Part Three
Chapter II
 

Welton strode away into the darkness, followed closely by Bob. He made his way as rapidly as he could through the village to an attractive house at the farther outskirts. Here he turned through the picket gate, and thundered on the door.

It was almost immediately opened by a meek-looking woman of thirty.

"Plant in?" demanded Welton.

The meek woman had no opportunity to reply.

"Sure! Sure! Come in!" roared the Supervisor's great voice.

They entered to find the fat man, his coat off, leaning luxuriously back in an office chair, his feet up on another, a cigar in his mouth. He waved a hospitable hand.

"Sit down! Sit down!" he wheezed. "Glad to see you."

"They tell me there's a fire over in the Stone Creek country," said Welton.

"So it's reported," said Plant comfortably. "I've sent a man over already to investigate."

"That timber adjoins ours," went on Welton. "Sending one ranger to investigate don't seem to help the old man a great deal."

"Oh, it may not amount to much," disclaimed Plant vaguely.

"But if it does amount to much, it'll be getting one devil of a start," persisted Welton. "Why don't you send over enough men to give it a fight?"

"Haven't got 'em," replied Plant briefly.

"There's three playing poker now, down in the first saloon," broke in Bob.

Plant looked at him coldly for ten seconds.

"Those men are waiting to tally Wright's cattle," he condescended, naming one of the most powerful of the valley ranch kings.

But Welton caught at Bob's statement.

"All you need is one man to count cattle," he pointed out. "Can't you do that yourself, and send over your men?"

"Are you trying to tell me my business, Mr. Welton?" asked the Supervisor formally.

Welton laughed one of his inexpressible chuckles.

"Lord love you, no!" he cried. "I have all I can handle. I'm merely trying to protect my own. Can't you hire some men, then?"

"My appropriation won't stand it," said Plant, a gleam coming into his eye. "I simply haven't the money to pay them with." He paused significantly.

"How much would it take?" inquired Welton.

Plant cast his eyes to the ceiling.

"Of course, I couldn't tell, because I don't know how much of a fire it is, or how long it would take to corral it. But I'll tell you what I'll do: suppose you leave me a lump sum, and I'll look after such matters hereafter without having to bother you with them. Of course, when I have rangers available I'll use 'em; but any time you need protection, I can rush in enough men to handle the situation without having to wait for authorizations and all that. It might not take anything extra, of course."

"How much do you suppose it would require to be sure we don't run short?" asked Welton.

"Oh, a thousand dollars ought to last indefinitely," replied Plant.

The two men stared at each other for a moment. Then Welton laughed.

"I can hire a heap of men for a thousand dollars," said he, rising. "Goodnight."

Plant rumbled something. The two went out, leaving the fat man chewing his cigar and scowling angrily after them.

Once clear of the premises Welton laughed loudly.

"Well, my son, that's your first shy at the government official, isn't it? They're not all as bad as that. At first I couldn't make out whether he was just fat and lazy. Now I know he's a grafter. He ought to get a nice neat 'For Sale' sign painted. Did you hear the nerve of him? Wanted a thousand dollars bribe to do his plain duty."

"Oh, that was what he was driving at!" cried Bob.

"Yes, Baby Blue-eyes, didn't you tumble to that? Well, I don't see a thousand in it whether he's for us or against us."

"Was that the reason he didn't send over all his men to the fire?" asked Bob.

"Partly. Principally because he wanted to help old Simeon Wright's men in with the cattle. Simeon probably has a ninety-nine year lease on his fat carcass--with the soul thrown in for a trading stamp. It don't take but one man to count cattle, but three extra cowboys comes mighty handy in the timber."

"Would Wright bribe him, do you suppose?"

Welton stopped short.

"Let me tell you one thing about old Simeon, Bob," said he. "He owns more land than any other man in California. He got it all from the government. Eight sections on one of his ranches he took up under the Swamp Act by swearing he had been all over them in a boat. He had. The boat was drawn by eight mules. That's just a sample. You bet Simeon owns a Supervisor, if he thinks he needs one; and that's why the cattle business takes precedence over the fire business."

"It's an outrage!" cried Bob. "We ought to report him for neglect of duty."

Welton chuckled.

"I didn't tell you this to get you mad, Bobby," he drawled with his indescribable air of good humour; "only to show you the situation. What difference does it make? As for reporting to Washington! Look here, I don't know what Plant's political backing is, but it must be 99.84 per cent. pure. Otherwise, how would a man as fat as that get a job of Forest Supervisor? Why, he can't ride a horse, and it's absurd to suppose he ever saw any of the Reserve he's in charge of."

Welton bestirred himself to good purpose. Inside of two hours a half-dozen men, well-mounted and provisioned, bearing the usual tools of the fire-fighter, had ridden off into the growing brightness of the moon.

"There," said the lumberman with satisfaction. "That isn't going to cost much, and we'll feel safe. Now let's turn in."