Part Three
Chapter XIII
 

The season passed without further incidents of general interest. It was a busy season, as mountain seasons always are. Bob had opportunity to go nowhere; but in good truth he had no desire to do so. The surroundings immediate to the work were rich enough in interest. After the flurry caused by the delay in opening communication, affairs fell into their grooves. The days passed on wings. Almost before he knew it, the dogwood leaves had turned rose, the aspens yellow, and the pines, thinning in anticipation of the heavy snows, were dropping their russet needles everywhere. A light snow in September reminded the workers of the altitude. By the first of November the works were closed down. The donkey engines had been roughly housed in; the machinery protected; all things prepared against the heavy Sierra snows. Only the three caretakers were left to inhabit a warm corner. Throughout the winter these men would shovel away threatening weights of snow and see to the damage done by storms. In order to keep busy they might make shakes, or perhaps set themselves to trapping fur-bearing animals. They would use skis to get about.

For a month after coming down from the mountain, Bob stayed at Auntie Belle's. There were a number of things to attend to on the lower levels, such as anticipating repairs to flumes, roads and equipment, systematizing the yard arrangements, and the like. Here Bob came to know more of the countryside and its people.

He found this lower, but still mountainous, country threaded by roads; rough roads, to be sure, but well enough graded. Along these roads were the ranch houses and spacious corrals of the mountain people. Far and wide through the wooded and brushy foothills roamed the cattle, seeking the forage of the winter range that a summer's absence in the high mountains had saved for them. Bob used often to "tie his horse to the ground" and enter for a chat with these people. Harbouring some vague notions of Southern "crackers," he was at first considerably surprised. The houses were in general well built and clean, even though primitive, and Bob had often occasion to notice excellent books and magazines. There were always plenty of children of all sizes. The young women were usually attractive and blooming. They insisted on hospitality; and Bob had the greatest difficulty in persuading them that he stood in no immediate need of nourishment. The men repaid cultivation. Their ideas were often faulty because of insufficient basis of knowledge: but, when untinged by prejudice, apt to be logical. Opinions were always positive, and always existent. No phenomenon, social or physical, could come into their ken without being mulled over and decided upon. In the field of their observations were no dead facts. Not much given to reception of contrary argument or idea they were always eager for new facts. Bob found himself often held in good-humoured tolerance as a youngster when he advanced his opinion; but listened to thirstily when he could detail actual experience or knowledge. The head of the house held patriarchal sway until the grown-up children were actually ready to leave the paternal roof for homes of their own. One and all loved the mountains, though incoherently, and perhaps without full consciousness of the fact. They were extremely tenacious of personal rights.

Bob, being an engaging and open-hearted youth, soon gained favour. Among others he came to know the two Pollock families well. Jim Pollock, with his large brood, had arrived at a certain philosophical, though watchful, acceptance of life; but George, younger, recently married, and eagerly ambitious, chafed sorely. The Pollocks had been in the country for three generations. They inhabited two places on opposite sides of a canon. These houses possessed the distinction of having the only two red-brick chimneys in the hills. They were low, comfortable, rambling, vine-clad.

"We always run cattle in these hills," said George fiercely to Bob, "and got along all right. But these last three years it's been bad. Unless we can fat our cattle on the summer ranges in the high mountains, we can't do business. The grazing on these lower hills you just got to save for winter. You can't raise no hay here. Since they begun to crowd us with old Wright's stock it's tur'ble. I ain't had a head of beef cattle fittin' to sell, bar a few old cows. And if I ain't got cattle to sell, where do I get money to live on? I always been out of debt; but this year I done put a mortgage on the place to get money to go on with."

"We can always eat beef, George," said his wife with a little laugh, "and miner's lettuce. We ain't the first folks that has had hard times--and got over it."

"Mebbe not," agreed George, glancing with furrowed brow at a tiny garment on which Mrs. George was sewing.

Jim Pollock, smoking comfortably in his shirt sleeves before his fire, was not so worried. His youngest slept in his arms; two children played and tumbled on the floor; buxom Mrs. Pollock bustled here and there on household business; the older children sprawled over the table under the lamp reading; the oldest boy, with wrinkled brow, toiled through the instructions of a correspondence school course.

"George always takes it hard," said Jim. "I've got six kids, and he'll have one--or at most two--mebbe. It's hard times all right, and a hard year. I had to mortgage, too. Lord love you, a mortgage ain't so bad as a porous plaster. It'll come off. One good year for beef will fix us. We ain't lost nothing but this year's sales. Our cattle are too pore for beef, but they're all in good enough shape. We ain't lost none. Next year'll be better."

"What makes you think so?" asked Bob.

"Well, Smith, he's superintendent at White Oaks, you know, he's favourable to us. I seed him myself. And even Plant, he's sent old California John back to look over what shape the ranges are in. There ain't no doubt as to which way he'll report. Old John is a cattleman, and he's square."

One day Bob found himself belated after a fishing excursion to the upper end of the valley. As a matter of course he stopped over night with the first people whose ranch he came to. It was not much of a ranch and it's two-room house was of logs and shakes, but the owners were hospitable. Bob put his horse into a ramshackle shed, banked with earth against the winter cold. He had a good time all the evening.

"I'm going to hike out before breakfast," said he before turning in, "so if you'll just show me where the lantern is, I won't bother you in the morning."

"Lantern!" snorted the mountaineer. "You turn on the switch. It's just to the right of the door as you go in."

So Bob encountered another of the curious anomalies not infrequent to the West. He entered a log stable in the remote backwoods and turned on a sixteen-candle-power electric globe! As he extended his rides among the low mountains of the First Rampart, he ran across many more places where electric light and even electric power were used in the rudest habitations.

The explanation was very simple; these men had possessed small water rights which Baker had needed. As part of their compensation they received from Power House Number One what current they required for their own use.

Thus reminded, Bob one Sunday visited Power House Number One. It proved to be a corrugated iron structure through which poured a great stream and from which went high-tension wires strung to mushroom-shaped insulators. It was filled with the clean and shining machinery of electricity. Bob rode up the flume to the reservoir, a great lake penned in canon walls by a dam sixty feet high. The flume itself was of concrete, large enough to carry a rushing stream. He made the acquaintance of some of the men along the works. They tramped and rode back and forth along the right of way, occupied with their insulations, the height of their water, their watts and volts and amperes. Surroundings were a matter of indifference to them. Activity was of the same sort, whether in the city or in the wilderness. As influences--city or wilderness--it was all the same to them. They made their own influences--which in turn developed a special type of people--among the delicate and powerful mysteries of their craft. Down through the land they had laid the narrow, uniform strip of their peculiar activities; and on that strip they dwelt satisfied with a world of their own. Bob sat in a swinging chair talking in snatches to Hicks, between calls on the telephone. He listened to quick, sharp orders as to men and instruments, as to the management of water, the undertaking of repairs. These were couched in technical phrases and slang, for the most part. By means of the telephone Hicks seemed to keep in touch not only with the plants in his own district, but also with the activities in Power Houses Two, Three and Four, many miles away. Hicks had never once, in four years, been to the top of the first range. He had had no interest in doing so. Neither had he an interest in the foothill country to the west.

"I'd kind of like to get back and kill a buck or so," he confessed; "but I haven't got the time."

"It's a different country up where we are," urged Bob. "You wouldn't know it for the same state as this dry and brushy country. It has fine timber and green grass."

"I suppose so," said Hicks indifferently. "But I haven't got the time."

Bob rode away a trifle inclined to that peculiar form of smug pity a hotel visitor who has been in a place a week feels for yesterday's arrival. He knew the coolness of the great mountain.

At this point an opening in the second growth of yellow pines permitted him a vista. He looked back. He had never been in this part of the country before. A little portion of Baldy, framed in a pine-clad cleft through the First Range, towered chill, rugged and marvellous in its granite and snow. For the first time Bob realized that even so immediately behind the scene of his summer's work were other higher, more wonderful countries. As he watched, the peak was lost in the blackness of one of those sudden storms that gather out of nothing about the great crests. The cloud spread like magic in all directions. The faint roll of thunder came down a wind, damp and cool, sucked from the high country.

Bob rounded a bend in the road to overtake old California John, jingling placidly along on his beautiful sorrel. Though by no means friendly to any member of this branch of government service, Bob reined his animal.

"Hullo," said he, overborne by an unexpected impulse.

"Good day," responded the old man, with a friendly deepening of the kindly wrinkles about his blue eyes.

"John," asked Bob, "were you ever in those big mountains there?"

"Baldy?" said the Ranger. "Lord love you, yes. I have to cross Baldy 'most every time I go to the back country. There's two good passes through Baldy."

"Back country!" repeated Bob. "Are there any higher mountains than those?"

Old California John chuckled.

"Listen, son," said he. "There's the First Range, and then Stone Creek, and then Baldy. And on the other side of Baldy there's the canon of the Joncal which is three thousand foot down. And then there's the Burro Mountains, which is half again as high as Baldy, and all the Burro country to Little Jackass. That's a plateau covered with lodge-pole pine and meadows and creeks and little lakes. It's a big plateau, and when you're a-ridin' it, you shore seem like bein' in a wide, flat country. And then there's the Green Mountain country; and you drop off five or six thousand foot into the box canon of the north fork; and then you climb out again to Red Mountain; and after that is the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles is the Fourth Rampart. After them is South Meadow, and the Boneyard. Then you get to the Main Crest. And that's only if you go plumb due east. North and south there's all sorts of big country. Why, Baldy's only a sort of taster."

Bob's satisfaction with himself collapsed. This land so briefly shadowed forth was penetrable only in summer: that he well knew. And all summer Bob was held to the great tasks of the forest. He hadn't the time! Wherein did he differ from Hicks? In nothing save that his right of way happened to be a trifle wider.

"Have you been to all these places?" asked Bob.

"Many times," replied California John. "From Stanislaus to the San Bernardino desert I've ridden."

"How big a country is that?"

"It's about four hundred mile long, and about eighty mile wide as the crow flies--a lot bigger as a man must ride."

"All big mountains?"

"Surely."

"You must have been everywhere?"

"No," said California John, "I never been to Jack Main's Canon. It's too fur up, and I never could get time off to go in there."

So this man, too, the ranger whose business it was to travel far and wide in the wild country, sighed for that which lay beyond his right of way! Suddenly Bob was filled with a desire to transcend all these activities, to travel on and over the different rights of way to which all the rest of the world was confined until he knew them all and what lay beyond them. The impulse was but momentary, and Bob laughed at himself as it passed.

"Something hid beyond the ranges," he quoted softly to himself.

Suddenly he looked up, and gathered his reins.

"John," he said, "we're going to catch that storm."

"Surely," replied the old man looking at him with surprise; "just found that out?"

"Well, we'd better hurry."

"What's the use? It'll catch us, anyhow. We're shore due to get wet."

"Well, let's hunt a good tree."

"No," said California John, "this is a thunder-storm, and trees is too scurce. You just keep ridin' along the open road. I've noticed that lightnin' don't hit twice in the same place mainly because the same place don't seem to be thar any more after the first time."

The first big drops of the storm delayed fully five minutes. It did seem foolish to be jogging peacefully along at a foxtrot while the tempest gathered its power, but Bob realized the justice of his companion's remarks.

When it did begin, however, it made up for lost time. The rain fell as though it had been turned out of a bucket. In an instant every runnel was full. The water even flowed in a thin sheet from the hard surface of the ground. The men were soaked.

Then came the thunder in a burst of fury and noise. The lightning flashed almost continuously, not only down, but aslant, and even--Bob thought--up. The thunder roared and reverberated and reechoed until the world was filled with its crashes. Bob's nerves were steady with youth and natural courage, but the implacable rapidity with which assault followed assault ended by shaking him into a sort of confusion. His horse snorted, pricking its ears backward and forward, dancing from side to side. The lightning seemed fairly to spring into being all about them, from the substance of the murk in which they rode.

"Isn't this likely to hit us?" he yelled at California John.

"Liable to," came back the old man's reply across the roar of the tempest.

Bob looked about him uneasily. The ranger bent his head to the wind. Star, walking more rapidly, outpaced Bob's horse, until they were proceeding single file some ten feet apart.

Suddenly the earth seemed to explode directly ahead. A blinding flare swept the ground, a hissing crackle was drowned in an overwhelming roar of thunder. Bob dodged, and his horse whirled. When he had mastered both his animal and himself he spurred back. California John had reined in his mount. Not twenty feet ahead of him the bolt had struck. California John glanced quizzically over his shoulder at the sky.

"Old Man," he remarked, "you'll have to lower your sights a little, if you want to git me."