Part Five
Chapter XXXI
 

Bob's absence had occasioned some speculation, but no uneasiness, at headquarters. An officer of the Forest Service was too often called upon for sudden excursions in unexpected emergencies to make it possible for his chiefs to keep accurate track of all his movements. A day's trip to the valley might easily be deflected to a week's excursion to the higher peaks by any one of a dozen circumstances. The report of trespassing sheep, a tiny smoke above distant trees, a messenger sent out for arbitration in a cattle dispute, are samples of the calls to which Bob must have hastened no matter on what errand he had been bound.

He arrived at headquarters late in the afternoon. Already a thin wand of smoke wavered up through the trees from Amy's little, open kitchen. The open door of the shed office trickled forth a thin clicking of typewriters. Otherwise the camp seemed deserted.

At Bob's halloo, however, both Thorne and old California John came to the door. In two minutes he had all three gathered about the table under the three big firs.

"In the first place, I want to say right now," he began, "that I have the evidence to win the land case against the Modoc Mining Company."

"How?" demanded Thorne, leaning forward eagerly.

"Baker has boasted, before two witnesses, that his mineral entries were fraudulent and made simply to get water rights and timber."

"Those witnesses will testify?"

"They will."

"Who are they?"

"Mr. Welton and myself."

"Glory be!" cried Thorne, springing to his feet and clapping Bob on the back. "We've got him!"

"So that's what you've been up to for the past week!" cried Amy. "We've been wondering where you had disappeared to!"

"Well, not precisely," grinned Bob; "I've been in durance vile."

In response to their questionings he detailed a semi-humorous account of his abduction, detention and escape. His three auditors listened with the deepest attention.

As the recital progressed to the point wherein Bob described his midnight escape, Amy, unnoticed by the others, leaned back and closed her eyes. The colour left her face for a moment, but the next instant had rushed back to her cheeks in a tide of deeper red. She thrust forward, her eyes snapping with indignation.

"They are desperate; there's no doubt of it," was Thorne's comment. "And they won't stop at this. I wish the trial was to-morrow. We must get your testimony in shape before anything happens."

Amy was staring across the table at them, her lips parted with horror.

"You don't think they'll try anything worse!" she gasped.

Bob started to reassure her, but Thorne in his matter-of-fact way broke in.

"I don't doubt they'll try to get him proper, next time. We must get out papers and the sheriff after this Saleratus Bill."

"He'll be almighty hard to locate," put in California John.

"And I think we'd better not let Bob, here, go around alone any more."

"I don't think he ought to go around at all!" Amy amended this vigorously.

Bob shot at her an obliquely humorous glance, before which her own fell. Somehow the humour died from his.

"Bodyguard accepted with thanks," said he, recovering himself. "I've had enough Wild West on my own account." His words and the expression of his face were facetious, but his tones were instinct with a gravity that attracted even Thorne's attention. The Supervisor glanced at the young man curiously, wondering if he were going to lose his nerve at the last. But Bob's personal stake was furthest from his mind. Something in Amy's half-frightened gesture had opened a new door in his soul. The real and insistent demands of the situation had been suddenly struck shadowy while his forces adjusted themselves to new possibilities.

"Ware's your man," suggested California John. "He's a gun-man, and he's got a nerve like a saw mill man."

"Where is Ware?" Thorne asked Amy.

"He's over at Fair's shake camp. He will be back to-morrow."

"That's settled, then. How about Welton? Is he warned? You say he'll testify?"

"If he has to," replied Bob, by a strong effort bringing himself back to a practical consideration of the matter in hand. "At least he'll never perjure himself, if he's called. Welton's case is different. Look here; it's bound to come out, so you may as well know the whole situation."

He paused, glancing from one to another of his hearers. Thorne's keen face expressed interest of the alert official; California John's mild blue eye beamed upon him with a dawning understanding of the situation; Amy, intuitively divining a more personal trouble, looked across at him with sympathy.

"John, here, will remember the circumstance," said Bob. "It happened about the time I first came out here with Mr. Welton. It seems that Plant had assured him that everything was all arranged so our works and roads could cross the Forest, so we went ahead and built them. In those days it was all a matter of form, anyway. Then when we were ready to go ahead with our first season's work, up steps Plant and asks to see our permission, threatening to shut us down! Of course, all he wanted was money."

"And Welton gave it to him?" cried Amy.

"It wasn't a case of buy a privilege," explained Bob, "but of life itself. We were operating on borrowed money, and just beginning our first year's operations. The season is short in these mountains, as you know, and we were under heavy obligations to fulfil a contract for sawed lumber. A delay of even a week meant absolute ruin to a large enterprise. Mr. Welton held off to the edge of danger, I remember, exhausting every means possible here and at Washington to rush through the necessary permission."

"Why didn't he tell the truth--expose Plant? Surely no department would endorse that," put in Amy, a trifle subdued in manner.

"That takes time," Bob pointed out. "There was no time."

"So Welton came through," said Thorne drily. "What has that got to do with it?"

"Baker paid the money for him," said Bob.

"Well, they're both in the same boat," remarked Thorne tranquilly. "I don't see that that gives him any hold on Welton."

"He threatens to turn state's evidence in the matter, and seems confident of immunity on that account."

"He can't mean it!" cried Amy.

"Sheer bluff," said Thorne.

"I thought so, and went to see him. Now I am sure not. He means it; and he'll do it when this case against the Modoc Company is pushed."

"I thought you said Welton would testify?" observed Thorne.

"He will. But naturally only if he is summoned."

"Then what----"

"Oh, I see. Baker never thought he could keep Welton from telling the truth, but knew perfectly well he would not volunteer the evidence. He used his hold over Welton to try to keep me from bringing forward this testimony. Sort of relied on our intimacy and friendship."

"But you will testify?"

"I think I see my duty that way," said Bob in a troubled voice.

"Quite right," said Thorne, dispassionately; "I'm sorry." He arose from the table. "This is most important. I don't often issue positive prohibitions in my capacity of superior officer; but in this instance I must. I am going to request you not to leave camp on any errand unless accompanied by Ranger Ware."

Bob nodded a little impatiently. California John paused before following his chief into the office.

"It's good sense, boy," said he, "and nobody gives a darn for your worthless skin, you know. It's just the information you got inside it."

"Right," laughed Bob, his brow clearing. "I forgot."

California John nodded at him, and disappeared into the office.

Bob turned to Amy with a laughing comment that died on his lips. The girl was standing very straight on the other side of the table. One little brown hand grasped and crushed the edge of her starched apron; her black brows were drawn in a straight line of indignation beneath which her splendid eyes flashed; her rounded bosom, half-defined by the loose, soft blue of her simple gown, rose and fell rapidly.

"And you're going to do it?" she threw across at him.

Bob, bewildered, stared at her.

"You're going to deliver over your friend to prison?" She moved swiftly around the table to stand close to him. "Surely you can't mean to do that! You've worked with him, and lived with him--and he's a dear, jolly old man!"

"Hold on!" cried Bob, recovering from the first shock, and beginning to enjoy the situation. "You don't understand. If I don't give my testimony, think what the Service will lose in the Basin."

"Lose!" she cried indignantly. "What of it? Do you think if I had a friend who was near and dear to me I'd sacrifice him for all the trees in the mountains? How can you!"

"Et tu Brute!" said Bob a little wearily. "Where is all the no-compromise talk I've heard at various times, and the high ideals, and the loyalty to the Service at any cost, and all the rest of it? You're not consistent."

Amy eyed him a little disdainfully.

"You've got to save that poor old man," she stated. "It's all very easy for you to talk of duty and the rest of it, but the fact remains that you're sending that poor old man to prison for something that isn't his fault, and it'll break his heart."

"He isn't there yet," Bob pointed out. "The case isn't decided."

"It's all very well for you to talk that way," said Amy, "for all you have to do is to satisfy your conscience and bear your testimony. But if testifying would land you in danger of prison, you might feel differently about it."

Bob thought of George Pollock, and smiled a trifle bitterly. Welton might get off with a fine, or even suspended sentence. There was but one punishment for those accessory before the fact to a murder. Amy was eyeing him reflectively. The appearance of anger had died. It was evident that she was thinking deeply.

"Why doesn't Mr. Welton protect himself?" she inquired at length. "If he turned state's evidence before that man Baker did, wouldn't it work that way around?"

"I don't believe it would," said Bob. "Baker was not the real principal in the offence, only an accessory. Besides, even if it were possible, Mr. Welton would not do such a thing. You don't know Welton."

Amy sank again to reflection, her eyes losing themselves in a gaze beyond the visible world. Suddenly she threw up her head with a joyous chuckle.

"I believe I have it!" she cried. She nodded her head several times as though to corroborate with herself certain points in her plan. "Listen!" she said at last. "As I understand it, Baker is really liable on this charge of bribing Plant as much as Mr. Welton is."

"Yes; he paid the money."

"So that if it were not for the fact that he intends to gain immunity by telling what he knows, he would get into as much trouble as Mr. Welton."

"Of course."

"Well, don't you know enough about it all to testify? Weren't you there?"

Bob reflected.

"Yes, I believe I was present at all the interviews."

"Then," cried Amy triumphantly, "you can issue complaint against both Baker and Mr. Welton on a charge of bribery, and Baker can't possibly wriggle out by turning state's evidence, because your evidence will be enough."

"Do you expect me to have Mr. Welton arrested on this charge?" cried Bob.

"No, silly! But you can go to Baker, can't you, and say to him: 'See here, if you try to bring up this old bribery charge against Welton, I'll get in ahead of you and have you both up. I haven't any desire to raise a fuss, nor start any trouble; but if you are bound to get Mr. Welton in on this, I might as well get you both in.' He'd back out, you see!"

"I believe he would!" cried Bob. "It's a good bluff to make."

"It mustn't be a bluff," warned Amy. "You must mean it. I don't believe he wants to face a criminal charge just to get Mr. Welton in trouble, if he realizes that you are both going to testify anyway. But if he thinks you're bluffing, he'll carry it through."

"You're right," said Bob slowly. "If necessary, we must carry it through ourselves."

Amy nodded.

"I'll take down a letter for you to Baker," she said, "and type it out this evening. We'll say nothing to anybody."

"I must tell Welton of our plan," said Bob; "I wouldn't for the world have to spring this on him unprepared. What would he think of me?"

"We'll see him to-morrow--no, next day; we have to wait for Ware, you know."

"Am I forgiven for doing my plain duty?" asked Bob a trifle mischievously.

"Only if our scheme works," declared Amy. Her manner changed to one of great seriousness. "I know your way is brave and true, believe me I do. And I know what it costs you to follow it. I respect and admire the quality in men that leads them so straightly along the path. But I could not do it. Ideas and things are inspiring and great and to be worked for with enthusiasm and devotion, I know. No one loves the Service more than I, nor would make more personal sacrifices for her. But people are warm and living, and their hearts beat with human life, and they can be sorry and glad, happy and brokenhearted. I can't tell you quite what I mean, for I cannot even tell myself. I only feel it. I could turn my thumbs down on whole cohorts of senators and lawyers and demagogues that are attacking us in Washington and read calmly in next day's paper how they had been beheaded recanting all their sins against us. But I couldn't get any nearer home. Why, the other day Ashley told me to send a final and peremptory notice of dispossession to the Main family, over near Bald Knob, and I couldn't do it. I tried all day. I knew old Main had no business there, and is worthless and lazy and shiftless. But I kept remembering how his poor old back was bent over. Finally I made Ashley dictate it, and tried to keep thinking all the time that I was nothing but a machine for the transmission of his ideas. When it comes to such things I'm useless, and I know I fall short of all higher ideals of honour and duty and everything else."

"Thank God you do," said Bob gravely.