Chapter XIV
 

Colonel Seth Pennington looked up sourly as a clerk entered his private office. "Well?" he demanded brusquely. When addressing his employees, the Colonel seldom bothered to assume his pontifical manner.

"Mr. Bryce Cardigan is waiting to see you, sir."

"Very well. Show him in."

Bryce entered. "Good morning, Colonel," he said pleasantly and brazenly thrust out his hand.

"Not for me, my boy," the Colonel assured him. "I had enough of that last night. We'll just consider the hand-shaking all attended to, if you please. Have a chair; sit down and tell me what I can do to make you happy."

"I'm delighted to find you in such a generous frame of mind, Colonel. You can make me genuinely happy by renewing, for ten years on the same terms as the original contract, your arrangement to freight the logs of the Cardigan Redwood Lumber Company from the woods to tidewater."

Colonel Pennington cleared his throat with a propitiatory "Ahem-m-m!" Then he removed his gold spectacles and carefully wiped them with a silk handkerchief, as carefully replaced them upon his aristocratic nose, and then gazed curiously at Bryce.

"Upon my soul!" he breathed.

"I realized, of course, that this is reopening an issue which you have been pleased to regard as having been settled in the last letter my father had from you, and wherein you named terms that were absolutely prohibitive."

"My dear young friend! My very dear young friend! I must protest at being asked to discuss this matter. Your father and I have been over it in detail; we failed to agree, and that settles it. As a matter of fact, I am not in position to handle your logs with my limited rolling-stock, and that old hauling contract which I took over when I bought the mills, timber-lands, and logging railroad from the late Mr. Henderson and incorporated into the Laguna Grande Lumber Company, has been an embarrassment I have longed to rid myself of. Under those circumstances you could scarcely expect me to saddle myself with it again, at your mere request and solely to oblige you."

"I did not expect you to agree to my request. I am not quite that optimistic," Bryce replied evenly.

"Then why did you ask me?"

"I thought that possibly, if I reopened negotiations, you might have a reasonable counter-proposition to suggest."

"I haven't thought of any."

"I suppose if I agreed to sell you that quarter-section of timber in the little valley over yonder" (he pointed to the east) "and the natural outlet for your Squaw Creek timber, you'd quickly think of one," Bryce suggested pointedly.

"No, I am not in the market for that Valley of the Giants, as your idealistic father prefers to call it. Once I would have purchased it for double its value, but at present I am not interested."

"Nevertheless it would be an advantage for you to possess it."

"My dear boy, the possession of that big timber is an advantage I expect to enjoy before I acquire many more gray hairs. But I do not expect to pay for it."

"Do you expect me to offer it to you as a bonus for renewing our hauling contract?"

The Colonel snapped his fingers. "By George," he declared, "that's a bright idea, and a few months ago I would have been inclined to consider it very seriously. But now--"

"You figure you've got us winging, eh?" Bryce was smiling pleasantly.

"I am making no admissions," Pennington responded enigmatically "-- nor any hauling contracts for my neighbour's logs," he added.

"You may change your mind."

"Never."

"I suppose I'll have to abandon logging in Township Nine and go back to the San Hedrin," Bryce sighed resignedly.

"If you do, you'll go broke. You can't afford it. You're on the verge of insolvency this minute."

"I suppose, since you decline to haul our logs, after the expiration of our present contract, and in view of the fact that we are not financially able to build our own logging railroad, that the wisest course my father and I could pursue would be to sell our timber in Township Nine to you. It adjoins your holdings in the same township"

"I had a notion the situation would begin to dawn upon you." The Colonel was smiling now; his handsome face was gradually assuming the expression pontifical. "I'll give you a dollar a thousand feet stumpage for it."

"On whose cruise?"

"Oh, my own cruisers will estimate it."

"I'm afraid I can't accept that offer. We paid a dollar and a half for it, you know, and if we sold it to you at a dollar, the sale would not bring us sufficient money to take up our bonded indebtedness; we'd only have the San Hedrin timber and the Valley of the Giants left, and since we cannot log either of these at present, naturally we'd be out of business."

"That's the way I figured it, my boy."

"Well--we're not going out of business."

"Pardon me for disagreeing with you. I think you are."

"Not much! We can't afford it."

The Colonel smiled benignantly. "My dear boy, my very dear young friend, listen to me. Your paternal ancestor is the only human being who has ever succeeded in making a perfect monkey of me. When I wanted to purchase from him a right of way through his absurd Valley of the Giants, in order that I might log my Squaw Creek timber, he refused me. And to add insult to injury, he spouted a lot of rot about his big trees, how much they meant to him, and the utter artistic horror of running a logging-train through the grove-- particularly since he planned to bequeath it to Sequoia as a public park. He expects the city to grow up to it during the next twenty years.

"My boy, that was the first bad break your father made. His second break was his refusal to sell me a mill-site. He was the first man in this county, and he had been shrewd enough to hog all the water-front real estate and hold onto it. I remember he called himself a progressive citizen, and when I asked him why he was so assiduously blocking the wheels of progress, he replied that the railroad would build in from the south some day, but that when it did, its builders would have to be assured of terminal facilities on Humboldt Bay. 'By holding intact the spot where rail and water are bound to meet,' he told me, 'I insure the terminal on tidewater which the railroad must have before consenting to build. But if I sell it to Tom, Dick, and Harry, they will be certain to gouge the railroad when the latter tries to buy it from them. They may scare the railroad away.'"

"Naturally!" Bryce replied. "The average human being is a hog, and merciless when he has the upper hand. He figures that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. My father, on the contrary, has always planned for the future. He didn't want that railroad blocked by land- speculators and its building delayed. The country needed rail connection with the outside world, and moreover his San Hedrin timber isn't worth a hoot until that feeder to a transcontinental road shall be built to tap it."

"But he sold Bill Henderson the mill-site on tidewater that he refused to sell me, and later I had to pay Henderson's heirs a whooping price for it. And I haven't half the land I need."

"But he needed Henderson then. They had a deal on together. You must remember, Colonel, that while Bill Henderson held that Squaw Creek timber he later sold you, my father would never sell him a mill-site. Can't you see the sporting point of view involved? My father and Bill Henderson were good-natured rivals; for thirty years they had tried to outgame each other on that Squaw Creek timber. Henderson thought he could force my father to buy at a certain price, and my father thought he could force Henderson to sell at a lesser price; they were perfectly frank about it with each other and held no grudges. Of course, after you bought Henderson out, you foolishly took over his job of trying to outgame my father. That's why you bought Henderson out, isn't it? You had a vision of my father's paying you a nice profit on your investment, but he fooled you, and now you're peeved and won't play."

Bryce hitched his chair farther toward the Colonel. "Why shouldn't my dad be nice to Bill Henderson after the feud ended?" he continued. "They could play the game together then, and they did. Colonel, why can't you be as sporty as Henderson and my father? They fought each other, but they fought fairly and in the open, and they never lost the respect and liking each had for the other."

"I will not renew your logging contract. That is final, young man. No man can ride me with spurs and get away with it."

"Oh, I knew that yesterday."

"Then why have you called on me to-day, taking up my time on a dead issue?"

"I wanted to give you one final chance to repent. I know your plan. You have it in your power to smash the Cardigan Redwood Lumber Company, acquire it at fifty per cent. of its value, and merge its assets with your Laguna Grande Lumber Company. You are an ambitious man. You want to be the greatest redwood manufacturer in California, and in order to achieve your ambitions, you are willing to ruin a competitor: you decline to play the game like a thoroughbred."

"I play the game of business according to the rules of the game; I do nothing illegal, sir."

"And nothing generous or chivalrous. Colonel, you know your plea of a shortage of rolling-stock is that the contract for hauling our logs has been very profitable and will be more profitable in the future if you will accept a fifty-cent-per-thousand increase on the freight- rate and renew the contract for ten years."

"Nothing doing, young man. Remember, you are not in a position to ask favours."

"Then I suppose we'll have to go down fighting?"

"I do not anticipate much of a fight."

"You'll get as much as I can give you."

"I'm not at all apprehensive."

"And I'll begin by running your woods-boss out of the country."

"Ah-h!"

"You know why, of course--those burl panels in your dining room. Rondeau felled a tree in our Valley of the Giants to get that burl for you, Colonel Pennington."

Pennington flushed. "I defy you to prove that," he almost shouted.

"Very well. I'll make Rondeau confess; perhaps he'll even tell me who sent him after the burl. Upon my word, I think you inspired that dastardly raid. At any rate, I know Rondeau is guilty, and you, as his employer and the beneficiary of his crime, must accept the odium."

The Colonel's face went white. "I do not admit anything except that you appear to have lost your head, young man. However, for the sake of argument: granting that Rondeau felled that tree, he did it under the apprehension that your Valley of the Giants is a part of my Squaw Creek timber adjoining."

"I do not believe that. There was malice in the act--brutality even; for my mother's grave identified the land as ours, and Rondeau felled the tree on her tombstone."

"If that is so, and Rondeau felled that tree--I do not believe he did--I am sincerely sorry, Cardigan, Name your price and I will pay you for the tree. I do not desire any trouble to develop over this affair."

"You can't pay for that tree," Bryce burst forth. "No pitiful human being can pay in dollars and cents for the wanton destruction of God's handiwork. You wanted that burl and when my father was blind and could no longer make his Sunday pilgrimage up to that grove, your woods-boss went up and stole that which you knew you could not buy."

"That will be about all from you, young man. Get out of my office. And by the way, forget that you have met my niece."

"It's your office--so I'll get out. As for your second command"--he snapped his fingers in Pennington's face--"fooey!"

When Bryce had gone, the Colonel hurriedly called his logging-camp on the telephone and asked for Jules Rondeau, only to be informed, by the timekeeper who answered the telephone, that Rondeau was up in the green timber with the choppers and could not be gotten to the telephone in less than two hours.

"Do not send for him, then," Pennington commanded. "I'm coming up on the eleven-fifteen train and will talk to him when he comes in for his lunch."

At eleven o'clock, and just as the Colonel was leaving to board the eleven-fifteen logging-train bound empty for the woods, Shirley Sumner made her appearance in his office.

"Uncle Seth," she complained, "I'm lonesome. The bookkeeper tells me you're going up to the logging-camp. May I go with you?"

"By all means. Usually I ride in the cab with the engineer and fireman; but if you're coming, I'll have them hook on the caboose. Step lively, my dear, or they'll be holding the train for us and upsetting our schedule."