Part Five
Chapter XVI
 

The little council of war at once commenced an eager discussion of the names thus indicated.

"There's your own concern, the Wolverine Company," suggested Thorne. "What do you know about the way it acquired its timber?"

"Acquired in 1879," replied Amy, consulting her notes. "Partly from the Bank, that held it on mortgage, and partly from individual owners."

"Welton is no crook," struck in Bob. "Even if he'd strained the law, which I doubt; he wouldn't defend himself at this late date with any method as indirect as this."

"I think you're right on the last point," agreed Thorne. "Proceed."

"Next is the Marston N. Leavitt firm."

"They bought their timber in a lump from a broker by the name of Robinson; and Robinson got it of the old Joncal [A] Mill outfit; and heaven knows where they got it," put in California John.

"How long ago?"

"'84--the last transfer," said Amy.

"Doesn't look as though the situation ought to alarm them to immediate and violent action," observed Thorne. "Aren't there any more recent claims?" he asked Amy.

"Here's one; the Modoc Mining Company, about one thousand mineral claims, amounting to approximately 28,000 acres, filed 1903."

"That looks more promising. Patents issued in the reign of our esteemed predecessor, Plant."

"Where are most of the claims?" asked California John.

"All the claims are in the same place," replied Amy.

"The Basin!" said Bob.

Amy recited the "descriptions" within whose boundaries lay the bulk of the claims.

"That's it," said Bob.

"Is there any real mineral there?" inquired Thorne.

"Not that anybody ever heard of," said California John, who was himself an old miner; "but gold is where you find it," he added cautiously.

"How's the timber?"

"It's the best stand I've seen in the mountains," said Bob.

"Well," observed Thorne, "of course it wouldn't do to say so, but I think we've run against the source of our opposition in the Samuels case."

"That explains Erbe's taking the case," put in Bob; "he's counsel for most of these corporations."

"The fact that this is not a mineral country," continued Thorne, "together with the additional considerations of a thousand claims in so limited an area, and the recent date, makes it look suspicious. I imagine the Modoc Mining Company intends to use a sawmill, rather more than a stamp mill."

"Who are they?" asked California John.

"We must find that out. Also we must ourselves ascertain just what colour of mineral there is over there."

"That ought to be on the records somewhere already," Amy pointed out.

"Plant's records," said Thorne drily.

"I'm ashamed to say I haven't looked up the mineral lands act," confessed Bob. "How did they do it?"

"Well, it's simple enough. The company made application under the law that allows mineral land in National Forests to be 'freely prospected, located, developed and patented.' It is necessary to show evidence of 'valuable deposits.'"

"Gold and silver?"

"Not necessarily. It may be even building stone, or fine clay, limestone or slate. Then it's up to the Forest Officer to determine whether the deposits are actually 'valuable' or not. You can drive a horse and cart through the law; and it's strictly up to the Forest Officer--or has been in the past. If he reports the deposits valuable, and on that report a patent is issued, why that settles it."

"Even if the mineral is a fake?"

"A patent is a patent. The time to head off the fraud is when the application is made."

"Cannot the title be upset if fraud is clearly proved?"

"I do not see how," replied Thorne. "Plant is dead. The law is very liberal. Predetermining the value of mineral deposits is largely a matter of personal judgment. The company could, as we have seen, bring an enormous influence to bear."

"Well," said Bob, "that land will average sixty thousand feet to the acre. That's about a billion and a half feet. It's a big stake."

"If the company wasn't scared, why did they try so hard to head us off?" observed California John shrewdly.

"It will do us no harm to investigate," put in Bob, his eye kindling with eagerness. "It won't take long to examine the indications those claims are based on."

"It's a ticklish period," objected Thorne. "I hate to embarrass the Administration with anything ill-timed. We have much to do straightening out what we now have on hand. You must remember we are short of men; we can't spare many now."

"I'll tell you," suggested Amy. "Put it up to the Chief. Tell him just how the matter stands. Let him decide."

"All right; I'll do that," agreed Thorne.

In due time the reply came. It advised circumspection in the matter; but commanded a full report on the facts. Time enough, the Chief wrote, to decide on the course to be pursued when the case should be established in their own minds.

Accordingly Thorne detached Bob and Ware to investigate the mineral status of the Basin. The latter's long experience in prospecting now promised to stand the Service in good stead.

The two men camped in the Basin for three weeks, until the close of which time they saw no human being. During this period they examined carefully the various ledges on which the mineral claims had been based. Ware pronounced them valueless, as far as he could judge.

"Some of them are just ordinary quartz dikes," said he. "I suppose they claim gold for them. There's nothing in it; or if this does warrant a man developing, then every citizen who lives near rock has a mine in his back yard."

Nevertheless he made his reports as detailed as possible. In the meantime Bob accomplished a rough, or "cruiser's" estimate of the timber.

As has been said, they found the Basin now quite deserted. The trail to Sycamore Flats had apparently not been travelled since George Pollock had ridden down it to give himself up to authority. Their preliminary labours finished, the two Forest officers packed, and were on the very point of turning up the steep mountain side toward the lookout, when two horsemen rode over the flat rock.

Naturally Bob and Ware drew up, after the mountain custom, to exchange greetings. As the others drew nearer, Bob recognized in one the slanting eyeglasses, the close-lipped, gray moustache and the keen, cold features of Oldham. Ware nodded at the other man, who returned his salutation as curtly.

"You're off your beat, Mr. Oldham," observed Bob.

"I'm after a deer," replied Oldham. "You are a little off your own beat, aren't you?"

"My beat is everywhere," replied Bob carelessly.

"What devilment you up to now, Sal?" Ware was asking of the other man, a tall, loose-jointed, freckle-faced and red-haired individual with an evil red eye.

"I'm earnin' my salary; and I misdoubt you ain't," sneered the individual thus addressed.

"As what; gun man?" demanded Ware calmly.

"You may find that out sometime."

"I'm not as easy as young Franklin was," said Ware, dropping his hand carelessly to his side. "Don't make any mistakes when you get around to your demonstration."

The man said nothing, but grinned, showing tobacco-stained, irregular teeth beneath his straggling, red moustache.

After a moment's further conversation the little groups separated. Bob rode on up the trail. Ware followed for perhaps ten feet, or until out of sight behind the screen of willows that bordered the stream. Then, without drawing rein, he dropped from his saddle. The horse, urged by a gentle slap on the rump, followed in the narrow trail after Bob and the pack animal. Ware slipped quietly through the willows until he had gained a point commanding the other trail. Oldham and his companion were riding peacefully. Satisfied, Ware returned, climbed rapidly until he had caught up with his horse, and resumed his saddle. Bob had only that moment noticed his absence.

"Look here, Bob," said Ware, "that fellow with Mr. Oldham is a man called Saleratus Bill. He's a hard citizen, a gun man, and brags of eleven killin's in his time. Mr. Oldham or no one else couldn't pick up a worse citizen to go deer hunting with. When you track up with him next, be sure that he starts and keeps going before you stir out of your tracks."

"You don't believe that deer hunting lie, do you?" asked Bob.

Ware chuckled.

"I was wondering if you did," said he.

"I guess there's no doubt as to who the Modoc Mining Company is."

"Oldham?"

"No," said Bob; "Baker and the Power Company. Oldham is Baker's man."

Ware whistled.

"Well, I suppose you know what you're talking about," said he, "but it's pretty generally understood that Oldham is on the other side of the fence. He's been bucking Baker in White Oaks on some franchise business. Everybody knows that."

Bob opened his eyes. Casting his mind back over the sources of his information, he then remembered that intimation of the connection between the two men had come to him when he had been looked on as a member of the inner circle, so that all things were talked of openly before him; that since Plant's day Oldham had in fact never appeared in Baker's interests.

"He's up in this country a good deal," Bob observed finally. "What's he say is his business?"

"Why, he's in a little timber business, as I understand it; and he buys a few cattle--sort of general brokerage."

"I see," mused Bob.

He rode in silence for some time, breathing his horse mechanically every fifty feet or so of the steep trail. He was busily recalling and piecing together the fragments of what he had at the time considered an unimportant discussion, and which he had in part forgotten.

"It's a blind," he said at last; "Oldham is working for Baker."

"What makes you think that?"

"Something I heard once."

He rode on. The Basin was dropping away beneath them; the prospect to the north was broadening as peak after peak raised itself into the line of ascending vision. The pines, clinging to the steep, cast bars of shadow across the trail, which zigzagged and dodged, taking advantage of every ledge and each strip of firm earth. Occasionally they crossed a singing brook, shaded with willows and cottonwoods, with fragrant bay and alders, only to clamber out again to the sunny steeps.

Now Bob remembered and pieced together the whole. Baker had been bragging that he intended to pay nothing to the Government for his water power. Bob could almost remember the very words. "'They've swiped about everything in sight for these pestiferous reserves,'" he murmured to himself, "'but they encourage the honest prospector.... Oldham's got the whole matter ... '" and so on, in the unfolding of the very scheme by which these acres had been acquired. "Near headwaters," he had said; and that statement, combined with the fact that nothing had occurred to stir indistinct memories, had kept Bob in the dark. At the time "near headwaters" had meant to him the tract of yellow pine near the head of Sycamore Creek. So he had dismissed the matter. Now he saw clearly that a liberal construction could very well name the Basin as the headwaters of the drainage system from which Sycamore Creek drew, if not its source, at least its main volume of water. He exclaimed aloud in disgust at his stupidity; which, nevertheless, as all students of psychology know, typified a very common though curious phenomenon in the mental world. Suddenly he sat up straight in his saddle. Here, should Baker and the Modoc Mining Company prove to be one and the same, was the evidence of fraudulent intent! Would his word suffice? Painfully reconstructing the half-forgotten picture, he finally placed the burly figure of Welton. Welton was there too. His corroboration would make the testimony irrefutable.

Certainties now rushed to Bob's mind in flocks. If he had been stupid in the matter, it was evident that Baker and Oldham had not. The fight in Durham was now explained. All the demagogic arousing of the populace, the heavy guns brought to bear in the newspaper world, the pressure exerted through political levers, even the concerted attacks on the Service from the floors of Congress traced, by no great stretch of probabilities, to the efforts of the Power Company to stop investigation before it should reach their stealings. That, as California John had said, was the first defence. If all investigation could be called off, naturally Baker was safe. Now that he realized the investigation must, in the natural course of events, come to his holdings, what would be his second line?

Of course, he knew that Bob possessed the only testimony that could seriously damage him. Even Thorne's optimism had realized the difficulties of pressing to a conviction against such powerful interests without some evidence of a fraudulent intent. Could it be that the presence of this Saleratus Bill in company with Oldham meant that Baker was contemplating so sinister a removal of damaging testimony?

A moment's thought disabused him of this notion, however. Baker was not the man to resort to violence of this sort; or at least he would not do so before exhausting all other means. Bob had been, in a way, the capitalist's friend. Surely, before turning a gun man loose, Baker would have found out definitely whether, in the first place, Bob was inclined to push the case; and secondly, whether he could not be persuaded to refrain from introducing his personal testimony. The longer Bob looked at the state of affairs, the more fantastic seemed the hypothesis that the gun man had been brought into the country for such a purpose.

"Why do you suppose Oldham is up there with this Saleratus Bill?" he asked Ware at length.

"Search me!"

"Is Bill good for anything beside gun work?"

"Well," said Ware, judicially, "he sure drinks without an effort."

"I don't believe Oldham is interested in the liquor famine," laughed Bob. "Anything else?"

"They may be after deer," acknowledged Ware, reluctantly, "though I hate to think that rattlesnake is out for anything legitimate. I will say he's a good hunter; and an A1 trailer."

"Oh, he's a good trailer, is he?" said Bob. "Well, I rather suspected you'd say that. Now I know why they're up there; they want to figure out from the signs we've left just what we've been up to."

"That's easy done," remarked Ware.

This explanation fitted. Bob had been in the Basin before, but on the business of estimating government timber. Baker knew this. Now that the Forest officer had gone in for a second time, it might be possible that he was doing the same thing; or it might be equally possible that he was engaged in an investigation of Baker's own property. This the power man had decided to find out. Therefore he had sent in, with his land man, an individual expert at deducing from the half-obliterated marks of human occupation the activities that had left them. That Oldham and his sinister companion had encountered the Forest men was a sheer accident due to miscalculation.

Having worked this out to his own satisfaction, Bob knew what next to expect. Baker must interview him. Bob was sure the young man would take his own time to the matter, for naturally it would not do to make the fact of such a meeting too public. Accordingly he submitted his report to Thorne, and went on about his further investigations, certain that sooner or later he would again see the prime mover of all these dubious activities.

He was not in the least surprised, therefore, to look up when riding one day along the lonely and rugged trail that cuts across the lower canon of the River, to see Baker seated on the top of a round boulder. The incongruity, however, brought a smile to his lips. The sight of the round, smooth face, the humorous eyes, and the stout, city-fed figure of this very urban individual on a rock in a howling figure of this very urban individual on a rock in a howling wilderness, with the eternal mountains for a background, was inexpressibly comical.

"Hullo, merry sunshine!" called Baker, waving his hand as soon as he was certain Bob had seen him. "Welcome to our thriving little hamlet."

"Hullo, Baker," said Bob; "what are you doing 'way off here?"

"Just drifting down the Grand Canal and listening to the gondoliers; and incidentally, waiting for you. Climb off your horse and come up here and get a tailor-made cigarette."

"I'm on my way over to Spruce Top," said Bob, "and I've got to keep moving."

"Haste not, hump not, hustle not," said Baker, with the air of one quoting a hand-illuminated motto. "It will only get you somewhere. Come, gentle stranger, I would converse with thee; and I've come a long way to do it."

"I live nearer home than this," grinned Bob.

"I wanted to see you in your office," grinned back Baker appreciatively, "and this is strictly business."

Bob dismounted, threw the reins over his horse's head, and ascended to the top of the boulder.

"Fire ahead," said he; "I keep union hours."

[Footnote A: Pronounced Hone-kal.]