Part Five
Chapter XIV
 

"What might your name be?" inquired Samuels.

"Orde."

"I heerd of you ... what might you be doing up here?"

"I'm just riding through."

"Best thing any of you can do," commented the old man grimly.

"I wish you'd tell me now why you jumped on me so this evening," said Bob.

"If you don't know, you're a fool," growled Samuels.

"I've knocked around a good deal," persisted Bob, "and I've discovered that one side always sounds good until you hear the other man's story. I've only heard one side of this one."

"And that's all you're like to hear," Samuels told him. "You don't get no evidence out of me against myself."

Bob laughed.

"You're mighty suspicious--and I don't know as I blame you. Bless your soul, what evidence do you suppose I could get from you in a case like this? You've already made it clear enough with that old blunderbuss of yours what you think of the merits of the case. I asked you out of personal interest. I know the Government claims you don't own this place; and I was curious to know why you think you do. The Government reasoning looks pretty conclusive to a man who doesn't know all the circumstances."

"Oh, it is, is it!" cried Samuels, stung to anger. "Well, what claim do you think the Government has?"

But Bob was too wily to be put in the aggressive.

"I'm not thinking; I'm asking," said he. "They say you're holding this for the timber, and never proved up."

"I took it up bony-fidy," fairly shouted Samuels. "Do you think a man plants an orchard and such like on a timber claim. The timber is worth something, of course. Well, don't every man take up timber? What about that Wolverine Company of yours? What about the Yellow Pine people? What about everybody, everywhere? Ain't I got a right to it, same as everybody else?"

He leaned forward, pounding his knee. A querulous and sleepy voice spoke up from the interior of the cabin:

"Oh, pa, for heaven's sake don't holler so!"

The old man paused in mid-career. Over the treetops the moon was rising slowly. Its light struck across the lower part of the verandah, showing clearly the gnarled hand of the mountaineer suspended above his sturdy knee; casting into dimness the silver of his massive head. The hand descended noiselessly.

"Ain't I got my rights, same as another man?" he asked, more reasonably. "Just because I left out some little piece of their cussed red-tape am I a-goin' to be turned out bag and baggage, child, kit, and kaboodle, while fifty big men steal, just plain steal, a thousand acres apiece and there ain't nothing said? Not if I know it!"

He talked on. Slowly Bob came to an understanding of the man's position. His argument, stripped of its verbiage and self-illusion, was simplicity itself. The public domain was for the people. Men selected therefrom what they needed. All about him, for fifty years, homesteads had been taken up quite frankly for the sake of timber. Nobody made any objections. Nobody even pretended that these claims were ever intended to be lived on. The barest letter of the law had been complied with.

"I've seen a house, made out'n willow branches, and out'n coal-oil cans, called resident buildin's under the act," said Samuels, "and they was so lost in the woods that it needed a compass to find 'em."

He, Samuels, on the other hand, had actually planted an orchard and made improvements, and even lived on the place for a time. Then he had let the claim lapse, and only recently had decided to resume what he sincerely believed to be his rights in the matter.

Bob did not at any point suggest any of the counter arguments he might very well have used. He listened, leaning back against the rail, watching the moonlight drop log by log as the luminary rose above the verandah roof.

"And so there come along last week a ranger and started to tack up a sign bold as brass that read: 'Property of the United States.' Property of hell!"

He ceased talking. Bob said nothing.

"Now you got it; what you think?" asked the old man at last.

"It's tough luck," said Bob. "There's more to be said for your side of the case than I had thought."

"There's a lot more goin' to be said yet," stated Samuels, truculently.

"But I'm afraid when it comes right down to the law of it, they'll decide against your claim. The law reads pretty plain on how to go about it; and as I understand it, you never did prove up."

"My lawyer says if I hang on here, they never can get me out," said Samuels, "and I'm a-goin' to hang on."

"Well, of course, that's for the courts to decide," agreed Bob, "and I don't claim to know much about law--nor want to."

"Me neither!" agreed the mountaineer fervently.

"But I've known of a dozen cases just like yours that went against the claimant. There was the Brown case in Idaho, for instance, that was exactly like yours. Brown had some money, and he fought it through up to the Supreme Court, but they decided against him."

"How was that?" asked Samuels.

Bob explained at length, dispassionately, avoiding even the colour of argument, but drawing strongly the parallel.

"Even if you could afford it, I'm almighty afraid you'd run up against exactly the same thing," Bob concluded, "and they'd certainly use the Brown case as a precedent."

"Well, I've got money!" said Samuels. "Don't you forget it. I don't have to live in a place like this. I've got a good, sawn-lumber house, painted, in Durham and a garden of posies."

"I'd like to see it," said Bob.

"Sometime you get to Durham, ask for me," invited Samuels.

"Well, I see how you feel. If I were in your fix, I'd probably fight it too, but I'm morally certain they'd get you in the courts. And it is a tremendous expense for nothing."

"Well, they've got to git me off'n here first," threatened Samuels.

Bob averted the impending anger with a soft chuckle.

"I wouldn't want the job!" said he. "But if they had the courts with them, they'd get you off. You can drive those rangers up a tree quick enough ("You know that isn't so!" cried Amy at the subsequent recital.), but this is a Federal matter, and they'll send troops against you, if necessary."

"My lawyer----" began Samuels.

"May be dead right, or he may enjoy a legal battle at the other man's expense," put in Bob. "The previous cases are all dead against him; and they're the only ammunition."

"It's a-gittin' cold," said Samuels, rising abruptly. "Let's git inside!"

Bob followed him to the main room of the cabin where the mountaineer lit a tallow candle stuck in the neck of a bottle.

"Oh, pa, come to bed!" called a sleepy voice, "and quit your palavering."

"Shet up!" commanded Samuels, setting the candle in the middle of the table, and seating himself by it. "Ain't there no decisions the other way?"

"I'm no lawyer," Bob pointed out, dropping into a stool on the other side, so that the candle stood between them, "and my opinion is of no value"--the old man grunted what might have been assent, or a mere indication of attention--"but as far as I know, there have been none. I know all the leading cases, I think" he added.

"So they can put me off, and leave all these other fellows, who are worse off than I be in keepin' up with what the law wants!" cried Samuels.

"I hope they'll begin action against every doubtful claim," said Bob soberly.

"It may be the law to take away my homestead, but it ain't justice," stated the old man.

Bob ventured his first aggressive movement.

"Did you ever read the Homestead Law?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Well, as you remember, that law states pretty plainly the purpose of the Homestead Act. It is to provide, out of the public lands, for any citizen not otherwise provided, with one hundred and sixty acres as a farm to cultivate or a homestead on which to live. When a man takes that land for any other purpose whatever, he commits an injustice; and when that land is recalled to the public domain, that injustice is righted, not another committed."

"Injustice!" challenged the old man; "against what, for heaven's sake!"

"Against the People," replied Bob firmly.

"I suppose these big lumber dealers need a home and a farm too!" sneered Samuels.

"Because they did wrong is no reason you should."

"Who dares say I done wrong?" demanded the mountaineer. "Look here! Why does the Government pick on me and try to drive me off'n my little place where I'm living, and leave these other fellows be? What right or justice is there in that?"

"I don't know the ins and out of it all," Bob reminded him. "As I said before, I'm no lawyer. But they've at least conformed with the forms of the law, as far as the Government has any evidence. You have not. I imagine that's the reason your case has been selected first."

"To hell with a law that drives the poor man off his home and leaves the rich man on his ill-got spoils!" cried Samuels.

The note in this struck Bob's ear as something alien. "I wonder what that echoes from!" was his unspoken thought. Aloud he merely remarked:

"But you said yourself you have money and a home in Durham."

"That may be," retorted Samuels, "but ain't I got as much right to the timber, I who have been in the country since '55, as the next man?"

"Why, of course you have, Mr. Samuels," agreed Bob heartily. "I'm with you there."

"Well?"

"But you've exercised your rights to timber claims already. You took up your timber claim in '89, and what is more, your wife and her brother and your oldest son also took up timber claims in '90. As I understand it, this is an old homestead claim, antedating the others."

Samuels, rather taken aback, stared uncertainly. He had been lured from his vantage ground of force to that of argument; how he scarcely knew. It had certainly been without his intention.

Bob, however, had no desire that the old man should again take his stand behind the impenetrable screen of threat and bluster from which he had been decoyed.

"We've all got to get together, as citizens, to put a stop to this sort of thing," he shifted his grounds. "I believe the time is at hand when graft and grab by the rich and powerful will have to go. It will go only when we take hold together. Look at San Francisco--" With great skill he drew the old man into a discussion of the graft cases in that city.

"Graft," he concluded, "is just the price the people are willing to pay to get their politics done for them while they attend to the pressing business of development and building. They haven't time nor energy to do everything, so they're willing to pay to have some things taken off their hands. The price is graft. When the people have more time, when the other things are done, then the price will be too high. They'll decide to attend to their own business."

Samuels listened to this closely. "There's a good deal in what you say," he agreed. "I know it's that way with us. If I couldn't build a better road with less money and less men than our Supervisor, Curtis, does, I'd lie down and roll over. But I ain't got time to be supervisor, even if anybody had time to elect me. There's a bunch of reformers down our way, but they don't seem to change Curtis much."

"Reformers are no good unless the rank and file of the people come to think the way they do," said Bob. "That's why we've got to start by being good citizens ourselves, no matter what the next man would do."

Samuels peered at him strangely, around the guttering candle. Bob allowed him no time to express his thought.

"But to get back to your own case," said he. "What gets me is why you destroy your homestead right for a practical certainty."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Why, I personally think it's a certainty that you will be dispossessed here. If you wait for the law to put you off, you'll have no right to take up another homestead--your right will be destroyed."

"What good would a homestead right do me these days?" demanded Samuels. "There's nothing left."

"New lands are thrown open constantly," said Bob, "and it's better, other things being equal, to have a right than to want it. On the other hand, if you voluntarily relinquish this claim, your right to take up another homestead is still good."

At the mention of relinquishment the old mountaineer shied like a colt. With great patience Bob took up the other side of the question. The elements of the problem were now all laid down--patriotism, the certainty of ultimate loss, the advisability of striving to save rights, the desire to do one's part toward bringing the land grabbers in line. Remained only so to apply the pressure of all these cross-motives that they should finally bring the old man to the point of definite action.

Bob wrestled with the demons of selfishness, doubt, suspicion, pride, stubbornness, anger, acquisitiveness that swarmed in the old man's spirit, as Christian with Apollyon. The labour was as great. At times, as he retraced once more and yet again ground already covered, his patience was overcome by a great weariness; almost the elemental obstinacy of the man wore him down. Then his very soul clamoured within him with the desire to cut all this short, to cry out impatiently against the slow stupidity or mulishness, or avariciousness, or whatever it was, that permitted the old man to agree to every one of the premises, but to balk finally at the conclusion. The night wore on. Bob realized that it was now or never; that he must take advantage of this receptive mood a combination of skill and luck had gained for him. The old man must be held to the point. The candle burned out. The room grew chill. Samuels threw an armful of pitch pine on the smouldering logs of the fireplace that balanced the massive cook stove. By its light the discussion went on. The red flames reflected strangely from unexpected places, showing the oddest inconsequences. Bob, at times, found himself drifting into noticing these things. He stared for a moment hypnotically on the incongruous juxtaposition of a skillet and an ink bottle. Then he roused himself with a start; for, although his tongue had continued saying what his brain had commanded it to say, the dynamics had gone from his utterance, and the old man was stirring restlessly as though about to bring the conference to a close. Warned by this incident, he forced his whole powers to the front. His head was getting tired, but he must continuously bring to bear against this dead opposition all the forces of his will.

At last, with many hesitations, the old man signed. The other two men, rubbing their eyes sleepily, put down their names as witnesses, and, shivering in the night chill, crawled back to rest, without any very clear idea of what they had been called on to do. Bob leaned back in his chair, the precious document clasped tight. The taut cords of his being had relaxed. For a moment he rested. To his consciousness dully penetrated the sound of a rooster crowing.

"Don't see how you keep chickens," he found himself saying; "we can't. Coyotes and cats get 'em. I wish you'd tell me."

Opposite him sat old Samuels, his head forward, motionless as a graven image. Between them the new candle, brought for the signing of the relinquishment, flared and sputtered.

Bob stumbled to his feet.

"Good night," said he.

Samuels neither moved nor stirred. He might have been a figure such as used to be placed before the entrances of wax works exhibitions, so still he sat, so fixed were his eyes, so pallid the texture of his weather-tanned flesh after the vigil.

Bob went out to the verandah. The chill air stirred his blood, set in motion the run-down machinery of his physical being. From the darkness a bird chirped loudly. Bob looked up. Over the still, pointed tops of the trees the sky had turned faintly gray. From the window streamed the candle light. It seemed unwontedly yellow in contrast to a daylight that, save by this contrast, was not yet visible. Bob stepped from the verandah. As he passed the window, he looked in. Samuels had risen to his feet, and stood rigid, his clenched fist on the table.

At the stable Bob spoke quietly to his animals, saddled them, and led them out. For some instinctive reason which he could not have explained, he had decided to be immediately about his journey. The cold gray of dawn had come, and objects were visible dimly. Bob led his horses to the edge of the wood. There he mounted. When well within the trees he looked back. Samuels stood on the edge of the verandah, peering out into the uncertain light of the dawn. From the darkness of the trees Bob made out distinctly the white of his mane-like hair and the sweep of his patriarchal beard. Across the hollow of his left arm he carried his shotgun.

Bob touched spur to his saddle horse and vanished in the depths of the forest.