Chapter IX
 

Not until dinner was finished and father and son had repaired to the library for their coffee and cigars did Bryce Cardigan advert to the subject of his father's business affairs.

"Well, John Cardigan," he declared comfortably, "to-day is Friday. I'll spend Saturday and Sunday in sinful sloth and the renewal of old acquaintance, and on Monday I'll sit in at your desk and give you a long-deferred vacation. How about that programme, pard?"

"Our affairs are in such shape that they could not possibly be hurt or bettered, no matter who takes charge of them now," Cardigan replied bitterly. "We're about through. I waited too long and trusted too far; and now--well, in a year we'll be out of business."

"Suppose you start at the beginning and tell me everything right to the end. George Sea Otter informed me that you've been having trouble with this Johnny-come-lately, Colonel Pennington. Is he the man who has us where the hair is short?"

The old man nodded.

"The Squaw Creek timber deal, eh?" Bryce suggested.

Again the old man nodded. "You wrote me all about that," Bryce continued. "You had him blocked whichever way he turned--so effectually blocked, in fact, that the only pleasure he has derived from his investment since is the knowledge that he owns two thousand acres of timber with the exclusive right to pay taxes on it, walk in it, look at it and admire it--in fact, do everything except log it, mill it, and realize on his investment. It must make him feel like a bally jackass."

"On the other hand," his father reminded him, "no matter what the Colonel's feeling on that score may be, misery loves company, and not until I had pulled out of the Squaw Creek country and started logging in the San Hedrin watershed, did I realize that I had been considerable of a jackass myself."

"Yes," Bryce admitted, "there can be no doubt but that you cut off your nose to spite your face."

There was silence between them for several minutes. Bryce's thoughts harked back to that first season of logging in the San Hedrin, when the cloud-burst had caught the river filled with Cardigan logs and whirled them down to the bay, to crash through the log-boom at tidewater and continue out to the open sea. In his mind's eye he could still see the red-ink figures on the profit-and-loss statement Sinclair, his father's manager, had presented at the end of that year.

The old man appeared to divine the trend of his son's thoughts. "Yes, Bryce, that was a disastrous year," he declared. "The mere loss of the logs was a severe blow, but in addition I had to pay out quite a little money to settle with my customers. I was loaded up with low- priced orders that year, although I didn't expect to make any money. The orders were merely taken to keep the men employed. You understand, Bryce! I had a good crew, the finest in the country; and if I had shut down, my men would have scattered and--well, you know how hard it is to get that kind of a crew together again. Besides, I had never failed my boys before, and I couldn't bear the thought of failing them then. Half the mills in the country were shut down at the time, and there was a lot of distress among the unemployed. I couldn't do it, Bryce."

Bryce nodded. "And when you lost the logs, you couldn't fill those low-priced orders. Then the market commenced to jump and advanced three dollars in three months--"

"Exactly, my son. And my customers began to crowd me to fill those old orders. Praise be, my regular customers knew I wasn't the kind of lumberman who tries to crawl out of filling low-priced orders after the market has gone up. Nevertheless I couldn't expect them to suffer with me; my failure to perform my contracts, while unavoidable, nevertheless would have caused them a severe loss, and when they were forced to buy elsewhere, I paid them the difference between the price they paid my competitors and the price at which they originally placed their orders with me. And the delay in delivery caused them further loss."

"How much?"

"Nearly a hundred thousand--to settle for losses to my local customers alone. Among my orders I had three million feet of clear lumber for shipment to the United Kingdom, and these foreign customers, thinking I was trying to crawfish on my contracts, sued me and got judgment for actual and exemplary damages for my failure to perform, while the demurrage on the ships they sent to freight the lumber sent me hustling to the bank to borrow money."

He smoked meditatively for a minute. "I've always been land-poor," he explained apologetically. "Never kept much of a reserve working- capital for emergencies, you know. Whenever I had idle money, I put it into timber in the San Hedrin watershed, because I realized that some day the railroad would build in from the south, tap that timber, and double its value. I've not as yet found reason to doubt the wisdom of my course; but"--he sighed--"the railroad is a long time coming!"

John Cardigan here spoke of a most important factor in the situation. The crying need of the country was a feeder to some transcontinental railroad. By reason of natural barriers, Humboldt County was not easily accessible to the outside world except from the sea, and even this avenue of ingress and egress would be closed for days at a stretch when the harbour bar was on a rampage. With the exception of a strip of level, fertile land, perhaps five miles wide and thirty miles long and contiguous to the seacoast, the heavily timbered mountains to the north, east, and south rendered the building of a railroad that would connect Humboldt County with the outside world a profoundly difficult and expensive task. The Northwestern Pacific, indeed, had been slowly building from San Francisco Bay up through Marin and Sonoma counties to Willits in Mendocino County. But there it had stuck to await that indefinite day when its finances and the courage of its board of directors should prove equal to the colossal task of continuing the road two hundred miles through the mountains to Sequoia on Humboldt Bay. For twenty years the Humboldt pioneers had lived in hope of this; but eventually they had died in despair or were in process of doing so.

"Don't worry, Dad. It will come," Bryce assured his father. "It's bound to."

"Yes, but not in my day. And when it comes, a stranger may own your San Hedrin timber and reap the reward of my lifetime of labour."

Again a silence fell between them, broken presently by the old man. "That was a mistake--logging in the San Hedrin," he observed. "I had my lesson that first year, but I didn't heed it. If I had abandoned my camps there, pocketed my pride, paid Colonel Pennington two dollars for his Squaw Creek timber, and rebuilt my old logging-road, I would have been safe to-day. But I was stubborn; I'd played the game so long, you know--I didn't want to let that man Pennington outgame me. So I tackled the San Hedrin again. We put thirty million feet of logs into the river that year, and when the freshet came, McTavish managed to make a fairly successful drive. But he was all winter on the job, and when spring came and the men went into the woods again, they had to leave nearly a million feet of heavy butt logs permanently stranded in the slack water along the banks, while perhaps another million feet of lighter logs had been lifted out of the channel by the overflow and left high and dry when the water receded. There they were, Bryce, scattered up and down the river, far from the cables and logging-donkeys, the only power we could use to get those monsters back into the river again, and I was forced to decide whether they should be abandoned or split during the summer into railroad ties, posts, pickets, and shakes--commodities for which there was very little call at the time and in which, even when sold, there could be no profit after deducting the cost of the twenty-mile wagon haul to Sequoia, and the water freight from Sequoia to market. So I abandoned them."

"I remember that phase of it, partner."

"To log it the third year only meant that more of those heavy logs would jam and spell more loss. Besides, there was always danger of another cloud-burst which would put me out of business completely, and I couldn't afford the risk."

"That was the time you should have offered Colonel Pennington a handsome profit on his Squaw Creek timber, pal."

"If my hindsight was as good as my foresight, and I had my eyesight, I wouldn't be in this dilemma at all," the old man retorted briskly. "It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and besides, I was obsessed with the need of protecting your heritage from attack in any direction."

John Cardigan straightened up in his chair and laid the tip of his right index finger in the centre of the palm of his left hand. "Here was the situation, Bryce: The centre of my palm represents Sequoia; the end of my fingers represents the San Hedrin timber twenty miles south. Now, if the railroad built in from the south, you would win. But if it built in from Grant's Pass, Oregon, on the north from the base of my hand, the terminus of the line would be Sequoia, twenty miles from your timber in the San Hedrin watershed!"

Bryce nodded. "In which event," he replied, "we, would be in much the same position with our San Hedrin timber as Colonel Pennington is with his Squaw Creek timber. We would have the comforting knowledge that we owned it and paid taxes on it but couldn't do a dad-burned thing with it!"

"Right you are! The thing to do, then, as I viewed the situation, Bryce, was to acquire a body of timber north of Sequoia and be prepared for either eventuality. And this I did."

Silence again descended upon them; and Bryce, gazing into the open fireplace, recalled an event in that period of his father's activities: Old Bill Henderson had come up to their house to dinner one night, and quite suddenly, in the midst of his soup, the old fox had glared across at his host and bellowed:

"John, I hear you've bought six thousand acres up in Township Nine."

John Cardigan had merely nodded, and Henderson had continued:

"Going to log it or hold it for investment?"

"It was a good buy," Cardigan had replied enigmatically; "so I thought I'd better take it at the price. I suppose Bryce will log it some day."

"Then I wish Bryce wasn't such a boy, John. See here, now, neighbour. I'll 'fess up. I took that money Pennington gave me for my Squaw Creek timber and put it back into redwood in Township Nine, slam-bang up against your holdings there. John, I'd build a mill on tidewater if you'd sell me a site, and I'd log my timber if--"

"I'll sell you a mill-site, Bill, and I won't stab you to the heart, either. Consider that settled."

"That's bully, John; but still, you only dispose of part of my troubles. There's twelve miles of logging-road to build to get my logs to the mill, and I haven't enough ready money to make the grade. Better throw in with me, John, and we'll build the road and operate it for our joint interest."

"I'll not throw in with you, Bill, at my time of life, I don't want to have the worry of building, maintaining, and operating twelve miles of private railroad. But I'll loan you, without security--"

"You'll have to take an unsecured note, John. Everything I've got is hocked."

"--the money you need to build and equip the road," finished Cardigan. "In return you are to shoulder all the grief and worry of the road and give me a ten-year contract at a dollar and a half per thousand feet, to haul my logs down to tidewater with your own. My minimum haul will be twenty-five million feet annually, and my maximum fifty million--"

"Sold!" cried Henderson. And it was even so.

Bryce came out of his reverie. "And now?" he queried of his father.

"I mortgaged the San Hedrin timber in the south to buy the timber in the north, my son; then after I commenced logging in my new holdings, came several long, lean years of famine. I stuck it out, hoping for a change for the better; I couldn't bear to close down my mill and logging-camps, for the reason that I could stand the loss far more readily than the men who worked for me and depended upon me. But the market dragged in the doldrums, and Bill Henderson died, and his boys got discouraged, and--"

A sudden flash of inspiration illumined Bryce Cardigan's brain. "And they sold out to Colonel Pennington," he cried.

"Exactly. The Colonel took over my contract with Henderson's company, along with the other assets, and it was incumbent upon him, as assignee, to fulfill the contract. For the past two years the market for redwood has been most gratifying, and if I could only have gotten a maximum supply of logs over Pennington's road, I'd have worked out of the hole, but--"

"He manages to hold you to a minimum annual haul of twenty-five million feet, eh?"

John Cardigan nodded. "He claims he's short of rolling-stock--that wrecks and fires have embarrassed the road. He can always find excuses for failing to spot in logging-trucks for Cardigan's logs. Bill Henderson never played the game that way. He gave me what I wanted and never held me to the minimum haulage when I was prepared to give him the maximum."

"What does Colonel Pennington want, pard?"

"He wants," said John Cardigan slowly, "my Valley of the Giants and a right of way through my land from the valley to a log-dump on deep water."

"And you refused him?"

"Naturally. You know my ideas on that big timber." His old head sank low on his breast. "Folks call them Cardigan's Redwoods now," he murmured. "Cardigan's Redwoods--and Pennington would cut them! Oh, Bryce, the man hasn't a soul!"

"But I fail to see what the loss of Cardigan's Redwoods has to do with the impending ruin of the Cardigan Redwood Lumber Company," his son reminded him. "We have all the timber we want."

"My ten-year contract has but one more year to run, and recently I tried to get Pennington to renew it. He was very nice and sociable, but--he named me a freight-rate, for a renewal of the contract for five years, of three dollars per thousand feet. That rate is prohibitive and puts us out of business."

"Not necessarily," Bryce returned evenly. "How about the State railroad commission? Hasn't it got something to say about rates?"

"Yes--on common carriers. But Pennington's load is a private logging- road; my contract will expire next year, and it is not incumbent upon Pennington to renew it. And one can't operate a sawmill without logs, you know."

"Then," said Bryce calmly, "we'll shut the mill down when the log- hauling contract expires, hold our timber as an investment, and live the simple life until we can sell it or a transcontinental road builds into Humboldt County and enables us to start up the mill again."

John Cardigan shook his head. "I'm mortgaged to the last penny," he confessed, "and Pennington has been buying Cardigan Redwood Lumber Company first-mortgage bonds until he is in control of the issue. He'll buy in the San Hedrin timber at the foreclosure sale, and in order to get it back and save something for you out of the wreckage, I'll have to make an unprofitable trade with him. I'll have to give him my timber adjoining his north of Sequoia, together with my Valley of the Giants, in return for the San Hedrin timber, to which he'll have a sheriff's deed. But the mill, all my old employees, with their numerous dependents--gone, with you left land-poor and without a dollar to pay your taxes. Smashed--like that!" And he drove his fist into the palm of his hand.

"Perhaps--but not without a fight," Bryce answered, although he knew their plight was well-nigh hopeless. "I'll give that man Pennington a run for his money, or I'll know the reason."

The telephone on the table beside him tinkled, and he took down the receiver and said "Hello!"

"Mercy!" came the clear, sweet voice of Shirley Sumner over the wire. "Do you feel as savage as all that, Mr. Cardigan?"

For the second time in his life the thrill that was akin to pain came to Bryce Cardigan. He laughed. "If I had known you were calling, Miss Sumner," he said, "I shouldn't have growled so."

"Well, you're forgiven--for several reasons, but principally for sending me that delicious blackberry pie. Of course, it discoloured my teeth temporarily, but I don't care. The pie was worth it, and you were awfully dear to think of sending it. Thank you so much."

"Glad you liked it, Miss Sumner. I dare to hope that I may have the privilege of seeing you soon again."

"Of course. One good pie deserves another. Some evening next week, when that dear old daddy of yours can spare his boy, you might be interested to see our burl-redwood-panelled dining room Uncle Seth is so proud of. I'm too recent an arrival to know the hour at which Uncle Seth dines, but I'll let you know later and name a definite date. Would Thursday night be convenient?"

"Perfectly. Thank you a thousand times."

She bade him good-night. As he turned from the telephone, his father looked up. "What are you going to do to-morrow, lad?" he queried.

"I have to do some thinking to-morrow," Bryce answered. "So I'm going up into Cardigan's Redwoods to do it. Up there a fellow can get set, as it were, to put over a thought with a punch in it."

"The dogwoods and rhododendron are blooming now," the old man murmured wistfully. Bryce knew what he was thinking of. "I'll attend to the flowers for Mother," he assured Cardigan, and he added fiercely: "And I'll attend to the battle for Father. We may lose, but that man Pennington will know he's been in a fight before we fin---"

He broke off abruptly, for he had just remembered that he was to dine at the Pennington house the following Thursday--and he was not the sort of man who smilingly breaks bread with his enemy.