The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
The establishment of the store attracted a great many campers. California is the campers' state. Immediately after the close of the rainy season they set forth. The wayfarer along any of the country roads will everywhere meet them, either plodding leisurely through the charming landscape, or cheerfully gipsying it by the roadside. Some of the outfits are very elaborate, veritable houses on wheels, with doors and windows, stove pipes, steps that let down, unfolding devices so ingenious that when they are all deployed the happy owners are surrounded by complete convenience and luxury. The man drives his ark from beneath a canopy; the women and children occupy comfortably the living room of the house--whose sides, perchance, fold outward like wings when the breeze is cool and the dust not too thick. Carlo frisks joyously ahead and astern. Other parties start out quite as cheerfully with the delivery wagon, or the buckboard, or even--at a pinch--with the top buggy. For all alike the country-side is golden, the sun warm, the sky blue, the birds joyous, and the spring young in the land. The climate is positively guaranteed. It will not rain; it will shine; the stars will watch. Feed for the horses everywhere borders the roads. One can idle along the highways and the byways and the noways-at-all, utterly carefree, surrounded by wild and beautiful scenery. No wonder half the state turns nomadic in the spring.
And then, as summer lays its heats--blessed by the fruit man, the irrigator, the farmer alike--over the great interior valleys, the people divide into two classes. One class, by far the larger, migrates to the Coast. There the trade winds blowing softly from the Pacific temper the semi-tropic sun; the Coast Ranges bar back the furnace-like heat of the interior; and the result is a summer climate even nearer perfection--though not so much advertised--than is that of winter. Here the populace stays in the big winter hotels at reduced rates, or rents itself cottages, or lives in one or the other of the unique tent cities. It is gregarious and noisy, and healthy and hearty, and full of phonographs and a desire to live in bathing suits. Another, and smaller contingent, turns to the Sierras.
We have here nothing to do with those who attend the resorts such as Tahoe or Klamath; nor yet with that much smaller contingent of hardy and adventurous spirits who, with pack-mule and saddle, lose themselves in the wonderful labyrinth of granite and snow, of canon and peak, of forest and stream that makes up the High Sierras. But rather let us confine ourselves to the great middle class, the class that has not the wealth nor the desire for resort hotels, nor the skill nor the equipment to explore a wilderness. These people hitch up the farm team, or the grocer's cart, or the family horse, pile in their bedding and their simple cooking utensils, whistle to the dog, and climb up out of the scorching inferno to the coolness of the pines.
They have few but definite needs. They must have company, water, and the proximity of a store where they can buy things to eat. If there is fishing, so much the better. At any rate there is plenty of material for bonfires. And since other stores are practically unknown above the six-thousand-foot winter limit of habitability, it follows that each lumber-mill is a magnet that attracts its own community of these visitors to the out of doors.
As early as the beginning of July the first outfit drifted in. Below the mill a half-mile there happened to be a small, round lake with meadows at the upper and lower ends. By the middle of the month two hundred people were camped there. Each constructed his abiding place according to his needs and ideas, and promptly erected a sign naming it. The names were facetiously intended. The community was out for a good time, and it had it. Phonographs, concertinas, and even a tiny transportable organ appeared. The men dressed in loose rough clothes; the women wore sun-bonnets; the girls inclined to bandana handkerchiefs, rough-rider skirts and leggings, cowboy hats caught up at the sides, fringed gauntlet gloves. They were a good-natured, kindly lot, and Bob liked nothing better than to stroll down to the Lake in the twilight. There he found the arrangements differing widely. The smaller ranchmen lived roughly, sleeping under the stars, perhaps, cooking over an open fire, eating from tinware. The larger ranchmen did things in better style. They brought rocking chairs, big tents, chinaware, camp stoves and Japanese servants to manipulate them. The women had flags and Chinese lanterns with which to decorate, hammocks in which to lounge, books to read, tables at which to sit, cots and mattresses on which to sleep. No difference in social status was made, however. The young people undertook their expeditions together: the older folks swapped yarns in the peaceful enjoyment of the forest. Bob found interest in all, for as yet the California ranchman has not lost in humdrum occupations the initiative that brought him to a new country nor the influences of the experience he has gained there. To his surprise several of the parties were composed entirely of girls. One, of four members, was made up of students from Berkeley, out for their summer vacation. Late in the summer these four damsels constructed a pack of their belongings, lashed it on a borrowed mule, and departed. They were gone for a week in the back country, and returned full of adventures over the detailing of which they laughed until they gasped.
To Bob's astonishment none of the men seemed particularly wrought up over this escapade.
"They're used to the mountains," he was assured, "and they'll get along all right with that old mule."
"Does anybody live over there?" asked Bob.
"No, it's just a wild country, but the trails is good."
"Suppose they get into trouble?"
"What trouble? And 'tain't likely they'd all get into trouble to once."
"I should think they'd be scared."
"Nothin' to be scared of," replied the man comfortably.
Bob thought of the great, uninhabited mountains, the dark forests, the immense loneliness and isolation, the thousand subtle and psychic influences which the wilderness exerts over the untried soul. There might be nothing to be scared of, as the man said. Wild animals are harmless, the trails are good. But he could not imagine any of the girls with whom he had acquaintance pushing off thus joyous and unafraid into a wilderness three days beyond the farthest outpost. He had yet to understand the spirit, almost universal among the native-born Californians, that has been brought up so intimately with the large things of nature that the sublime is no longer the terrible. Perhaps this states it a little too pompously. They have learned that the mere absence of mankind is 'nothing to be scared of'; they have learned how to be independent and to take care of themselves. Consequently, as a matter of course, as one would ride in the park, they undertake expeditions into the Big Country.
Many of these travellers, especially toward the close of the summer, complained bitterly of the scarcity of horse-feed. In the back country where the mountains were high and the wilderness unbroken, they depended for forage on the grasses of the mountain meadows. This year they reported that the cattle had eaten the forage down to the roots. Where usually had been abundance and pleasant camping, now were hard, close lawns, and cattle overrunning and defiling everything. Under the heavy labour of mountain travel the horses fell off rapidly in flesh and strength.
"We're the public just as much as them cattlemen," declaimed one grizzled veteran waving his pipe. "I come to these mountains first in sixty-six, and the sheep was bad enough then, but you always had some horse meadows. Now they're just plumb overrunning the country. There's thousands and thousands of folks that come in camping, and about a dozen of these yere cattlemen. They got no right to hog the public land."
With so much approval did this view meet that a delegation went to Plant's summer quarters to talk it over. The delegation returned somewhat red about the ears. Plant had politely but robustly told it that a supervisor was the best judge of how to run his own forest. This led to declamatory denunciation, after the American fashion, but without resulting in further activity. Resentment seemed to be about equally divided between Plant and the cattlemen as a class.
This resentment as to the latter, however, soon changed to sympathy. In September the Pollock boys stopped overnight at the Lake Meadow on their way out. Their cattle, in charge of the dogs, they threw for the night into a rude corral of logs, built many years before for just that purpose. Their horses they fed with barley hay bought from Merker. Their camp they spread away from the others, near the spring. It was dark before they lit their fire. Visitors sauntering over found George and Jim Pollock on either side the haphazard blaze stolidly warming through flapjacks, and occasionally settling into a firmer position the huge coffee pot. The dust and sweat of driving cattle still lay thick on their faces. A boy of eighteen, plainly the son of one of the other two, was hanging up the saddles. The whole group appeared low-spirited and tired. The men responded to the visitors by a brief nod only. The latter there-upon sat down just inside the circle of lamplight and smoked in silence. Presently Jim arose stiffly, frying pan in hand.
"It's done," he announced.
They ate in silence, consuming great quantities of half-cooked flapjacks, chunks of overdone beef, and tin-cupfuls of scalding coffee. When they had finished they thrust aside the battered tin dishes with the air of men too weary to bother further with them. They rolled brown paper cigarettes and smoked listlessly. After a time George Pollock remarked:
"We ain't washed up."
The statement resulted in no immediate action. After a few moments more, however, the boy arose slowly, gathered the dishes clattering into a kettle, filled the latter with water, and set it in the fire. Jim and his brother, too, bestirred themselves, disappearing in the direction of the spring with a bar of mottled soap, an old towel, and a battered pan. They returned after a few moments, their faces shining, their hair wetted and sleeked down.
"Plumb too lazy to wash up." George addressed the silent visitors by way of welcome.
"Drove far?" asked an old ranchman.
"How's the feed?" came the inevitable cowman's question.
"Pore, pore," replied the mountaineer. "Ain't never seen it so short. My cattle's pore."
"Well, you're overstocked; that's what's the matter," spoke up some one boldly.
George Pollock turned his face toward this voice.
"Don't you suppose I know it?" he demanded. "There's a thousand head too many on my range alone. I've been crowded and pushed all summer, and I ain't got a beef steer fit to sell, right now. My cattle are so pore I'll have to winter 'em on foothill winter feed. And in the spring they'll be porer."
"Well, why don't you all get together and reduce your stock?" persisted the questioner. "Then there'll be a show for somebody. I got three packs and two saddlers that ain't fatted up from a two weeks' trip in August. You got the country skinned; and that ain't no dream."
George Pollock turned so fiercely that his listeners shrank.
"Get together! Reduce our stock!" he snarled, shaken from the customary impassivity of the mountaineer, "It ain't us! We got the same number of cattle, all we mountain men, that our fathers had afore us! There ain't never been no trouble before. Sometimes we crowded a little, but we all know our people and we could fix things up, and so long as they let us be, we got along all right. It don't pay us to overstock. What for do we keep cattle? To sell, don't we? And we can't sell 'em unless they're fat. Summer feed's all we got to fat 'em on. Winter feed's no good. You know that. We ain't going to crowd our range. You make me tired!"
"What's the trouble then?"
"Outsiders," snapped Pollock. "Folks that live on the plains and just push in to summer their cattle anyhow, and then fat 'em for the market on alfalfa hay. This ain't their country. Why don't they stick to their own?"
"Can't you handle them? Who are they?"
"It ain't they," replied George Pollock sullenly. "It's him. It's the richest man in California, with forty ranches and fifty thousand head of cattle and a railroad or two and God knows what else. But he'll come up here and take a pore man's living away from him for the sake of a few hundred dollars saved."
"Old Simeon, hey?" remarked the ranchman thoughtfully.
"Simeon Wright," said Pollock. "The same damn old robber. Forest Reserves!" he sneered bitterly. "For the use of the public! Hell! Who's the public? me and you and the other fellow? The public is Simeon Wright. What do you expect?"
"Didn't Plant say he was going to look into the matter for next year?" Bob inquired from the other side the fire.
"Plant! He's bought," returned Pollock contemptuously. "He's never seen the country, anyway; and he never will."
He rose and kicked the fire together.
"Good night!" he said shortly, and, retiring to the shadows, rolled himself in a blanket and turned his back on the visitors.