Part Three
Chapter XI
 

Bob rode jubilantly into camp. The expedition had taken him all the afternoon, and it was dropping dusk when he had reached the mill.

"We can get busy," he cried, waving the permit at Welton. "Here it is!"

Welton smiled. "I knew that, my boy," he replied, "and we're already busy to the extent of being ready to turn her loose to-morrow morning. I've sent down a yard crew to the lower end of the flume; and I've started Max to rustling out the teams by 'phone."

Next day the water was turned into the flume. Fifty men stood by. Rapidly the skilled workmen applied the clamps and binders that made of the boards a compact bundle to be given to the rushing current. Then they thrust it forward to the drag of the water. It gathered headway, rubbing gently against the flume, first on one side, then on the other. Its weight began to tell; it gathered momentum; it pushed ahead of its blunt nose a foaming white wave; it shot out of sight grandly, careening from side to side. The men cheered.

"Well, we're off!" said Bob cheerfully.

"Yes, we're off, thank God!" replied Welton.

From that moment the affairs of the new enterprise went as well as could be expected. Of course, there were many rough edges to be smoothed off, but as the season progressed the community shaped itself. It was indeed a community, of many and diverse activities, much more complicated, Bob soon discovered, than any of the old Michigan logging camps. A great many of the men brought their families. These occupied separate shanties, of course. The presence of the women and children took away much of that feeling of impermanence associated with most pioneer activities. As without exception these women kept house, the company "van" speedily expanded to a company store. Where the "van" kept merely rough clothing, tobacco and patent medicines, the store soon answered demands for all sorts of household luxuries and necessities. Provisions, of course, were always in request. These one of the company's bookkeepers doled out.

"Mr. Poole," the purchaser would often say to this man, "next time a wagon comes up from Sycamore Flats would you just as soon have them bring me up a few things? I want a washboard, and some shoes for Jimmy, and a double boiler; and there ought to be an express package for me from my sister."

"Sure! I'll see to it," said Poole.

This meant a great deal of trouble, first and last, what with the charges and all. Finally, Welton tired of it.

"We've got to keep a store," he told Bob finally.

With characteristic despatch he put the carpenters to work, and sent for lists of all that had been ordered from Sycamore Flats. A study of these, followed by a trip to White Oaks, resulted in the equipment of a store under charge of a man experienced in that sort of thing. As time went on, and the needs of such a community made themselves more evident, the store grew in importance. Its shelves accumulated dress goods, dry goods, clothing, hardware; its rafters dangled with tinware and kettles, with rope, harness, webbing; its bins overflowed with various food-stuffs unknown to the purveyor of a lumber camp's commissary, but in demand by the housewife; its one glass case shone temptingly with fancy stationery, dollar watches, and even cheap jewelry. There was candy for the children, gum for the bashful maiden, soda pop for the frivolous young. In short, there sprang to being in an astonishingly brief space of time a very creditable specimen of the country store. It was a business in itself, requiring all the services of a competent man for the buying, the selling, and the transportation. At the end of the year it showed a fair return on the investment.

"Though we'd have to have it even at a dead loss," Welton pointed out, "to hold our community together. All we need is a few tufts of chin whiskers and some politics to be full-fledged gosh-darn mossbacks."

The storekeeper, a very deliberate person, Merker by name, was much given to contemplation and pondering. He possessed a German pipe of porcelain, which he smoked when not actively pestered by customers. At such times he leaned his elbows on the counter, curved one hand about the porcelain bowl of his pipe, lost the other in the depths of his great seal-brown beard, and fell into staring reveries. When a customer entered he came back--with due deliberation--from about one thousand miles. He refused to accept more than one statement at a time, to consider more than one person at a time, or to do more than one thing at a time.

"Gim'me five pounds of beans, two of sugar, and half a pound of tea!" demanded Mrs. Max.

Merker deliberately laid aside his pipe, deliberately moved down the aisle behind his counter, deliberately filled his scoop, deliberately manipulated the scales. After the package was duly and neatly encased, labelled and deposited accurately in front of Mrs. Max, Merker looked her in the eye.

"Five pounds of beans," said he, and paused for the next item.

The moment the woman had departed, Merker resumed his pipe and his wide-eyed vacancy.

Welton was immensely amused and tickled.

"Seems to me he might keep a little busier," grumbled Bob.

"I thought so, too, at first," replied the older man, "but his store is always neat, and he keeps up his stock. Furthermore, he never makes a mistake--there's no chance for it on his one-thing-at-a-time system."

But it soon became evident that Merker's reveries did not mean vacancy of mind. At such times the Placid One figured on his stock. When he put in a list of goods required, there was little guess-work as to the quantities needed. Furthermore, he had other schemes. One evening he presented himself to Welton with a proposition. His waving brown hair was slicked back from his square, placid brow, his wide, cowlike eyes shone with the glow of the common or domestic fire, his brown beard was neat, and his holiday clothes were clean. At Welton's invitation he sat, but bolt upright at the edge of a chair.

"After due investigation and deliberation," he stated, "I have come to the independent conclusion that we are overlooking a means of revenue."

"As what?" asked Welton, amused by the man's deadly seriousness.

"Hogs," stated Merker.

He went on deliberately to explain the waste in camp garbage, the price of young pigs, the cost of their transportation, the average selling price of pork, the rate of weight increase per month, and the number possible to maintain. He further showed that, turned at large, they would require no care. Amused still at the man's earnestness, Welton tried to trip him up with questions. Merker had foreseen every contingency.

"I'll turn it over to you. Draw the necessary money from the store account," Welton told him finally.

Merker bowed solemnly and went out. In two weeks pigs appeared. They became a feature of the landscape, and those who experimented with gardens indulged in profanity, clubs and hog-proof fences. Returning home after dark, the wayfarer was apt to be startled to the edge of flight by the grunting upheaval of what had seemed a black shadow under the moon. Bob in especial acquired concentrated practice in horsemanship for the simple reason that his animal refused to dismiss his first hypothesis of bears.

Nevertheless, at the end of the season Merker gravely presented a duly made out balance to the credit of hogs.

Encouraged by the success of this venture, he next attempted chickens. But even his vacant-eyed figuring had neglected to take into consideration the abundance of such predatory beasts and birds as wildcats, coyotes, raccoons, owls and the swift hawks of the falcon family.

"I had thought," he reported to the secretly amused Welton, "that even in feeding the finer sorts of garbage to hogs there might be an economic waste; hogs fatten well enough on the coarser grades, and chickens will eat the finer. In that I fell into error. The percentage of loss from noxious varmints more than equals the difference in the cost of eggs. I further find that the margin of profits on chickens is not large enough to warrant expenditures for traps, dogs and men sufficient for protection."

"And how does the enterprise stand now?" asked Welton.

"We are behind."

"H'm. And what would you advise by way of retrenchment?"

"I should advise closing out the business by killing the fowl," was Merker's opinion. "Crediting the account with the value of the chickens as food would bring us out with a loss of approximately ten dollars."

"Fried chicken is hardly applicable as lumber camp provender," pointed out Welton. "So it's scarcely a legitimate asset."

"I had considered that point," replied Merker, "and in my calculations I had valued the chickens at the price of beef."

Welton gave it up.

Another enterprise for which Merker was responsible was the utilization of the slabs and edgings in the construction of fruit trays and boxes. When he approached Welton on the subject, the lumberman was little inclined to be receptive to the idea.

"That's all very well, Merker," said he, impatiently; "I don't doubt it's just as you say, and there's a lot of good tray and box material going to waste. So, too, I don't doubt there's lots of material for toothpicks and matches and wooden soldiers and shingles and all sorts of things in our slashings. The only trouble is that I'm trying to run a big lumber company. I haven't time for all that sort of little monkey business. There's too much detail involved in it."

"Yes, sir," said Merker, and withdrew.

About two weeks later, however, he reappeared, towing after him an elderly, bearded farmer and a bashful-looking, hulking youth.

"This is Mr. Lee," said Merker, "and he wants to make arrangements with you to set up a little cleat and box-stuff mill, and use from your dump."

Mr. Lee, it turned out, had been sent up by an informal association of the fruit growers of the valley. Said informal association had been formed by Merker through the mails. The store-keeper had submitted such convincing figures that Lee had been dispatched to see about it. It looked cheaper in the long run to send up a spare harvesting engine, to buy a saw, and to cut up box and tray stuff than to purchase these necessities from the regular dealers. Would Mr. Welton negotiate? Mr. Welton did. Before long the millmen were regaled by the sight of a snorting little upright engine connected by a flapping, sagging belt to a small circular saw. Two men and two boys worked like beavers. The racket and confusion, shouts, profanity and general awkwardness were something tremendous. Nevertheless, the pile of stock grew, and every once in a while six-horse farm wagons from the valley would climb the mountain to take away box material enough to pack the fruit of a whole district. To Merker this was evidently a profound satisfaction. Often he would vary his usual between-customer reverie by walking out on his shaded verandah, where he would lean against an upright, nursing the bowl of his pipe, gazing across the sawdust to the diminutive and rackety box-plant in the distance.

Welton, passing one day, laughed at him.

"How about your economic waste, Merker?" he called. "Two good men could turn out three times the stuff all that gang does in about half the time."

"There are no two good men for that job," replied Merker unmoved. His large, cowlike eyes roved across the yards. "Men grow in a generation; trees grow in ten," he resumed with unexpected directness. "I have calculated that of a great tree but 40 per cent. is used. All the rest is economic waste--slabs, edging, tops, stumps, sawdust." He sighed. "I couldn't get anybody to consider your toothpick and matches idea, nor the wooden soldiers, nor even the shingles," he ended.

Welton stared.

"You didn't quote me in the matter, did you?" he asked at length.

"I did not take the matter as official. Would I have done better to have done so?"

"Lord, no!" cried Welton fervently.

"The sawdust ought to make something," continued Merker. "But I am unable to discover a practical use for it." He indicated the great yellow mound that each day increased.

"Yes, I got to get a burner for it," said Welton, "it'll soon swamp us."

"There might be power in it," mused Merker. "A big furnace, now----"

"For heaven's sake, man, what for?" demanded Welton.

"I don't know yet," answered the store-keeper.

Merker amused and interested Welton, and in addition proved to be a valuable man for just his position. It tickled the burly lumberman, too, to stop for a moment in his rounds for the purpose of discussing with mock gravity any one of Marker's thousand ideas on economic waste, Welton discovered a huge entertainment in this. One day, however, he found Merker in earnest discussion with a mountain man, whom the store-keeper introduced as Ross Fletcher. Welton did not pay very much attention to this man and was about to pass on when his eye caught the gleam of a Forest Ranger's badge. Then he stopped short.

"Merker!" he called sharply.

The store-keeper looked up.

"See here a minute. Now," said Welton, as he drew the other aside, "I want one thing distinctly understood. This Government gang don't go here. This is my property, and I won't have them loafing around. That's all there is to it. Now understand me; I mean business. If those fellows come in here, they must buy what they want and get out. They're a lazy, loafing, grafting crew, and I won't have them."

Welton spoke earnestly and in a low tone, and his face was red. Bob, passing, drew rein in astonishment. Never, in his long experience with Welton, had he seen the older man plainly out of temper. Welton's usual habit in aggravating and contrary circumstances was to show a surface, at least, of the most leisurely good nature. So unprecedented was the present condition that Bob, after hesitating a moment, dismounted and approached.

Merker was staring at his chief with wide and astonished eyes, and plucking nervously at his brown beard.

"Why, that is Ross Fletcher," he gasped. "We were just talking about the economic waste in the forests. He is a good man. He isn't lazy. He--"

"Economic waste hell!" exploded Welton. "I won't have that crew around here, and I won't have my employees confabbing with them. I don't care what you tell them, or how you fix it, but you keep them out of here. Understand? I hate the sight of one of those fellows worse than a poison-snake!"

Merker glanced from Welton to the ranger and back again perplexed.

"But--but--" he stammered. "I've known Ross Fletcher a long time. What can I say--"

Welton cut in on him with contempt.

"Well, you'd better say something, unless you want me to throw him off the place. This is no corner saloon for loafers."

"I'll fix it," offered Bob, and without waiting for a reply, he walked over to where the mountaineer was leaning against the counter.

"You're a Forest Ranger, I see," said Bob.

"Yes," replied the man, straightening from his lounging position.

"Well, from our bitter experiences as to the activities of a Forest Ranger we conclude that you must be very busy people--too busy to waste time on us."

The man's face changed, but he evidently had not quite arrived at the drift of this.

"I think you know what I mean," said Bob.

A slow flush overspread the ranger's face. He looked the young man up and down deliberately. Bob moved the fraction of an inch nearer.

"Meaning I'm not welcome here?" he demanded.

"This place is for the transaction of business only. Can I have Merker get you anything?"

Fletcher shot a glance half of bewilderment, half of anger, in the direction of the store-keeper. Then he nodded, not without a certain dignity, at Bob.

"Thanks, no," he said, and walked out, his spurs jingling.

"I guess he won't bother us again," said Bob, returning to Welton.

The latter laughed, a trifle ashamed of his anger.

"Those fellows give me the creeps," he said, "like cats do some people. Mossbacks don't know no better, but a Government grafter is a little more useless than a nigger on a sawlog."

He went out. Bob turned to Merker.

"Sorry for the row," he said briefly, for he liked the gentle, slow man. "But they're a bad lot. We've got to keep that crew at arm's length for our own protection."

"Ross Fletcher is not that kind," protested Merker. "I've known him for years."

"Well, he's got a nerve to come in here. I've seen him and his kind holding down too good a job next old Austin's bar."

"Not Ross," protested Merker again. "He's a worker. He's just back now from the high mountains. Mr. Orde, if you've got a minute, sit down. I want to tell you about Ross."

Willing to do what he could to soften Merker's natural feeling, Bob swung himself to the counter, and lit his pipe.

"Ross Fletcher is a ranger because he loves it and believes in it," said Merker earnestly. "He knows things are going rotten now, but he hopes that by and by they'll go better. His district is in good shape. Why, let me tell you: last spring Ross was fighting fire all alone, and he went out for help and they docked him a day for being off the reserve!"

"You don't say," commented Bob.

"You don't believe it. Well, it's so. And they sent him in after sheep in the high mountains early, when the feed was froze, and wouldn't allow him pay for three sacks of barley for his animals. And Ross gets sixty dollars a month, and he spends about half of that for trail tools and fire tools that they won't give him. What do you think of that?"

"Merker," said Bob kindly, "I think your man is either a damn liar or a damn fool. Why does he say he does all this?"

"He likes the mountains. He--well, he just believes in it."

"I see. Are there any more of these altruists? or is he the only bird of the species?"

Merker caught the irony of Bob's tone.

"They don't amount to much, in general," he admitted. "But there's a few--they keep the torch lit."

"I supposed their job was more in the line of putting it out," observed Bob; then, catching Merker's look of slow bewilderment, he added: "So there are several."

"Yes. There's good men among 'em. There's Ross, and Charley Morton, and Tom Carroll, and, of course, old California John."

Bob's amused smile died slowly. Before his mental vision rose the picture of the old mountaineer, with his faded, ragged clothes, his beautiful outfit, his lean, kindly face, his steady blue eyes, guarding an empty trail for the sake of an empty duty. That man was no fool; and Bob knew it. The young fellow slid from the counter to the floor.

"I'm glad you believe in your friend, Merker," said he "and I don't doubt he's a fine fellow; but we can't have rangers, good, bad, or indifferent, hanging around here. I hope you understand that?"

Merker nodded, his wide eyes growing dreamy.

"It's an economic waste," he sighed, "all this cross-purposes. Here's you a good man, and Ross a good man, and you cannot work in harmony because of little things. The Government and the private owner should conduct business together for the best utilization of all raw material--"

"Merker," broke in Bob, with a kindly twinkle, "you're a Utopian."

"Mr. Orde," returned Merker with entire respect, "you're a lumberman."

With this interchange of epithets they parted.