Part Three
Chapter XXIII
 

By end of summer California John was fairly on his road. He entered office at a time when the local public sentiment was almost unanimously against the system of Forest Reserves. The first thing he did was to discharge eight of the Plant rangers. These fell back on their rights, and California John, to his surprise, found that he could not thus control his own men. He wagged his head in his first discouragement. It was necessary to recommend to Washington that these men be removed; and California John knew well by experience what happened to such recommendations. Nevertheless he sat him down to his typewriter, and with one rigid forefinger, pecked out such a request. Having thus accomplished his duty in the matter, but without hope of results, he went about other things. Promptly within two weeks came the necessary authority. The eight ornamentals were removed.

Somewhat encouraged, California John next undertook the sheep problem. That, under Plant, had been in the nature of a protected industry. California John and his delighted rangers plunged neck deep into a sheep war. They found themselves with a man's job on their hands. The sheepmen, by long immunity, had come to know the higher mountains intimately, and could hide themselves from any but the most conscientious search. When discovered, they submitted peacefully to being removed from the Reserve. At the boundaries the rangers' power ceased. The sheepmen simply waited outside the line. It was manifestly impossible to watch each separate flock all the time. As soon as surveillance was relaxed, over the line they slipped, again to fatten on prohibited feed until again discovered, and again removed. The rangers had no power of arrest; they could use only necessary force in ejecting the trespassers. It was possible to sue in the United States courts, but the process was slow and unsatisfactory, and the damages awarded the Government amounted to so little that the sheepmen cheerfully paid them as a sort of grazing tax. The point was, that they got the feed--either free or at a nominal cost--and the rangers were powerless to stop them.

Over this problem California John puzzled a long time.

"We ain't doing any good playing hide and coop," he told Ross; "it's just using up our time. We got to get at it different. I wish those regulations was worded just the least mite different!"

He produced the worn Blue Book and his own instructions and thumbed them over for the hundredth time.

"'Employ only necessary force,'" he muttered; "'remove them beyond the confines of the reserve.'" He bit savagely at his pipe. Suddenly his tension relaxed and his wonted shrewdly humorous expression returned to his brown and lean old face. "Ross," said he, "this is going to be plumb amusing. Do you guess we-all can track up with any sheep?"

"Jim Hutchins's herders must have sneaked back over by Iron Mountain," suggested Fletcher.

"Jim Hutchins," mused California John; "where is he now? Know?"

"I heard tell he was at Stockton."

"Well, that's all right then. If Jim was around, he might start a shootin' row, and we don't want any of that."

"Well, I don't know as I'm afraid of Jim Hutchins," said Ross Fletcher.

"Neither am I, sonny," replied California John; "but this is a grand-stand play, and we got to bring her off without complications. You get the boys organized. We start to-morrow."

"What you got up your sleeve?" asked Ross.

"Never you mind."

"Who's going to have charge of the office?"

"Nobody," stated California John positively; "we tackle one thing to a time."

Next day the six rangers under command of their supervisor disappeared in the wilderness. When they reached the trackless country of the granite and snow and the lost short-hair meadows, they began scouting. Sign of sheep they found in plenty, but no sheep. Signal smokes over distant ranges rose straight up, and died; but never could they discover where the fire had been burned. Sheepmen of the old type are the best of mountaineers, and their skill has been so often tested that they are as full of tricks as so many foxes. The fires they burned left no ash. The smokes they sent up warned all for two hundred miles.

Nevertheless, by the end of three days young Tom Carroll and Charley Morton trailed down a band of three thousand head. They came upon the flock grazing peacefully over blind hillsides in the torment of splintered granite. The herders grinned, as the rangers came in sight. They had been "tagged" in this "game of hide and coop." As a matter of course they began to pack their camp on the two burros that grazed among the sheep; they ordered the dogs to round up the flock. For two weeks they had grazed unmolested, and they were perfectly satisfied to pay the inconvenience of a day's journey over to the Inyo line.

"'llo boys," said their leader, flashing his teeth at them. "'Wan start now?"

"These Jim Hutchins's sheep?" inquired Carroll.

But at that question the Frenchman suddenly lost all his command of the English language.

"They're Hutchins's all right," said Charley, who had ridden out to look at the brand painted black on the animals' flanks. "No go to-night," he told the attentive herder. "Camp here."

He threw off his saddle. Tom Carroll rode away to find California John.

The two together, with Ross Fletcher, whom they had stumbled upon accidentally, returned late the following afternoon. By sunrise next morning the flocks were under way for Inyo. The sheep strung out by the dogs went forward steadily like something molten; the sheepherders plodded along staff in hand; the rangers brought up the rear, riding. Thus they went for the marching portions of two days. Then at noon they topped the main crest at the broad Pass, and the sheer descents on the Inyo side lay before them. From beneath them flowed the plains of Owen's Valley, so far down that the white roads showed like gossamer threads, the ranches like tiny squares of green. Eight thousand feet almost straight down the precipice fell away. Across the valley rose the White Mountains and the Panamints, and beyond them dimly could be guessed Death Valley and the sombre Funeral Ranges. To the north was a lake with islands swimming in it, and above it empty craters looking from above like photographs of the topography of the moon; and beyond it tier after tier, as far as the eye could reach, the blue mountains of Nevada. A narrow gorge, standing fairly on end, led down from the Pass. Without hesitation, like a sluggishly moving, viscid brown fluid, the sheep flowed over the edge. The dogs, their flanking duties relieved by the walls of dark basalt on either hand, fell to the rear with their masters. The mountain-bred horses dropped calmly down the rough and precipitous trail.

At the end of an hour the basalt gorge opened out to a wide steep slope of talus on which grew in clumps the first sage brush of the desert. Here California John called a halt. The line of the Reserve, unmarked as yet save by landmarks and rare rough "monuments" of loose stones, lay but just beyond.

"This is as far as we go," he told the chief herder.

The Frenchman flashed his teeth, and bowed with some courtesy. "Au revoi'," said he.

"Hold on," repeated California John, "I said this is as far as we go. That means you, too; and your men."

"But th' ship!" cried the chief herder.

"My rangers will put them off the Reserve, according to regulation," stated California John.

The Frenchman stared at him.

"W'at you do?" he gasped at last. "Where we go?"

"I'm going to put you off the Reserve, too, but on the west side," said California John. The old man's figure straightened in his saddle, and his hand dropped to the worn and shiny butt of his weapon: "No; none of that! Take your hand off your gun! I got the right to use necessary force; and, by God, I'll do it!"

The herder began a voluble discourse of mingled protestations and exposition. California John cut him short.

"I know my instructions as well as you do," said he. "They tell me to put sheep and herders off the Reserve without using unnecessary force; but there ain't nothing said about putting them off in the same place!"

Ross Fletcher rocked with joy in his saddle.

"So that's what you had up your sleeve!" he fairly shouted. "Why, it's as simple as a b'ar trap!"

California John pointed his gnarled forefinger at the herder.

"Call your dogs!" he commanded sharply. "Call them in, and tie them! The first dog loose in camp will be shot. If you care for your dogs, tie them up. Now drop your gun on the ground. Tom, you take their shootin'-irons." He produced from his saddle bags several new pairs of hand-cuffs, which he surveyed with satisfaction, "This is business," said he; "I bought these on my own hook. You bet I don't mean to have to shoot any of you fellows in the back; and I ain't going to sit up nights either. Snap 'em on, Charley. Now, Ross, you and Tom run those sheep over the line, and then follow us up."

As the full meaning of the situation broke on the Frenchman's mind, he went frantic. By the time he and his herders should be released, the whole eighty-mile width of the Sierras would lie between him and his flocks. He would have to await his chance to slip by the rangers. In the three weeks or more that must elapse before he could get back, the flocks would inevitably be about destroyed. For it is a striking fact, and one on which California John had built his plan, that sheep left to their own devices soon perish. They scatter. The coyotes, bears and cougars gather to the feast. It would be most probable that the sheep-hating cattlemen of Inyo would enjoy mutton chops.

California John collected his scattered forces, delegated two men to eject the captives; and went after more sheep. He separated thus three flocks from their herders. After that the sheep question was settled; government feed was too expensive.

"That's off'n our minds," said he. "Now we'll tackle the next job."

He went at it in his slow, painstaking way, and accomplished it. Never, if he could help it, did he depend on the mails when the case was within riding distance. He preferred to argue the matter out, face to face.

"The Government prefers friends," he told everybody, and then took his stand, in all good feeling, according as the other man proved reasonable. Some of the regulations were galling to the mountain traditions. He did not attempt to explain or defend them, but simply stated their provisions.

"Now, I'm swore in to see that these are carried out," said he, "always, and if you ain't going to toe the mark, why, you see, it puts me in one hell of a hole, don't it? I ain't liking to be put in the position of fighting all my old neighbours, and I sure can't lie down on my job. It don't really mean much to you, now does it, Link? and it helps me out a lot."

"Well, I know you're square, John, and I'll do it," said the mountaineer reluctantly, "but I wouldn't do it for any other blank of a blank in creation!"

Thus California John was able, by personality, to reduce much friction and settle many disputes. He could be uncompromising enough on occasion.

Thus Win Spencer and Tom Hoyt had a violent quarrel over cattle allotments which they brought to California John for settlement. Each told a different story, so the evidence pointed clearly to neither party. California John listened in silence.

"I won't take sides," said he; "settle it for yourselves. I'd just as soon make enemies of both of you as of one."

Then in the middle of summer came the trial of it all. The Service sent notice that, beginning the following season, a grazing tax would be charged, and it requested the Supervisor to send in his estimate of grazing allotments. California John sat him down at his typewriter and made out the required list. Simeon Wright's name did not appear therein. In due time somebody wanted, officially, to know why not. California John told them, clearly, giving the reasons that the range was overstocked, and quoting the regulations as to preference being given to the small owner dwelling in or near the Forests. He did this just as a good carpenter might finish the under side of a drain; not that it would do any good, but for his own satisfaction.

"We will now listen to the roar of the lion," he told Ross Fletcher, "after which I'll hand over my scalp to save 'em the trouble of sharpening up their knives."

As a matter of fact the lion did roar, but no faintest echo reached the Sierras. For the first time Simeon Wright and the influence Simeon Wright could bring to bear failed of their accustomed effect at Washington. An honest, fearless, and single-minded Chief, backed by an enthusiastic Service, saw justice rather than expediency. California John received back his recommendation marked "Approved."

The old man tore open the long official envelope, when he received it from Martin's hand, and carried it to the light, where he adjusted precisely his bowed spectacles, and, in his slow, methodical way, proceeded to investigate the contents. As he caught sight of the word and its initials his hand involuntarily closed to crush the papers, and his gaunt form straightened. In his mild blue eye sprang fire. He turned to Martin, his voice vibrant with an emotion carefully suppressed through the nine long years of his faithful service.

"They've turned down Wright," said he, "and they've give us an appropriation. They've turned down old Wright! By God, we've got a man!"

He strode from the store, his head high. As he went up the street a canvas sign over the empty storehouse attracted his attention. He pulled his bleached moustache a moment; then removed his floppy old hat, and entered.

An old-fashioned exhorting evangelist was holding forth to three listless and inattentive sinners. A tired-looking woman sat at a miniature portable organ. At the close of the services California John wandered forward.

"I'm plumb busted," said he frankly, "and that's the reason I couldn't chip in. I couldn't buy fleas for a dawg. I'm afraid you didn't win much."

The preacher looked gloomily at a nickle and a ten-cent piece.

"Dependin' on this sort of thing to get along?" asked California John.

"Yes," said the preacher. The woman looked out of the window.

California John said no more, but went out of the building and down the street to Austin's saloon.

"Howdy, boys," he greeted the loungers and card players. "Saw off a minute. There's goin' to be a gospel meetin' right here a half-hour from now. I'm goin' to hold it and I'm goin' out now to rustle a congregation. At the close we'll take up a collection for the benefit of the church."

At the end of the period mentioned he placed himself behind the bar and faced a roomful of grinning men.

"This is serious, boys. Take off your hat, Bud. Wipe them snickers off'n your face. We're all sinners; and I reckon now's as good a time as any to realize the fact. I don't know much about the Bible; but I do recall enough to hold divine services for once, and I intend to have 'em respected."

For fifteen minutes California John conducted his services according to his notion. Then he stated briefly his cause and took up his collection.

"Nine-forty-five," said he thoughtfully, looking at the silver. He carefully extracted two nickels, and dumped the rest in his pocket. "I reckon I've earned a drink out of this," he stated; "any objections?"

There were none; so California John bought his drink and departed.

"That's all right," he told the astonished and grateful evangelist, "I had to do somethin' to blow off steam, or else go on a hell of a drunk. And it would have been plumb ruinous to do that. So you see, it's lucky I met you." The old man's twinkling and humorous blue eyes gazed quizzically at the uneasy evangelist, divided between gratitude and his notion that he ought to reprobate this attitude of mind. Then they softened. California John laid his hand on the preacher's shoulder. "Don't get discouraged," said he; "don't do it. The God of Justice still rules. I've just had some news that proves it."