Part Five
Chapter XIII
 

At noon of the second day of a journey that led him up the winding watered valleys of the lower ranges, Bob surmounted a ridge higher than the rest and rode down a long, wide slope. Here the character of the country changed completely. Scrub oaks, young pines and chaparral covered the ground. Among this growth Bob made out the ancient stumps of great trees. The ranch houses were built of sawn lumber, and possessed brick chimneys. In appearance they seemed midway between the farm houses of the older settled plains and the rougher cabins of the mountaineers.

Bob continued on a dusty road until he rode into a little town which he knew must be Durham. Its main street contained three stores, two saloons, a shady tree, a windmill and watering trough and a dozen chair-tilted loafers. A wooden sidewalk shaded by a wooden awning ran the entire length of this collection of commercial enterprises. A redwood hitching rail, much chewed, flanked it. Three saddle horses, and as many rigs, dozed in the sun.

Bob tied his saddle horse to the rail, leaving the pack animal to its own devices. Without attention to the curious stares of the loafers, he pushed into the first store, and asked directions of the proprietor. The man, a type of the transplanted Yankee, pushed the spectacles up over his forehead, and coolly surveyed his questioner from head to foot before answering.

"I see you're a ranger," he remarked drily. "Well, I wouldn't go to Samuels's if I was you. He's give it out that he'll kill the next ranger that sets foot on his place."

"I've heard that sort of talk before," replied Bob impatiently.

"Samuels means what he says," stated the storekeeper. "He drove off the last of you fellows with a shotgun--and he went too."

"You haven't told me how to get there," Bob pointed out.

"All you have to do is to turn to the right at the white church and follow your nose," replied the man curtly.

"How far is it?"

"About four mile."

"Thank you," said Bob, and started out.

The man let him get to the door.

"Say, you!" he called.

Bob stopped.

"You might be in better business than to turn a poor man out of his house and home."

Bob did not wait to hear the rest. As he untied his saddle horse, a man brushed by him with what was evidently intentional rudeness, for he actually jostled Bob's shoulder. The man jerked loose the tie rein of his own mount, leaped to the saddle, and clattered away. Bob noticed that he turned to the right at the white church.

The four-mile ride, Bob discovered, was almost straight up. At the end of it he found himself well elevated above the valley, and once more in the sugar-pine belt. The road wound among shades of great trees. Piles of shakes, gleaming and fragrant, awaited the wagon. Rude signs, daubed on the riven shingles, instructed the wayfarer that this or that dim track through the forest led to So-and-so's shake camp.

It was by now after four of the afternoon. Bob met nobody on the road, but he saw in the dust fresh tracks which he shrewdly surmised to be those of the man who had jostled him. Samuels had his warning. The mountaineer would be ready. Bob had no intention of delivering a frontal attack.

He rode circumspectly, therefore, until he discerned an opening in the forest. Here he dismounted. The opening, of course, might be only that of a natural meadow, but in fact proved to be the homestead claim of which Bob was in search.

The improvements consisted of a small log cabin with a stone and mud chimney; a log stable slightly larger in size; a rickety fence made partly of riven pickets, partly of split rails, but long since weathered and rotted; and what had been a tiny orchard of a score of apple trees. At some remote period this orchard had evidently been cultivated, but now the weeds and grasses grew rank and matted around neglected trees. The whole place was down at the heels. Tin cans and rusty baling wire strewed the back yard; an ill-cared-for wagon stood squarely in front; broken panes of glass in the windows had been replaced respectively by an old straw hat and the dirty remains of overalls. The supports of the little verandah roof sagged crazily. Over it clambered a vine. Close about drew the forest. That was it: the forest! The "homestead" was a mere hovel; the cultivation a patch; the improvements sketchy and ancient; but the forest, become valuable for lumber where long it had been considered available only for shakes, furnished the real motive for this desperate attempt to rehabilitate old and lapsed rights.

The place was populous enough, for all its squalor. A half-dozen small children, scantily clothed, swarmed amongst the tin cans; two women, one with a baby in her arms, appeared and disappeared through the low doorway of the cabin; a horse or two dozed among the trees of the neglected orchard; chickens scratched everywhere. Square in the middle of the verandah, in a wooden chair, sat an old man whom Bob guessed to be Samuels. He sat bolt upright, facing the front, his knees spread apart, his feet planted solidly. A patriarchal beard swept his great chest; thick, white hair crowned his head; bushy white brows, like thatch, overshadowed his eyes. Even at the distance, Bob could imagine the deep-set, flashing, vigorous eyes of the old man. For everything about him, save the colour of his hair and beard, bespoke great vigour. His solidly planted attitude in his chair, the straight carriage of his back, the set of his shoulders, the very poise of his head told of the power and energy of an autocrat. Across his knees rested a shotgun.

As Bob watched, a tall youth sauntered around the corner of the cabin. He spoke to the old man. Samuels did not look around, but nodded his massive head. The young man disappeared in the cabin to return after a moment, accompanied by the individual Bob had seen in Durham. The two spoke again to the old man; then sauntered off in the direction of the barn.

Bob returned, untied his horse; and, leading that animal, approached the cabin afoot. No sooner had he emerged into view when the old man arose and came squarely and uncompromisingly to meet him. The two encountered perhaps fifty yards from the cabin door.

Bob found that a closer inspection of his antagonist rather strengthened than diminished the impression of force. The old man's eyes were flashing fire, and his great chest rose and fell rapidly. He held his weapon across the hollow of his left arm, but the muscles of his right hand were white with the power of his grip.

"Get out of here!" he fairly panted at Bob. "I warned you fellows!"

Bob replied calmly.

"I came in to see if I could get to stay for supper, and to feed my horse."

At this the old man exploded in a violent rage. He ordered Bob off the place instantly, and menaced him with his shotgun. Had Bob been mounted, Samuels would probably have shot him; but the mere position of a horseman afoot conveys subtly an impression of defencelessness that is difficult to overcome. He is, as it were, anchored to the spot, and at the other man's mercy. Samuels raged, but he did not shoot.

At the sounds of altercation, however, the whole hive swarmed. The numerous children scuttled for cover like quail, but immediately peered forth again. The two women thrust their heads from the doorway. From the direction of the stable the younger men came running. One of them held a revolver in his hand.

During all this turmoil and furore Bob had stood perfectly still, saying no word. Provided he did nothing to invite it, he was now safe from personal violence. To be sure, a very slight mistake would invite it. Bob waited patiently.

He remembered, and was acting upon, a conversation he had once held with Ware. The talk had fallen on gunfighting, and Bob, as usual, was trying to draw Ware out. The latter was, also, as usual, exceedingly reticent and disinclined to open up.

"What would you do if a man got your hands up?" chaffed Bob.

Ware turned on him quick as a flash.

"No man ever got my hands up!"

"No?" said Bob, hugely delighted at the success of his stratagem. "What do you do, then, when a man gets the cold drop on you?"

But now Ware saw the trap into which his feet were leading him, and drew back into his shell.

"Oh, shoot out, or bluff out," said he briefly.

"But look here, Ware," insisted Bob, "it's all very well to talk like that. But suppose a man actually has his gun down on you. How can you 'shoot out or bluff out'?"

Ware suddenly became serious.

"No man," said he, "can hold a gun on you for over ten seconds without his eyes flickering. It's too big a strain. He don't let go for mor'n about the hundredth part of a second. After that he has holt again for another ten seconds, and will pull trigger if you bat an eyelash. But if you take it when his eyes flicker, and are quick, you'll get him!"

"What about the other way around?" asked Bob.

"I never pulled a gun unless I meant to shoot," said Ware grimly.

The practical philosophy of this Bob was now utilizing. If he had ridden up boldly, Samuels would probably have shot him from the saddle. Having gained the respite, Bob now awaited the inevitable momentary relaxing from this top pitch of excitement. It came.

"I have not the slightest intention of tacking up any notices or serving any papers," he said quietly, referring to the errand of the man whom Samuels had driven off at the point of his weapon. "I am travelling on business; and I asked for shelter and supper."

"No ranger sets foot on my premises," growled Samuels.

"Very well," said Bob, unpinning and pocketing his pine tree badge. ("Oh, I'd have died rather than do that!" cried Amy when she heard. "I'd have stuck to my guns!" "Heroic, but useless," replied her brother drily.) "I don't care whether the ranger is fed or not. But I'm a lot interested in me. I ask you as a man, not as an official."

"Your sort ain't welcome here; and if you ain't got sense enough to see it, you got to be shown!" the youngest man broke in roughly.

Bob turned to him calmly.

"I am not asking your sufferance," said he, "nor would I eat where I am not welcome. I am asking Mr. Samuels to bid me welcome. If he will not do so, I will ride on." He turned to the old man again. "Do you mean to tell me that the North End is so far behind the South End in common hospitality? We've fed enough men at the Wolverine Company in our time."

Bob let fly this shaft at a venture. He knew how many passing mountaineers paused for a meal at the cook house, and surmised it probable that at least one of his three opponents might at some time have stopped there. This proved to be the case.

"Are you with the Wolverine Company?" demanded the man who had jostled him.

"I was for some years in charge of the woods."

"I've et there. You can stay to supper," said Samuels ungraciously.

He turned sharp on his heel and marched back to the cabin, leaving Bob to follow with his horse. The two younger men likewise went about their business. Bob found himself quite alone, with only this ungracious permission to act on.

Nevertheless, quite imperturbably, Bob unsaddled, led his animal into the dark stable, threw it some of the wild hay stacked therein, washed himself in the nearby creek, and took his station on the deserted verandah. The twilight fell. Some of the children ventured into sight, but remained utterly unmoved by the young man's tentative advances. He heard people moving about inside, but no one came near him. Finally, just at dusk, the youngest man protruded his head from the doorway.

"Come to supper," said he surlily.

Bob ducked his head to enter a long, low room. Its walls were of the rough logs; its floor of hewn timbers; its ceiling of round beams on which had been thrown untrimmed slabs as a floor to the loft above. A board table stood in the centre of this, flanked by homemade chairs and stools of all varieties of construction. A huge iron cooking stove occupied all of one end--an extraordinary piece of ordnance. The light from a single glass lamp cast its feeble illumination over coarse dishes steaming with food.

Bob bowed politely to the two women, who stood, their arms crossed on their stomachs, without deigning his salutation the slightest attention. The children, of all sizes and ages, stared at him unblinking. The two men shuffled to their seats, without looking up at the visitor. Only the old man vouchsafed him the least notice....

"Set thar!" he growled, indicating a stool.

Bob found on the board that abundance and variety which always so much surprises the stranger to a Sierra mountaineer's cabin. Besides the usual bacon, beans, and bread, there were dishes of canned string-beans and corn, potatoes, boiled beef, tomatoes and pressed glass dishes of preserves. Coffee, hot as fire, and strong as lye, came in thick china cups without handles.

The meal went forward in absolute silence, which Bob knew better than to interrupt. It ended for each as he or she finished eating. The two women were left at the last quite alone. Bob followed his host to the veranda. There he silently offered the old man a cigar; the younger men had vanished.

Samuels took the cigar with a grunt of thanks, smelled it carefully, bit an inch off the end, and lit it with a slow-burning sulphur match. Bob also lit up.

For one hour and a half--two cigars apiece--the two sat side by side without uttering a syllable. The velvet dark drew close. The heavens sparkled as though frosted with light. Bob, sitting tight on what he knew was the one and only plan to accomplish his purpose, began to despair of his chance. Of his companion he could make out dimly only the white of his hair and beard, the glowing fire of his cigar. Inside the house the noises made by the inhabitants thereof increased and died away; evidently the household was seeking its slumber. A tree-toad chirped, loudest in all the world of stillness.

Suddenly, without warning, the old man scraped back his chair. Bob's heart leaped. Was his one chance escaping him? Then to his relief Samuels spoke. The long duel of silence was at an end.