Part Three
Chapter I
 

Two weeks later a light buckboard bearing Welton and Bob dashed in the early morning across the plains, wormed its way ingeniously through gaps in the foothills, and slowed to a walk as it felt the grades of the first long low slopes. The air was warm with the sun imprisoned in the pockets of the hills. High chaparral, scrub oaks, and scattered, unkempt digger pines threw their thicket up to the very right of way. It was in general dense, almost impenetrable, yet it had a way of breaking unexpectedly into spacious parks, into broad natural pastures, into bold, rocky points prophetic of the mountains yet to come. Every once in a while the road drew one side to pause at a cabin nestling among fruit trees, bowered beneath vines, bright with the most vivid of the commoner flowers. They were crazily picturesque with their rough stone chimneys, their roofs of shakes, their broad low verandahs, and their split-picket fences. On these verandahs sat patriarchal-looking men with sweeping white beards, who smoked pipes and gazed across with dim eyes toward the distant blue mountains. When Welton, casually and by the way, mentioned topographical names, Bob realized to what placid and contented retirement these men had turned, and who they were. Nugget Creek, Flour Gold, Bear Gulch--these spoke of the strong, red-shirted Argonauts of the El Dorado. Among these scarred but peaceful foothills had been played and applauded the great, wonderful, sordid, inspired drama of the early days, the traces of which had almost vanished from the land.

Occasionally also the buckboard paused for water at a more pretentious place set in a natural opening. There a low, rambling, white ranch-house beneath trees was segregated by a picket fence enclosing blossoms like a basket. At a greater or lesser distance were corrals of all sizes arranged in a complicated pattern. They resembled a huge puzzle. The barns were large; a forge stood under an open shed indescribably littered with scrap iron and fragments of all sorts; saddles hung suspended by the horn or one stirrup; bright milk pails sunned bottom-up on fence posts; a dozen horses cropped in a small enclosed pasture or dozed beneath one or another of the magnificent and spreading live-oak trees. Children of all sizes and states of repair clambered to the fence tops or gazed solemnly between the rails. Sometimes women stood in the doorways to nod cheerfully at the travellers. They seemed to Bob a comely, healthy-looking lot, competent and good-natured. Beyond an occasional small field and an invariable kitchen garden there appeared to be no evidences of cultivation. Around the edges of the natural opening stretched immediately the open jungle of the chaparral or the park-like forests of oaks.

"These are the typical mountain people of California," said Welton. "It's only taken us a few hours to come up this far, but we've struck among a different breed of cats. They're born, live and die in the hills, and they might as well be a thousand miles away as forty or fifty. As soon as the snow is out, they hike for the big mountains."

"What do they do?" inquired Bob.

"Cattle," replied Welton. "Nothing else."

"I haven't seen any men."

"No, and you won't, except the old ones. They've taken their cattle back to the summer ranges in the high mountains. By and by the women and kids will go into the summer camps with the horses."

On a steep and narrow grade they encountered a girl of twenty riding a spirited pinto. She bestrode a cowboy's stock saddle on which was coiled the usual rope, wore a broad felt hat, and smiled at the two men quite frankly in spite of the fact that she wore no habit and had been compelled to arrange her light calico skirts as best she could. The pinto threw his head and snorted, dancing sideways at sight of the buckboard. So occupied was he with the strange vehicle that he paid scant attention to the edge of the road. Bob saw that the passage along the narrow outside strip was going to be precarious. He prepared to descend, but at that moment the girl faced her pony squarely at the edge of the road, dug her little heels into his flanks, and flicked him sharply with the morale or elongated lash of the reins. Without hesitation the pony stepped off the grade, bunched his hoofs and slid down the precipitous slope. So steep was the hill that a man would have had to climb it on all fours.

Bob gasped and rose to his feet. The pony, leaving a long furrow in the side of the mountain, caught himself on the narrow ledge of a cattle trail, turned to the left, and disappeared at a little fox trot.

Bob looked at this companion. Welton laughed.

"There's hardly a woman in the country that doesn't help round up stock. How'd you like to chase a cow full speed over this country, hey?"

As they progressed, mounting slowly, but steadily, the character of the country changed. The canons through which flowed the streams became deeper and more precipitous; the divides between them higher. At one point where the road emerged on a bold, clear point, Bob looked back to the shimmering plain, and was astonished to see how high they had climbed. To the eastward and only a few miles distant rose the dark mass of a pine-covered ridge, austere and solemn, the first rampart of the Sierras. Welton pointed to it with his whip.

"There's our timber," said he simply.

A little farther along the buckboard drew rein at the top of a long declivity that led down to a broad wooded valley. Among the trees Bob caught a glimpse of the roofs of scattered houses, and the gleam of a river. From the opposite edge of the valley rose the mountain-ridge, sheer and noble. The light of afternoon tinted it with lilac and purple.

"That's the celebrated town of Sycamore Flats," said Welton. "Just at present we're the most important citizens. This fellow here's the first yellow pine on the road."

Bob looked upon what he then considered a rather large tree. Later he changed his mind. The buckboard rattled down the grade, swung over a bridge, and so into the little town. Welton drew up at a low, broad structure set back from the street among some trees.

"We'll tackle the mountain to-morrow," said he.

Bob descended with a distinct feeling of pleasure at being able to use his legs again. He and Welton and the baggage and everything about the buckboard were powdered thick with the fine, white California dust. At every movement he shook loose a choking cloud. Welton's face was a dull gray, ludicrously streaked, and he suspected himself of being in the same predicament. A boy took the horses, and the travellers entered the picketed enclosure. Welton lifted up his great rumbling voice.

"O Auntie Belle!" he roared.

Within the dark depths of the house life stirred. In a moment a capable and motherly woman had taken them in charge. Amid a rapid-fire of greetings, solicitudes, jokes, questions, commands and admonitions Bob was dusted vigorously and led to ice-cold water and clean towels. Ten minutes later, much refreshed, he stood on the low verandah looking out with pleasure on the little there was to see. Eight dogs squatted themselves in front of him, ears slightly uplifted, in expectancy of something Bob could not guess. Probably the dogs could not guess either. Within the house two or three young girls were moving about, singing and clattering dishes in a delightfully promising manner. Down the winding hill, for Sycamore Flats proved after all to be built irregularly on a slope, he could make out several other scattered houses, each with its dooryard, and the larger structures of several stores. Over all loomed the dark mountain. The sun had just dropped below the ridge down which the road had led them, but still shone clear and golden as an overlay of colour laid against the sombre pines on the higher slopes.

After an excellent chicken supper, Bob lit his pipe and wandered down the street. The larger structures, three in number, now turned out to be a store and two saloons. A dozen saddle horses dozed patiently. On the platform outside the store a dozen Indian women dressed in bright calico huddled beneath their shawls. After squatting thus in brute immobility for a half-hour, one of them would purchase a few pounds of flour or a half-pound of tea. Then she would take her place again with the others. At the end of another half-hour another, moved by some sudden and mysterious impulse, would in turn make her purchases. The interior of the store proved to be no different from the general country store anywhere. The proprietor was very busy and occupied and important and interested in selling a two-dollar bill of goods to a chance prospector, which was well, for this was the storekeeper's whole life, and he had in defence of his soul to make his occupations filling. Bob bought a cigar and went out.

Next he looked in at one of the saloons. It was an ill-smelling, cheap box, whose sole ornaments were advertising lithographs. Four men played cards. They hardly glanced at the newcomer. Bob deciphered Forest Reserve badges on three of them.

As he emerged from this joint, his eyes a trifle dazzled by the light, he made out drawn up next the elevated platform a buckboard containing a single man. As his pupils contracted he distinguished such details as a wiry, smart little team, a man so fat as almost to fill the seat, a moon-like, good-natured face, a vest open to disclose a vast white shirt, "Hullo!" the stranger rumbled in a great voice. "Any of my boys in there?"

"Don't believe I know your boys," replied Bob pleasantly.

The fat man heaved his bulk forward to peer at Bob.

"Consarn your hide!" he roared with the utmost good humour; "stand out of the light so I can see your fool face. You lie like a hound! Everybody knows my boys!"

There was no offence in the words.

Bob laughed and obligingly stepped one side the lighted doorway.

"A towerist!" wheezed the fat man. "Say, you're too early. Nothing doing in the mountains yet. Who sent you this early, anyway?"

"No tourist; permanent inhabitant," said Bob. "I'm with Welton."

"Timber, by God!" exploded the fat man. "Well, you and I are like to have friendly doings. Your road goes through us, and you got to toe the mark, young fellow, let me tell you! I'm a hell of a hard man to get on with!"

"You look it," said Bob. "You own some timber?"

The fat man exploded again.

"Hell, no!" he roared. "Why, you don't even know me, do you? I'm Plant, Henry Plant. I'm Forest Supervisor."

"My name's Orde," said Bob. "If you're after Forest Rangers, there's three in there."

"The rascals!" cried Plant. He raised his voice to a bellow. "Oh, you Jim!"

The door was darkened.

"Say, Jim," said Plant. "They tell me there's a fire over Stone Creek way. Somebody's got to take a look at it. You and Joe better ride over in the morning and see what she looks like."

The man stretched his arms over his head and yawned. "Oh, hell!" said he with deep feeling. "Ain't you got any of those suckers that like to ride? I've had a headache for three days."

"Yes, it's hard luck you got to do anything, ain't it," said Plant. "Well, I'll see if I can find old John, and if you don't hear from me, you got to go."

The Supervisor gathered up his reins and was about to proceed when down through the fading twilight rode a singular figure. It was a thin, wiry, tall man, with a face like tanned leather, a clear, blue eye and a drooping white moustache. He wore a flopping old felt hat, a faded cotton shirt and an ancient pair of copper-riveted blue-jeans overalls tucked into a pair of cowboy's boots. A time-discoloured cartridge belt encircled his hips, supporting a holster from which protruded the shiny butt of an old-fashioned Colt's 45. But if the man was thus nondescript and shabby, his mount and its caparisons were magnificent. The horse was a glossy, clean-limbed sorrel with a quick, intelligent eye. The bridle was of braided rawhide, the broad spade-bit heavily inlaid with silver, the reins of braided and knotted rawhide. Across the animal's brow ran three plates of silver linked together. Below its ears were wide silver conchas. The saddle was carved elaborately, and likewise ornamented with silver. The whole outfit shone--new-polished and well kept.

"Oh, you John!" called Plant.

The old man moved his left hand slightly. The proud-stepping sorrel instantly turned to the left, and, on a signal Bob could not distinguish, stopped to statue-like immobility. Then Bob could see the Forest Ranger badge pinned to one strap of the old man's suspender.

"John," said Plant, "they tell me there's a fire over at Stone Creek. Ride over and see what it amounts to."

"All right," replied the Ranger. "What help do I get?"

"Oh, you just ride over and see what it amounts to," repeated Plant.

"I can't do nothing alone fighting fire."

"Well I can't spare anybody now," said Plant, "and it may not amount to nothing. You go see."

"All right," said John. "But if it does amount to something, it'll get an awful start on us."

He rode away.

"Old California John," said Plant to Bob with a slight laugh. "Crazy old fool." He raised his voice. "Oh, you Jim! John, he's going to ride over. You needn't go."

Bob nodded a good night, and walked back up the street. At the store he found the sorrel horse standing untethered in the road. He stopped to examine more closely the very ornate outfit. California John came out carrying a grain sack half full of provisions. This he proceeded to tie on behind the saddle, paying no attention to the young man.

"Well, Star, you got a long ways to go," muttered the old man.

"You aren't going over those mountains to-night, are you?" cried Bob.

The old man turned quite deliberately and inspected his questioner in a manner to imply that he had committed an indiscretion. But the answer was in a tone that implied he had not.

"Certain sure," he replied. "The only way to handle a fire is to stick to it like death to a dead nigger."

Bob returned to the hotel very thoughtful. There he found Mr. Welton seated comfortably on the verandah, his feet up and a cigar alight.

"This is pretty good medicine," he called to Bob. "Get your feet up, you long-legged stork, and enjoy yourself. Been exploring?"

"Listening to the band on the plaza," laughed Bob. He drew up a chair. At that moment the dim figure of California John jingled by. "I wouldn't like that old fellow's job. He's a ranger, and he's got to go and look up a forest fire."

"Alone?" asked Welton. "Couldn't they scare up any more? Or are they over there already?"

"There's three playing poker at the saloon. Looked to me like a fool way to do. He's just going to take a look and then come back and report."

"Oh, they're heavy on reports!" said Welton. "Where is the fire; did you hear?"

"Stone Creek--wherever that is."

"Stone Creek!" yelled Welton, dropping the front legs of his chair to the verandah with a thump. "Why, our timber adjoins Stone Creek! You come with me!"