Part Five
Chapter IX
 

Toward the end of the season they had worked well past the main ridge on which were situated Welton's operations and the Service Headquarters. Several deep canons and rocky peaks, by Thorne's instructions, they skipped over as only remotely available as a timber supply. This brought them to the ample circle of a basin, well-timbered, wide, containing an unusual acreage of gently sloping or rolling table-land. Behind this rose the spurs of the Range. A half-hundred streams here had their origin. These converged finally in the Forks, which, leaping and plunging steadily downward from a height of over six thousand feet, was trapped and used again and again to turn the armatures of Baker's dynamos. After serving this purpose at six power houses strung down the contour line of its descent, the water was deflected into wide, deep ditches which forked and forked again until a whole plains province was rendered fertile and productive by irrigation.

All this California John, who rode over to show them some corners, explained to them. They sat on the rim of the basin overlooking it as it lay below them like a green cup.

"You can see the whole of her from here," said California John, "and that's why we use this for fire lookout. It saves a heap of riding, for let me tell you it's a long ways down this bluff. But you bet we keep a close watch on this Basin. It's the most valuable, as a watershed, of any we've got. This is about the only country we've managed to throw a fire-break around yet. It took a lot of time to do it, but it's worth while."

"This is where the Power Company gets its power," remarked Bob.

"Yes," replied California John, drily. "Which same company is putting up the fight of its life in Congress to keep from payin' anything at all for what it gets."

They gave themselves to the task of descending into the Basin by a steep and rough trail. At the end of an hour, their horses stepped from the side of the hill to a broad, pleasant flat on which the tall trees grew larger than any Bob had seen on the ridge.

"What magnificent timber!" he cried. "How does it happen this wasn't taken up long ago?"

"Well," said California John, "a good share of it is claimed by the Power Company; and unless you come up the way we did, you don't see it. From below, all this looks like part of the bald ridge. Even if a cruiser in the old days happened to look down on this, he wouldn't realize how good it was unless he came down to it--it's all just trees from above. And in those days there were lots of trees easier to come at."

"It's great timber!" repeated Bob. "That 'sugar's' eight feet through if it's an inch!"

"Nearer nine," said California John.

"It'll be some years' work to estimate and plot all this," mused Bob. "If it's so important a watershed, what do they want it plotted for? They'll never want to cut it."

"There ain't so much of it left, as you'll see when you look at your map. The Power Company owns most. Anyway, government cutting won't hurt the watershed," stated California John.

As they rode forward through the trees, a half-dozen deer jumped startled from a clump of low brush and sped away.

"That's more deer than I've seen in a bunch since I left Michigan," observed Bob.

"Nobody ever gets into this place," explained California John. "There ain't been a fire here in years, and we don't none of us have any reason to ride down. She's too hard to get out of, and we can see her too well from the lookout. The rest of the country feels pretty much the same way."

"How about sheep?" inquired Elliott.

"They got to get in over some trail, if they get in at all," California John pointed out, "and we can circle the Basin."

By now they were riding over a bed of springy pine needles through a magnificent open forest. Undergrowth absolutely lacked; even the soft green of the bear clover was absent. The straight columns of the trees rose grandly from a swept floor. Only where tiny streams trickled and sang through rocks and shallow courses, grew ferns and the huge leaves of the saxifrage. In this temple-like austerity dwelt a silence unusual to the Sierra forests. The lack of undergrowth and younger trees implied a scarcity of insects; and this condition meant an equal scarcity of birds. Only the creepers and the great pileated woodpeckers seemed to inhabit these truly cloistral shades. The breeze passed through branches too elevated to permit its whisperings to be heard. The very sound of the horses' hoofs was muffled in the thick carpet of pine needles.

California John led them sharp to the right, however, and in a few moments they emerged to cheerful sunlight, alders, young pines among the old, a leaping flashing stream of some size, and multitudes of birds, squirrels, insects and butterflies.

"There's a meadow, and a good camping place just up-stream," said he. "It's easy riding. You'd better spread your blankets there. Now, here's the corner to 34. We reestablished it four years ago, so as to have something to go by in this country. You can find your way about from there. That bold cliff of rock you see just through the trees there you can climb. From the top you can make out the lookout. If you're wanted at headquarters we'll hang out a signal. That will save a hard ride down. Let's see; how long you got grub for?"

"I guess there's enough to last us ten days or so," replied Elliott.

"Well, if you keep down this stream until you strike a big bald slide rock, you'll run into an old trail that takes you to the Flats. It's pretty old, and it ain't blazed, but you can make it out if you'll sort of keep track of the country. It ain't been used for years."

California John, anxious to make a start at the hard climb, now said good-bye and started back. Bob and Elliott, their pack horse following, rode up the flat through which ran the river. They soon found the meadow. It proved to be a beautiful spot, surrounded by cedars, warm with the sun, bright with colour, alive with birds. A fringe of azaleas, cottonwoods and quaking asps screened it completely from all that lay outside its charmed circle. A cheerful blue sky spread its canopy overhead. Here Bob and Elliott turned loose their horses and made their camp. After lunch they lay on their backs and smoked. Through a notch in the trees showed a very white mountain against a very blue sky. The sun warmed them gratefully. Birds sang. Squirrels scampered. Their horses stood dozing, ears and head down-drooped, eyes half-closed, one hind leg tucked up.

"Confound it!" cried Elliott suddenly, following his unspoken thought. "I feel like a bad little boy stealing jam! By night I'll be scared. If those woods over behind that screen aren't full of large, dignified gods that disapprove of me being so cheerful and contented and light-minded and frivolous, I miss my guess!"

"Same here!" said Bob with, a short laugh. "Let's get busy."

They started out that very afternoon from the corner California John had showed them. It took all that day and most of the following to define and blaze the boundaries of the first tract they intended to estimate. In the accomplishment of this they found nothing out of the ordinary; but when they began to move forward across the forty, they were soon brought to a halt by the unexpected.

"Look here!" Bob shouted to his companion; "here's a brand new corner away off the line."

Elliott came over. Bob showed him a stake set neatly in a pile of rocks.

"It's not a very old one, either," said Bob. "Now what do you make of that?"

Elliott had been spying about him.

"There's another just like it over on the hill," said he. "I should call it the stakes of a mining claim. There ought to be a notice somewhere."

They looked about and soon came across the notice in question. It was made out in the name of a man neither Bob nor Elliott had ever heard of before.

"I suppose that's his ledge," remarked Elliott, kicking a little outcrop, "but it looks like mighty slim mining to me!"

They proceeded with their estimating. In due time they came upon another mining claim, and then a third.

"This is getting funny!" remarked Elliott. "Looks as though somebody expected to make a strike for fair. More timber than mineral here, I should say."

"That's it!" cried Bob, slapping his leg; "I'd just about forgotten! This must be what Baker was talking about one evening over at camp. He had some scheme for getting some timber and water rights somewhere under the mineral act. I didn't pay so very much attention to it at the time, and it had slipped my mind. But this must be it!"

"Do you mean to say that any man was going to take this beautiful timber away from us on that kind of a technicality?"

"I believe that's just what he did."

Two days later Elliott straightened his back after a squint through the compass sights to exclaim:

"I wish we had a dog!"

"Why?" laughed Bob. "Can't you eat your share?"

"I've a feeling that somebody's hanging around these woods; I've had it ever since we got here. And just now while I was looking through the sights I thought I saw something--you know how the sights will concentrate your gaze."

"It's these big woods," said Bob; "I've had the same hunch before. Besides, you can easily look for tracks along your line of sights."

They did so, but found nothing.

"But among these rocks a man needn't leave any tracks if he didn't want to," Elliott pointed out.

"The bogy-man's after you," said Bob.

Elliott laughed. Nevertheless, as the work progressed, from time to time he would freeze to an attitude of listening.

"It's like feeling that there's somebody else in a dark room with you," he told Bob.

"You'll end by giving me the willy-willies, too," complained Bob. "I'm beginning to feel the same way. Quit it!"

By the end of the week it became necessary to go to town after more supplies. Bob volunteered. He saddled his riding horse and the pack animal, and set forth. Following California John's directions he traced the length of the river through the basin to the bald rock where the old trail was said to begin. Here he anticipated some difficulty in picking up the trail, and more in following it. To his surprise he ran immediately into a well-defined path.

"Why, this is as plain as a strip of carpet!" muttered

Bob to himself. "If this is his idea of a dim trail, I'd like to see a good one!"

He had not ridden far, however, before, in crossing a tiny trickle of water, he could not fail to notice a clear-cut, recent hoof print. The mark was that of a barefoot horse. Bob stared at it.

"Now if I were real good," he reflected, "like old what-you-may-call-him--the Arabian Sherlock Holmes--I'd be able to tell whether this horse was loose and climbing for pasture, or carrying a rider, and if so, whether the rider had ever had his teeth filled. There's been a lot of travel on this trail, anyway. I wonder where it all went to?" He paused irresolutely. "It isn't more than two jumps back to the rock," he decided; "I'll just find out what direction they take anyway."

Accordingly he retraced his steps to the bald rock, and commenced an examination of its circumference to determine where the trail led away. He found no such exit. Save from the direction of his own camp the way was closed either by precipitous sides or dense brush. The conclusion was unavoidable that those who had travelled the trail, had either ended their journeys at the bald rock or actually taken to the bed of the river.

"Well," concluded Bob, "I'm enough of a sleuth to see that that barefoot horse had a rider and wasn't just looking pasture. No animal in its senses would hike uphill and then hike down again, or wade belly deep up a stream."

Puzzling over this mystery, he again took his way down the trail. He found it easy to follow, for it had been considerably travelled. In some places the brush had been cut back to open easier passage. Examining these cuttings, Bob found their raw ends only slightly weathered. All this might have been done by the men who had staked the mineral claims, to be sure, but even then Bob found it difficult to reconcile all the facts. In the first place, the trail had indubitably been much used since the time the claims were staked. In the second place, if the prospector had wished to conceal anything, it should have been the fact of his going to the Basin at all, not his whereabouts after arriving there. In other words, if desiring to keep his presence secret, he would have blinded the beginning of the trail rather than its end.

He kept a sharp lookout. Near the entrance to the canon he managed to discover another clear print of the barefoot horse, but headed the other way. Clearly the rider had returned. Bob had hunted deer enough to recognize that the track had been made within the last twenty-four hours.

At Sycamore Flats he was treated to further surprises. Martin, of whom he bought his supplies, at first greeted him with customary joviality.

"Hullo! hullo!" he cried; "quite a stranger! Out in camp, eh?"

"Yes," said Bob, "they've got us working for a change."

"Where you located?"

"We're estimating timber up in the Basin," replied Bob.

The silence that followed was so intense that Bob looked up from the bag he was tying. He met Martin's eyes fixed on him.

"The Basin," repeated Martin slowly, at last. "Since when?"

"About ten days."

"We! Who's we?"

"Elliott and I," answered Bob, surprised. "Why?"

Martin's gaze shifted. He plainly hesitated for a next remark.

"How'd you like it there?" he asked lamely, at length. "I thought none of you fellows ever went there."

"Fine timber," answered Bob, cheerfully. "We don't usually. Somebody does though. California John told me that trail was old and out of use; but it's been used a lot. Who gets up there?"

"The boys drive in some cattle occasionally," replied Martin, with an effort.

Bob stared in surprise. He knew this was not so, and started to speak, but thought better of it. After he had left the store, he looked back. Martin was gazing after him, a frown between his brows.

Before he left town a half-dozen of the mountain men had asked him, with an obvious attempt to make the question casual, how he liked the Basin, how long he thought his work would keep him there. Each, as he turned away, followed him with that long, speculative, brooding look. Always, heretofore, his relations with these mountain people had been easy, sympathetic and cordial. Now all at once, without reason, they held him at arm's length and regarded him with suspicious if not hostile eyes.

Puzzling over this he rode back up the road past the Power House. Thence issued Oldham to hail him. He pulled up.

"I hear you're estimating the timber in the Basin," said the gray man, with more appearance of disturbance than Bob had ever seen him display.

Bob acknowledged the accuracy of his statement.

"Indeed!" said Oldham, pulling at his clipped moustache, and after a little, "Indeed!" he repeated.

So the news had run ahead of him. Bob began to think the news important, but for some reason at which he could not as yet guess. This conviction was strengthened by the fact that from the two mountain cabins he passed on his way to the beginning of the trail, men lounged out to talk with him, and in each case the question, craftily rendered casual, was put to him as to his business in the Basin. Before one of these cabins stood a sweating horse.

"Look here," he demanded of the Carrolls, "why all this interest about our being in the Basin? Every man-jack asks me. What's the point?"

Old man Carroll stroked his long beard.

"Do they so?" he drawled comfortably. "Well, I reckon little things make news, as they say, when you're in a wild country. They ain't been no work done in the Basin for so long that we're all just nat'rally interested; that's all."

He looked Bob tranquilly in the eye with the limpid gaze of innocence before which Bob's scrutiny fell abashed. For a while his suspicions of anything unusual were almost lulled; the countryside was proverbially curious of anything out of the course of events. Then, from a point midway up the steep trail, he just happened to look back, and just happened through an extraordinary combination of openings to catch a glimpse of a rider on the trail. The man was far below. Bob watched a long time, his eye fixed on another opening. Nothing appeared. From somewhere in the canon a coyote shrilled. Another answered him from up the mountain. A moment later Bob again saw the rider through the same opening as before, but this time descending.

"A signal!" he exclaimed, in reference to the coyote howls.

On arriving at the bare rock, he dismounted and hastily looked it over on all sides. Near the stream it had been splashed. A tiny eddy out of reach of the current still held mud in suspension.