Part Five
Chapter XXII
 

"Well," said California John, after a pause, "after you've made your jump there ain't much use in trying to turn back. If you didn't know it, why it was evident you wasn't intended to know it. But I was in the country when your father bought the land, so I happened to know about it."

Bob stared at the old man so long that the latter felt called upon to reassure him.

"I wouldn't take it so hard, if I was you, son," said he. "I really don't think all these bluffs of Baker's amount to much. The findings of that commission ain't never been acted on, which would seem to show that it didn't come to nothing at the time; and I don't have the slightest notion in the world but what the whole thing will blow up in smoke."

"As far as that is concerned, I haven't either," said Bob; "though you never can tell, and defending such a suit is always an expensive matter. But here's the trouble; my father is Congressman from Michigan, he's been in several pretty heavy fights this last year, and has some powerful enemies; he is up for reelection this fall."

"Suffering cats!" whistled California John.

"A lot could be made of a suit of that nature," said Bob, "whether it had any basis, or not."

"I've run for County Supervisor in my time," said California John simply.

"Well, what is your advice?" asked Bob.

"Son, I ain't got none," replied the old man.

That very evening a messenger rode over from the mill bringing a summons from Welton. Bob saddled up at once. He found the lumberman, not in the comfortable sitting room at his private sleeping camp, but watching the lamp alone in the office. As Bob entered, his former associate turned a troubled face toward the young man.

"Bob," said he at once, "they've got the old man cinched, unless you'll help out."

"How's that?"

"You remember when we first came in here how Plant closed the road and the flume right-of-way on us because we didn't have the permit?"

"Of course."

"Now, Bob, you remember how we was up against it, don't you? If we hadn't gone through that year we'd have busted the business absolutely. It was just a case of hold-up and we had to pay it. You remember?"

"Yes."

"Well!" burst out Welton, bringing his fist down, "now this hound, Baker, sends up his slick lawyer to tell me that was bribery, and that he can have me up on a criminal charge!"

"He's bluffing," said Bob quietly. "I remember all about that case. If I'd known as much then of inside workings as I do now, I'd have taken a hand. But Baker himself ran the whole show. If he brings that matter into court, he'll be subject to the same charge; for, if you remember, he paid the money."

"Will he!" shouted Welton. "You don't know the lowlived skunk! Erbe told me that if this suit was brought and you testified in the matter, that Baker would turn state's evidence against me! That would let him off scot-free."

"What!" said Bob incredulously. "Brand himself publicly as a criminal and tell-tale just to get you into trouble! Not likely. Think what that would mean to a man in his position! It would be every bit as bad as though he were to take his jail sentence. He's bluffing again."

"Do you really think so?" asked Welton, a gleam of relief lightening the gloom of his red, good-natured face. "I'll agree to handle the worst river crew you can hand out to me; but this law business gets me running in circles."

"It does all of us," said Bob with a sigh.

"I concluded from Erbe's coming up here that you had decided to tell about what you knew. That ain't so, is it?"

"I don't know; I can't see my duty clearly yet."

"For heaven's sake, Bobby, what's it to you!" demanded Welton exasperated.

But Bob did not hear him.

"I think the direct way is the best," he remarked, by way of thinking aloud. "I'm going to keep on going to headquarters. I'm going to write father and put it straight to him how he did get those lands and tell him the whole situation; and I'm going down to interview Baker, and discover, if I can, just how much of a bluff he is putting up."

"In the meantime----" said Welton apparently not noting the fact that Bob had become aware of the senior Orde's connection with the land.

"In the meantime I'm going to postpone action if I can."

"They're summoning witnesses for the Basin trial."

"I'll do the best I can," concluded Bob.

Accordingly he wrote the next day to his father. In this letter he stated frankly the situation as far as it affected the Wolverine lands, but said nothing about the threatened criminal charges against Welton. That was another matter. He set out the great value of the Basin lands and the methods by which they had been acquired. He pointed out his duty, both as a forest officer and as a citizen, but balanced this by the private considerations that had developed from the situation.

This dispatched, he applied for leave.

"This is the busy season, and we can spare no one," said Thorne. "You have important matters on hand."

"This is especially important," urged Bob.

"It is absolutely impossible. Come two months later, and I'll be glad to lay you off as long as I can."

"This particular affair is most urgent business."

"Private, of course?"

"Not entirely."

"Couldn't be considered official?"

"It might become so."

"What is it?"

"That I am not at liberty to tell you."

Thorne considered.

"No; I'm sorry, but I don't see how I can spare you."

"In that case," said Bob quietly, "you will force me to tender my resignation."

Thorne looked up at him quickly, and studied his face.

"From anybody else, Orde," said he, "I'd take that as a threat or a hold-up, and fire the man on the spot. From you I do not. The matter must be really serious. You may go. Get back as soon as you can."

"Thank you," said Bob. "It is serious. Three days will do me."

He set about his preparations at once, packing a suit case with linen long out of commission, smoothing out the tailored clothes he had not had occasion to use for many a day. He then transported this--and himself--down the mountain on his saddle horse. At Auntie Belle's he changed his clothes. The next morning he caught the stage, and by the day following walked up the main street of Fremont.

He had no trouble in finding Baker's office. The Sycamore Creek operations were one group of many. As one of Baker's companies furnished Fremont with light and power, it followed that at night the name of that company blazed forth in thousands of lights. The sign was not the less legible, though not so fiery, by day. Bob walked into extensive ground-floor offices behind plate-glass windows. Here were wickets and railings through which and over which the public business was transacted. A narrow passageway sidled down between the wall and a row of ground-glass doors, on which were lettered the names of various officers of the company. At a swinging bar separating this passage from the main office sat a uniformed boy directing and stamping envelopes.

Bob wrote his name on a blank form offered by this youth. The young man gazed at it a moment superciliously, then sauntered with an air of great leisure down the long corridor. He reappeared after a moment's absence behind the last door, to return with considerably more alacrity.

"Come right in, sir," he told Bob, in tones which mingled much deference with considerable surprise.

Bob had no reason to understand how unusual was the circumstance of so prompt a reception of a visitor for whom no previous appointment had been made. He entered the door held open for him by the boy, and so found himself in Baker's presence.