Part Three
Chapter IV
 

The Stone Creek fire indeed proved not to amount to much, whereby sheer chance upheld Henry Plant. The following morning the fire fighters returned; leaving, however, two of their number to "guard the line" until the danger should be over. Welton explained to Bob that only the fact that Stone Creek bottom was at a low elevation, filled with brush and tarweed, and grown thick with young trees rendered the forest even inflammable at this time of year.

"Anywhere else in this country at this time of year it wouldn't do any harm," he told Bob, "and Plant knew it couldn't get out of the basin. He didn't give a cuss how much it did there. But we've got some young stuff that would easy carry a top fire. Later in the season you may see some tall rustling on the fire lines."

But before noon of that day a new complication arose. Up the road came a short, hairy man on a mule. His beard grew to his high cheek bones, his eyebrows bristled and jutted out over his black eyes, and a thick shock of hair pushed beneath the rim of his hat to meet the eyebrows. The hat was an old black slouch, misshapen, stained and dusty. His faded shirt opened to display a hairy throat and chest. As for the rest he was short-limbed, thick and powerful.

This nondescript individual rode up to the verandah on which sat Welton and Bob, awaiting the lunch bell. He bowed gravely, and dismounted.

"Dis ees Meestair Welton?" he inquired with a courtesy at strange variance with his uncouth appearance.

Welton nodded.

"I am Peter Lejeune," said the newcomer, announcing one of those hybrid names so common among the transplanted French and Basques of California. "I have de ship."

"Oh, yes," said Welton rising and going forward to offer his hand. "Come up and sit down, Mr. Leejune."

The hairy man "tied his mule to the ground" by dropping the end of the reins, and mounted the two steps to the verandah.

"This is my assistant, Mr. Orde," said Welton. "How are the sheep coming on? Mr. Leejune," he told Bob, "rents the grazing in our timber."

"Et is not coming," stated Lejeune with a studied calm. "Plant he riffuse permit to cross."

"Permit to what?" asked Welton.

"To cross hees fores', gov'ment fores'. I can' get in here widout cross gov'ment land. I got to get permit from Plant. Plant he riffuse."

Welton rose, staring at his visitor.

"Do you mean to tell me," he cried at last, "that a man hasn't got a right to get into his own land? That they can keep a man out of his own land?"

"Da's right," nodded the Frenchman.

"But you've been in here for ten years or so to my knowledge."

Abruptly the sheepman's calm fell from him. He became wildly excited. His black eyes snapped, his hair bristled, he arose from his chair and gesticulated.

"Every year I geev heem three ship! Three ship!" he repeated, thrusting three stubby fingers at Welton's face. "Three little ship! I stay all summer! He never say permit. Thees year he kip me out."

"Give any reason?" asked Welton.

"He say my ship feed over the line in gov'ment land."

"Did they?"

"Mebbe so, little bit. Mebbe not. Nobody show me line. Nobody pay no 'tention. I feed thees range ten year."

"Did you give him three sheep this year?"

"Sure."

Welton sighed.

"I can't go down and tend to this," said he. "My foremen are here to be consulted, and the crews will begin to come in to-morrow. You'll have to go and see what's eating this tender Plant, Bob. Saddle up and ride down with Mr. Leejune."

Bob took his first lesson in Western riding behind Lejeune and his stolid mule. He had ridden casually in the East, as had most young men of his way of life, but only enough to make a fair showing on a gentle and easy horse. His present mount was gentle and easy enough, but Bob was called upon to admire feats of which a Harlem goat might have been proud. Lejeune soon turned off the wagon road to make his way directly down the side of the mountain. Bob possessed his full share of personal courage, but in this unaccustomed skirting of precipices, hopping down ledges, and sliding down inclines too steep to afford a foothold he found himself leaning inward, sitting very light in the saddle, or holding his breath until a passage perilous was safely passed. In the next few years he had occasion to drop down the mountainside a great many times. After the first few trips he became so thoroughly accustomed that he often wondered how he had ever thought this scary riding. Now, however, he was so busily occupied that he was caught by surprise when Lejeune's mule turned off through a patch of breast-high manzanita and he found himself traversing the gentler slope at the foot of the mountain. Ten minutes later they entered Sycamore Flats.

Then Bob had leisure to notice an astonishing change of temperature. At the mill the air had been almost cold--entirely so out of the direct rays of the sun. Here it was as hot as though from a furnace. Passing the store, Bob saw that the tall thermometer there stood at 96 degrees. The day was unseasonable, but later, in the August heats, Bob had often, to his sorrow, to test the difference between six thousand and two thousand feet of elevation. From a clear, crisp late-spring climate he would descend in two hours to a temperature of 105 degrees.

Henry Plant was discovered sprawled out in an armchair beneath a spreading tree in the front yard. His coat was off and his vest unbuttoned to display a vast and billowing expanse of soiled white shirt. In his hand was a palm-leaf fan, at his elbow swung an olla, newspapers littered the ground or lay across his fat knees. When Bob and Lejeune entered, he merely nodded surlily, and went on with his reading.

"Can I speak to you a moment on business?" asked Bob.

By way of answer the fat man dropped his paper, and mopped his brow.

"We've rented our sheep grazing to Mr. Lejeune, here, as I understand we've been doing for some years. He tells me you have refused him permission to cross the Forest Reserve with his flocks."

"That's right," grunted Plant.

"What for?"

"I believe, young man, granting permits is discretionary with the Supervisor," stated that individual.

"I suppose so," agreed Bob. "But Mr. Lejeune has always had permission before. What reason do you assign for refusing it?"

"Wilful trespass," wheezed Plant. "That's what, young man. His sheep grazed over our line. He's lucky that I don't have him up before the United States courts for damages as well."

Lejeune started to speak, but Bob motioned him to silence.

"I'm sure we could arrange for past damages, and guarantee against any future trespass," said he.

"Well, I'm sure you can't," stated Plant positively. "Good day."

But Bob was not willing to give up thus easily. He gave his best efforts either to arguing Plant into a better frame of mind, or to discovering some tangible reason for his sudden change of front in regard to the sheep.

"It's no use," he told Lejeune, later, as they walked down the street together. "He's undoubtedly the right to refuse permits for cause; and technically he has cause if your sheep got over the line."

"But what shall I do!" cried Lejeune. "My ship mus' have feed!"

"You pasture them or feed them somewhere for a week or so, and I'll let you know," said Bob. "We'll get you on the land or see you through somewhere else."

He mounted his horse stiffly and rode back up the street. Plant still sat in his armchair like a bloated spider. On catching sight of Bob, however, he heaved himself to his feet and waddled to the gate.

"Here!" he called. Bob drew rein. "It has been reported to me that your firm has constructed a flume across 36, and a wagon road across 14, 22, 28, and 32. Those are government sections. I suppose, of course, your firm has permits from Washington to build said improvements?"

"Naturally," said Bob, who, however, knew nothing whatever of those details.

"Well, I'll send a man up to examine them to-morrow," said Plant, and turned his back.