Part Three
Chapter X
 

Baker must have won his bet, for Welton never again saw his check for one thousand dollars, until it was returned to him cancelled. Nor did Baker himself return. He sent instead a note advising some one to go over to Plant's headquarters. Accordingly Bob saddled his horse, and followed the messenger back to the Supervisor's summer quarters.

After an hour and a half of pleasant riding through the great forest, the trail dropped into a wagon road which soon led them to a fine, open meadow.

"Where does the road go to in the other direction?" Bob asked his guide.

"She 'jines onto your road up the mountain just by the top of the rise," replied the ranger.

"How did you get up here before we built that road?" inquired Bob.

"Rode," answered the man briefly.

"Pretty tough on Mr. Plant," Bob ventured.

The man made no reply, but spat carefully into the tarweed. Bob chuckled to himself as the obvious humour of the situation came to him. Plant was evidently finding the disputed right of way a great convenience.

The meadow stretched broad and fair to a distant fringe of aspens. On either side lay the open forest of spruce and pines, spacious, without undergrowth. Among the trees gleamed several new buildings and one or two old and weather-beaten structures. The sounds of busy saws and hammers rang down the forest aisles.

Bob found the Supervisor sprawled comfortably in a rude, homemade chair watching the activities about him. To his surprise, he found there also Oldham, the real-estate promoter from Los Angeles. Two men were nailing shakes on a new shed. Two more were busily engaged in hewing and sawing, from a cross-section of a huge sugar pine, a set of three steps. Plant seemed to be greatly interested in this, as were still two other men squatting on their heels close by. All wore the badges of the Forest Reserves. Near at hand stood two more men holding their horses by the bridle. As Bob ceased his interchange with Oldham, he overhead one of these inquire:

"All right. Now what do you want us to do?"

"Get your names on the pay-roll and don't bother me," replied Plant.

Plant caught sight of Bob, and, to that young man's surprise, waved him a jovial hand.

"'Bout time you called on the old man!" he roared. "Tie your horse to the ground and come look at these steps. I bet there ain't another pair like 'em in the mountains!"

Somewhat amused at this cordiality, Bob dismounted.

Plant mentioned names by way of introduction.

"Baker told me that you were with him, but not that you were on the mountain," said Bob. "Better come over and see us."

"I'll try, but I'm rushed to get back," replied Oldham formally.

"How's the work coming on?" asked Plant. "When you going to start fluming 'em down?"

"As soon as we can get our permit," replied Bob.

Plant chuckled.

"Well, you did get in a hole there, didn't you? I guess you better go ahead. It'll take all summer to get the permit, and you don't want to lose a season, do you?"

Astonished at the effrontery of the man, Bob could with difficulty control his expression.

"We expect to start to-morrow or next day," he replied. "Just as soon as we can get our teams organized. Just scribble me a temporary permit, will you?" He offered a fountain pen and a blank leaf of his notebook.

Plant hesitated, but finally wrote a few words.

"You won't need it," he assured Bob. "I'll pass the word. But there you are."

"Thanks," said Bob, folding away the paper. "You seem to be comfortably fixed here."

Plant heaved his mighty body to its legs. His fat face beamed with pride.

"My boy," he confided to Bob, laying a pudgy hand on the young man's shoulder, "this is the best camp in the mountains--without any exception."

He insisted on showing Bob around. Of course, the young fellow, unaccustomed as yet to the difficulties of mountain transportation, could not quite appreciate to the full extent the value in forethought and labour of such things as glass windows, hanging lamps, enamelled table service, open fireplaces, and all the thousand and one conveniences--either improvised or transported mule-back--that Plant displayed. Nevertheless he found the place most comfortable and attractive.

They caught a glimpse of skirts disappearing, but in spite of Plant's roar of "Minnie!" the woman failed to appear.

"My niece," he explained.

In spite of himself, Bob found that he was beginning to like the fat man. There could be no doubt that the Supervisor was a great rascal; neither could there be any doubt but that his personality was most attractive. He had a bull-like way of roaring out his jokes, his orders, or his expostulations; a smashing, dry humour; and, above all, an invariably confident and optimistic belief that everything was going well and according to everyone's desires. His manner, too, was hearty, his handclasp warm. He fairly radiated good-fellowship and good humour as he rolled about. Bob's animosity thawed in spite of his half-amused realization of what he ought to feel.

When the tour of inspection had brought them again to the grove where the men were at work, they found two new arrivals.

These were evidently brothers, as their square-cut features proclaimed. They squatted side by side on their heels. Two good horses with the heavy saddles and coiled ropes of the stockmen looked patiently over their shoulders. A mule, carrying a light pack, wandered at will in the background. The men wore straight-brimmed, wide felt hats, short jumpers, and overalls of blue denim, and cowboy boots armed with the long, blunt spurs of the craft. Their faces were stubby with a week's growth, but their blue eyes were wide apart and clear.

"Hullo, Pollock," greeted Plant, as he dropped, blowing, into his chair.

The men nodded briefly, never taking their steady gaze from Plant's face. After a due and deliberate pause, the elder spoke.

"They's a thousand head of Wright's cattle been drove in on our ranges this year," said he.

"I issued Wright permits for that number, Jim," replied Plant blandly.

"But that's plumb crowdin' of our cattle off'n the range," protested the mountaineer.

"No, it ain't," denied Plant. "That range will keep a thousand cattle more. I've had complete reports on it. I know what I'm doing."

"It'll keep them, all right," spoke up the younger, "which is saying they won't die. But they'll come out in the fall awful pore."

"I'm using my judgment as to that," said Plant.

"Yore judgment is pore," said the younger Pollock, bluntly. "You got to be a cattleman to know about them things."

"Well, I know Simeon Wright don't put in cattle where he's going to lose on them," replied Plant. "If he's willing to risk it, I'll back his judgment."

"Wright's a crowder," the older Pollock took up the argument quietly. "He owns fifty thousand head. Me and George, here, we have five hunderd. He just aims to summer his cattle, anyhow. When they come out in the fall, he will fat them up on alfalfa hay. Where is George and me and the Mortons and the Carrolls, and all the rest of the mountain folks going to get alfalfa hay? If our cattle come out pore in the fall, they ain't no good to us. The range is overstocked with a thousand more cattle on it. We're pore men, and Wright he owns half of Californy. He's got a million acres of his own without crowdin' in on us."

"This is the public domain, for all the public----" began Plant, pompously, but George Pollock, the younger, cut in.

"We've run this range afore you had any Forest Reserves, afore you came into this country, Henry Plant, and our fathers and our grandfathers! We've built up our business here, and we've built our ranches and we've made our reg'lations and lived up to 'em! We ain't going to be run off our range without knowin' why!"

"Just because you've always hogged the public land is no reason why you should always continue to do so," said Plant cheerfully.

"Who's the public? Simeon Wright? or the folks up and down the mountains, who lives in the country?"

"You've got the same show as Wright or anybody else."

"No, we ain't," interposed Jim Pollock, "for we're playin' a different game."

"Well, what is it you want me to do, anyway?" demanded Plant. "The man has his permit. You can't expect me to tell him to get to hell out of there when he has a duly authorized permit, do you?"

The Pollocks looked at each other.

"No," hesitated Jim, at last. "But we're overstocked. Don't issue no such blanket permits next year. The range won't carry no more cattle than it always has."

"Well, I'll have it investigated," promised Plant. "I'll send out a grazing man to look into the matter."

He nodded a dismissal, and the two men, rising slowly to their feet, prepared to mount. They looked perplexed and dissatisfied, but at a loss. Plant watched them sardonically. Finally they swung into the saddle with the cowman's easy grace.

"Well, good day," said Jim Pollock, after a moment's hesitation.

"Good day," returned Plant amusedly.

They rode away down the forest aisles. The pack mule fell in behind them, ringing his tiny, sweet-toned bell, his long ears swinging at every step.

Plant watched them out of sight.

"Most unreasonable people in the world," he remarked to Bob and Oldham. "They never can be made to see sense. Between them and these confounded sheepmen--I'd like to get rid of the whole bunch, and deal only with business men. Takes too much palaver to run this outfit. If they gave me fifty rangers, I couldn't more'n make a start." He was plainly out of humour.

"How many rangers do you get?" asked Bob.

"Twelve," snapped Plant.

Bob saw eight of the twelve in sight, either idle or working on such matters as the steps hewed from the section of pine log. He said nothing, but smiled to himself.

Shortly after he took his leave. Plant, his good humour entirely recovered, bellowed after him a dozen jokes and invitations.

Down the road a quarter-mile, just before the trail turned off to the mill, Bob and his guide, who was riding down the mountain, passed a man on horseback. He rode a carved-leather saddle, without tapaderos.[Footnote: Stirrup hoods] A rawhide riata hung in its loop on the right-hand side of the horn. He wore a very stiff-brimmed hat encircled by a leather strap and buckle, a cotton shirt, and belted trousers tucked into high-heeled boots embroidered with varied patterns. He was a square-built but very wiry man, with a bold, aggressive, half-hostile glance, and rode very straight and easy after the manner of the plains cowboy. A pair of straight-shanked spurs jingled at his heels, and he wore a revolver.

"Shelby," explained the guide, after this man had passed. "Simeon Wright's foreman with these cattle you been hearing about. He ain't never far off when there's something doing. Guess he's come to see about how's his fences."