Part Three
Chapter V
 

Bob took supper at Auntie Belle's, and rode up the mountain after dark. He did not attempt short cuts, but allowed his horse to follow the plain grade of the road. After a time the moon crept over the zenith, and at once the forest took on a fairylike strangeness, as though at the touch of night new worlds had taken the place of the vanished old. Somewhere near midnight, his body shivering with the mountain cold, his legs stiff and chafed from the long, unaccustomed riding, but his mind filled with the wonder and beauty of the mountain night, Bob drew rein beside the corrals. After turning in his horse, he walked through the bright moonlight to Welton's door, on which he hammered.

"Hey!" called the lumberman from within.

"It's I, Bob."

Welton scratched a match.

"Why in blazes didn't you come up in the morning?" he inquired.

"I've found out another and perhaps important hole we're in."

"Can we do anything to help ourselves out before morning?" demanded Welton. "No? Well, sleep tight! I'll see you at six."

Next morning Welton rolled out, as good-humoured and deliberate as ever.

"My boy," said he. "When you get to be as old as I am, you'll never stir up trouble at night unless you can fix it then. What is it?"

Bob detailed his conversation with Plant.

"Do you mean to tell me that that old, fat skunk had the nerve to tell you he was going to send a ranger to look at our permit?" he demanded.

"Yes. That's what he said."

"The miserable hound! Why I went to see him a year ago about crossing this strip with our road--we had to haul a lot of stuff in. He told me to go ahead and haul, and that he'd fix it up when the time came. Since then I've tackled him two or three times about it, but he's always told me to go ahead; that it was all right. So we went ahead. It's always been a matter of form, this crossing permit business. It's meant to be a matter of form!"

After breakfast Welton ordered his buckboard and, in company with Bob, drove down the mountain again. Plant was discovered directing the activities of several men, who were loading a light wagon with provisions and living utensils.

"Moving up to our summer camp," one of them told Bob. "Getting too hot down here."

Plant received them, his fat face expressionless, and led them into the stuffy little office.

"Look here, Plant," said Welton, without a trace of irritation on his weatherbeaten, round countenance. "What's all this about seeing a permit to cross those government sections? You know very well I haven't any permit."

"I have been informed by my men that you have constructed or caused to be constructed a water flume through section 36, and a road through sections 14, 22, 28 and 32. If this has been done without due authorization you are liable for trespass. Fine of not less than $200 or imprisonment for not less than twelve months--or both." He delivered this in a voice absolutely devoid of expression.

"But you told me to go ahead, and that you'd attend to the details, and it would be all right," said Welton.

"You must have misunderstood me," replied Plant blandly. "It is against my sworn duty to permit such occupation of public land without due conformity to law. It is within my discretion whether to report the trespass for legal action. I am willing to believe that you have acted in this matter without malicious intent. But the trespass must cease."

"What do you mean by that?" asked Welton.

"You must not use that road as a highway, nor the flume, and you must remove the flume within a reasonable time. Or else you may still get a permit."

"How long would that take?" asked Welton. "Could it be done by wire?"

Plant lifted a glazed and fishy eye to survey him.

"You would be required to submit in writing specifications of the length and location of said road and flume. This must be accompanied by a topographical map and details of construction. I shall then send out field men to investigate, after which, endorsed with my approval, it goes for final decision to the Secretary of the Interior."

"Good Lord, man!" cried Welton, aghast. "That would take all summer! And besides, I made out all that tomfoolery last summer. I supposed you must have unwound all that red tape long ago!"

Plant for the first time looked his interlocutor square in the eye.

"I find among my records no such application," he said deliberately.

Welton stared at him a moment, then laughed.

"All right, Mr. Plant, I'll see what's to be done," said he, and went out.

In silence the two walked down the street until out of earshot. Then Bob broke out.

"I'd like to punch his fat carcass!" he cried. "The old liar!"

Welton laughed.

"It all goes to show that a man's never too old to learn. He's got us plain enough just because this old man was too busy to wake up to the fact that these government grafters are so strong out here. Back our way when you needed a logging road, you just built it, and paid for the unavoidable damage, and that's all there was to it."

"You take it cool," spluttered Bob.

"No use taking it any other way," replied Welton. "But the situation is serious. We've got our plant in shape, and our supplies in, and our men engaged. It would be bad enough to shut down with all that expense. But the main trouble is, we're under contract to deliver our mill run to Marshall & Harding. We can't forfeit that contract and stay in business."

"What are you going to do about it?" asked Bob.

"Get on the wires to your father in Washington," replied Welton. "Lucky, your friend Baker's power project is only four miles away; we can use his 'phone."

But at the edge of town they met Lejeune.

"I got de ship in pasture," he told Bob. "But hees good for not more dan one wik."

"Look here, Leejune," said Welton. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to look up another range for this summer. Of course, we'll pay any loss or damage in the matter. It looks impossible to do anything with Plant."

The Frenchman threw up both hands and broke into voluble explanations. From them the listeners gathered more knowledge in regard to the sheep business than they could have learned by observation in a year. Briefly, it was necessary that the sheep have high-country feed, at once; the sheepmen apportioned the mountains among themselves, so that each had his understood range; it would now be impossible to find anywhere another range; only sometimes could one trade localities with another, but that must be arranged earlier in the season before the flocks are in the hills--in short, affairs were at a critical point, where Lejeune must have feed, and no other feed was to be had except that for which he had in all confidence contracted. Welton listened thoughtfully, his eyes between his horses.

"Can you run those sheep in, at night, or somehow?"

The Frenchman's eyes sparkled.

"I run ship two year in Yosemite Park," he bragged. "No soldier fin' me."

"That's no great shakes," said Welton drily, "from what I've seen of Park soldiers. If you can sneak these sheep across without getting caught, you do it."

"I snik ship across all right," said Lejeune. "But I can' stop hees track. The ranger he know I cross all right."

"What's the penalty?" asked Welton.

"Mos'ly 'bout one hundred dollars," replied Lejeune promptly. "Mebbe five hundred."

Welton sighed. "Is that the limit?" he asked. "Not more than five hundred?"

"No. Dat all."

"Well, it'll take a good half of the rent to get you in, if they soak us the limit; but you're up against it, and we'll stand back of you. If we agreed to give you that grazing, by God, you'll get it, as long as that land is ours."

He nodded and drove on, while Lejeune, the true sheepman's delight in dodging the officers burning strong within his breast, turned his mule's head to the lower country.