Part Three
Chapter XXV
 

But a month later, at the summer camp, California John had opportunity to greet a visitor whom he was delighted to see. One morning a very dusty man leaned from his saddle and unlatched the gate before headquarters. As he straightened again, he removed his broad hat and looked up into the cool pine shadows with an air of great refreshment.

"Why, it's Ashley Thorne!" cried California John, leaping to his feet.

"The same," replied Thorne, reaching out his hand.

He dismounted, and Charley Morton, grinning a welcome, led his horse away to the pasture.

"I sure am glad to see you!" said California John over and over again; "and where did you come from? I thought you were selling pine lands in Oregon."

Thorne dropped into a chair with a sigh of contentment. "I was," said he, "and then they made the Transfer, so I came back."

"You're in the Service again?" cried California John delighted.

"Couldn't stay out now that things are in proper hands."

"Good! I expect you're down here to haul me over the coals," California John chuckled.

"Oh, just to look around," said Thorne, biting at his close-clipped, bristling moustache.

Next morning they began to look around. California John was overjoyed at this chance to show a sympathetic and congenial man what he had done.

"I got a trail 'way up Baldy now," he confided as they swung aboard. "It's a good trail too; and it makes a great fire lookout. We'll take a ride up there, if you have time before you go. Well, as I was telling you about that Cook cattle case--the old fellow says----"

At the end of the Supervisor's long and interested dissertation on the Cook case, Thorne laughed gently.

"Looks as if you had him," said he, "and I think the Chief will sustain you. You like this work, don't you?"

"I sure just naturally love it," replied California John earnestly. "I've got the chance now to straighten things out. What I say goes. For upward of nine years I've been ridin' around seein' how things had ought to be done. And I couldn't get results nohow. Somebody always had a graft in it that spoiled the whole show. I could see how simple and easy it would be to straighten everythin' all out in good shape; but I couldn't do nothing."

"Hard enough to hold your job," suggested Thorne.

"That's it. And everybody in the country thought I was a damn fool. Only damn fools and lazy men took rangers' jobs those days. But I hung on because I believed in it. And now I got the best job in the bunch. In place of being looked down on as that old fool John, I'm Mr. Davidson, the Forest Supervisor."

"It's a matter for pride," said Thorne non-committally.

"It isn't that," denied the old man; "I'm not proud because I'm Supervisor. Lord love you, Henry Plant was Supervisor; and I never heard tell that any one was proud of him, not even himself. But I'm proud of being a good supervisor. They ain't a sorehead near us now. Everybody's out for the Forest. I've made 'em understand that it's for them. They know the Service is square. And we ain't had fires to amount to nothing; nor trespass."

"You've done good work," said Thorne soberly; "none better. No one could have done it but you. You have a right to be proud of it."

"Then you'll be sending in a good report," said California John, solely by way of conversation. "I suspicion that last fellow gave me an awful roast."

"I'm not an inspector," replied Thorne.

"That so? You used to be before you resigned; so I thought sure you must be now. What's your job?"

"I'll tell you when we have more time," said Thorne.

For three days they rode together. The Supervisor was a very busy man. He had errands of all sorts to accomplish. Thorne simply went along. Everywhere he found good feeling, satisfactory conditions.

At the end of the third day as the two men sat before the rough stone fireplace at headquarters, Thorne abruptly broke the long silence.

"John," said he, "I've got a few things to say that are not going to be pleasant either for you or for me. Nevertheless, I am going to say them. In fact, I asked the Chief for the privilege rather than having you hear through the regular channels."

California John had not in the least changed his position, yet all at once the man seemed to turn still and watchful.

"Fire ahead," said he.

"You asked me the other day what my job is. It is Supervisor of this district. They have appointed me in your place."

"Oh, they have," said California John. He sat for some time, his eyes narrowing, looking straight ahead of him. "I'd like to know why!" he burst out at last. A dull red spot burned on each side his weather-beaten cheeks.

"I--"

"You had nothing to do with it," interrupted California John sharply; "I know that. But who did? Why did they do it? By God," he brought his fist down sharply, "I intend to get to the bottom of this! I've been in the Service since she started. I've served honest. No man can say I haven't done all my duty and been square. And that's been when every man-jack of them was getting his graft as reg'lar as his pay check. And since I've been Supervisor is the only time this Forest has ever been in any kind of shape, if I do say it myself. I've rounded her up. I've stopped the graft. I've fixed the 'soldiers.' I've got things in shape. They can't remove me without cause--I know that--and if they think I'm goin' to lie down and take it without a kick, they've got off the wrong foot good and plenty!"

Thorne sat tight, nor offered a word of comment.

"You've been an inspector," California John appealed to him. "You've been all over the country among the different reserves. Ain't mine up to the others?"

"Things are in better shape here than in any of them," replied Thorne decisively; "your rangers have more esprit de corps, your neighbours are better disposed, your fires have a smaller percentage of acreage, your trails are better."

"Well?" demanded California John.

"Well," repeated Thorne leaning forward, "just this. What's the use of it all?"

"Use?" repeated California John vaguely.

"Yes. Of what you and all the rest of us are doing."

"To save the public's property."

"That's part of it; and that's the part you've been doing superlatively well. It's the old idea, that: the idea expressed by the old name--the Forest Reserves--to save, to set aside. It seemed the most important thing. The forests had so many eager enemies--unprincipled land-grabbers and lumbermen, sheep, fire. To beat these back required all our best efforts. It was all we could think of. We hadn't time to think of anything else. It was a full job."

"You bet it was," commented the old man grimly.

"Well, it's done. There will be attempts to go back to the old state of affairs, but they will grow feebler from year to year. Things will never slide back again. The people are awake."

"Think so?" doubted California John.

"I know it. Now comes the new idea. We no longer speak of Forest Reserves, but of National Forests. We've saved them; now what are we going to do with them? What would you think of a man who cleared a 'forty', and pulled all the stumps, and then quit work?"

"I never thought of that," said California John, "but what's that got to do with these confounded whelps----"

"We are going to use these forests for the benefit of the people. We're going to cut the ripe trees and sell them to the lumber manufacturer; we're going to develop the water power; we're going to improve the grazing; we're going to study what we have here, so that by and by from our forests we will be getting the income the lumberman now gets, and will not be injuring the estate. Each Forest is going to be a big and complicated business, like railroading or wholesaling. Anybody can run Martin's store down at the Flats. It takes a trained man to oversee even a proposition like the Star at White Oaks."

"Oh, I see what you're drivin' at," said California John, "but I've made good up to now; and until they try me out, they've no right to fire me. I'll defy 'em to find anythin' crooked!!!"

"John, you're as straight as a string. But they have tried you out. Your office work has been away off."

"Oh, that! What's those dinkey little reports and monkeydoodle business amount to, anyhow? You know perfectly well it's foolish to ask a ranger to fill out an eight-page blank every time he takes a ride. What does that amount to?"

"Not very much," confessed Thorne. "But when things begin to hum around here there'll be a thousand times as much of the same sort of stuff, and it'll all be important."

"They'd better get me a clerk."

"They would get you a clerk, several of them. But no man has a right to even boss a job he doesn't himself understand. What do you know about timber grading? estimating? mapping? What is your scientific training--?"

"I've give my soul and boot-straps to this Service for nine years--at sixty and ninety a month," interrupted California John. "Part of that I spent for tools they was too stingy to give me. Now they kick me out."

"Oh, no, they don't," said Thorne. "Not any! But you agree with me, don't you, that you couldn't hold down the job?"

"I suppose so," snapped California John. "To hell with such a game. I think I'll go over Goldfield way."

"No, you won't," said Thorne gently. "You'll stay here, in the Service."

"What!" cried the old man rising to his feet; "stay here in the Service! And every mountain man to point me out as that old fool Davidson who got fired after workin' nine years like a damn ijit. You talk foolish!"

Thorne arose too, and put one hand on the old man's shoulder.

"And what about those nine years?" he asked gently. "Things looked pretty dark, didn't they? You didn't have enough to live on; and you got your salary docked without any reason or justice; and you had to stand one side while the other fellows did things dishonest and wrong; and it didn't look as though it was ever going to get better. Nine years is a long time. Why did you do it?"

"I don't know," muttered California John.

"It was just waiting for this time that is coming. In five years we'll have the people with us; we'll have Congress, and the money to do things; we'll have sawmills and water-power, and regulated grazing, and telephone lines, and comfortable quarters. We'll have a Service safeguarded by Civil Service, and a body of disciplined men, and officers as the Army and Navy have. It's coming; and it's coming soon. You've been nine years at the other thing--"

"It's humiliating," insisted California John, "to do a job well and get fired."

"You'll still have just the job you have now--only you'll be called a head-ranger."

"My people won't see it that way."

Ashley Thorne hesitated.

"No, they won't," said he frankly at last. "I could argue on the other side; but they won't. They'll think you've dropped back a peg; and they'll say to each other--at least some of them will: 'Old Davidson bit off more than he could chew; and it serves him right for being a damn fool, anyway.' You've been content to play along misunderstood for nine years because you had faith. Has that faith deserted you?"

California John looked down, and his erect shoulders shrunk forward a little.

"Old friend," said Thorne, "it's a sacrifice. Are you going to stay and help me?"

California John for a long time studied a crack in the floor. When he looked up his face was illuminated with his customary quizzical grin.

"I've sure got it on Ross Fletcher," he drawled. "I done told him I wasn't no supervisor, and he swore I was."