Part One
Chapter XX
 

Bob managed to lose some money in his two years of apprenticeship. That is to say, the net income from the small operations under his charge was somewhat less than it would have been under Welton's supervision. Even at that, the balance sheet showed a profit. This was probably due more to the perfection of the organization than to any great ability on Bob's part. Nevertheless, he exercised a real control over the firm's destinies, and in one or two instances of sudden crisis threw its energies definitely into channels of his own choosing. Especially was this true in dealing with the riverman's arch-enemy, the mossback.

The mossback follows the axe. When the timber is cut, naturally the land remains. Either the company must pay taxes on it, sell it, or allow it to revert to the state. It may be very good land, but it is encumbered with old slashing, probably much of it needs drainage, a stubborn second-growth of scrub oak or red willows has already usurped the soil, and above all it is isolated. Far from the cities, far from the railroad, far even from the crossroad's general store, it is further cut off by the necessity of traversing atrocious and--in the wet season--bottomless roads to even the nearest neighbour. Naturally, then, in seeking purchasers for this cut-over land, the Company must address itself to a certain limited class. For, if a man has money, he will buy him a cleared farm in a settled country. The mossback pays in pennies and gives a mortgage. Then he addresses himself to clearing the land. It follows that he is poverty-stricken, lives frugally and is very tenacious of what property rights he may be able to coax or wring from a hard wilderness. He dwells in a shack, works in a swamp, and sees no farther than the rail fence he has split out to surround his farm.

Thus, while he possesses many of the sturdy pioneer virtues, he becomes by necessity the direct antithesis to the riverman. The purchase of a bit of harness, a vehicle, a necessary tool or implement is a matter of close economy, long figuring, and much work. Interest on the mortgage must be paid. And what can a backwoods farm produce worth money? And where can it find a market? Very little; and very far. A man must "play close to his chest" in order to accomplish that plain, primary, simple duty of making both ends meet. The extreme of this virtue means a defect, of course; it means narrowness of vision, conservatism that comes close to suspicion, illiberality. When these qualities meet the sometimes foolishly generous and lavish ideas of men trained in the reckless life of the river, almost inevitably are aroused suspicion on one side, contempt on the other and antagonism on both.

This is true even in casual and chance intercourse. But when, as often happens, the mossback's farm extends to the very river bank itself; when the legal rights of property clash with the vaguer but no less certain rights of custom, then there is room for endless bickering. When the river boss steps between his men and the backwoods farmer, he must, on the merits of the case and with due regard to the sort of man he has to deal with, decide at once whether he will persuade, argue, coerce, or fight. It may come to be a definite choice between present delay or a future lawsuit.

This kind of decision Bob was most frequently called upon to make. He knew little about law, but he had a very good feeling for the human side. Whatever mistakes he made, the series of squabbles nourished his sense of loyalty to the company. His woods training was gradually bringing him to the lumberman's point of view; and the lumberman's point of view means, primarily, timber and loyalty.

"By Jove, what a fine bunch of timber!" was his first thought on entering a particularly imposing grove.

Where another man would catch merely a general effect, his more practised eye would estimate heights, diameters, the growth of the limbs, the probable straightness of the grain. His eye almost unconsciously sought the possibilities of location--whether a road could be brought in easily, whether the grades could run right. A fine tree gave him the complicated pleasure that comes to any expert on analytical contemplation of any object. It meant timber, good or bad, as well as beauty.

Just so opposition meant antagonism. Bob was naturally of a partisan temperament. He played the game fairly, but he played it hard. Games imply rules, and any infraction of the rules is unfair and to be punished. Bob could not be expected to reflect that while rules are generally imposed by a third party on both contestants alike, in this game the rules with which he was acquainted had been made by his side; that perhaps the other fellow might have another set of rules. All he saw was that the antagonists were perpetrating a series of contemptible, petty, mean tricks or a succession of dastardly outrages. His loyalty and anger were both thoroughly aroused, and he plunged into his little fights with entire whole-heartedness. As his side of the question meant getting out the logs, the combination went far toward efficiency. When the drive was down in the spring, Bob looked back on his mossback campaign with a little grieved surprise that men could think it worth their self-respect to try to take such contemptible advantage of quibbles for the purpose of defeating what was certainly customary and fair, even if it might not be technically legal. What the mossbacks thought about it we can safely leave to the crossroad stores.

In other respects Bob had the good sense to depend absolutely on his subordinates.

"How long do you think it ought to take to cut the rest of Eight?" he would ask Tally.

"About two weeks."

Bob said nothing more, but next day he ruminated long in the snow-still forest at Eight, trying to apportion in his own mind the twelve days' work. If it did not go at a two weeks' gait, he speedily wanted to know why.

When the sleighs failed to return up the ice road with expected regularity, Bob tramped down to the "banks" to see what the trouble was. When he returned, he remarked casually to Jim Tally:

"I fired Powell off the job as foreman, and put in Downy."

"Why?" asked Tally. "I put Powell in there because I thought he was an almighty good worker."

"He is," said Bob; "too good. I found them a little short-handed down there, and getting discouraged. The sleighs were coming in on them faster than they could unload. The men couldn't see how they were going to catch up, so they'd slacked down a little, which made it worse. Powell had his jacket off and was working like the devil with a canthook. He does about the quickest and hardest yank with a canthook I ever saw," mused Bob.

"Well?" demanded Tally.

"Oh," said Bob, "I told him if that was the kind of a job he wanted, he could have it. And I told Downy to take charge. I don't pay a foreman's wages for canthook work; I hire him to keep the men busy, and he sure can't do it if he occupies his time and attention rolling logs."

"He was doing his best to straighten things out," said Tally.

"Well, I'm now paying him for his best," replied Bob, philosophically.

But if it had been a question of how most quickly to skid the logs brought in by the sleighs, Bob would never have dreamed of questioning Powell's opinion, although he might later have demanded expert corroboration from Tally.

The outdoor life, too, interested him and kept him in training, both physically and spiritually. He realized his mistakes, but they were now mistakes of judgment rather than of mechanical accuracy, and he did not worry over them once they were behind him.

When Welton returned from California toward the close of the season, he found the young man buoyant and happy, deeply absorbed, well liked, and in a fair way to learn something about the business.

Almost immediately after his return, the mill was closed down. The remaining lumber in the yards was shipped out as rapidly as possible. By the end of September the work was over.

Bob perforce accepted a vacation of some months while affairs were in preparation for the westward exodus.

Then he answered a summons to meet Mr. Welton at the Chicago offices.

He entered the little outer office he had left so down-heartedly three years before. Harvey and his two assistants sat on the high stools in front of the shelf-like desk. The same pictures of record loads, large trees, mill crews and logging camps hung on the walls. The same atmosphere of peace and immemorial quiet brooded over the place. Through the half-open door Bob could see Mr. Fox, his leg swung over the arm of his revolving chair, chatting in a leisurely fashion with some visitor.

No one had heard him enter. He stood for a moment staring at the three bent backs before him. He remembered the infinite details of the work he had left, the purchasings of innumerable little things, the regulation of outlays, the balancings of expenditures, the constantly shifting property values, the cost of tools, food, implements, wages, machinery, transportation, operation. And in addition he brought to mind the minute and vexatious mortgage and sale and rental business having to do with the old cut-over lands; the legal complications; the questions of arbitration and privilege. And beyond that his mind glimpsed dimly the extent of other interests, concerning which he knew little--investment interests, and silent interests in various manufacturing enterprises where the Company had occasionally invested a surplus by way of a flyer. In this quiet place all these things were correlated, compared, docketed, and filed away. In the brains of the four men before him all these infinite details were laid out in order. He knew that Harvey could answer specific questions as to any feature of any one of these activities. All the turmoil, the rush and roar of the river, the mills, the open lakes, the great wildernesses passed through this silent, dusty room. The problems that kept a dozen men busy in the solving came here also, together with a hundred others. Bob recalled his sight of the hurried, wholesale shipping clerk he had admired when, discouraged and discredited, he had left the office three years before. He had thought that individual busy, and had contrasted his activity with the somnolence of this office. Busy! Why, he, Bob, had over and over again been ten times as busy. At the thought he chuckled aloud. Harvey and his assistants turned to the sound.

"Hullo, Harvey; hullo Archie!" cried the young man. "I'm certainly glad to see you. You're the only men I ever saw who could be really bang-up rushed and never show it."