Part Three
Chapter XVII
 

The autumn passed, and winter closed down. Plant continued his administration. For a month the countryside was on a tip-toe of expectation. It counted on no immediate results, but the "suspension pending investigation" was to take place within a few weeks. As far as surface indications were concerned nothing happened. Expectation was turned back on itself. Absolute confidence in Plant's removal and criminal conviction gave place to scepticism and doubt, finally to utter disbelief. And since Thorne had succeeded in arousing a real faith and enthusiasm, the reaction was by so much the stronger. Tolerance gave way to antagonism; distrust to bitterness; grievance to open hostility. The Forest Reserves were cursed as a vicious institution created for the benefit of the rich man, depriving the poor man of his rights and privileges, imposing on him regulations that were at once galling and senseless.

The Forest Rangers suddenly found themselves openly unpopular. Heretofore a ranger had been tolerated by the mountaineers as either a good-for-nothing saloon loafer enjoying the fats of political perquisite; or as a species of inunderstandable fanatic to be looked down upon with good-humoured contempt. Now a ranger became a partisan of the opposing forces, and as such an enemy. Men ceased speaking to him, or greeted him with the curtest of nods. Plant's men were ostracized in every way, once they showed themselves obstinate in holding to their positions. Every man was urged to resign. Many did so. Others hung on because the job was too soft to lose. Some, like Ross Fletcher, California John, Tom Carroll, Charley Morton and a few others, moved on their accustomed way.

One of the inspiring things in the later history of the great West is the faith and insight, the devotion and self-sacrifice of some of the rough mountain men in some few of the badly managed reserves to truths that were but slowly being recognized by even the better educated of the East. These men, year after year, without leadership, without encouragement, without the support and generally against the covered or open hostility of their neighbours, under most disheartening official conditions kept the torch alight. They had no wide theory of forestry to sustain their interest; they could certainly have little hope of promotion and advancement to a real career; their experience with a bureaucratic government could not arouse in their breasts any expectation of a broad, a liberal, or even an enlightened policy of conservation or use. They were set in opposition to their neighbours without receiving the support of the power that so placed them. Nevertheless, according to their knowledge they worked faithfully. Five times out of ten they had little either of supervision or instruction. Turned out in the mountains, like a bunch of stock, each was free to do as much or as little of whatever he pleased. Each improved his district according to his ideas or his interests. One cared most for building trails; another for chasing sheep trespassers; a third for construction of bridges, cabins and fences. All had occasionally to fight fires. Each was given the inestimable privilege of doing what he could. Everything he did had to be reported on enormous and complicated forms. If he made a mistake in any of these, he heard from it, and perhaps his pay was held up. This pay ran somewhere about sixty or seventy-five dollars a month, and he was required to supply his own horses and to feed them. Most rangers who were really interested in their profession spent some of this in buying tools with which to work.[A] The Government supplied next to nothing. In 1902 between the King's River and the Kaweah, an area of somewhere near a million acres, the complete inventory of fire-fighting tools consisted of two rakes made from fifty cents' worth of twenty-penny nails.

But these negative discouragements were as nothing compared to the petty rebuffs and rulings that emanated from the Land Office itself.

One spring Ross Fletcher, following specific orders, was sent out after twenty thousand trespassing sheep. It was early in the season. His instructions took him up into the frozen meadows, so he had to carry barley for his horses. He used three sacks and sent in a bill for one. Item refused. Feed was twenty dollars a thousand. Salary seventy-five dollars.

One of Simeon Wright's foremen broke down government fences and fed out all the ranger horse feed. Tom Carroll wrote to Superintendent Smith; later to Washington. The authorities, however, refused to revoke the cattleman's licence. At Christmas time, when Carroll was in White Oaks the foreman and his two sons jeered at and insulted the ranger in regard to this matter until the latter lost his temper and thrashed all three, one after the other. For this he was severely reprimanded by Washington.

Charley Morton was ordered to Yosemite to consult with the military officers there. He was instructed to do so in a certain number of days. To keep inside his time limit he had to hire a team. Item refused.

California John fought fire alone for two days and a night, then had to go outside for help. Docked a day for going off the reserve.

Why did these men prefer to endure neglect and open hostility to the favour of their neighbours and easier work? Bob, with a growing wonder and respect, tried to find out.

He did not succeed. There certainly was no overwhelming love for the administration of Henry Plant; nor loyalty to the Land Office. Indeed for the latter, one and all entertained the deep contempt of the out-of-door man for the red-tape clerk.

"What do you think is the latest," asked California John one day, "from them little squirts? I just got instructions that during of the fire season I must patrol the whole of my district every day!" The old man grinned. "I only got from here to Pumice Mountain! I wonder if those fellows ever saw a mountain? I suppose they laid off an inch on the map and let it go at that. Patrol every day!"

"How long would it take you?" asked Bob.

"By riding hard, about a week."

Rather the loyalty seemed to be gropingly to the idea back of it all, to something broad and dim and beautiful which these rough, untutored men had drawn from their native mountains and which thus they rendered back.

As Bob gradually came to understand more of the situation his curiosity grew. The lumberman's instinctive hostility to government control and interference had not in the slightest degree modified; but he had begun to differentiate this small, devoted band from the machinery of the Forest Reserves as they were then conducted. He was a little inclined to the fanatic theory; he knew by now that the laziness hypothesis would not apply to these.

"What is there in it?" he asked. "You surely can't hope for a boost in salary; and certainly your bosses treat you badly."

At first he received vague and evasive answers. They liked the work; they got along all right; it was a lot better than the cattle business just now, and so on. Then as it became evident that the young man was genuinely interested, California John gradually opened up. One strange and beautiful feature of American partisanship for an ideal is its shyness. It will work and endure, will wait and suffer, but it will not go forth to proselyte.

"The way I kind of look at it is this," said the old man one evening. "I always did like these here mountains--and the big trees--and the rocks and water and the snow. Everywhere else the country belongs to some one: it's staked out. Up here it belongs to me, because I'm an American. This country belongs to all of us--the people--all of us. We most of us don't know we've got it, that's all. I kind of look at it this way: suppose I had a big pile of twenty-dollar gold pieces lying up, say in Siskiyou, that I didn't know nothing whatever about; and some fellow come along and took care of it for me and hung onto it even when I sent out word that anybody was welcome to anything I owned in Siskiyou--I not thinking I really owned anything there, you understand--why--well, you see, I sort of like to feel I'm one of those fellows!"

"What good is there in hanging onto a lot of land that would be better developed?" asked Bob.

But California John refused to be drawn into a discussion. He had his faith, but he would not argue about it. Sometime or other the people would come to that same faith. In the meantime there was no sense in tangling up with discussions.

"They send us out some reading that tells about it," said California John. "I'll give you some."

He was as good as his word. Bob carried away with him a dozen government publications of the sort that, he had always concluded, everybody received and nobody read. Interested, not in the subject matter of the pamphlets, but in their influence on these mountain men, he did read them. In this manner he became for the first time acquainted with the elementary principles of watersheds and water conservation. This was actually so. Nor did he differ in this respect from any other of the millions of well-educated youth of the country. In a vague way he knew that trees influence climate. He had always been too busy with trees to bother about climate.

The general facts interested him, and appealed to his logical common sense. He saw for the first time, because for the first time it had been presented to his attention, the real use and reason for the forest reserves. Hitherto he had considered the whole institution as semi-hostile, at least as something in potential antagonism. Now he was willing fairly to recognize the wisdom of preserving some portion of the mountain cover. He had not really denied it; simply he hadn't considered it.

Early in this conviction he made up to Ross Fletcher for his brusqueness in ordering the ranger off the mill property.

"I just classed you with your gang, which was natural," said Bob.

"I am one of my gang, of course," said Fletcher.

"Do you consider yourself one of the same sort of dicky bird as Plant and that crew?" demanded Bob.

"There ain't no humans all alike," replied the mountaineer.

Although Bob was thus rebuffed in immediately getting inside of the man's loyalty to his service and his superiors, he was from that moment made to feel at his ease. Later, in a fuller intimacy, he was treated more frankly.

Welton laughed openly at Bob's growing interest in these matters.

"You're the first man I ever saw read any of those things," said he in regard to the government reports. "I once read one," he went on in delightful contradiction to his first statement. "It told how to cut timber. When you cut down a tree, you pile up the remains in a neat pile and put a little white picket fence around them. It would take a thousand men and cost enough to buy a whole new tract to do all the monkey business they want you to do. I've only been in the lumber business forty years! When a college boy can teach me, I'm willing to listen; but he can't teach me the A B C of the business."

Bob laughed. "Well, I can't just see us taking time in a short season to back-track and pile up ornamental brush piles," he admitted.

"Experimental farms, and experimental chickens, and experimental lumbering are all right for the gentleman farmer and the gentleman poultry fancier and the gentleman lumberman--if there are any. But when it comes to business----"

Bob laughed. "Just the same," said he, "I'm beginning to see that it's a good thing to keep some of this timber standing; and the only way it can be done is through the Forest Reserves."

"That's all right," agreed Welton. "Let'em reserve. I don't care. But they are a nuisance. They keep stepping on my toes. It's too good a chance to annoy and graft. It gives a hard lot of loafers too good a chance to make trouble."

"They are a hard lot in general," agreed Bob, "but there's some good men among them, men I can't help but admire."

Welton rolled his eyes drolly at the younger man.

"Who?" he inquired.

"Well, there's old California John."

"There's three or four mossbacks in the lot that are honest," cut in Welton, "but it's because they're too damn thick-headed to be anything else. Don't get kiddish enough to do the picturesque mountaineer act, Bobby. I can dig you up four hundred of that stripe anywhere--and holding down just about as valuable jobs. Don't get too thick with that kind. In the city you'll find them holding open-air meetings. I suppose our friend Plant has been pinched?"

"Not yet," grinned Bob, a trifle shamefacedly.

"Don't get the reform bug, Bob," said Welton kindly, "That's all very well for those that like to amuse themselves, but we're busy."

[Footnote A: The accounts of one man showed that for a long period he had so disbursed from his own pocket an average of thirty dollars a month. His salary was sixty dollars.]