past joke on himself.
At dusk three men threw open the outside door and entered. They found California John smoking his pipe contemplatively before a clean table.
"Now, you bowlegged old sidewinder," said Ross Fletcher, striding to the door, "we'll show you something you don't get up where you come from."
"What is it?" asked California John with a mild curiosity.
"Chicken," replied Fletcher.
He peered into the kettle. Then he lit a match and peered again. He reached for a long iron spoon with which he fished up, one after another, several dumplings. Finally he swore softly.
"What's the matter, Ross?" inquired California John.
"You know what's the matter," retorted Ross shaking the spoon.
California John arose and looked down into the kettle.
"Thought you said you had chicken," he observed; "looks to me like dumplin' soup."
"I did have chicken," replied the man. "Oh, you Miles!—Bob!—come here. This old wreck has gone and stole all our chicken."
The boys popped in from the next room.
"I never," expostulated California John, his eyes twinkling. "I never stole nothin'. I just came in and found a poor old hen bogged down in a mess of dough, so I rescued her."
The other man said nothing for some time, but surveyed California John from head to toe and from toe to head again.
"Square," said he at last.
"Square," replied California John with equal gravity. They shook hands.
While the newcomers ate supper, California John read laboriously his accumulated mail. After spelling through one document he uttered a hearty oath.
"What is it?" asked Ross, suspending operations.
"They've put me in as Supervisor to succeed Plant," replied California John, handing over the official document. "I ain't no supervisor."
"I'd like to know why not," spoke up Miles indignantly. "You know these mountains better'n any man ever set foot in 'em."
"I ain't got no education," replied California John.
"Damn good thing," growled Ross.
California John smoked with troubled brow.
"What's the matter with you, anyhow?" demanded Ross impatiently, after a while; "ain't you satisfied?"
"Oh, I'm satisfied well enough, but I kind of hate to leave the service; I like her."
"Quit!" cried Ross.
"No," denied California John, "but I'll get fired. First thing," he explained, "I'm going after Simeon Wright's grazing permits. He ain't no right in the mountains, and the ranges are overstocked. He can't trail in ten thousand head while I'm supposed to be boss, so it looks as though I wasn't going to be boss long after Simeon Wright comes in."
"Oh, go slow," pleaded Ross; "take things a little easy at first, and then when you get going you can tackle the big things."
"I ain't going to enforce any regulations they don't give me," stated California John, "and I'm going to try to enforce all they do. That's what I'm here for."
"That means war with Wright," said Ross.
"Then war it is," agreed California John comfortably.
"You won't last ten minutes against Wright."
"Reckon not," agreed old John, "reckon not; but I'll last long enough to make him take notice."
By end of summer California John was fairly on his road. He entered office at a time when the local public sentiment was almost unanimously against the system of Forest Reserves. The first thing he did was to discharge eight of the Plant rangers. These fell back on their rights, and California John, to his surprise, found that he could not thus control his own men. He wagged his head in his first discouragement. It was necessary to recommend to Washington that these men be removed; and California John knew well by experience what happened to such recommendations. Nevertheless he sat him down to his typewriter, and with one rigid forefinger, pecked out such a request. Having thus accomplished his duty in the matter, but without hope of results, he went about other things. Promptly within two weeks came the necessary authority. The eight ornamentals were removed.
Somewhat encouraged, California John next undertook the sheep problem. That, under Plant, had been in the nature of a protected industry. California John and his delighted rangers plunged neck deep into a sheep war. They found themselves with a man's job on their hands. The sheepmen, by long immunity, had come to know the higher mountains intimately, and could hide themselves from any but the most conscientious search. When discovered, they submitted peacefully to being removed from the Reserve. At the boundaries the rangers' power ceased. The sheepmen simply waited outside the line. It was manifestly impossible to watch each separate flock all the time. As soon as surveillance was relaxed, over the line they slipped, again to fatten on prohibited feed until again discovered, and again removed. The rangers had no power of arrest; they could use only necessary force in ejecting the trespassers. It was possible to sue in the United States courts, but the process was slow and unsatisfactory, and the damages awarded the Government amounted to so little that the sheepmen cheerfully paid them as a sort of grazing tax. The point was, that they got the feed—either free or at a nominal cost—and the rangers were powerless to stop them.
Over this problem California John puzzled a long time.
"We ain't doing any good playing hide and coop," he told Ross; "it's just using up our time. We got to get at it different. I wish those regulations was worded just the least mite different!"
He produced the worn Blue Book and his own instructions and thumbed them over for the hundredth time.
"'Employ only necessary force,'" he muttered; "'remove them beyond the confines of the reserve.'" He bit savagely at his pipe. Suddenly his tension relaxed and his wonted shrewdly humorous expression returned to his brown and lean old face. "Ross," said he, "this is going to be plumb amusing. Do you guess we-all can track up with any sheep?"
"Jim Hutchins's herders must have sneaked back over by Iron Mountain," suggested Fletcher.
"Jim Hutchins," mused California John; "where is he now? Know?"
"I heard tell he was at Stockton."
"Well, that's all right then. If Jim was around, he might start a shootin' row, and we don't want any of that."
"Well, I don't know as I'm afraid of Jim Hutchins," said Ross Fletcher.
"Neither am I, sonny," replied California John; "but this is a grand-stand play, and we got to bring her off without complications. You get the boys organized. We start to-morrow."
"What you got up your sleeve?" asked Ross.
"Never you mind."
"Who's going to have charge of the office?"
"Nobody," stated California John positively; "we tackle one thing to a time."
Next day the six rangers under command of their supervisor disappeared in the wilderness. When they reached the trackless country of the granite and snow and the lost short-hair meadows, they began scouting. Sign of sheep they found in plenty, but no sheep. Signal smokes over distant ranges rose straight up, and died; but never could they discover where the fire had been burned. Sheepmen of the old type are the best of mountaineers, and their skill has been so often tested that they are as full of tricks as so many foxes. The fires they burned left no ash. The smokes they sent up warned all for two hundred miles.
Nevertheless, by the end of three days young Tom Carroll and Charley Morton trailed down a band of three thousand head. They came upon the flock grazing peacefully over blind hillsides in the torment of splintered granite. The herders grinned, as the rangers came in sight. They had been "tagged" in this "game of hide and coop." As a matter of course they began to pack their camp on the two burros that grazed among the sheep; they ordered the dogs to round up the flock. For two weeks they had grazed unmolested, and they were perfectly satisfied to pay the inconvenience of a day's journey over to the Inyo line.
"'llo boys," said their leader, flashing his teeth at them. "'Wan start now?"
"These Jim Hutchins's sheep?" inquired Carroll.
But at that question the Frenchman suddenly lost all his command of the English language.
"They're Hutchins's all right," said Charley, who had ridden out to look at the brand painted black on the animals' flanks. "No go to-night," he told the attentive herder. "Camp here."
He threw off his saddle. Tom Carroll rode away to find California John.
The two together, with Ross Fletcher, whom they had stumbled upon accidentally, returned late the following afternoon. By sunrise next morning the flocks were under way for Inyo. The sheep strung out by the dogs went forward steadily like something molten; the sheepherders plodded along staff in hand; the rangers brought up the rear, riding. Thus they went for the marching portions of two days. Then at noon they topped the main crest at the broad Pass, and the sheer descents on the Inyo side lay before them. From beneath them flowed the plains of Owen's Valley, so far down that the white roads showed like gossamer threads, the ranches like tiny squares of green. Eight thousand feet almost straight down the precipice fell away. Across the valley rose the White Mountains and the Panamints, and beyond them dimly could be guessed Death Valley and the sombre Funeral Ranges. To the north was a lake with islands swimming in it, and above it empty craters looking from above like photographs of the topography of the moon; and beyond it tier after tier, as far as the eye could reach, the blue mountains of Nevada. A narrow gorge, standing fairly on end, led down from the Pass. Without hesitation, like a sluggishly moving, viscid brown fluid, the sheep flowed over the edge. The dogs, their flanking duties relieved by the walls of dark basalt on either hand, fell to the rear with their masters. The mountain-bred horses dropped calmly down the rough and precipitous trail.
At the end of an hour the basalt gorge opened out to a wide steep slope of talus on which grew in clumps the first sage brush of the desert. Here California John called a halt. The line of the Reserve, unmarked as yet save by landmarks and rare rough "monuments" of loose stones, lay but just beyond.
"This is as far as we go," he told the chief herder.
The Frenchman flashed his teeth, and bowed with some courtesy. "Au revoi'," said he.
"Hold on," repeated California John, "I said this is as far as we go. That means you, too; and your men."
"But th' ship!" cried the chief herder.
"My rangers will put them off the Reserve, according to regulation," stated California John.
The Frenchman stared at him.
"W'at you do?" he gasped at last. "Where we go?"
"I'm going to put you off the Reserve, too, but on the west side," said California John. The old man's figure straightened in his saddle, and his hand dropped to the worn and shiny butt of his weapon: "No; none of that! Take your hand off your gun! I got the right to use necessary force; and, by God, I'll do it!"
The herder began a voluble discourse of mingled protestations and exposition. California John cut him short.
"I know my instructions as well as you do," said he. "They tell me to put sheep and herders off the Reserve without using unnecessary force; but there ain't nothing said about putting them off in the same place!"
Ross Fletcher rocked with joy in his saddle.
"So that's what you had up your sleeve!" he fairly shouted. "Why, it's as simple as a b'ar trap!"
California John pointed his gnarled forefinger at the herder.
"Call your dogs!" he commanded sharply. "Call them in, and tie them! The first dog loose in camp will be shot. If you care for your dogs, tie them up. Now drop your gun on the ground. Tom, you take their shootin'-irons." He produced from his saddle bags several new pairs of hand-cuffs, which he surveyed with satisfaction, "This is business," said he; "I bought these on my own hook. You bet I don't mean to have to shoot any of you fellows in the back; and I ain't going to sit up nights either. Snap 'em on, Charley. Now, Ross, you and Tom run those sheep over the line, and then follow us up."
As the full meaning of the situation broke on the Frenchman's mind, he went frantic. By the time he and his herders should be released, the whole eighty-mile width of the Sierras would lie between him and his flocks. He would have to await his chance to slip by the rangers. In the three weeks or more that must elapse before he could get back, the flocks would inevitably be about destroyed. For it is a striking fact, and one on which California John had built his plan, that sheep left to their own devices soon perish. They scatter. The coyotes, bears and cougars gather to the feast. It would be most probable that the sheep-hating cattlemen of Inyo would enjoy mutton chops.
California John collected his scattered forces, delegated two men to eject the captives; and went after more sheep. He separated thus three flocks from their herders. After that the sheep question was settled; government feed was too expensive.
"That's off'n our minds," said he. "Now we'll tackle the next job."
He went at it in his slow, painstaking way, and accomplished it. Never, if he could help it, did he depend on the mails when the case was within riding distance. He preferred to argue the matter out, face to face.
"The Government prefers friends," he told everybody, and then took his stand, in all good feeling, according as the other man proved reasonable. Some of the regulations were galling to the mountain traditions. He did not attempt to explain or defend them, but simply stated their provisions.
"Now, I'm swore in to see that these are carried out," said he, "always, and if you ain't going to toe the mark, why, you see, it puts me in one hell of a hole, don't it? I ain't liking to be put in the position of fighting all my old neighbours, and I sure can't lie down on my job. It don't really mean much to you, now does it, Link? and it helps me out a lot."
"Well, I know you're square, John, and I'll do it," said the mountaineer reluctantly, "but I wouldn't do it for any other blank of a blank in creation!"
Thus California John was able, by personality, to reduce much friction and settle many disputes. He could be uncompromising enough on occasion.
Thus Win Spencer and Tom Hoyt had a violent quarrel over cattle allotments which they brought to California John for settlement. Each told a different story, so the evidence pointed clearly to neither party. California John listened in silence.
"I won't take sides," said he; "settle it for yourselves. I'd just as soon make enemies of both of you as of one."
Then in the middle of summer came the trial of it all. The Service sent notice that, beginning the following season, a grazing tax would be charged, and it requested the Supervisor to send in his estimate of grazing allotments. California John sat him down at his typewriter and made out the required list. Simeon Wright's name did not appear therein. In due time somebody wanted, officially, to know why not. California John told them, clearly, giving the reasons that the range was overstocked, and quoting the regulations as to preference being given to the small owner dwelling in or near the Forests. He did this just as a good carpenter might finish the under side of a drain; not that it would do any good, but for his own satisfaction.
"We will now listen to the roar of the lion," he told Ross Fletcher, "after which I'll hand over my scalp to save 'em the trouble of sharpening up their knives."
As a matter of fact the lion did roar, but no faintest echo reached the Sierras. For the first time Simeon Wright and the influence Simeon Wright could bring to bear failed of their accustomed effect at Washington. An honest, fearless, and single-minded Chief, backed by an enthusiastic Service, saw justice rather than expediency. California John received back his recommendation marked "Approved."
The old man tore open the long official envelope, when he received it from Martin's hand, and carried it to the light, where he adjusted precisely his bowed spectacles, and, in his slow, methodical way, proceeded to investigate the contents. As he caught sight of the word and its initials his hand involuntarily closed to crush the papers, and his gaunt form straightened. In his mild blue eye sprang fire. He turned to Martin, his voice vibrant with an emotion carefully suppressed through the nine long years of his faithful service.
"They've turned down Wright," said he, "and they've give us an appropriation. They've turned down old Wright! By God, we've got a man!"
He strode from the store, his head high. As he went up the street a canvas sign over the empty storehouse attracted his attention. He pulled his bleached moustache a moment; then removed his floppy old hat, and entered.
An old-fashioned exhorting evangelist was holding forth to three listless and inattentive sinners. A tired-looking woman sat at a miniature portable organ. At the close of the services California John wandered forward.
"I'm plumb busted," said he frankly, "and that's the reason I couldn't chip in. I couldn't buy fleas for a dawg. I'm afraid you didn't win much."
The preacher looked gloomily at a nickle and a ten-cent piece.
"Dependin' on this sort of thing to get along?" asked California John.
"Yes," said the preacher. The woman looked out of the window.
California John said no more, but went out of the building and down the street to Austin's saloon.
"Howdy, boys," he greeted the loungers and card players. "Saw off a minute. There's goin' to be a gospel meetin' right here a half-hour from now. I'm goin' to hold it and I'm goin' out now to rustle a congregation. At the close we'll take up a collection for the benefit of the church."
At the end of the period mentioned he placed himself behind the bar and faced a roomful of grinning men.
"This is serious, boys. Take off your hat, Bud. Wipe them snickers off'n your face. We're all sinners; and I reckon now's as good a time as any to realize the fact. I don't know much about the Bible; but I do recall enough to hold divine services for once, and I intend to have 'em respected."
For fifteen minutes California John conducted his services according to his notion. Then he stated briefly his cause and took up his collection.
"Nine-forty-five," said he thoughtfully, looking at the silver. He carefully extracted two nickels, and dumped the rest in his pocket. "I reckon I've earned a drink out of this," he stated; "any objections?"
There were none; so California John bought his drink and departed.
"That's all right," he told the astonished and grateful evangelist, "I had to do somethin' to blow off steam, or else go on a hell of a drunk. And it would have been plumb ruinous to do that. So you see, it's lucky I met you." The old man's twinkling and humorous blue eyes gazed quizzically at the uneasy evangelist, divided between gratitude and his notion that he ought to reprobate this attitude of mind. Then they softened. California John laid his hand on the preacher's shoulder. "Don't get discouraged," said he; "don't do it. The God of Justice still rules. I've just had some news that proves it."
From this moment the old man held his head high, and went about the work with confidence. He built trails where trails had long been needed; he regulated the grazing; he fought fire so successfully that his burned area dropped that year from two per cent. to one-half of one per cent.; he adjusted minor cases of special use and privilege justly. Constantly he rode his district on the business of his beloved Forest. His beautiful sorrel, Star, with his silver-mounted caparisons, was a familiar figure on all the trails. When a man wanted his first Special Privilege, he wrote the Supervisor. The affair was quite apt to bungle. Then California John saw that man personally. After that there was no more trouble. The countryside dug up the rest of California John's name, and conferred on him the dignity of it. John had heard it scarcely at all for over thirty years. Now he rather liked the sound of "Supervisor Davidson." In the title and the simple dignities attaching thereunto he took the same gentle and innocent pride that he did in Star, and the silver-mounted bridle and the carved-leather saddle.
But when evening came, and the end of the month, Supervisor Davidson always found himself in trouble. Then he sat down before his typewriter, on which he pecked methodically with the rigid forefinger of his right hand. Naturally slow of thought when confronted by blank paper, the mechanical limitations put him far behind in his reports and correspondence. Naturally awkward of phrase when deprived of his picturesque vernacular, he stumbled among phrases. The monthly reports were a nightmare to him. When at last they were finished, he breathed a deep sigh, and went out into his sugar pines and spruces.
In August California John received his first inspector. At that time the Forest Service, new to the saddle, heir to the confusion left by the Land Office, knew neither its field nor its office men as well as it does now. Occasionally it made mistakes in those it sent out. Brent was one of them.
Brent was of Teutonic extraction, brought up in Brookline, educated in the Yale Forestry School, and experienced in the offices of the Bureau of Forestry before it had had charge of the nation's estates. He possessed a methodical mind, a rather intolerant disposition, thick glasses, a very cold and precise manner, extreme personal neatness, and abysmal ignorance of the West. He disapproved of California John's rather slipshod dress, to start with; his ingrained reticence shrank from Davidson's informal cordiality; his orderly mind recoiled with horror from the jumble of the Supervisor's accounts and reports. As he knew nothing whatever of the Sierras, he was quite unable to appreciate the value of trails, of fenced meadows, of a countryside of peace—those things were so much a matter of course back East that he hardly noticed them one way or another. Brent's thoroughness burrowed deep into office failures. One by one he dragged them to the light and examined them through his near-sighted glasses. They were bad enough in all conscience; and Brent was not in the least malicious in the inferences he drew. Only he had no conception of judging the Man with the Time and the Place.
He believed in military smartness, in discipline, in ordered activities.
"It seems to me you give your rangers a great deal of freedom and latitude," said he one day.
"Well," said California John, "strikes me that's the only way. With men like these you got to get their confidence."
Brent peered at him.
"H'm," said he sarcastically, "do you think you have done so?"
California John flushed through his tan at the implication, but he replied nothing.
This studied respect for his superior officer on the Supervisor's part encouraged Brent to deliver from time to time rather priggish little homilies on the way to run a Forest. California John listened, but with a sardonic smile concealed beneath his sun-bleached moustache. After a little, however, Brent became more inclined to bring home the personal application. Then California John grew restive.
"In fact," Brent concluded his incisive remarks one day, "you run this place entirely too much along your own lines."
California John leaned forward.
"Is that an official report?" he asked.
"What?" inquired Brent, puzzled.
"That last remark. Because if it ain't you'd better put it in writing and make it official. Step right in and do it now!"
Brent looked at him in slight bewilderment.
"I'm willing to hear your talk," went on California John quietly. "Some of it's good talk, even if it ain't put out in no very good spirit; and I ain't kicking on criticism—that's what I'm here for, and what you're here for. But I ain't here for no private remarks. If you've got anything to kick on, put it down and sign it and send it on. I'll stand for it, and explain it if I can; or take my medicine if I can't. But anything you ain't ready and willing to report on, I don't want to take from you private. Sabe?"
Brent bowed coldly, turned his back and walked away without a word. California John looked after him.
"Well, that wasn't no act of Solomon," he told himself; "but, anyway, I feel better."
After Brent's departure it took California John two weeks to recover his equanimity and self-confidence. Then the importance of his work gripped him once more. He looked about him at the grazing, the policing, the fire-fighting, all the varied business of the reserves. In them all he knew was no graft, and no favouritism. The trails were being improved; the cabins built; the meadows for horse-feed fenced; the bridges built and repaired; the country patrolled by honest and enthusiastic men. He recalled the old days of Henry Plant's administration under the Land-Office—the graft, the supineness, the inefficiency, the confusion.
"We're savin' the People's property, and keepin' it in good shape," he argued to himself, "and that's sure the main point. If we take care of things, we've done the main job. Let the other fellows do the heavy figgerin'. The city's full of cheap bookkeepers who can't do nothing else."
But a month later, at the summer camp, California John had opportunity to greet a visitor whom he was delighted to see. One morning a very dusty man leaned from his saddle and unlatched the gate before headquarters. As he straightened again, he removed his broad hat and looked up into the cool pine shadows with an air of great refreshment.
"Why, it's Ashley Thorne!" cried California John, leaping to his feet.
"The same," replied Thorne, reaching out his hand.
He dismounted, and Charley Morton, grinning a welcome, led his horse away to the pasture.
"I sure am glad to see you!" said California John over and over again; "and where did you come from? I thought you were selling pine lands in Oregon."
Thorne dropped into a chair with a sigh of contentment. "I was," said he, "and then they made the Transfer, so I came back."
"You're in the Service again?" cried California John delighted.
"Couldn't stay out now that things are in proper hands."
"Good! I expect you're down here to haul me over the coals," California John chuckled.
"Oh, just to look around," said Thorne, biting at his close-clipped, bristling moustache.
Next morning they began to look around. California John was overjoyed at this chance to show a sympathetic and congenial man what he had done.
"I got a trail 'way up Baldy now," he confided as they swung aboard. "It's a good trail too; and it makes a great fire lookout. We'll take a ride up there, if you have time before you go. Well, as I was telling you about that Cook cattle case—the old fellow says——"
At the end of the Supervisor's long and interested dissertation on the Cook case, Thorne laughed gently.
"Looks as if you had him," said he, "and I think the Chief will sustain you. You like this work, don't you?"
"I sure just naturally love it," replied California John earnestly. "I've got the chance now to straighten things out. What I say goes. For upward of nine years I've been ridin' around seein' how things had ought to be done. And I couldn't get results nohow. Somebody always had a graft in it that spoiled the whole show. I could see how simple and easy it would be to straighten everythin' all out in good shape; but I couldn't do nothing."
"Hard enough to hold your job," suggested Thorne.
"That's it. And everybody in the country thought I was a damn fool. Only damn fools and lazy men took rangers' jobs those days. But I hung on because I believed in it. And now I got the best job in the bunch. In place of being looked down on as that old fool John, I'm Mr. Davidson, the Forest Supervisor."
"It's a matter for pride," said Thorne non-committally.
"It isn't that," denied the old man; "I'm not proud because I'm Supervisor. Lord love you, Henry Plant was Supervisor; and I never heard tell that any one was proud of him, not even himself. But I'm proud of being a good supervisor. They ain't a sorehead near us now. Everybody's out for the Forest. I've made 'em understand that it's for them. They know the Service is square. And we ain't had fires to amount to nothing; nor trespass."
"You've done good work," said Thorne soberly; "none better. No one could have done it but you. You have a right to be proud of it."
"Then you'll be sending in a good report," said California John, solely by way of conversation. "I suspicion that last fellow gave me an awful roast."
"I'm not an inspector," replied Thorne.
"That so? You used to be before you resigned; so I thought sure you must be now. What's your job?"
"I'll tell you when we have more time," said Thorne.
For three days they rode together. The Supervisor was a very busy man. He had errands of all sorts to accomplish. Thorne simply went along. Everywhere he found good feeling, satisfactory conditions.
At the end of the third day as the two men sat before the rough stone fireplace at headquarters, Thorne abruptly broke the long silence.
"John," said he, "I've got a few things to say that are not going to be pleasant either for you or for me. Nevertheless, I am going to say them. In fact, I asked the Chief for the privilege rather than having you hear through the regular channels."
California John had not in the least changed his position, yet all at once the man seemed to turn still and watchful.
"Fire ahead," said he.
"You asked me the other day what my job is. It is Supervisor of this district. They have appointed me in your place."
"Oh, they have," said California John. He sat for some time, his eyes narrowing, looking straight ahead of him. "I'd like to know why!" he burst out at last. A dull red spot burned on each side his weather-beaten cheeks.
"You had nothing to do with it," interrupted California John sharply; "I know that. But who did? Why did they do it? By God," he brought his fist down sharply, "I intend to get to the bottom of this! I've been in the Service since she started. I've served honest. No man can say I haven't done all my duty and been square. And that's been when every man-jack of them was getting his graft as reg'lar as his pay check. And since I've been Supervisor is the only time this Forest has ever been in any kind of shape, if I do say it myself. I've rounded her up. I've stopped the graft. I've fixed the 'soldiers.' I've got things in shape. They can't remove me without cause—I know that—and if they think I'm goin' to lie down and take it without a kick, they've got off the wrong foot good and plenty!"
Thorne sat tight, nor offered a word of comment.
"You've been an inspector," California John appealed to him. "You've been all over the country among the different reserves. Ain't mine up to the others?"
"Things are in better shape here than in any of them," replied Thorne decisively; "your rangers have more esprit de corps, your neighbours are better disposed, your fires have a smaller percentage of acreage, your trails are better."
"Well?" demanded California John.
"Well," repeated Thorne leaning forward, "just this. What's the use of it all?"
"Use?" repeated California John vaguely.
"Yes. Of what you and all the rest of us are doing."
"To save the public's property."
"That's part of it; and that's the part you've been doing superlatively well. It's the old idea, that: the idea expressed by the old name—the Forest Reserves—to save, to set aside. It seemed the most important thing. The forests had so many eager enemies—unprincipled land-grabbers and lumbermen, sheep, fire. To beat these back required all our best efforts. It was all we could think of. We hadn't time to think of anything else. It was a full job."
"You bet it was," commented the old man grimly.
"Well, it's done. There will be attempts to go back to the old state of affairs, but they will grow feebler from year to year. Things will never slide back again. The people are awake."
"Think so?" doubted California John.
"I know it. Now comes the new idea. We no longer speak of Forest Reserves, but of National Forests. We've saved them; now what are we going to do with them? What would you think of a man who cleared a 'forty', and pulled all the stumps, and then quit work?"
"I never thought of that," said California John, "but what's that got to do with these confounded whelps——"
"We are going to use these forests for the benefit of the people. We're going to cut the ripe trees and sell them to the lumber manufacturer; we're going to develop the water power; we're going to improve the grazing; we're going to study what we have here, so that by and by from our forests we will be getting the income the lumberman now gets, and will not be injuring the estate. Each Forest is going to be a big and complicated business, like railroading or wholesaling. Anybody can run Martin's store down at the Flats. It takes a trained man to oversee even a proposition like the Star at White Oaks."
"Oh, I see what you're drivin' at," said California John, "but I've made good up to now; and until they try me out, they've no right to fire me. I'll defy 'em to find anythin' crooked!!!"
"John, you're as straight as a string. But they have tried you out. Your office work has been away off."
"Oh, that! What's those dinkey little reports and monkeydoodle business amount to, anyhow? You know perfectly well it's foolish to ask a ranger to fill out an eight-page blank every time he takes a ride. What does that amount to?"
"Not very much," confessed Thorne. "But when things begin to hum around here there'll be a thousand times as much of the same sort of stuff, and it'll all be important."
"They'd better get me a clerk."
"They would get you a clerk, several of them. But no man has a right to even boss a job he doesn't himself understand. What do you know about timber grading? estimating? mapping? What is your scientific training—?"