Part Three
Chapter XV
 

Thorne curtly explained himself to Plant as detained on clerical business. While awaiting the vouchers from Washington, he busily gathered the gossip of the place. Naturally the cattle situation was one of the first phases to come to his attention. After listening to what was to be said, he despatched a messenger back into the mountains requesting the cattlemen to send a representative. Ordinarily he would have gone to the spot himself; but just now he preferred to remain nearer the centre of Plant's activities.

Jim Pollock appeared in due course. He explained the state of affairs carefully and dispassionately. Thorne heard him to the end without comment.

"If the feed is too scarce for the number of cattle, that fact should be officially ascertained," he said finally.

"Davidson--California John--was sent back last fall to look into it. I didn't see his report, but John's a good cattleman himself, and there couldn't be no two opinions on the matter."

Thorne had been shown no copy of such a report during his official inspection. He made a note of this.

"Well," said he finally, "if on investigation I find the facts to be as you state them--and that I can determine only on receiving all the evidence on both sides--I can promise you relief for next season. The Land Office is just, when it is acquainted with the facts. I will ask you to make affidavits. I am obliged to you for your trouble in coming."

Jim Pollock made his three-day ride back more cheered by these few and tentative words than by Superintendent Smith's effusive assurances, or Plant's promises. He so reported to his neighbours in the back ranges.

Thorne established from California John the truth as to the suppressed reports.

Some rumour of all this reached Henry Plant. Whatever his faults, the Supervisor was no coward. He had always bulled things through by sheer weight and courage. If he could outroar his opponent, he always considered the victory as his. Certainly the results were generally that way.

On hearing of Thorne's activities, Plant drove down to see him. He puffed along the passageway to Thorne's room. The Inspector was pecking away at his portable typewriter and did not look up as the fat man entered.

Plant surveyed the bent back for a moment.

"Look here," he demanded, "I hear you're still investigating my district--as well as doing 'clerical work.'"

"I am," snapped Thorne without turning his head.

"Am I to consider myself under investigation?" demanded Plant truculently. To this direct question he, of course, expected a denial--a denial which he would proceed to demolish with threats and abuse.

"You are," said Thorne, reaching for a fresh sheet of paper.

Plant stared at him a moment; then went out. Next day he drove away on the stage, and was no more seen for several weeks.

This did not trouble Thorne. He began to reach in all directions for evidence. At first there came to him only those like the Pollock boys who were openly at outs with Plant, and so had nothing to lose by antagonizing him further. Then, hesitating, appeared others. Many of these grievances Thorne found to be imaginary; but in several cases he was able to elicit definite affidavits as to graft and irregularity. Evidence of bribery was more difficult to obtain. Plant's easy-going ways had made him friends, and his facile suspension of gracing regulations--for a consideration--appealed strongly to self-interest. However, as always in such cases, enough had at some time felt themselves discriminated against to entertain resentment. Thorne took advantage of this both to get evidence, and to secure information that enabled him to frighten evidence out of others.

The vouchers arrived from Washington. In them Plant's methods showed clearly. Thorne early learned that it had been the Supervisor's habit to obtain duplicate bills for everything--purchases, livery, hotels and the like. He had explained to the creditors that a copy would be necessary for filing, and of course the mountain people knew no better. Thus, by a trifling manipulation of dates, Plant had been able to collect twice over for his expenses.

"There is the plumb limit," said Martin, while running over the vouchers he had given. He showed Thorne two bearing the same date. One read:

"To team and driver to Big Baldy post office, $4."

"That item's all right," said Martin; "I drove him there myself. But here's the joke."

He handed the second bill to Thorne:

"To saddle horse Big Baldy to McClintock claim, $2."

"Why," said Martin, "when we got to Big Baldy he put his saddle on one of the driving horses and rode it about a mile over to McClintock's. I remember objecting on account of his being so heavy. Say," reflected the livery-man after a moment, "he's right out for the little stuff, ain't he? When his hand gets near a dollar, it cramps!"

In the sheaf of vouchers Thorne ran across one item repeated several hundred times in the two years. It read:

"To M. Aiken, team, $3."

Inquiry disclosed the fact that "M. Aiken," was Minnie, Plant's niece. By the simple expedient of conveying to her title in his team and buckboard, the Supervisor was enabled to collect three dollars every time he drove anywhere.

Thus the case grew, fortified by affidavits. Thorne found that Plant had been grafting between three and four thousand dollars a year.

Of course the whole community soon came to know all about it. The taking of testimony and the giving of affidavits were matters for daily discussion. Thorne inspired faith, because he had faith himself.

"I don't wonder you people have been hostile to the Forest Reserves," said he. "You can't be blamed. But it is not the Office's fault. I've been in the Land Office a great many years, and they won't stand for this sort of thing a minute. I found very much the same sort of thing in one of the reserves in Oregon, only there was a gang operating there. I got eleven convictions, and a new deal all round. The Land Office is all right, when you get to it. You'll see us in a different light, after this is over."

The mountaineers liked him. He showed them a new kink by which the lash rope of a pack could be jammed in the cinch-hook for convenience of the lone packer; he proved to be an excellent shot with the revolver; in his official work he had used and tested the methods of many wilderness travellers, and could discuss and demonstrate. Furthermore, he got results.

Austin conducted a roadhouse on the way to the Power House Number One: this in addition to his saloon in Sycamore Flats. The roadhouse was, as a matter of fact, on government land, but Austin established the shadow of a claim under mineral regulations, and, by obstructionist tactics, had prevented all the red tape from being unwound. His mineral claim was flimsy; he knew it, and everybody else knew it. But until the case should be reported back, he remained where he was. It was up to Plant; and Plant had been lenient. Probably Austin could have told why.

Thorne became cognizant of all this. He served Austin notice. Austin offered no comment, but sat tight. He knew by previous experience that the necessary reports, recommendations, endorsements and official orders would take anywhere from one to three months. By that time this inspector would have moved on--Austin knew the game. But three days later Thorne showed up early in the morning followed by a half-dozen interested rangers. In the most business-like fashion and despite the variegated objections of Austin and his disreputable satellites, Thorne and his men attached their ropes to the flimsy structure and literally pulled it to pieces from the saddle.

"You have no right to use force!" cried Austin, who was well versed in the regulations.

"I've saved my office a great deal of clerical work," Thorne snapped back at him. "Report me if you feel like it!"

The debris remained where it had fallen. Austin did not venture again--at least while this energetic youth was on the scene. Nevertheless, after the first anger, even the saloon-keeper had in a way his good word to say.

"If they's anythin' worse than a--of a--comes out in the next fifty year, he'll be it!" stormed Austin. "But, damn it," he added, "the little devil's worse'n a catamount for fight!"

Thorne was little communicative, but after he and Bob became better acquainted the Inspector would tell something of his past inspections. All up and down the Sierras he had unearthed enough petty fraud and inefficiency to send a half-dozen men to jail and to break another half-dozen from the ranks.

"And the Office has upheld me right along," said Thorne in answer to Bob's scepticism regarding government sincerity. "The Office is all right; don't make any mistake on that. It's just a question of getting at it. I admit the system is all wrong, where the complaints can't get direct to the chiefs; but that's what I'm here for. This Plant is one of the easiest cases I've tackled yet. I've got direct evidence six times over to put him over the road. He'll go behind the bars sure. As for the cattle situation, it's a crying disgrace and a shame. There's no earthly reason under the regulations why Simeon Wright should bring cattle in at all; and I'll see that next year he doesn't."

At the end of two weeks Thorne had finished his work and departed. The mountain people with whom he had come in contact liked and trusted him in spite of his brusque and business-like manners. He could shoot, pack a horse, ride and follow trail, swing an axe as well as any of them. He knew what he was talking about. He was square. The mountain men "happened around"--such of them as were not in back with the cattle--to wish him farewell.

"Good-bye, boys," said he. "You'll see me again. I'm glad to have had a chance to straighten things out a little. Don't lose faith in Uncle Sam. He'll do well by you when you attract his attention."

Fully a week after his departure Plant returned and took his accustomed place in the community. He surveyed his old constituents with a slightly sardonic eye, but had little to say.

About this time Bob moved up on the mountain. He breathed in a distinct pleasure over again finding himself among the pines, in the cool air, with the clean, aromatic woods-work. The Meadow Lake was completely surrounded by camps this year. Several canvas boats were on the lake. Bob even welcomed the raucous and confused notes of several phonographs going at full speed. After the heat and dust and brown of the lower hills, this high country was inexpressibly grateful.

At headquarters he found Welton rolling about, jovial, good-natured, efficient as ever. With him was Baker.

"Well," said Bob to the latter. "Where did you get by me? I didn't know you were here."

"Oh, I blew in the other day. Didn't have time to stop below; and, besides, I was saving my strength for your partner here." He looked at Welton ruefully. "I thought I'd come up and get that water-rights matter all fixed up in a few minutes, and get back to supper. Nothing doing!"

"This smooth-faced pirate," explained Welton, "offers to take our water if we'll pay him for doing it, as near as I can make out--that is, if we'll supply the machinery to do it with. In return he'll allow us the privilege of buying back what we are going to need for household purposes. I tell him this is too liberal. We cannot permit him to rob himself. Since he has known our esteemed fellow-citizen, Mr. Plant, he's falling into that gentleman's liberal views."

Baker grinned at his accusor appreciatively, but at the mention of Plant's name Bob broke in.

"Plant's landed," said he briefly. "They've got him. Prison bars for his."

"What?" cried Welton and Baker in a breath.

Bob explained; telling them of Thorne, his record, methods, and the definite evidence he had acquired. Long before he had finished both men relaxed from their more eager attention.

"That all?" commented Baker. "From what you said I thought he was in the bastile!"

"He will be shortly," said Bob. "They've got the evidence direct. It's an open-and-shut case."

Baker merely grinned.

"But Thorne's jugged them all up the range," persisted Bob. "He's convicted a whole lot of them--men who have been at it for years."

"H'm," said Baker.

"But how can they dodge it?" cried Bob. "They can't deny the evidence! The Department has upheld Thorne warmly."

"Sure," said Baker.

"Well," concluded Bob. "Do you mean to say that they'll have the nerve to pass over such direct evidence as that?"

"Don't know anything about it," replied Baker briefly. "I only know results when I see them. These other little grafters that your man Thorne has bumped off probably haven't any drag."

"Well, what does Plant amount to once he's exposed?" challenged Bob.

"I haven't figured it out on the Scribner scale," admitted Baker, "but I know what happens when you try to bump him. Bet you a thousand dollars I do," he shot at Welton. "It isn't the wraith-like Plant you run up against; it's interests."

"Well, I don't believe yet a great government will keep in a miserable, petty thief like Plant against the direct evidence of a man like Thorne!" stated Bob with some heat.

"Listen," said Baker kindly. "That isn't the scrap. Thorne vs. Plant--looks like easy money on Thorne, eh? Well, now, Plant has a drag with Chairman Gay; don't know what it is, but it's a good one, a peacherino. We know because we've trained some heavy guns on it ourselves, and it's stood the shock. All right. Now it's up to Chairman Gay to support his cousin. Then there's old Simeon Wright. Where would he get off at without Plant? He's going to do a little missionary work. Simeon owns Senator Barrow, and Senator Barrow is on the Ways and Means Committee, so lots of people love the Senator. And so on in all directions--I'm from Missouri. You got to show me. If it came to a mere choice of turning down Plant or Thorne, they'd turn down Plant, every time. But when it comes to a choice between Thorne and Gay, Thorne and Barrow, Thorne and Simeon Wright, Thorne and a dozen others that have their own Angel Children to protect, and won't protect your Angel Child unless you'll chuck a front for theirs--why Thorne is just lost in the crowd!"

"I don't believe it," protested Bob. "It would be a scandal."

"No, just politics," said Baker.