Part One
Chapter XVIII
 

For a year Bob worked hard at all sorts of jobs. He saw the woods work, the river work, the mill work. From the stump to the barges he followed the timbers. Being naturally of a good intelligence, he learned very fast how things were done, so that at the end of the time mentioned he had acquired a fair working knowledge of how affairs were accomplished in this business he had adopted. That does not mean he had become a capable lumberman. One of the strangest fallacies long prevalent in the public mind is that lumbering is always a sure road to wealth. The margin of profit seems very large. As a matter of fact, the industry is so swiftly conducted, on so large a scale, along such varied lines; the expenditures must be made so lavishly, and yet so carefully; the consequences of a niggardly policy are so quickly apparent in decreased efficiency, and yet the possible leaks are so many, quickly draining the most abundant resources, that few not brought up through a long apprenticeship avoid a loss. A great deal of money has been and is made in timber. A great deal has been lost, simply because, while the possibilities are alluring, the complexity of the numerous problems is unseen.

At first Bob saw only the results. You went into the woods with a crew of men, felled trees, cut them into lengths, dragged them to the roads already prepared, piled them on sleighs, hauled them to the river, and stacked them there. In the spring you floated the logs to the mill where they were sawed into boards, laden into sailing vessels or steam barges, and taken to market. There was the whole process in a nutshell. Of course, there would be details and obstructions to cope with. But between the eighty thousand dollars or so worth of trees standing in the forest and the quarter-million dollars or so they represented at the market seemed space enough to allow for many reverses.

As time went on, however, the young man came more justly to realize the minuteness of the bits comprising this complicated mosaic. From keeping men to the point of returning, in work, the worth of their wages; from so correlating and arranging that work that all might be busy and not some waiting for others; up through the anxieties of weather and the sullen or active opposition of natural forces, to the higher levels of competition and contracts, his awakened attention taught him that legitimate profits could attend only on vigilant and minute attention, on comprehensive knowledge of detail, on experience, and on natural gift. The feeding of men abundantly at a small price involved questions of buying, transportation and forethought, not to speak of concrete knowledge of how much such things should ideally be worth. Tools by the thousand were needed at certain places and at certain times. They must be cared for and accounted for. Horses, and their feed, equipment and care, made another not inconsiderable item both of expense and attention. And so with a thousand and one details which it would be superfluous to enumerate here. Each cost money, and some one's time. Relaxed attention might make each cost a few pennies more. What do a few pennies amount to? Two things: a lowering of the standard of efficiency, and, in the long run, many dollars. If incompetence, or inexperience should be added to relaxed attention, so that the various activities do not mortise exactly one with another, and the legitimate results to be expected from the pennies do not arrive, then the sum total is very apt to be failure. Where organized and settled industries, however complicated in detail, are in a manner played by score, these frontier activities are vast improvisations following only the general unchangeable laws of commerce.

Therefore, Bob was very much surprised and not a little dismayed at what Mr. Welton had to say to him one evening early in the spring.

It was in the "van" of Camp Thirty-nine. Over in the corner under the lamp the sealer and bookkeeper was epitomizing the results of his day. Welton and Bob sat close to the round stove in the middle, smoking their pipes. The three or four bunks belonging to Bob, the scaler, and the camp boss were dim in another corner; the shelves of goods for trade with the men occupied a third. A rude door and a pair of tiny windows communicated with the world outside. Flickers of light from the cracks in the stove played over the massive logs of the little building, over the rough floor and the weapons and snowshoes on the wall. Both Bob and Welton were dressed in flannel and kersey, with the heavy German socks and lumberman's rubbers on their feet. Their bright-checked Mackinaw jackets lay where they had been flung on the beds. Costume and surroundings both were a thousand miles from civilization; yet civilization was knocking at the door. Welton gave expression to this thought.

"Two seasons more'll finish us, Bob," said he. "I've logged the Michigan woods for thirty-five years, but now I'm about done here."

"Yes, I guess they're all about done," agreed Bob.

"The big men have gone West; lots of the old lumber jacks are out there now. It's our turn. I suppose you know we've got timber in California?"

"Yes," said Bob, with a wry grin, as he thought of the columns of "descriptions" he had copied; "I know that."

"There's about half a billion feet of it. We'll begin to manufacture when we get through here. I'm going out next month, as soon as the snow is out of the mountains, to see about the plant and the general lay-out. I'm going to leave you in charge here."

Bob almost dropped his pipe as his jaws fell apart.

"Me!" he cried.

"Yes, you."

"But I can't; I don't know enough! I'd make a mess of the whole business," Bob expostulated.

"You've been around here for a year," said Welton, "and things are running all right. I want somebody to see that things move along, and you're the one. Are you going to refuse?"

"No; I suppose I can't refuse," said Bob miserably, and fell silent.