Part Three
Chapter IX
 

Matters stood thus dependent on the efforts of Jack Orde, at Washington, when, one evening, Baker rode in to camp and dismounted before the low verandah of the sleeping quarters. Welton and Bob sat, chair-tilted, awaiting the supper gong.

"Thrice hail, noble chiefs!" cried Baker, cautiously stretching out first one sturdy leg, then the other. "Against which post can I lean my trusty charger?"

Baker was garbed to suit the role. His boots were very thick and very tall, and most bristly with hobnails; they laced with belt laces through forty-four calibre eyelets, and were strapped about the top with a broad piece of leather and two glittering buckles. Furthermore, his trousers were of khaki, his shirt of navy blue, his belt three inches broad, his neckerchief of red, and his hat both wide and high.

In response to enthusiastic greetings, he struck a pose.

"How do you like it?" he inquired. "Isn't this the candy make-up for the simple life--surveyor, hardy prospector, mountain climber, sturdy pedestrian? Ain't I the real young cover design for the Out-of-door number?"

He accepted their congratulations with a lofty wave.

"That's all right," said he; "but somebody take away this horse before I bite him. I'm sore on that horse. Joke! Snicker!"

Bob delivered over the animal to the stableman who was approaching.

"Come up to see the tall buildings?" he quoted Baker himself.

"Not so," denied that young man. "My errand is philanthropic. I'm robin redbreast. Leaves for yours."

"Pass that again," urged Bob; "I didn't get it."

"I hear you people have locked horns with Henry Plant," said Baker.

"Well, Plant's a little on the peck," amended Welton.

"Leaves for yours," repeated the self-constituted robin redbreast. "Babes in the Woods!"

Beyond this he would vouchsafe nothing until after supper when, cigars lighted, the three of them sprawled before the fireplace in quarters.

"Now," he began, "you fellows are up against it good and plenty. You can't wish your lumber out, and that's the only feasible method unless you get a permit. Why in blazes did you make this break, anyway?"

"What break?" asked Welton.

Baker looked at him and smiled slowly.

"You don't think I own a telephone line without knowing what little birdies light on the wires, do you?"

"Does that damn operator leak?" inquired Welton placidly but with a narrowing of the eyes.

"Not on your saccharine existence. If he did, he'd be out among the scenery in two jumps. But I'm different. That's my business."

"Mighty poor business," put in Bob quietly.

Baker turned full toward him.

"Think so? You'll never get any cigars in the guessing contest unless you can scare up better ones than that. Let's get back to cases. How did you happen to make this break, anyway?"

"Why," explained Welton, "it was simply a case of build a road and a flume down a worthless mountain-side. Back with us a man builds his road where he needs it, and pays for the unavoidable damage. My head was full of all sorts of details. I went and asked Plant about it, and he said all right, go ahead. I supposed that settled it, and that he must certainly have authority on his own job."

Baker nodded several times.

"Sure. I see the point. Just the same, he has you."

"For the time being," amended Welton. "Bob's father, here, is congressman from our district in Michigan, and he'll fix the matter."

Baker turned his face to the ceiling, blew a cloud of smoke toward it, and whistled. Then he looked down at Welton.

"I suppose you know the real difficulty?" he asked.

"One thousand dollars," replied Welton promptly--"to hire extra fire-fighters to protect my timber," he added ironically.

"Well?"

"Well!" the lumberman slapped his knee. "I won't be held up in any such barefaced fashion!"

"And your congressman will pull you out. Now let me drop a few pearls of wisdom in the form of conundrums. Why does a fat man who can't ride a horse hold a job as Forest Supervisor in a mountain country?"

"He's got a pull somewhere," replied Welton.

"Bright boy! Go to the head. Why does a fat man who is hated by every mountain man, who grafts barefacedly, whose men are either loafers or discouraged, hold his job?"

"Same answer."

Baker leaned forward, and his mocking face became grave.

"That pull comes from the fact that old Gay is his first cousin, and that he seems to have some special drag with him."

"The Republican chairman!" cried Welton.

Baker leaned back.

"About how much chance do you think Mr. Orde has of getting a hearing? Especially as all they have to do is to stand pat on the record. You'd better buy your extra fire-fighters."

"That would be plain bribery," put in Bob from the bed.

"Fie, fie! Naughty!" chided Baker. "Bribery! to protect one's timber against the ravages of the devouring element! Now look here," he resumed his sober tone and more considered speech; "what else can you do?"

"Fight it," said Bob.

"Fight what? Prefer charges against Plant? That's been done a dozen times. Such things never get beyond the clerks. There's a man in Washington now who has direct evidence of some of the worst frauds and biggest land steals ever perpetrated in the West. He's been there now four months, and he hasn't even succeeded in getting a hearing yet. I tried bucking Plant, and it cost me first and last, in time, delay and money, nearly fifty thousand dollars. I'm offering you that expensive experience free, gratis, for nothing."

"Make a plain statement of the facts public," said Bob. "Publish them. Arouse public sentiment."

Baker looked cynical.

"Such attacks are ascribed to soreheads," said he, "and public sentiment isn't interested. The average citizen wonders what all the fuss is about and why you don't get along with the officials, anyway, as long as they are fairly reasonable." He turned to Welton: "How much more of a delay can you stand without closing down?"

"A month."

"How soon must your deliveries begin?"

"July first."

"If you default this contract you can't meet your notes."

"What notes?"

"Don't do the baby blue-eyes. You can't start a show like this without borrowing. Furthermore, if you default this contract, you'll never get another, even if you do weather the storm."

"That's true," said Welton.

"Furthermore," insisted Baker, "Marshall and Harding will be considerably embarrassed to fill their contracts down below; and the building operations will go bump for lack of material, if they fail to make good. You can't stand or fall alone in this kind of a game."

Welton said nothing, but puffed strongly on his cigar.

"You're still doing the Sister Anne toward Washington," said Baker, pleasantly. "This came over the 'phone. I wired Mr. Orde in your name, asking what prospects there were for a speedy settlement. There's what he says!" He flipped a piece of scratch paper over to Welton.

"Deadlock," read the latter slowly. "No immediate prospect. Will hasten matters through regular channels. Signed, Orde."

"Mr. Orde is familiar with the whole situation?" asked Baker.

"He is."

"Well, there's what he thinks about it even there. You'd better see to that fire protection. It's going to be a dry year."

"What's all your interest in this, anyway?" asked Bob.

Baker did not answer, but looked inquiringly toward Welton.

"Our interests are obviously his," said Welton. "We're the only two business propositions in this country. And if one of those two fail, how's the other to scratch along?"

"Correct, as far as you go," said Baker, who had listened attentively. "Now, I'm no tight wad, and I'll give you another, gratis. It's strictly under your hats, though. If you fellows bust, how do you think I could raise money to do business up here at all? It would hoodoo the country."

Silence fell on the three, while the fire leaped and fell and crackled. Welton's face showed still a trace of stubbornness. Suddenly Baker leaned forward, all his customary fresh spirits shining in his face.

"Don't like to take his na'ty medicine?" said he. "Well, now, I'll tell you. I know Plant mighty well. He eats out of my hand. He just loves me as a father. If I should go to him and say; 'Plant, my agile sylph, these people are my friends. Give them their nice little permit and let them run away and play,' why, he'd do it in a minute." Baker rolled his eyes drolly at Welton. "Can this be the shadow of doubt! You disbelieve my power?" He leaned forward and tapped Welton's knee. His voice became grave: "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll bet you a thousand dollars I can get your permit for you!"

The two men looked steadily into each other's eyes.

At last Welton drew a deep sigh.

"I'll go you," said he.

Baker laughed gleefully.

"It's a cinch," said he. "Now, honest, don't you think so? Do you give up? Will you give me a check now?"

"I'll give you a check, and you can hunt up a good stakeholder," said Welton. "Shall I make it out to Plant?" he inquired sarcastically.

"Make the check out to me," said Baker. "I'll just let Plant hold the stakes and decide the bet."

He rose.

"Bring out the fiery, untamed steed!" he cried. "I must away!"

"Not to-night?" cried Bob in astonishment.

"Plant's in his upper camp," said Baker, "and it's only five miles by trail. There's still a moon."

"But why this haste?"

"Well," said Baker, spreading his sturdy legs apart and surveying first one and then the other. "To tell you the truth, our old friend Plant is getting hostile about these prods from Washington, and he intimated he'd better hear from me before midnight to-day."

"You've already seen him!" cried Bob.

But Baker merely grinned.

As he stood by his horse preparing to mount, he remarked casually.

"Just picked up a new man for my land business--name Oldham."

"Never heard of him," said Welton.

"He isn't the Lucky Lands Oldham, is he?" asked Bob.

"Same chicken," replied Baker; then, as Bob laughed, "Think he's phoney? Maybe he'll take watching--and maybe he won't. I'm a good little watcher. But I do know he's got 'em all running up the street with their hats in their hands when it comes to getting results."