The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
This advice seemed so good that Bob acted upon it at his earliest opportunity. He found Welton riding his old brindle mule in from the bull donkey where he had been inspecting the work. The lumberman's red, jolly face lit up with a smile of real affection as he recognized Bob, an expression quickly changed, however, as he caught sight of the young man's countenance.
"What's up, Bobby?" he inquired with concern; "anything happened?"
"Nothing yet; but I want to talk with you."
Welton immediately dismounted, with the laborious clumsiness of the man brought up to other means of locomotion, tied Jane to a tree, and threw himself down at the foot of a tall pine.
"Let's have it," said he.
"There have come into my hands some documents," said Bob, "that embarrass me a great deal. Here they are."
He handed them to Welton. The lumberman ran them through in silence.
"Well," he commented cheerfully, "they seem to be all right. What's the matter?"
"The matter is with the title to the land," said Bob.
Welton looked the list of records over more carefully.
"I'm no lawyer," he confessed at last; "but it don't need a lawyer to see that this is all regular enough."
"Have you read the findings of the commission?"
"That stuff? Sure! That don't amount to anything. It's merely an expression of opinion; and mighty poor opinion at that."
"Don't you see what I'm up against?" insisted Bob. "It will be in my line of duty to open suit against the Wolverine Company for recovery of those lands."
"Suit!" echoed Welton. "You talk foolish, Bob. This company has owned these lands for nearly thirty years, and paid taxes on them. The records are all straight, and the titles clear."
"It begins to look as if the lands were taken up contrary to law," insisted Bob; "and, if so, I'll be called upon to prosecute." "Contrary to your grandmother," said Welton contemptuously. "Some of your young squirts of lawyers have been reading their little books. If these lands were taken up contrary to law, why so were every other timber lands in the state."
"That may be true, also," said Bob. "I don't know."
"Well, will you tell me what's wrong with them?" asked Welton.
"It appears as though the lands were 'colonized,'" said Bob; "or, at least, such of them as were not bought from the bank."
"I guess you boys have a new brand of slang," confessed Welton.
"Why, I mean the tract was taken direct from many small holders in hundred-and-sixty-acre lots," explained Bob.
Welton stared at him.
"Well, will you tell me how in blazes you were going to get together a piece of timber big enough to handle in any other way?" he demanded at last. "All one firm could take up by itself was a quarter section, and you're not crazy enough to think any concern could afford to build a plant for the sake of cutting that amount! That's preposterous! A man certainly has a right under the law to sell what is his to whom-ever he pleases."
"But the 'colonists,'" said Bob, "took up this land merely for the purpose of turning it over to the company. The intention of the law is that the timber is for the benefit of the original claimant."
"Well, it's for his benefit, if he gets paid for it, ain't it?" demanded Welton ingenuously. "You can't expect him to cut it himself."
"That is the intent of the law," insisted Bob, "and that's what I'll be called upon to do. What shall I do about it?"
"Quit the game!" said Welton, promptly and eagerly. "You can see yourself how foolish it is. That crew of young squirts just out of school would upset the whole property values of the state. Besides, as I've just shown you, it's foolish. Come on back in a sensible business. We'd get on fine!"
Bob shook his head.
"Then go ahead; bring your case," said Welton. "I don't mind."
"I do," said Bob. "It looks like a strong case to me."
"Don't bring it. You don't need to report in your evidence as you call it. Just forget it."
"Even if I were inclined to do so," said Bob, "I wouldn't be allowed. Baker would force the matter to publicity."
"Baker," repeated Welton; "what has he got to do with it?"
"It's in regard to the lands in the Basin. He took them up under the mineral act, and plainly against all law and decency. It's the plainest case of fraud I know about, and is a direct steal right from under our noses."
"I think myself he's skinning things a trifle fine," admitted Welton; "but I can't see but what he's complied with the law all right. He don't have any right to that timber, I'll agree with you there; but it looks to me like the law had a hole in it."
"If he took that land up for other purposes than an honest intention to mine on it, the title might be set aside," said Bob.
"You'd have a picnic proving anything of the sort one way or another about what a man intends to do," Welton pointed out.
"Do you remember one evening when Baker was up at camp and was kicking on paying water tolls? It was about the time Thorne first came in as Supervisor, and just before I entered the Service."
"Seems to me I recall something of the sort."
"Well, you think it over. Baker told us then that he had a way of beating the tolls, and mentioned this very scheme of taking advantage of the mineral laws. At the time he had a notion of letting us in on the timber."
"Sure! I remember!" cried Welton.
"Well, if you and I were to testify as to that conversation, we'd establish his intent plainly enough."
"Sure as you're a foot high!" said Welton slowly.
"Baker knows this; and he's threatened, if I testify against him, to bring the Wolverine Company into the fight. Now what should I do about it?"
Welton turned on him a troubled eye.
"Bob," said he, "there's more to this than you think. I didn't have anything to do with this land until just before we came out here. One of the company got control of it thirty year ago. All that flapdoodle," he struck the papers, "didn't mean nothing to me when I thought it came from your amatoore detectives. But if Baker has this case looked up there's something to it. Go slow, son."
He studied a moment.
"Have you told your officers of your own evidence against Baker?"
"Or about these?" he held up the papers.
"Well, that's all right. Don't."
"It's my duty----"
"Resign!" cried Welton energetically; "then it won't be your duty. Nobody knows about what you know. If you're not called on, you've nothing to say. You don't have to tell all you know."
A vision swept before Bob's eyes of a noble forest supposedly safe for all time devoted by his silence to a private greed.
"But concealing evidence is as much of a perjury as falsifying it--" he began. A second vision flashed by of a ragged, unshorn fugitive, now in jail, whom his testimony could condemn. He fell silent.
"Let sleeping dogs lie," said Welton, earnestly. "You don't know the harm you may do. Your father's reelection comes this fall, you know, and even if it's untrue, a suit of this character--" He in his turn broke off.
"I don't see how this could hurt father's chances--either way," said Bob, puzzled.
"Well, you know how I think about it," said Welton curtly, rising. "You asked me."
He stumped over to Jane, untied the rope with his thick fingers, clambered aboard. From the mule's back he looked down on Bob, his kindly, homely face again alight with affection.
"If you never have anything worse on your conscience than keeping your face shut to protect a friend from injustice, Bobby," he said, "I reckon you won't lose much sleep."
With these words he rode away. Bob, returning to camp, unsaddled, and, very weary, sought his cabin. His cabin mate was stolidly awaiting him, seated on the single door step.
"My friend that was going to leave me some money in my bunk was coming to-day," said Jack Pollock. "It ain't in your bunk by mistake?"
"Jack," said Bob, weariedly throwing all the usual pretence aside, "I'm ashamed to say I clean forgot it; I had such a job on hand. I'll ride over and get it now."
"Don't understand you," said Jack, without moving a muscle of his face.
Bob smiled at the serious young mountaineer, playing loyally his part even to his fellow-conspirator.
"Jack," said he, "I guess your friend must have been delayed. Maybe he'll get here later."
"Quite like," nodded Jack gravely.