Part Five
Chapter XVIII
 

To this short and inconclusive interview, however, Baker did not fail to add somewhat through Oldham. The agent used none of the circumspection Baker had considered necessary, but rode openly into camp and asked for Bob. The latter, remembering Oldham's reputed antagonism to Baker, could not but admire the convenience of the arrangement. The lank and sinister figure of Saleratus Bill was observed to accompany that of the land agent, but the gun man, at a sign from his principal; did not dismount. He greeted no one, but sat easily across his saddle, holding the reins of both horses in his left hand, his jaws working slowly, his evil, little eyes wandering with sardonic interest over the people and belongings at headquarters. Ware nodded to him. The man's eyes half closed and for an instant the motion of his jaw quickened. Otherwise he made no sign.

Oldham drew Bob one side.

"I want to talk to you where we won't be interrupted," he requested.

"Talk on," said Bob, seating himself on a log. "The open is as good a place as another; you can see your eavesdroppers there."

Oldham considered this a moment, then nodded his head, and took his place by the young man's side.

"It's about those Modoc lands," said he.

"I suppose so," said Bob.

"Mr. Baker tells me you fully intend to prosecute a suit for their recovery."

"I believe the Government intends to do so. I am, of course, only the agent of the Government in this or any other matter."

"In other words, you have received orders to proceed?"

"I would hardly be acting without them, would I?"

"Of course; I see. Mr. Baker is sometimes hasty. Assuming that you cared to do so, is there no way you could avoid this necessity?"

"None that I can discover. I must obey orders as long as I'm a government officer."

"Exactly," said Oldham. "Now we reach the main issue. What if you were not a government officer?"

"But I am."

"Assume that you were not."

"Naturally my successor would carry out the same orders."

"But," suggested Oldham, "it might very well be that another man would not be--well, quite so qualified to carry out the case--"

"You mean I'm the only one who heard Baker say he was going to cheat the Government," put in Bob bluntly.

"You and Mr. Welton and Mr. Baker were the only ones present at a certain interview," he amended. "Now, in the event that you were not personally in charge of the case would you feel it necessary to volunteer testimony unsuspected by anybody but you three?"

"If I were to resign, I should volunteer nothing," stated Bob.

Oldham's frosty eyes gleamed with satisfaction behind their glasses.

"That's good!" he cried.

"But I have no intention of resigning," Bob concluded.

"That is a matter open to discussion," Oldham took him up. "There are a great many reasons that you have not yet considered."

"I'm ready to hear them," said Bob.

"Look at the case as it stands. In the first place, you cannot but admit that Mr. Baker and the men associated with him have done great things for this country. When they came into it, it was an undeveloped wilderness, supplying nothing of value to civilization, and supporting only a scattered and pastoral people. The valley towns went about their business on horse cars; they either paid practically a prohibitive price for electricity and gas, or used oil and candles; they drank well water and river water. The surrounding country was either a desert given over to sage brush and jack rabbits, or raised crops only according to the amount of rain that fell. You can have no conception, Mr. Orde, of the condition of the country in some of these regions before irrigation. In place of this the valley people now enjoy rapid transportation, not only through the streets of their towns, but also by trolley lines far out in all directions. They have cheap and abundant electric light and power. They possess pure drinking water. Above all they raise their certain crops irrespective of what rains the heavens may send."

Bob admitted that electricity and irrigation are good things.

"These advantages have drawn people. I am not going to bore you with a lot of statistics, but the population of all White Oaks County, for instance, is now above fifty thousand people, where before was a scant ten. But how much agricultural wealth do you suppose these people export each year? Not how much they produce, but their net exportations?"

"Give it up."

"Fifty million dollars worth! That's a marvellous per capita."

"It is indeed," said Bob.

"Now," said Oldham impressively, "that wealth would be absolutely non-existent, that development could not have taken place, did not take place, until men of Mr. Baker's genius and courage came along to take hold. I have personally the greatest admiration for Mr. Baker as a type of citizen without whom our resources and possibilities would be in the same backward condition as obtains in Canada."

"I'm with you there," said Bob.

"Mr. Baker has added a community to the state, cities to the commonwealth, millions upon millions of dollars to the nation's wealth. He took long chances, and he won out. Do not you think in return the national resources should in a measure reward him for the advantages he has conferred and the immense wealth he has developed? Mind you, Mr. Baker has merely taken advantage of the strict letter of the law. It is merely open to another interpretation. He needs this particular body of timber for the furtherance of one of his greatest quasi-public enterprises; and who has a better right in the distribution of the public domain than the man who uses it to develop the country? The public land has always been intended for the development of resources, and has always been used as such."

Oldham talked fluently and well. He argued at length along the lines set forth above.

"You have to use lubricating oil to overcome friction on a machine," he concluded. "You have to subsidize a railroad by land grants to enter a new country. By the same immutable law you must offer extraordinary inducements to extraordinary men. Otherwise they will not take the risks."

"I've nothing to do with the letter of the law," Bob replied; "only with its spirit and intention. The main idea of the mineral act is to give legitimate miners the timber they need for legitimate mining. Baker does not pretend, except officially, that he ever intends to do anything with his claims. He certainly has done a great work for the country. I'll agree to everything you say there. But he came into California worth nothing, and he is now reputed to be worth ten millions and to control vast properties. That would seem to be reward enough for almost anybody. He does not need this Basin property for any of his power projects, except that its possession would let him off from paying a very reasonable tax on the waterpower he has been accustomed to getting free. Cutting that timber will not develop the country any further. I don't see the value of your argument in the present case."

"Mr. Baker has invested in this project a great many millions of dollars," said Oldham. "He must be adequately safeguarded. To further develop and even to maintain the efficiency of what he has, he must operate to a large extent on borrowed capital. Borrowing depends on credit; and credit depends on confidence. If conditions are proved to be unstable, capital will prove more than cautious in risking itself. That is elementary. Surely you can see that point."

"I can see that, all right," admitted Bob.

"Well," went on Oldham, taking heart, "think of the responsibility you are assuming in pushing forward a mere technicality, and a debatable technicality at that. You are not only jeopardizing a great and established business--I will say little of that--but you are risking the prosperity of a whole countryside. If Mr. Baker's enterprises should quit this section, the civilization of the state would receive a serious setback. Thousands of men would be thrown out of employment, not only on the company's works, but all along the lines of its holdings; electric light and power would increase in price--a heavy burden to the consumer; the country trolley lines must quit business, for only with water-generated power can they compete with railroads at all; fertile lands would revert to desert--"

"I am not denying the value of Mr. Baker's enterprises," broke in Bob; "but what has a billion and a half of timber to do with all this?"

"Mr. Baker has long been searching for an available supply for use in the enterprises," said Oldham, eagerly availing himself of this opening. "You probably have a small idea of the immense lumber purchases necessary for the construction of the power plants, trolley lines, and roads projected by Mr. Baker. Heretofore the company has been forced to buy its timber in the open market."

"This would be cheaper," suggested Bob.

"Much."

"That would increase net profits, of course. I suppose that would result in increased dividends. Or, perhaps, the public would reap the benefit in decreased cost of service."

"Undoubtedly both. Certainly electricity and transportation would cheapen."

"The same open markets can still supply the necessary timber?"

"At practically prohibitive cost," Oldham reminded.

"Which the company has heretofore afforded--and still paid its dividends," said Bob calmly. "Well, Mr. Oldham, even were I inclined to take all you say at its face value; even were I willing to admit that unless Mr. Baker were given this timber his business would fail, the country would be deprived of the benefits of his enterprise, and the public seriously incommoded, I would still be unable to follow the logic of your reasoning. Mind you, I do not admit anything of the kind. I do not anticipate any more dire results than that the dividends will remain at their present per cent. But even supposing your argument to be well founded, this timber belongs to the people of the United States. It is part of John Jones's heritage, whether John Jones lives in White Oaks or New York. Why should I permit Jones of New York to be robbed in favour of Jones of White Oaks--especially since Jones of New York put me here to look after his interests for him? That's the real issue; and it's very simple."

"You look at the matter from a wrong point of view----" began Oldham, and stopped. The land agent was shrewd, and knew when he had come to an impasse.

"I always respect a man who does his duty," he began again, "and I can see how you're tied up in this matter. But a resignation could be arranged for very easily. Mr. Baker knows thoroughly both your ability and experience, and has long regretted that he has not been able to avail himself of them. Of course, as you realize, the great future of all this country is not along the lines even of such great industries as lumber manufacture, but in agriculture and in waterpower engineering. Here, more than anywhere else in the world, Water is King!"

A recollection tickled Bob. He laughed outright. Oldham glanced at him sharply.

"Oh, the Lucky Lands," said he at last; "I'd forgotten you had ever been there. Well, the saying is as true now as it was then. The great future for any young man is along those lines. I am sure--in fact, I am told to say with authority--that Mr. Baker would be only too pleased to have you come in with him on this new enterprise he is opening up."

"As how?"

"As stockholder to the extent of ten thousand shares preferred, and a salaried position in the field, of course. But, that is a small matter compared with the future opportunities--"

"It's cheering to know that I'm worth so much," interrupted Bob. "Shares now worth par?"

"A fraction over."

"One hundred thousand and some odd dollars," observed Bob. "It's a nice tidy bribe; and if I were any sort of a bribe taker at all, I'd surely feel proud and grateful. Only I'm not. So you might just as well have made it a million, and then I'd have felt still more set up over it."

"I hope you don't think I'm a bribe giver, either," said Oldham. "I admit my offer was not well-timed; but it has been long under contemplation, and I mentioned it as it occurred to me."

Having thus glided over this false start, the land agent promptly opened another consideration.

"Perhaps we are at fatal variance on our economics," said he; "but how about the justice of the thing? When you get right down to cases, how about the rest of them? I'll venture to say there are not two private timber holdings of any size in this country that have been acquired strictly within the letter of the law. Do you favour general confiscation?"

"I believe in the law," declared Bob, "and I do not believe your statement."

Oldham rose.

"I tell you this, young man," he said coldly: "you can prosecute the Modoc Company or not, as you please--or, perhaps, I should say, you can introduce your private testimony or not, as you please. We are reasonable; and we know you cannot control government prosecutions. But the Modoc Company intends that you play no favourites."

"I do not understand you," said Bob with equal coldness.

"If the Modoc Company is prosecuted, we will make it our business to see that every great land owner holding title in this Forest is brought into the courts for the same offence. If the letter of the law is to be enforced against us, we'll see that it is enforced against all others."

Bob bowed. "Suits me," said he.

"Does it?" sneered Oldham. He produced a bundle of papers bound by a thick elastic. "Well, I've saved you some trouble in your next case. Here are certified copies of the documents for it, copied at Sacramento, and subscribed to before a notary. Of course, you can verify them; but you'll find them accurate."

He handed them to Bob, who took them, completely puzzled. Oldham's next speech enlightened him.

"You'll find there," said the older man, tapping the papers in Bob's hand, "the documents in full relating to the Wolverine Company's land holdings, and how they were acquired. After looking them over, we shall expect you to bring suit. If you do not do so, we will take steps to force you to do so--or, failing this, to resign!"

With these words, Oldham turned square on his heel and marched to where Saleratus Bill was stationed with the horses. Bob stared after him, the bundle of papers in his hand. When Oldham had mounted, Bob looked down on these papers.

"The second line of defence!" said he.