Part Five
Chapter XV
 

Bob delivered his relinquishment at headquarters, and received the news.

George Pollock had been arrested for the murder of Plant, and now lay in jail. Erbe, the White Oaks lawyer, had undertaken charge of his case. The evidence was as yet purely circumstantial. Erbe had naturally given out no intimation of what his defence would be.

Then, within a week, events began to stir in Durham County. Samuels wrote a rather violent letter announcing his change of mind in regard to the relinquishment. To this a formal answer of regret was sent, together with an intimation that the matter was now irrevocable. Somebody sent a copy of the local paper containing a vituperative interview with the old mountaineer. This was followed by other copies in which other citizens contributed letters of expostulation and indignation. The matter was commented on ponderously in a typical country editorial containing such phrases as "clothed in a little brief authority," "arrogant minions of the law," and so forth. Tom Carroll, riding through Durham on business, was treated to ugly looks and uglier words. Ross Fletcher, visiting the county seat, escaped a physical encounter with belligerent members of an inflamed populace only by the exercise of the utmost coolness and good nature. Samuels moved further by petitioning to the proper authorities for the setting aside of the relinquishment and the reopening of the whole case, on the ground that his signature had been obtained by "coercion and undue influence." On the heels of this a mass meeting in Durham was called and largely attended, at which a number of speakers uttered very inflammatory doctrines. It culminated in resolutions of protest against Thorne personally, against his rangers, and his policy, alleging that one and all acted "arbitrarily, arrogantly, unjustly and oppressively in the abuse of their rights and duties." Finally, as a crowning absurdity, the grand jury, at its annual session, overstepping in its zeal the limits of its powers, returned findings against "one Ashley Thorne and Robert Orde, in the pay of the United States Government, for arbitrary exceeding of their rights and authorities; for illegal interference with the rights of citizens; for oppression," and so on through a round dozen vague counts.

All this tumult astonished Thorne.

"I had no idea this Samuels case interested them quite so much up there; nor did I imagine it possible they would raise such a row over that old long-horn. I haven't been up in that country as much as I should have liked, but I did not suspect they were so hostile to the Service."

"They always have been," commented California John.

"All this loud mouthing doesn't mean much," said Thorne, "though of course we'll have to undergo an investigation. Their charges don't mean anything. Old Samuels must be a good deal of a demagogue."

"He's got a good lawyer," stated California John briefly.

"Lawyer? Who?"

"Erbe of White Oaks."

Thorne stared at him puzzled.

"Erbe? Are you sure of that? Why, the man is a big man; he's generally a cut or so above cases of this sort--with as little foundation for them. He's more in the line of fat fees. Here's two mountain cases he's undertaken."

"I never knew Johnny Erbe to refuse any sort of case he'd get paid for," observed California John.

"Well, he's certainly raising a dust up north," said Thorne. "Every paper all at once is full of the most incendiary stuff. I hate to send a ranger up there these days."

"I reckon the boys can take care of themselves!" put in Ross Fletcher.

California John turned to look at him.

"Sure thing, Ross," he drawled, "and a first-class row between a brutal ranger--who could take care of himself--and an inoffensive citizen would read fine in print."

"That's the idea," approved Thorne. "We can't afford a row right now. It would bring matters to a head."

"There's the Harris case, and the others," suggested Amy; "what are you going to do about them, now?"

"Carry them through according to my instructions, unless I get orders to the contrary," said Thorne. "It is the policy of the Service throughout to clear up and settle these doubtful land cases. We must get such things decided. We can't stop because of a little localized popular clamour."

"Are there many such cases up in the Durham country?" asked Bob.

"Probably a dozen or so."

"Isn't it likely that those men have got behind Samuels in order to discourage action on their own cases?"

"I think there's no doubt of it," answered Thorne, "but the point is, they've been fighting tooth and nail from the start. We had felt out their strength from the first, and it developed nothing like this."

"That's where Erbe comes in," suggested Bob.

"Probably."

"It don't amount to nothin'," said California John. "In the first place, it's only the 'nesters,' [A] the saloon crowd, who are after you for Austin's case; and the usual muck of old-timers and loafers who either think they own the country and ought to have a free hand in everything just as they're used to, or who are agin the Government on general principles. I don't believe the people at Durham are behind this. I bet a vote would give us a majority right now."

"Well, the majority stays in the house, then," observed Ross Fletcher drily. "I didn't observe none of them when I walked down the street."

"I believe with John," said Thorne. "This crowd makes an awful noise, but it doesn't mean much. The Office cannot fail to uphold us. There's nobody of any influence or importance behind all this."

Nevertheless, so skilfully was the campaign conducted, pressure soon made itself felt from above. The usual memorials and largely-signed protests were drawn up and presented to the senators from California, and the representatives of that and neighbouring districts. Men in the employ of the saloon element rode actively in all directions obtaining signatures. A signature to anything that does not carry financial obligation is the easiest thing in the world to get. Hundreds who had no grievance, and who listened with the facile indignation of the ignorant to the representations of these emissaries, subscribed their names as voters and constituents to a cause whose merits or demerits were quite uncomprehended by them. The members of Congress receiving these memorials immediately set themselves in motion. As Thorne could not officially reply to what had not as yet been officially urged, his hands were tied. A clamour that had at first been merely noisy and meaningless, began now to gain an effect.

Thorne confessed himself puzzled.

"If it isn't a case of a snowball growing bigger the farther it rolls, I can't account for it," said he. "This thing ought to have died down long ago. It's been fomented very skilfully. Such a campaign as this one against us takes both ability and money--more of either than I thought Samuels could possibly possess."

In the meantime, Erbe managed rapidly to tie up the legal aspects of the situation. The case, as it developed, proved to be open-and-shut against his client, but apparently unaffected by the certainty of this, he persisted in the interposition of all sorts of delays. Samuels continued to live undisturbed on his claim, which, as Thorne pointed out, had a bad moral effect on the community.

The issue soon took on a national aspect. It began to be commented on by outside newspapers. Publications close to the administration and thoroughly in sympathy with its forest policies, began gravely to doubt the advisability of pushing these debatable claims at present.

"They are of small value," said one, "in comparison with the large public domain of which they are part. At a time when the Forest Service is new in the saddle and as yet subjected to the most violent attacks by the special interests on the floors of Congress, it seems unwise to do anything that might tend to arouse public opinion against it."

As though to give point to this, there now commenced in Congress that virulent assault led by some of the Western senators, aimed at the very life of the Service itself. Allegations of dishonesty, incompetence, despotism; of depriving the public of its heritage; of the curtailments of rights and liberties; of folly; of fraud were freely brought forward and urged with impassioned eloquence. Arguments special to cattlemen, to sheepmen, to lumbermen, to cordwood men, to pulp men, to power men were emphasized by all sorts of misstatements, twisted statements, or special appeals to greed, personal interest and individual policy. To support their eloquence, senators supposedly respectable did not hesitate boldly to utter sweeping falsehoods of fact. The Service was fighting for its very life.

Nevertheless, persistently, the officials proceeded with their investigations. Bob had conducted his campaign so skilfully against Samuels that Thorne used him further in similar matters. Little by little, indeed, the young man was withdrawn from other work. He now spent many hours with Amy in the little office going over maps and files, over copies of documents and old records. When he had thoroughly mastered the ins and outs of a case, he departed with his pack animal and saddle horse to look the ground over in person.

Since the eclat of the Samuels case, he had little hope of obtaining relinquishments, nor did he greatly care to do so. A relinquishment saved trouble in the courts, but as far as avoiding adverse public notice went, the Samuels affair showed the absolute ineffectiveness of that method. But by going on the ground he was enabled to see, with his own eyes, just what sort of a claim was in question, the improvements that had been made on it, the value both to the claimant and the Government. Through an interview he was able to gauge the claimant, to weigh his probable motives and the purity of both his original and present intentions. A number of cases thus he dropped, and that on no other than his own responsibility. They were invariably those whose issue in the courts might very well be in doubt, so that it was impossible to tell, without trying them, how the decision would jump. Furthermore, and principally, he was always satisfied that the claimant had meant well and honestly throughout, and had lapsed through ignorance, bad advice, or merely that carelessness of the letter of the legal form so common among mountaineers. Such cases were far more numerous than he had supposed. The men had, in many instances, come into the country early in its development. They had built their cabins by the nearest meadow that appealed to them; for, to all intents and purposes, the country was a virgin wilderness whose camping sites were many and open to the first comer. Only after their households had been long established as squatters did these pioneers awake to an imperfect understanding that further formality was required before these, their homes, could be legally their own. Living isolated these men, even then, blundered in their applications or in the proving up of their claims. Such might be legally subject to eviction, but Bob in his recommendations gave them the benefit of the doubt and advised that full papers be issued. In the hurried days of the Service such recommendations of field inspectors were often considered as final.

There were other cases, however, for which Bob's sympathies were strongly enlisted, but which presented such flagrant irregularities of procedure that he could not consistently recommend anything but a court test of the rights involved. To this he added a personal note, going completely into details, and suggesting a way out.

And finally, as a third class, he was able, as in Samuels's case, to declare war on behalf of the Government. Men who had already taken up all the timber claims to which they or their families were legally entitled, nevertheless added an alleged homestead to the lot. Other men were taking advantage of twists and interpretations of the law to gain possession of desirable tracts of land still included in the National Forests. These men knew the letter of the law well enough, and took pains to conform accurately to it. Their lapses were of intention. The excuses were many--so-called mineral claims, alleged agricultural land, all the exceptions to reservation mentioned in the law; the actual ends aimed at were two--water rights or timber. In these cases Bob reported uncompromisingly against the granting of the final papers. Thousands of acres, however, had been already conveyed. Over these, naturally, he had no jurisdiction, but he kept his eyes open, and accumulated evidence which might some day prove useful in event of a serious effort to regain those lands that had been acquired by provable fraud.

But on the borderland between these sharply defined classes lay many in the twilight zone. Bob, without knowing it, was to a certain extent exercising a despotic power. He possessed a latitude of choice as to which of these involved land cases should be pushed to a court decision. If the law were to be strictly and literally interpreted, there could be no doubt but that each and every one of these numerous claimants could be haled to court to answer for his short-comings. But that, in many instances, could not but work an unwarranted hardship. The expenses alone, of a journey to the state capital, would strain to the breaking point the means of some of the more impecunious. Insisting on the minutest technicalities would indubitably deprive many an honest, well-meaning homesteader of his entire worldly property. It was all very well to argue that ignorance of the law was no excuse; that it is a man's own fault if he does not fulfill the simple requirements of taking up public land. As a matter of cold fact, in such a situation as this, ignorance is an excuse. Legalizing apart, the rigid and invariable enforcement of the law can be tyrannical. Of course, this can never be officially recognized; that would shake the foundations. But it is not to be denied that the literal and universal and invariable enforcement of the minute letter of any law, no matter how trivial, for the space of three months would bring about a mild revolution. As witness the sweeping and startling effects always consequent on an order from headquarters to its police to "enforce rigidly"--for a time--some particular city ordinance. Whether this is a fault of our system of law, or a defect inherent in the absolute logic of human affairs, is a matter for philosophy to determine. Be that as it may, the powers that enforce law often find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They must take their choice between tyranny and despotism.

So, in a mild way, Bob had become a despot. That is to say, he had to decide to whom a broken law was to apply, and to whom not, and this without being given any touchstone of choice. The matter rested with his own experience, knowledge and personal judgment. Fortunately he was a beneficent despot. A man evilly disposed, like Plant, could have worked incalculable harm for others and great financial benefit to himself. That this is not only possible but inevitable is another defect of law or system. No sane man for one single instant believes that literal enforcement of every law at all times is either possible or desirable. No sane man for one single instant believes that the law can be excepted to or annulled for especial occasions without undermining the public confidence and public morals. Yet where is the middle ground?

In Bob's capacity as beneficent despot, he ran against many problems that taxed his powers. It was easy to say that Samuels, having full intention to get what he very well knew he had no right to have, and for acquiring which he had no excuse save that others were allowed to do likewise, should be proceeded against vigorously. It was likewise easy to determine that Ward, who had lived on his mountain farm, and cultivated what he could, and had himself made shakes of his timber, but who had blundered his formal processes, should be given a chance to make good. But what of the doubtful cases? What of the cases wherein apparently legality and equity took opposite sides?

Bob had adventures in plenty. For lack of a better system, he started at the north end and worked steadily south, examining with patience the pedigree of each and every private holding within the confines of the National Forests. These were at first small and isolated. Only one large tract drew his attention, that belonging to old Simeon Wright in the big meadows under Black Peaks. These meadows, occupying a wide plateau grown sparsely with lodgepole pine, covered perhaps a thousand acres of good grazing, and were held legally, but without the shadow of equity, by the old land pirate who owned so much of California. In going over both the original records, the newer geological survey maps, and the country itself, Bob came upon a discrepancy. He asked and obtained leave for a resurvey. This determined that Wright's early-day surveyor had made a mistake--no extraordinary matter in a wild country so remote from base lines. Simeon's holdings were actually just one mile farther north, which brought them to the top of a bald granite ridge. His title to this was indubitable; but the broad and valuable meadows belonged still to the Government. As the case was one of fact merely, Wright had no opportunity to contest, or to exercise his undoubtedly powerful influence. The affair served, however, to draw Bob's name and activities into the sphere of his notice.

Among the mountain people Bob was at first held in a distrust that sometimes became open hostility. He received threats and warnings innumerable. The Childs boys sent word to him, and spread that word abroad, that if this government inspector valued his life he would do well to keep off Iron Mountain. Bob promptly saddled his horse, rode boldly to the Childs' shake camp, took lunch with them, and rode back, speaking no word either of business or of threats. Having occasion to take a meal with some poor, squalid descendants of hog-raising Pike County Missourians, he detected a queer bitterness to his coffee, managed unseen to empty the cup into his canteen, and later found, as he had suspected, that an attempt had been made to poison him. He rode back at once to the cabin. Instead of taxing the woman with the deed--for he shrewdly suspected the man knew nothing of it--he reproached her with condemning him unheard.

"I'm the best friend you people have," said he. "It isn't my fault that you are in trouble with the regulations. The Government must straighten these matters out. Don't think for a minute that the work will stop just because somebody gets away with me. They'll send somebody else. And the chances are, in that case, they'll send somebody who is instructed to stick close to the letter of the law: and who will turn you out mighty sudden. I'm trying to do the best I can for you people."

This family ended by giving him its full confidence in the matter. Bob was able to save the place for them.

Gradually his refusal to take offence, his refusal to debate any matter save on the impersonal grounds of the Government servant acting solely for his masters, coupled with his willingness to take things into consideration, and his desire to be absolutely fair, won for Bob a reluctant confidence. At the north end men's minds were as yet too inflamed. It is a curious matter of flock psychology that if the public mind ever occupies itself fully with an idea, it thereby becomes for the time being blind, impervious, to all others. But in other parts of the mountains Bob was not wholly unwelcome; and in one or two cases--which pleased him mightily--men came in to him voluntarily for the purpose of asking his advice.

In the meantime the Samuels case had come rapidly to a crisis. The resounding agitation had resulted in the sending of inspectors to investigate the charges against the local officials. The first of these inspectors, a rather precise and formal youth fresh from Eastern training, was easily handled by the versatile Erbe. His report, voluminous as a tariff speech, and couched in very official language, exonerated Thorne and Orde of dishonesty, of course, but it emphasized their "lack of tact and business ability," and condemned strongly their attitude in the Durham matter. This report would ordinarily have gone no farther than the district office, where it might have been acted on by the officers in charge to the great detriment of the Service. At that time the evil of sending out as inspectors men admirably trained in theory but woefully lacking in practice and the knowledge of Western humankind was one of the great menaces to effective personnel. Fortunately this particular report came into the hands of the Chief, who happened to be touring in the West. A fuller investigation exposed to the sapient experience of that able man the gullibility of the inspector. From the district a brief statement was issued upholding the local administration.

The agitation, thus deprived of its chief hope, might very well have been expected to simmer down, to die away slowly. As a matter of fact, it collapsed. The newspaper attacks ceased; the public meetings were discontinued; the saloons and other storm centres applied their powers to a discussion of the Gans-Nelson fight. Samuels was very briefly declared a trespasser by the courts. Erbe disappeared from the case. The United States Marshal, riding up with a posse into a supposedly hostile country, found no opposition to his enforcement of the court's decree. Only old Samuels himself offered an undaunted defence, but was soon dislodged and led away by men who half-pitied, half-ridiculed his violence. The sign "Property of the U.S." resumed its place. Thorne made of the ancient homestead a ranger's post.

"It's incomprehensible as a genuine popular movement," said he on one of Bob's periodical returns to headquarters. The young man now held a commission, and lived with the Thornes when at home. "The opposition up there was so rabid and it wilted too suddenly."

"'The mutable many,'" quoted Amy.

But Thorne shook his head.

"It's as though they'd pricked a balloon," said he. "They don't love us up there, yet; but it's no worse now than it used to be here. Last week it was actually unsafe on the streets. If they were so strong for Samuels then, why not now? A mere court decision could not change their minds so quickly. I should have expected the real bitterness and the real resistence when the Marshal went up to put the old man off."

"That's the way I sized it up," admitted Bob.

"It's as if somebody had turned off the steam and the engine quit running," said Thorne, "and for that reason I'm more than ever convinced that it was a made agitation. Samuels was only an excuse."

"What for?" asked Bob.

"Struck me the same way," put in California John. "Reminded me of the war. Looked like they held onto this as a sort of first defence as long as they could, and then just abandoned it and dropped back."

"That's it," nodded Thorne. "That's my conclusion. Somebody bigger than Samuels fears investigation; and they hoped to stop our sort of investigation short at Samuels. Well, they haven't succeeded."

Amy arose abruptly and ran to her filing cases.

"That ought to be easily determined," she cried, looking over her shoulder with shining eyes. "I have the papers about all ready for the whole of our Forest. Here's a list of the private holdings, by whom held, how acquired and when." She spread the papers out on the table. "Now let's see who owns lots of land, and who is powerful enough to enlist senators, and who would fear investigation."

All four bent over the list for a few moments. Then Thorne made five dots with his pencil opposite as many names.

"All the rest are little homesteaders," said he. "One of these must be our villain."

"Or all of them," amended California John drily.

[Footnote A: "Nester"--Western term meaning squatters, small settlers--generally illegally such.]