Part Three
Chapter VI
 

The full situation, as far as the wires could tell it, was laid before Jack Orde in Washington. A detailed letter followed. Toward evening of that day the mill crews began to come in with the four and six-horse teams provided for their transportation. They were a dusty but hilarious lot. The teams drew up underneath the solitary sycamore tree that gave the place its name, and at once went into camp. Bob strolled down to look them over.

They proved to be fresh-faced, strong farm boys, for the most part, with a fair sprinkling of older mountaineers, and quite a contingent of half and quarter-bred Indians. All these people worked on ranches or in the towns during the off season when the Sierras were buried under winter snows. Their skill at woodsmanship might be undoubted, but the intermittent character of their work precluded any development of individual type, like the rivermen and shanty boys of the vanished North. For a moment Bob experienced a twinge of regret that the old, hard, picturesque days of his Northern logging were indeed gone. Then the interest of this great new country with its surging life and its new problems gripped him hard. He left these decent, hard-working, self-respecting ranch boys, these quiet mountaineers, these stolid, inscrutable breeds to their flickering camp fire. Next morning the many-seated vehicles filled early and started up the road. But within a mile Welton and Bob in their buckboard came upon old California John square in the middle of the way. Star stood like a magnificent statue except that slowly over and over, with relish, he turned the wheel of the silver-mounted spade-bit under his tongue. As the ranger showed no indication of getting out of the way, Welton perforce came to a halt.

"Road closed to trespass by the Wolverine Company," the ranger stated impassively.

Welton whistled.

"That mean I can't get to my own property?" he asked.

"My orders are to close this road to the Wolverine Company."

"Well, you've obeyed orders. Now get out the way. Tell your chief he can go ahead on a trespass suit."

But the old man shook his head.

"No, you don't understand," he repeated patiently. "My orders were to close the road to the Company, not just to give notice."

Without replying Welton picked up his reins and started his horses. The man seemed barely to shift his position, but from some concealment he produced a worn and shiny Colt's. This he laid across the horn of his saddle.

"Stop," he commanded, and this time his voice had a bite to it.

"Millions for defence," chuckled Welton, who recognized perfectly the tone, "and how much did you say for tribute?"

"What say?" inquired the old man.

"What sort of a hold-up is this? We certainly can't do this road any damage driving over it once. How much of an inducement does Plant want, anyway?"

"This department is only doing its sworn duty," replied the old man. His blue eyes met Welton's steadily; not a line of his weatherbeaten face changed. For twenty seconds the lumberman tried to read his opponent's mind.

"Well," he said at last. "You can tell your chief that if he thinks he can annoy and harass me into bribing him to be decent, he's left."

By this time the dust and creek of the first heavily laden vehicle had laboured up to within a few hundred yards.

"I have over a hundred men there," said Welton, "that I've hired to work for me at the top of that mountain. It's damn foolishness that anybody should stop their going there; and I'll bet they won't lose their jobs. My advice to you is to stand one side. You can't stop a hundred men alone."

"Yes, I can," replied the old man calmly. "I'm not alone."

"No?" said Welton, looking about him.

"No; there's eighty million people behind that," said California John, touching lightly the shield of his Ranger badge. The simplicity of the act robbed it of all mock-heroics.

Welton paused, a frown of perplexity between his brows. California John was watching him calmly.

"Of course, the public has a right to camp in all Forest Reserves--subject to reg'lation," he proffered.

Welton caught at this.

"You mean--"

"No, you got to turn back, and your Company's rigs have got to turn back," said California John. "But I sure ain't no orders to stop no campers."

Welton nodded briefly; and, after some difficulty, succeeding in turning around, he drove back down the grade. After he had bunched the wagons he addressed the assembled men.

"Boys," said he, "there's been some sort of a row with the Government, and they've closed this road to us temporarily. I guess you'll have to hoof it the rest of the way."

This was no great and unaccustomed hardship, and no one objected.

"How about our beds?" inquired some one.

This presented a difficulty. No Western camp of any description--lumber, mining, railroad, cow--supplies the bedding for its men. Camp blankets as dealt out in our old-time Northern logging camp are unknown. Each man brings his own blankets, which he further augments with a pair of quilts, a pillow and a heavy canvas. All his clothing and personal belongings he tucks inside; the canvas he firmly lashes outside. Thus instead of his "turkey"--or duffle-bag--he speaks of his "bed roll," and by that term means not only his sleeping equipment but often all his worldly goods.

"Can't you unhitch your horses and pack them?" asked Bob.

"Sure," cried several mountaineers at once.

Welton chuckled.

"That sounds like it," he approved; "and remember, boys, you're all innocent campers out to enjoy the wonders and beauties of nature."

The men made short work of the job. In a twinkling the horses were unhitched from the vehicles. Six out of ten of these men were more or less practised at throwing packing hitches, for your Californian brought up in sight of mountains is often among them. Bob admired the dexterity with which some of the mountaineers improvised slings and drew tight the bulky and cumbersome packs. Within half an hour the long procession was under way, a hundred men and fifty horses. They filed past California John, who had drawn one side.

"Camping, boys?" he asked the leader.

The man nodded and passed on. California John sat at ease, his elbow on the pommel, his hand on his chin, his blue eyes staring vacantly at the silent procession filing before him. Star stood motionless, his head high, his small ears pricked forward. The light dust peculiar to the mountain soils of California, stirred by many feet, billowed and rolled upward through the pines. Long rays of sunlight cut through it like swords.

"Now did you ever see such utter damn foolishness?" growled Welton. "Make that bunch walk all the way up that mountain! What on earth is the difference whether they walk or ride?"

But Bob, examining closely the faded, old figure on the magnificent horse, felt his mind vaguely troubled by another notion. He could not seize the thought, but its influence was there. Somehow the irritation and exasperation had gone from the episode.

"I know that sort of crazy old mossback," muttered Welton as he turned down the mountain. "Pin a tin star on them and they think they're as important as hell!"

Bob looked back.

"I don't know," he said vaguely. "I'm kind of for that old coon."

The bend shut him out. After the buckboard had dipped into the horseshoe and out to the next point, they again looked back. The smoke of marching rose above the trees to eddy lazily up the mountain. California John, a tiny figure now, still sat patiently guarding the portals of an empty duty.