Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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Frank went out soon afterward and sat down near the house. The fire had almost burned out and a light wind which had sprung up drove the last of the smoke the other way. The air that flowed about the boy was sweet and scented with the fragrance of pine and cedar. All around him the bush rose in somber masses and a faint elfin sighing fell from the tops of the tall black trees. It was the song of the wilderness and the wild and rugged land had steadily tightened its hold on him. As he sat and listened he was certain at last that he would never leave it to go back to the cities.

CHAPTER XXXI
FRANK BECOMES A RANCH OWNER

Three or four days had passed since the attack on the ranch when one afternoon the boys stood on the deck of the sloop. Bright sunshine streamed down on the cove and there was a brisk breeze. The boys had gone down to hoist the mainsail so that it would dry, as it had been rolled up damp when last used; and as Frank straightened himself after stooping to coil up the gear he noticed that a man stood at the edge of the water with a small camera in his hand.

"Look, Harry!" he exclaimed softly, as his companion crawled from behind the sail.

"Hello!" called Harry. "What do you want?"

"Keep still!" commanded the stranger sharply. Then he raised his hand. "That's all right! Now you may move if you like."

"So may you!" Harry answered with a chuckle. "In fact, I guess you better had!"

There was an ominous growl somewhere above the man and then a savage barking, as the dog – who had followed the boys to the cove and afterward wandered away – came scrambling furiously down the steep path. The man seemed to watch its approach with anxiety, and when it came toward him growling he stooped and picked up a big stone.

"Hold on!" Harry shouted. "Put down that stone! He doesn't like strangers, and you'd better not rile him."

The man did as he was bidden, but when it looked as if the dog would drive him into the water Frank dropped into the canoe. To his astonishment, the stranger suddenly held the camera in front of him and backed away a few paces, pointing it like a pistol at the growling dog, who seemed too surprised to follow. Then Frank ran the canoe ashore and told the man to get in while he drove off the dog.

"He's young," explained Frank. "Somehow we haven't managed to tame him."

He headed for the sloop, and the man got on board.

"You seem stuck on taking photographs," Harry remarked.

"I make a little out of them now and then," the stranger answered with a smile. "You're Harry Oliver?"

"That's my name."

"Then your friend is Frank Whitney?"

"Yes," replied Harry. "But you haven't answered my question yet."

"I wanted to have a talk with your father; but I find that he's out."

"He won't be back until to-night; and, while we'd be glad to give you supper, it really wouldn't be worth while to wait. He doesn't want any fruit trees – the last we bought from outsiders had been dug up too long.

He's full up with implements, and we're not open to buy anything."

The stranger laughed good-humoredly.

"Hadn't you better wait until you're asked? I'm not drumming up orders." Then he changed the subject. "You've had trouble here lately, haven't you? From what I gather, your father has done a smart and courageous thing in holding off that opium gang."

Harry thawed and fell into the trap. He was not addicted to saying much about his own exploits, but he was proud of his father, and the man discovered this from his hesitating answer. It was the latter's business to draw people out, and sitting down in the shelter of the coaming he cleverly led the boy on to talk. Frank tried to warn his companion once or twice, but failed, and soon the stranger drew him also into the conversation. Some time had slipped away when the man finally rose.

"I'm sorry I missed your father," he said, "but as I want to catch the steamer that calls at the settlement to-night, I must be getting back."

Harry paddled him ashore, and when he returned with the dog Frank grinned at him.

"That fellow hasn't told you his business yet, and I've a pretty strong suspicion that he's a newspaper man."

Harry started and frowned.

"Then if he prints all that stuff I've told him it's a sure thing that dad will be jumping mad. Didn't you know enough to call me off?"

"You wouldn't stop," Frank answered, laughing. "I kept on winking for the first five minutes, and then somehow he gathered me in too. He's smart at his business."

"I guess we'd better not say anything about the thing," decided Harry thoughtfully. "Anyway, not until we know whether you are right."

They went ashore soon afterward; and a few days later Mr. Webster called at the ranch.

"Have you Barclay's address?" he asked Mr. Oliver. "I want to write him."

Mr. Oliver gave it to him, and Mr. Webster continued:

"They're getting up a supper at the settlement, and the stewards would like to have you and the boys come. They're asking everybody between here and Carthew."

"What do they want to get up a supper for?"

Mr. Webster hesitated.

"Well," he said, "among other things, the new man is opening his big fruit ranch, and we've just heard that there's a steamboat wharf to be built and a new wagon trail made. Things are looking up, and the boys feel that they ought to have a celebration."

"All right," assented Mr. Oliver, "the boys and I will be on hand."

A few minutes later Mr. Webster started home, and then Frank opened a letter he had brought him. He was astonished when he read it.

"It's from Mr. Marston, who got me the position with the milling company – he's a relative of ours," he informed Mr. Oliver. "It appears that he is in Portland on business – shipping Walla wheat – and he says that he promised my mother he'd look me up if he had time. He may be here shortly."

"We'd be glad to see him," Mr. Oliver answered cordially. "It isn't a very long way to Portland."

Frank, however, had no further word from Mr. Marston; and in due time the evening of the supper arrived. Mr. Oliver and the boys sailed up to the settlement. Landing in the darkness, they found the little hotel blazing with light. The night was mild, and a hum of voices and bursts of laughter drifted out from the open windows of the wooden building. On entering the veranda, they were greeted by the man who had kept the store when Frank first visited the settlement.

"I'm glad to see that you're better," Mr. Oliver remarked.

"Thanks!" replied the other. "I've just got down from Seattle – the doctors have patched me up. It's time I was back at business – things have been getting pretty mixed while I was away." Then he changed the subject. "The boys would make me chairman of this affair, and they're waiting. You're only just on time."

"The wind fell light," said Mr. Oliver. "As there seems to be a good many of them, they needn't have waited for my party if we hadn't come."

"Oh," laughed the storekeeper, "they couldn't begin without – you."

Mr. Oliver looked slightly astonished; but there was another surprise in store for him and the boys when they entered the largest room in the building. It was, for once, brilliantly lighted; and crossed fir branches hung on the rudely match-boarded wall, with the azure and silver and crimson of the flag gleaming here and there among them. Frank could understand the attempt to decorate the place, because, as a matter of fact, it needed it; but he did not see why the double row of men standing about the long table should break out into an applauding murmur as Mr. Oliver walked in. Most of them had lean, brown faces and toil-hardened hands, and were dressed in duck with a cloth jacket over it and with boots that reached to the knees, but there were two or three in white shirts and neat cloth suits.

"Boys," said the storekeeper, "our guest has now arrived. Though he tells me the wind fell light, he's here on time, which is what we've always found him to be in all his doings." He waved Mr. Oliver to the head of the table. "That's your place. It's my duty to welcome you on behalf of the assembled company."

There was an outbreak of applause, and Mr. Oliver looked around with a smile.

"Thank you, boys," he beamed; "but I don't quite understand. I just came here to talk to you and get my supper."

Amid the laughter that followed there were many voices answering him.

"You'll get it, sure! To-night we'll do the talking – Sproat's been practicing speeches on the innocent trees all day, and Bentley's most as good as a gramophone. We're mighty glad to have you! Sit right down!"

The storekeeper raised his hand for silence.

"You're our guest, Mr. Oliver, and that's all there is to it." He turned to the others and lowered his voice confidentially. "I guess Webster didn't explain the thing to him. Our friend's backward on some occasions – he doesn't like a fuss – and it's quite likely that if he'd known what to expect he wouldn't have come."

There was another burst of laughter; and when Mr. Oliver had taken his place, with the boys seated near him, Frank noticed for the first time that Mr. Barclay occupied a chair close by. Then he also saw that Mr. Marston, who had written to him, sat almost opposite across the table.

"I got here this afternoon and was trying to hire a horse when I heard that you were expected at this feast," the latter said. "Your people were in first-rate health when I left them."

It was difficult to carry on a conversation across the table, and Frank turned his attention to the meal, which was the best he had sat down to since he reached the bush. By and by the storekeeper stood up.

"Now," he said, "as most of you have laid in a solid foundation, we can talk over the dessert; and I want to remind you that we have several reasons for celebrating this occasion. A start at growing fruit on a big scale has just been made; we're to have a wharf; and there's a wagon trail to be bridged and graded. All this brings you nearer the market. You have held on and put up a good fight with rocks and trees, and now when you'll have no trouble in turning your produce into money you're going to reap the reward of it. But that's not our main business to-night."

There was an encouraging murmur, and he went on:

"We had a few bad men round this settlement – toughs, who had no use for work. Folks of their kind are like the fever – they're infectious – and it's a kind of curious thing that for a while the bad man generally comes out on top. His trouble is that he can't stay there, for something big and heavy is surely going to fall on him sooner or later. Still, those men had a big combine at the back of them and they got hold. They'd have kept it longer, only that one man had a bigger head than most of us. He'll tell you that the one straight way to get money is to work for it, and that the folks who begin by robbing the Government end by robbing everybody else. He found the combine up against him, but while some of us backed down he stood fast. He wouldn't be fooled or bullied, and, though he didn't go round saying so, when the time came that big and well-handled combine went down. Now it's my pleasant duty to offer your thanks to Mr. Oliver for freeing you from what would have been the ugliest kind of tyranny."

He sat down amid applause, and another man got up.

"I'm glad to second that," he announced. "We were easy with the opium gang when they began. It was pleasant to get a roll of bills now and then for just leaving a team handy and saying nothing if we found a case in the stable; but we didn't see where that led." He stopped and turned to Mr. Barclay, who was smiling at him. "What'd you say, sir?"

"It struck me that you were forgetting what my profession is," Mr. Barclay answered dryly. "You're not compelled to give yourself and your friends away."

This remark was followed by laughter; then the speaker proceeded:

"Anyhow, the dope boys began to change their tone. At first, they paid and asked favors; but when they got folks so they couldn't go back on them they ordered, and seldom paid at all. It was getting what my friend calls tyranny, and the small man had to stand in and ask the gang for leave to live. We'd have been in a mighty tight place now if one rancher hadn't boldly stood out. That's why we're offering our best thanks to Mr. Oliver, who got up and fought the gang."

There was a shout that set the shingles rattling overhead, and when it died away Mr. Oliver, who looked embarrassed, said a few simple words, which were followed by riotous applause. Then Frank looking around saw that a sheet of newspaper with three pictures on it was pinned to the wall.

"What's that thing?" he asked, leaning back to touch Harry. "You're nearer it."

One of the men took the paper down and handed it to him.

"Well," he drawled, "I guess you ought to know your own likeness."

Frank gasped as he took the paper, for the two portraits at the top of it were of Harry and himself, and underneath them appeared the dog. There was a conspicuous black heading over them.

"The modest salvors of the opium schooner, and their dog," it read.

Beneath this there was about a column dealing with Mr. Oliver's exploits and their own. Frank glanced at parts of it with blank astonishment.

"You never told him all that stuff," he declared, passing it to Harry.

Mr. Oliver intercepted the paper, and his expression hinted at half-disgusted amusement.

"Didn't you know any better than to tell a story of this kind to a newspaper man?" he asked. "Read a little of it!"

Harry's face flushed as he read.

"I didn't tell him half of it," he protested. "Besides, I didn't know what he was."

Mr. Oliver laughed at last; and just then another man got up and made a speech about Mr. Barclay, who rose and looked down the table with a quiet smile.

"I appreciate what you have said of my doings, boys, and now I'll base my few observations on one of the first speaker's remarks," he began. "He stated that the man who began by robbing the Government would end by robbing everybody else; but he was wrong. The man who robs the Government is robbing every other citizen. Each of us is part of a system that's built up, we believe, on the rock of the constitution. Otherwise, if you were merely individuals, doing just as you wished, obeying nobody, you could live only like the Indians, holding your ranches and cattle – if you had them – with the rifle. All commerce and security is founded on the fact that we're not separate men, but a nation. Well, the nation wants troops, and warships, judges, courts, schools, and roads. It expects you to pay your share, since you get the benefit, and every man who beats it out of one tax or duty is playing a mean game on and stealing from the rest. That's the one point I want to make clear."

Then, to the confusion of Harry and Frank, they were commended; and afterward the company broke up into groups to talk and smoke. Mr. Oliver and the boys, Mr. Marston, Mr. Webster and Mr. Barclay still sat together, and presently Mr. Barclay turned to the boys.

"I've some news for you," he announced. "The schooner has been surveyed. She's very little damaged, and the authorities, who have seized her, have decided to allow your claim in full. As soon as she's sold, they'll forward you a treasury order."

"And we'll really get all that money?" Frank asked with a gasp.

"It seems pretty certain."

The blood rushed into Frank's face.

"It would go a long way toward buying a small, half-cleared ranch," he exclaimed joyfully.

"I've one to sell," laughed Mr. Webster. "You can have it cheap."

"Are you serious?" Mr. Oliver inquired.

"Sure!" was the answer. "I never was much good at ranching, and the place is too small to feed more than a few head of stock. It might pay growing fruit; but if I did any planting now I'd have to wait three or four years before I got any returns worth while, and I was always kind of smart at carpentering. I could get contracts for building log bridges and cutting wharf piles now, and I'd let the ranch go at a very moderate price."

"How much do you want?"

When Mr. Webster told him, Mr. Oliver considered the matter for a few moments.

"I'll have to start Harry in another three or four years, and if we put in a lot of young trees they'd be in good bearing by that time," he said thoughtfully. "We could work the place from our own ranch in the meanwhile; but I'm afraid I can't raise the price you ask. Would you let part stand over on a mortgage?"

"I can't do that," was the reply, "though I'd like to oblige you. You see, if I'm to handle those contracts properly, I must have the money to buy tools and to pay wages. But suppose we appoint two valuers to fix a figure."

The boys had been listening intently, and Frank broke in:

"Harry and I have decided to go partners in a ranch some day, and there's the salvage money."

"It wouldn't be enough," said Mr. Oliver regretfully.

Mr. Marston touched Mr. Oliver's shoulder.

"I'd like a few words with you privately."

They crossed the room, and after talking for a while in low tones Mr. Marston beckoned Frank, who had been waiting in tense excitement. Mr. Marston was a middle-aged business man, with keen eyes and a thoughtful face, and he looked at Frank steadily.

"Sit down and listen to me," he said. "Because I'm a relative of yours and also because I had a great respect for your father, I meant from the beginning to help you along. On the other hand, I've seen young men spoiled by knowing that they had friends ready to give them a lift, and I decided to let you make the best fight you could, for a year or two. That's why I sent you to the flour mill, instead of putting you into something easier; and I may say that I wasn't altogether pleased when you left it."

"I was turned out, sir," Frank corrected him with some color in his face.

Mr. Marston smiled.

"We'll let it go at that. The main thing is that you didn't come back for help. Instead, you made another start for yourself; and you seem to have done well here. According to a newspaper which I've read, you have even distinguished yourself lately." He laughed before he proceeded. "Anyway, you have shown that one could have some confidence in you."

"Thank you, sir."

Mr. Marston raised his hand.

"Let me finish. Before I left Boston I went over your mother's business affairs, and by and by I think she could give you – we'll say a thousand dollars; you have your share of the salvage payment; and Mr. Oliver is willing to lay out some money on his son's account. Well, I'll find the balance – on a mortgage – but you'll have to make the ranch pay, or" – and he smiled – "I'll certainly foreclose and turn you out."

Frank tried to thank him, but he could find very little to say in his excitement. Then Mr. Marston called Harry.

"I understand that you are anxious to take Mr. Webster's ranch with Frank, and would be willing to work it under your father's direction until the youngest of you is twenty-one. Is that correct?"

Harry's face was glowing.

"Yes, sir," he answered eagerly. "We'll do what we can."

"Then if your father and Mr. Webster will go down to Seattle with me, we'll get the transfer made and a deed drawn up to fix the thing."

Frank could never remember what he said or did during the next few minutes, but it was the proudest and happiest time he had spent in his life. Then he turned to Mr. Marston and Mr. Oliver, who were standing near.

"I'll have very little time to spare after this," he said, "and I should like to spend a little of the salvage money going back to Boston to see my mother and the others before I begin."

"Of course!" ejaculated Mr. Marston. "A very proper thing! You needn't wait until Mr. Barclay sends you his order. I'll arrange your ticket."

He moved away, and shortly afterward the company dispersed.

A week later Frank and Harry and Jake sailed out in the sloop to intercept the south-bound steamer. She came up, with side-wheels churning a broad track of foam and her smoke trail streaming astern. When her engines stopped, Frank and Harry dropped into the canoe and in a few minutes they were alongside. Frank swung himself up on board and then looked back at the canoe.

"Have a good time!" cried Harry. "The best you can! You'll have to work when you come back!"

"You'll see me in six weeks," Frank answered with a wave of his hand; and the canoe dropped astern as the engines started and the steamer forged ahead.

THE END

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