Part Five
Chapter XXV
 

Bob always stayed at the Monterosa Hotel when in town; a circumstance that had sent Oldham to the Buena Vista. Although it wanted but a few hours until train time, he drifted around to his customary stopping place, resolved to enjoy a quiet smoke by the great plate-glass windows before which the ever-varying theatre crowds stream by from Main Street cars. He had been thus settled for some time, when he heard his name pronounced by the man occupying the next chair.

"Bob Orde!" he cried; "but this is luck!"

Bob looked around to see an elderly, gray-haired, slender man, of keen, intelligent face, pure white hair and moustache, in whom he recognized Mr. Frank Taylor, a lifelong friend of his father's and one of the best lawyers his native state had produced. He sprang to his feet to grasp the older man's hand. The unexpected meeting was especially grateful, for Bob had been long enough without direct reminders of his old home to be hungry for them. Ever since he could remember, the erect, military form of Frank Taylor had been one of the landmarks of memory, like the sword that had belonged to Georgie Cathcart's father, or like the kindly, homely, gray figure of Mr. Kincaid in his rickety, two-wheeled cart--the man who had given Bob his first firearm.

After first greetings and inquiries, the two men sank back to finish their smoke together.

"It's good to see you again," observed Bob, "but I'm sorry your business brings you out here at this time of year. This is our dry season, you know. Everything is brown. I like it myself, as do most Californians, but an Easterner has to get used to it. After the rains, though, the country is wonderful."

"This isn't my first trip," said Taylor. "I was out here for some months away back in--I think it was '79. I remember we went in to Santa Barbara on a steamer that fired a gun by way of greeting! Strangely enough, the same business brings me here now."

"You are out here on father's account?" hazarded Bob, to whom the year 1879 now began to have its significance.

"Exactly. Didn't you get your father's letter telling of my coming?"

"I've been from headquarters three days," Bob explained.

"I see. Well, he sent you this message: 'Tell Bob to go ahead. I can take care of myself.'"

"Bully for dad!" cried Bob, greatly heartened.

"He told me he did not want to advise you, but that in the old days when a fight was on, the spectators were supposed to do their own dodging."

"I'd about come to that conclusion," said Bob, "but it surely does me good to feel that father's behind me in it."

"My trip in '79--or whenever it was--was exactly on this same muss-up." Mr. Taylor went on: "Your father owned this timber land then, and wanted to borrow money on it. At the time a rascally partner was trying to ruin him; and, in order to prevent his getting this money, which would save him, this partner instigated investigations and succeeded temporarily in clouding the title. Naturally the banks declined to lend money on doubtful titles; which was all this partner wanted.[A] Perhaps you know all this?"

Bob shook his head. "I was a little too young to know anything of business."

"Your father sent me out to straighten things. The whole matter was involved in endless red tape, obscured in every ingenious way possible. Although there proved to be nothing to the affair, to prove that fact took time, and time was what your father's partner was after. As a matter of fact, he failed; but that was not the result of miscalculation. Now I strongly suspect that your friend Baker, or his lawyers, have dug up a lot of this old evidence on the records and are going to use it to annoy us. There is nothing more in it how than there was at the beginning, but it's colourable enough to start a noisy suit on, and that's all these fellows are after."

"But if it was decided once, how can they bring it up again?" Bob objected.

"It was never brought to court. When the delay had been gained--or rather, when I unravelled the whole matter--it was dropped."

"I see," said Bob. "Then the titles are all right?"

"Every bit of that tract is as good as gold," said Taylor impressively. "Your father bought only from men who had taken up land with their own money. He paid as high as fifteen or sixteen hundred dollars for claims where by straight 'colonizing' he could have had them for three or four hundred."

"I'm glad to hear that," said Bob. "But are you sure you can handle this?"

"As for a suit, they can never win this in the world," said Taylor. "But that isn't the question. What they want is a chance for big headlines."

"Well, can you head them off?"

"I'm going to try, after I look over the situation. If I can't head it off completely, I'll at least be in a position to reply publicly at once. It took me three months to dig this thing out, but it won't take me half an hour to get it in the papers."

"I should think they'd know that."

"I don't think their lawyer really knows about it. As I say, it took me three months to dig it all out. My notion is that while they have no idea they can win the case, they believe that we did actually colonize the lands. In other words, they think they have it on us straight enough. The results of my investigations will surprise them. I'll keep the thing out of court if I can; but in any case we're ready. It will be a trial in the newspapers."

"Well," said Bob, "you want to get acquainted then. Western newspapers are not like those in the East. They certainly jump in with both feet on any cause that enlists them one way or another. It is a case of no quarter to the enemy, in headlines, subheads, down to the date--reading matter, of course. They have a powerful influence, too, for they are very widely read."

"Can they be bought?" asked Taylor shrewdly.

Bob glanced at him.

"I was thinking of the Power Company," explained Taylor.

"Blessed if I know," confessed Bob; "but I think not. I disagree with them on so many things that I'd like to think they are bought. But they are more often against those apt to buy, than for them. They lambaste impartially and with a certain Irish delight in doing the job thoroughly. I must say they are not fair about it. They hit a man just as hard when he is down. What you want to do is to be better news than Baker."

"I'll be all of that," promised Taylor, "if it comes to a newspaper trial."

Bob glanced at his watch and jumped to his feet with an exclamation of dismay.

"I've five minutes to get to the station," he said. "Goodbye."

He rushed out of the hotel, caught a car, ran a block--and arrived in time to see the tail lights slipping away. He had to wait until the morning train, but that mattered little to him now. His wait and the journey back to the mountains were considerably lightened by this partial relief of the situation. At the first sign of trouble his father had taken the field to fight out his own fights. That much responsibility was lifted from Bob's shoulders. He might have known!

Of the four dangerous elements of his problem one was thus unexpectedly, almost miraculously, relieved. Remained, however, poor Welton's implication in the bribery matter, and Pollock's danger. Bob could not count in himself. If he could only relieve the others of the consequences of his action, he could face his own trouble with a stout heart.

At White Oaks he was forced to wait for the next stage. This put him twenty-four hours behind, and he was inclined to curse his luck. Had he only known it, no better fortune could have fallen him. The news came down the line that the stage he would have taken had been held up by a lone highwayman just at the top of Flour Gold grade. As the vehicle carried only an assortment of perishable fruit and three Italian labourers, for the dam, the profits from the transaction were not extraordinary. The sheriff and a posse at once set out in pursuit. Their efforts at overtaking the highwayman were unavailing, for the trail soon ran out over the rocky and brushy ledges, and the fugitive had been clever enough to sprinkle some of his tracks liberally with red pepper to baffle the dogs. The sheriff made a hard push of it, however, and for one day held closely enough on the trail. Bob's journey to Sycamore Flats took place on this one day--during which Saleratus Bill was too busy dodging his pursuers to resume a purpose which Bob's delay had frustrated.

On arriving at Auntie Belle's, Bob resolved to push on up the mountain that very night, instead of waiting as usual until the following morning. Accordingly, after supper, he saddled his horse, collected the camp mail, and set himself in motion up the steep road.

Before he had passed Fern Falls, the twilight was falling. Hermit thrushes sang down through the cooling forest. From the side hill, exposed all the afternoon to the California summer sun, rose tepid odours of bear-clover and snowbush, which exhaled out into space, giving way to the wandering, faint perfumes of night. Bob took off his hat, and breathed deep, greatly refreshed after the long, hot stage ride of the day. Darkness fell. In the forest the strengthening moonlight laid its wand upon familiar scenes to transform them. New aisles opened down the woodlands, aisles at the end of which stood silvered, ghostly trees thus distinguished by the moonbeams from their unnumbered brethren. The whole landscape became ghostly, full of depths and shadows, mysteries and allurements, heights and spaces unknown to the more prosaic day. Landmarks were lost in the velvet dark; new features sprang into prominence. Were it not for the wagon trail, Bob felt that in this strange, enchanted, unfamiliar land he might easily have become lost. His horse plodded mechanically on. One by one he passed the homely roadside landmarks, exempt from the necromancies of the moon--the pile of old cedar posts, split heaven knows when, by heaven knows whom, and thriftlessly abandoned; the water trough, with the brook singing by; the S turn by the great boulders; the narrow defile of the Devil's Grade--and then, still under the spell of the night, Bob surmounted the ridge to look out over the pine-clad plateau slumbering dead-still under the soft radiance of the moon.

He rode the remaining distance to headquarters at a brisker pace. As he approached the little meadow, and the group of buildings dark and silent, he raised joyously the wild hallo of the late-comer with mail. Immediately lights were struck. A moment later, by the glimmer of a lantern, he was distributing the coveted papers, letters and magazines to the half-dressed group that surrounded him. Amy summoned him to bring her share. He delivered it to the hand and arm extended from the low window.

"You must be nearly dead," said Amy, "after that long stage ride--to come right up the mountain."

"It's the finest sort of a night," said Bob. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It's H-O-T, hot, down at the Flats. This ride just saved my life."

This might have been truer than Bob had thought, for at almost that very moment Saleratus Bill, having successfully shaken off his pursuers, was making casual and guarded inquiries at Austin's saloon. When he heard that Orde had arrived at the Flats on the evening's stage, he manifested some satisfaction. The next morning, however, that satisfaction vanished, for only then he learned that the young man must be already safe at headquarters.

[Footnote A: See "The Riverman."]