Part Three
Chapter XIV

At Christmas Bob took a brief trip East, returning to California about the middle of January. The remainder of the winter was spent in outside business, and in preparatory arrangements for the next season's work. The last of April he returned to the lower mountains.

He found Sycamore Flats in a fever of excitement over the cattle question. After lighting his post-prandial pipe he sauntered down to chat with Martin, the lank and leisurely keeper of the livery, proprietor of the general store, and clearing house of both information and gossip.

"It looks like this," Martin answered Bob's question. "You remember Plant sent back old California John to make a report on the grazing. John reported her over-stocked, of course; nobody could have done different. Plant kind of promised to fix things up; and the word got around pretty definite that the outside stock would be reduced."

"Wasn't it?"

"Not so you'd notice. When the permits was published for this summer, they read good for the same old number."

"Then Wright's cattle will be in again this year."

"That's the worst of it; they are in. Shelby brought up a thousand head a week ago, and was going to push them right in over the snow. The feed's just starting on the low meadows in back, and it hasn't woke up a mite in the higher meadows. You throw cattle in on that mushy, soft ground and new feed, and they tromp down and destroy more'n they eat. No mountain cattleman goes in till the feed's well started, never."

"But what does Shelby do it for, then?"

Martin spat accurately at a knothole.

"Oh, he don't care. Those big men don't give a damn what kind of shape cattle is in, as long as they stay alive. Same with humans; only they ain't so particular about the staying alive part."

"Couldn't anything be done to stop them?"

"Plant could keep them out, but he won't. Jim and George Pollock, and Tom Carroll and some of the other boys put up such a kick, though, that they saw a great light. They ain't going in for a couple of weeks more."

"That's all right, then," said Bob heartily.

"Is it?" asked Martin.

"Isn't it?" inquired Bob.

"Well, some says not. Of course they couldn't be expected to drive all those cattle back to the plains, so they're just naturally spraddled out grazing over this lower country."

"Why, what becomes of the winter feed?" cried Bob aghast, well aware that in these lower altitudes the season's growth was nearly finished and the ripening about to begin.

"That's just it," said Martin; "where, oh, where?"

"Can't anything be done?" repeated Bob, with some show of indignation.

"What? This is all government land. The mountain boys ain't got any real exclusive rights there. It's public property. The regulations are pretty clear about preference being given to the small owner, and the local man; but that's up to Plant."

"It'll come pretty hard on some of the boys, if they keep on eating off their winter feed and their summer feed too," hazarded Bob.

"It'll drive 'em out of business," said Martin. "It'll do more; it'll close out settlement in this country. There ain't nothing doing but cattle, and if the small cattle business is closed up, the permanent settlement closes up too. There's only lumber and power and such left; and they don't mean settlement. That's what the Government is supposed to look out for."

"Government!" said Bob with contempt.

"Well, now, there's a few good ones, even at that," stated Martin argumentively. "There's old John, and Ross Fletcher, and one or two more that are on the square. It may be these little grafters have got theirs coming yet. Now and then an inspector comes along. He looks over the books old Hen Plant or the next fellow has fixed up; asks a few questions about trails and such; writes out a nice little recommend on his pocket typewriter, and moves on. And if there's a roar from some of these little fellows, why it gets lost. Some clerk nails it, and sends it to Mr. Inspector with a blue question mark on it; and Mr. Inspector passes it on to Mr. Supervisor for explanation; and Mr. Supervisor's strong holt is explanations. There you are! But it only needs one inspector who inspects to knock over the whole apple-cart. Once get by your clerk to your chief, and you got it."

Whether Martin made this prediction in a spirit of hope and a full knowledge, or whether his shot in the air merely chanced to hit the mark, it would be impossible to say. As a matter of fact within the month appeared Ashley Thorne, an inspector who inspected.

By this time all the cattle, both of the plainsmen and the mountaineers, had gone back. The mill had commenced its season's operations. After the routine of work had been well established, Bob had descended to attend to certain grading of the lumber for a special sale of uppers. Thus he found himself on the scene.

Ashley Thorne was driven in. He arrived late in the afternoon. Plant with his coat on, and a jovial expression illuminating his fat face, held out both hands in greeting as the vehicle came to a stop by Martin's barn. The Inspector leaped quickly to the ground. He was seen to be a man between thirty and forty, compactly built, alert in movement. He had a square face, aggressive gray eyes, and wore a small moustache clipped at the line of the lips.

"Hullo! Hullo!" roared Plant in his biggest voice. "So here we are, hey! Kind of dry, hot travel, but we've got the remedy for that."

"How are you?" said Thorne crisply; "are you Mr. Plant? Glad to meet you."

"Leave your truck," said Plant. "I'll send some one after it. Come right along with me."

"Thanks," said Thorne, "but I think I'll take a wash and clean up a bit, first."

"That's all right," urged Plant. "We can fix you up."

"Where is the hotel?" asked Thorne.

"Hotel!" cried Plant, "ain't you going to stay with me?"

"It is kind of you, and I appreciate it," said Thorne briefly, "but I never mix official business with social pleasure. This is an invariable rule and has no personal application, of course. After my official work is done and my report written, I shall be happy to avail myself of your hospitality."

"Just as you say, of course," said Plant, quite good-humouredly. To him this was an extraordinarily shrewd, grand-stand play; and he approved of it.

"I shall go to your office at nine to-morrow," Thorne advised him. "Please have your records ready."

"Always ready," said Plant.

Thorne was assigned a room at Auntie Belle's, washed away the dust of travel, and appeared promptly at table when the bell rang. He wore an ordinary business suit, a flannel shirt with white collar, and hung on the nail a wide felt hat. Nevertheless his general air was of an out-of-door man, competent and skilled in the open. His manner was self-contained and a trifle reserved, although he talked freely enough with Bob on a variety of subjects.

After supper he retired to his room, the door of which, however, he left open. Any one passing down the narrow hallway could have seen him bent over a mass of papers on the table, his portable typewriter close at hand.

The following morning, armed with a little hand satchel, he tramped down to Henry Plant's house. The Supervisor met him on the verandah.

"Right on deck!" he roared jovially. "Come in! All ready for the doctor!"

Thorne did not respond to this jocosity.

"Good morning," he said formally, and that was all.

Plant led the way into his office, thrust forward a chair, waved a comprehensive hand toward the filing cases, over the bill files, at the tabulated reports laid out on the desk.

"Go to it," said he cheerfully. "Have a cigar! Everything's all ready."

Thorne laid aside his broad hat, and at once with keen concentration attacked the tabulations. Plant sat back watching him. Occasionally the fat man yawned. When Thorne had digested the epitome of the financial end, he reached for the bundles of documents.

"That's just receipts and requisitions," said Plant, "and such truck. It'll take you an hour to wade through that stuff."

"Any objections to my doing so?" asked Thorne.

"None," replied Plant drily.

"Now rangers' reports," requested Thorne at the end of another busy period.

"What, that flapdoodle?" cried Plant. "Nobody bothers much with that stuff! A man has to write the history of his life every time he gets a pail of water."

"Do I understand your ranger reports are remiss?" insisted Thorne.

"Lord, there they are. Wish you joy of them. Most of the boys have mighty vague ideas of spelling."

At noon Thorne knocked off, announcing his return at one o'clock. Most inspectors would have finished an hour ago. At the gate he paused.

"This place belong to you or the Government?" he asked.

"To me," replied Plant. "Mighty good little joint for the mountains, ain't it?"

"Why have you a United States Forest Ranger working on the fences then?" inquired Thorne crisply.

Plant stared after his compact, alert figure. The fat man's lower jaw had dropped in astonishment. Nobody had ever dared question his right to use his own rangers as he damn well pleased! A slow resentment surged up within him. He would have been downright angry could he have been certain of this inspector's attitude. Thorne was cold and businesslike, but he had humorous wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Perhaps all this monkey business was one elaborate josh. If so it wouldn't do to fall into the trap by getting mad. That must be it. Plant chuckled a cavernous chuckle. Nevertheless he ordered his ranger to knock off fence mending for the present.

By two o'clock Thorne pushed back his chair and stretched his arms over his head. Plant laughed.

"That pretty near finishes what we have here," said he. "There really isn't much to it, after all. We've got things pretty well going. To-morrow I'll get one of the boys to ride out with you near here. If you want to take any trips back country, I'll scare up a pack."

This was the usual and never-accepted offer.

"I haven't time for that," said Thorne, "but I'll look at that bridge site to-morrow."

"When must you go?"

"In a couple of days."

Plant's large countenance showed more than a trace of satisfaction.

On leaving the Supervisor's headquarters, Thorne set off vigorously up the road. He felt cramped for exercise, and he was out for a tramp. Higher and higher he mounted on the road to the mill, until at last he stood on a point far above the valley. The creak and rattle of a wagon aroused him from his contemplation of the scene spread wide before him. He looked up to see a twelve-horse freight team ploughing toward him through a cloud of dust that arose dense and choking. To escape this dust Thorne deserted the road and struck directly up the side of the mountain. A series of petty allurements led him on. Yonder he caught a glimpse of tree fungus that interested him. He pushed and plunged through the manzanita until he had gained its level. Once there he concluded to examine a dying yellow pine farther up the hill. Then he thought to find a drink of water in the next hollow. Finally the way ahead seemed easier than the brush behind. He pushed on, and after a moment of breathless climbing reached the top of the ridge.

Here Thorne had reached a lower spur of that range on which were located both the sawmill and Plant's summer quarters. He drew a deep breath and looked about him over the topography spread below. Then he examined with an expert's eye the wooded growths. His glance fell naturally to the ground.

"Well, I'll be----" began Thorne, and stopped.

Through the pine needles at his feet ran a shallow, narrow and meandering trough. A rod or so away was a similar trough. Thorne set about following their direction.

They led him down a gentle slope, through a young growth of pines and cedars to a small meadow. The grass had been eaten short to the soil and trampled by many little hoofs. Thorne walked to the upper end of the meadow. Here he found old ashes. Satisfied with his discoveries, he glanced at the westering sun, and plunged directly down the side of the mountain.

Near the edge of the village he came upon California John. The old man had turned Star into the corral, and was at this moment seated on a boulder, smoking his pipe, and polishing carefully the silver inlay of his Spanish spade-bit. Thorne stopped and examined him closely, coming finally to the worn brass ranger's badge pinned to the old man's suspenders. California John did not cease his occupation.

"You're a ranger, I take it," said Thorne curtly.

California John looked up deliberately.

"You're an inspector, I take it," said he, after a moment.

Thorne grinned appreciation under his close-clipped moustache. This was the first time he had relaxed his look of official concentration, and the effect was most boyish and pleasing. The illumination was but momentary, however.

"There have been sheep camped at a little meadow on that ridge," he stated.

"I know it," replied California John tranquilly.

"You seem to know several things," retorted Thorne crisply, "but your information seems to stop short of the fact that you're supposed to keep sheep out of the Reserve."

"Not when they have permission," said California John.

"Permission!" echoed Thorne. "Sheep are absolutely prohibited by regulation. What do you mean?"

"What I say. They had a permit."

"Who gave it?"

"Supervisor Plant, of course."

"What for?"

California John polished his bit carefully for some moments in silence. Then he laid it one side and deliberately faced about.

"For ten dollars," said he coolly, looking Thorne in the eye.

Thorne looked back at him steadily.

"You'll swear to that?" he asked.

"I sure will," said California John.

"How long has this sort of thing gone on?"

"Always," replied the ranger.

"How long have you known about it?"

"Always," said California John.

"Why have you never said anything before?"

"What for?" countered the old man. "I'd just get fired. There ain't no good in saying anything. He's my superior officer. They used to teach me in the army that I ain't got no call to criticize what my officer does. It's my job to obey orders the best I can."

"Why do you tell me, then?"

"You're my superior officer, too--and his."

"So were all the other inspectors who have been here."

"Them--hell!" said California John.

Thorne returned to his hotel very thoughtful. It was falling dark, and the preliminary bell had rung for supper. Nevertheless he lit his lamp and clicked off a letter to a personal friend in the Land Office requesting the latter to forward all Plant's vouchers for the past two years. Then he hunted up Auntie Belle.

"I thought I should tell you that I won't be leaving my room Wednesday, as I thought," said he. "My business will detain me longer."