Part Four
Chapter I
 

When next Bob was able to visit the Upper Camp, he found Thorne fully established. He rode in from the direction of Rock Creek, and so through the pasture and by the back way. In the tiny potato and garden patch behind the house he came upon a woman wielding a hoe.

Her back was toward him, and a pink sunbonnet, freshly starched, concealed all her face. The long, straight lines of her gown fell about a vigorous and supple figure that swayed with every stroke of the hoe. Bob stopped and watched her. There was something refreshing in the eagerness with which she attacked the weeds, as though it were less a drudgery than a live interest which it was well to meet joyously. After a moment she walked a few steps to another row of tiny beans. Her movements had the perfect grace of muscular control; one melted, flowed, into the other. Bob's eye of the athlete noted and appreciated this fact. He wondered to which of the mountain clans this girl belonged. Vigorous and breezy as were the maidens of the hills, able to care for themselves, like the paladins of old, afoot or ahorse, they lacked this grace of movement. He stepped forward.

"I beg pardon," said he.

The girl turned, resting the heel of her hoe on the earth, and both hands on the end of its handle. Bob saw a dark, oval countenance, with very red cheeks, very black eyes and hair, and an engaging flash of teeth. The eyes looked at him as frankly as a boy's, and the flash of teeth made him unaffectedly welcome.

"Is Mr. Thorne here?" asked Bob.

"Why, no," replied the girl; "but I'm Mr. Thorne's sister. Won't I do?"

She was leisurely laying aside her hoe, and drawing the fringed buckskin gauntlets from her hands. Bob stepped gallantly forward to relieve her of the implement.

"Do?" he echoed. "Why, of course you'll do!"

She stopped and looked him full in the face, with an air of great amusement.

"Did you come to see Mr. Thorne on business?" she asked.

"No," replied Bob; "just ran over to see him."

She laughed quietly.

"Then I'm afraid I won't do," she said, "for I must cook dinner. You see," she explained, "I'm Mr. Thorne's clerk, and if it were business, I might attend to it."

Bob flushed to the ears. He was ordinarily a young man of sufficient self-possession, but this young woman's directness was disconcerting. She surveyed his embarrassment with approving eyes.

"You might finish those beans," said she, offering the hoe. "Of course, you must stay to dinner, and I must go light the fire."

Bob finished the beans, leaned the hoe up against the house, and went around to the front. There he stopped in astonishment.

"Well, you have changed things!" he cried.

The stuffy little shed kitchen was no longer occupied. A floor had been laid between the bases of four huge trees, and walls enclosing three sides to the height of about eight feet had been erected. The affair had no roof. Inside these three walls were the stove, the kitchen table, the shelves and utensils of cooking. Miss Thorne, her sunbonnet laid aside from her glossy black braids, moved swiftly and easily here and there in this charming stage-set of a kitchen. About ten feet in front of it, on the pine needles, stood the dining table, set with white.

The girl nodded brightly to Bob.

"Finished?" she inquired. She pointed to the water pail: "There's a useful task for willing hands."

Bob filled the pail, and set it brimming on the section of cedar log which seemed to be its appointed resting place.

"Thank you," said the girl. Bob leaned against the tree and watched her as she moved here and there about the varied business of cooking. Every few minutes she would stop and look upward through the cool shadows of the trees, like a bird drinking. At times she burst into snatches of song, so brief as to be unrecognizable.

"Do you like sticks in your food?" she asked Bob, as though suddenly remembering his presence, "and pine needles, and the husks of pine nuts, and other debris? because that's what the breezes and trees and naughty little squirrels are always raining down on me."

"Why don't you have the men stretch you a canvas?" asked Bob.

"Well," said the girl, stopping short, "I have considered it. I no more than you like unexpected twigs in my dough. But you see I do like shadows and sunlight and upper air and breezes in my food. And you can't have one without the other. Did you get all the weeds out?"

"Yes," said Bob. "Look here; you ought not to have to do such work as that."

"Do you think it will wear down my fragile strength?" she asked, looking at him good-humouredly. "Is it too much exercise for me?"

"No--" hesitated Bob, "but--"

"Why, bless you, I like to help the babies to grow big and green," said she. "One can't have the theatre or bridge up here; do leave us some of the simple pleasures."

"Why did you want me to finish for you then?" demanded Bob shrewdly.

She laughed.

"Young man," said she, "I could give you at least ten reasons," with which enigmatic remark she whipped her apron around her hand and whisked open the oven door, where were displayed rows of beautifully browned biscuits.

"Nevertheless----" began Bob.

"Nevertheless," she took him up, raising her face, slightly flushed by the heat, "all the men-folks are busy, and this one woman-folk is not harmed a bit by playing at being a farmer lassie."

"One of the rangers could do it all in a couple of hours."

"The rangers are in the employ of the United States Government, and this garden is mine," she stated evenly. "How could I take a Government employee to work on my property?"

"But surely Mr. Thorne--"

"Ashley, bless his dear old heart, takes beans for granted, as something that happens on well-regulated tables."

She walked to the edge of the kitchen floor and looked up through the trees. "He ought to be along soon now. I hope so; my biscuits are just on the brown." She turned to Bob, her eyes dancing: "Now comes the exciting moment of the day, the great gamble! Will he come alone, or will he bring a half-dozen with him? I am always ready for the half-dozen, and as a consequence we live in a grand, ingenious debauch of warmed-ups and next-days. You don't know what good practice it is; nor what fun! I've often thought I could teach those cooks of Marc Antony's something--you remember, don't you, they used to keep six dinners going all at different stages of preparation because they never knew at what hour His High-and-mightiness might choose to dine. Or perhaps you don't know? Football men don't have to study, do they?"

"What makes you think I'm a football man?" grinned Bob; "generally bovine expression?"

"Not know the great Bob Orde!" cried the girl. "Why, not one of us but had your picture, generally in a nice gilt shrine, but always with violets before it."

But on this ground Bob was sure.

"You have been reading a ten-cent magazine," he admonished her gravely. "It is unwise to take your knowledge of the customs in girls' colleges from such sources."

From the depths of the forest eddied a cloud of dust. Miss Thorne appraised it carefully.

"Warmed-overs to-night," she pronounced. "There's no more than two of them."

The accuracy of her guess was almost immediately verified by the appearance of two riders. A moment later Thorne and California John dismounted at the hitching rail, some distance removed among the azaleas, and came up afoot. The younger man had dropped all his dry, official precision, his incisive abruptness, his reticence. Clad in the high, laced cruisers, the khaki and gray flannel, the broad, felt hat and gay neckerchief of what might be called the professional class of out-of-door man, his face glowing with health and enthusiasm, he seemed a different individual.

"Hullo! Hullo!" he cried out a joyous greeting as he drew nearer; "I couldn't bring you much company to-day, Amy. But I see you've found some. How are you, Orde? I'm glad to see you."

He and California John disappeared behind the shed, where the wash basin was; while Amy, with deftness, rearranged the table to accord with the numbers who would sit down to it.

The meal in the open was most delightful; especially to Bob, after his long course of lumber-camp provender. The deep shadows shifted slowly across the forest floor. Sparkles of sunlight from unexpected quarters touched gently in turn each of the diners, or glittered back from glass or linen. Occasionally a wandering breeze lifted a corner of the tablecloth and let it fall, or scurried erratically across the table itself. Occasionally, too, a pine needle, a twig, a leaf would zigzag down through the air to fall in some one's coffee or glass or plate. Birds flashed across the open vault of this forest room--brilliant birds, like the Louisiana Tanager; sober little birds like the creepers and nuthatches. Circumspect and reserved whitecrowns and brush tohees scratched and hopped silently over the forest litter. Once a swift falcon, glancing like a shadowy death, slanted across the upper spaces. The food was excellent, and daintily served.

"I am proud of my blue and white enamel-ware," Miss Thorne told Bob; "it's so much better than tin or this ugly gray. And that glass pitcher I got with coupons from the coffee packages."

"You didn't get these with coupons?" said Bob, lifting one of the massive silver forks.

"No," she admitted. "That is my one foolishness. All the rest does not matter, but I can't get along without my silver."

"And a great nuisance it is to those who have to move as we move," put in Ashley Thorne.

The forest officers took up their broken conversation. Bob found himself a silent but willing listener. He heard discussion of policies, business dealings, plans that widened the horizon of what the Forest had meant to him. In these discussions the girl took an active and intelligent part. Her opinion seemed to be accepted seriously by both the men, as one who had knowledge, and indeed, her grasp of details seemed as comprehensive as that of the men themselves.

Finally Thorne pushed his chair back and began to fill his pipe.

"Anybody here to-day?" he asked.

The girl ran over rapidly a half-dozen names, sketching briefly the business they had brought. Then, one after the other, she told the answers she had made to them. This one had been given blanks, forms and instructions. That one had been told clearly that he was in the wrong, and must amend his ways. The other had been advised but tentatively, and informed that he must see the Supervisor personally. To each of these Thorne responded by a brief nod, puffing, meanwhile, on his pipe.

"All right?" she asked, when she had finished.

"All right but one," said he, removing his pipe at last. "I don't think it will be advisable to let Francotti have what he wants."

"Pull the string, then!" cried the girl gaily.

Thorne turned to California John in discussion of the Francotti affair.

"What do you mean by 'pull the string'?" Bob took the occasion to inquire.

"I settle a lot of these little matters that aren't worth bothering Ashley with," she explained, "but I tie a string to each of my decisions. I always make them 'subject to the Supervisor's approval.' Then if I do wrong, all I have to do is to write the man and tell him the Supervisor does not approve."

"I shouldn't think you'd like that," said Bob.

"Like what?"

"Why, it sort of puts you in a hole, doesn't it? Lays all the blame on you."

She laughed in frank amusement.

"What of it?" she challenged.

"Any letters?" Thorne asked abruptly. "Morton brought mail this morning, didn't he?"

"Nothing wildly important--except that they're thinking of adopting a ranger uniform."

"A uniform!" snorted California John, rearing his old head.

"Oh, yes, I've heard of that," put in Thorne instantly. "It's to be a white pith helmet with a green silk scarf on it; red coat with gold lace, and white, English riding breeches with leather leggins. Don't you think old John would look sweet in that?" he asked Bob.

But the old man refused to be drawn out.

"Supervisors same; but with a gold pompon on top the helmet," he observed. "What is the dang thing, anyway, Amy?" he asked.

"Dark green whipcord, green buttons, gray hat, military cut."

"Not bad," said Thorne.

"About one fifty-mile ride and one fire would make that outfit look like a bunch of mildewed alfalfa. Blue jeans is about my sort of uniform," observed John.

"I don't believe we'd be supposed to wear it on range," suggested Thorne. "Only in town and official business." He turned to the girl again: "May have to go over Baldy to-morrow," said he, "so we'll run off those letters."

She arose and saluted, military fashion. The two disappeared in the tiny box-office, whence presently came the sound of Thorne's voice in dictation.

California John knocked the ashes from his pipe.

"Get your apron on, sonny," said he.

He tested the water on the stove and slammed out a commodious dish-pan.

"Glasses first; then silver; and if you break anything, I'll bash in your fool head. There's going to be some style to this dishwashing. I used to slide 'em all in together and let her go. But that ain't the way here. She knows four aces and the jolly joker better than that. Glasses first."

They washed and wiped the dishes, and laid them carefully away.

"She's a little wonder," said California John, nodding at the office, "and there ain't none of the boys but helps all they can."

Thorne called the old man by name, and he disappeared into the office. A moment later the girl emerged, smoothing back her hair with both hands. She stepped immediately to the little kitchen.

"Thank you," said she. "That helps."

"It was old John," disclaimed Bob. "I'm ashamed to say I should never have thought of it."

The girl nodded carelessly.

"Where did you learn stenography?" asked Bob.

"Oh, I got that out of a ten-cent magazine too." She sat on a bench, looked up at the sky through the trees, and drew a deep breath.

"You're tired," said Bob.

"Not a bit," she denied. "But I don't often get a chance to just look up."

"You seem to do the gardening, the cooking, the housework, the clerical work--you don't do the laundry, too, do you?" demanded Bob ironically.

"You noticed those miserable khakis!" cried Amy with a gesture of dismay. "Ashley," she called, "change those khakis before you go out,"

"Yes, mama," came back a mock childish voice.

"What's your salary?" demanded Bob bluntly, nodding toward the office.

"What?" she asked, as though puzzled.

"Didn't you say you were the clerk?"

"Oh, I see. I just help Ashley out. He could never get through the field work and the office work both."

"Doesn't the Service allow him a clerk?"

"Not yet; but it will in time."

"What is Mr. Thorne's salary?"

"Well, really----"

"Oh, I beg pardon," cried Bob flushing; "I just meant supervisors' salaries, of course. I wasn't prying, really. It's all a matter of public record, isn't it?"

"Of course." The girl checked herself. "Well, it's eighteen hundred--and something for expenses."

"Eighteen hundred!" cried Bob. "Do you mean to say that the two of you give all your time for that! Why, we pay a good woods foreman pretty near that!"

"And that's all you do pay him," said the girl quietly. "Money wage isn't the whole pay for any job that is worth doing."

"Don't understand," said Bob briefly.

"We belong to the Service," she stated with a little movement of pride. "Those tasks in life which give a high moneyed wage, generally give only that. Part of our compensation is that we belong to the Service; we are doing something for the whole people, not just for ourselves." She caught Bob's half-smile, more at her earnestness than at her sentiment, and took fire. "You needn't laugh!" she cried. "It's small now, but that's because it's the beginning, because we have the privilege of being the forerunners, the pioneers! The time will come when in this country there will be three great Services--the Army, the Navy, the Forest; and an officer in the one will be as much respected and looked up to as the others! Perhaps more! In the long times of peace, while they are occupied with their eternal Preparation, we shall be labouring at Accomplishment."

She broke off abruptly.

"If you don't want to get me started, don't be superior," she ended, half apologetic, half resentful.

"But I do want to get you started," said Bob.

"It's amusing, I don't doubt."

"Not quite that: it's interesting, and I am no longer bewildered at the eighteen hundred a year--that is," he quoted a popular song, "'if there are any more at home like you.'"

She looked at him humorously despairing.

"That's just like an outsider. There are plenty who feel as I do, but they don't say so. Look at old California John, at Ross Fletcher, at a half-dozen others under your very nose. Have you ever stopped to think why they have so long been loyal? I don't suppose you have, for I doubt if they have. But you mark my words!"

"All right, Field Marshal--or is it 'General'?" said Bob.

She laughed.

"Just camp cook," she replied good-humouredly.

The sun was slanting low through the tall, straight trunks of the trees. Amy Thorne arose, gathered a handful of kindling, and began to rattle the stove.

"I am contemplating a real pudding," she said over her shoulder.

Bob arose reluctantly.

"I must be getting on," said he.

They said farewell. At the hitching rail Thorne joined him.

"I'm afraid I'm not very hospitable," said the Supervisor, "but that mustn't discourage you from coming often. We'll be better organized in time."

"It's mighty pleasant over here; I've enjoyed myself," said Bob, mounting.

Thorne laid his hand on the young man's knee.

"I wish we could induce you old-timers to come to our way of thinking," said he pleasantly.

"How's that?" asked Bob.

"Your slash is in horrible shape."

"Our slash!" repeated Bob in a surprised tone. "How?"

"It's a regular fire-trap, the way you leave it tangled up. It wouldn't cost you much to pile the tops and leave the ground in good shape."

"Why, it's just like any other slash!" protested Bob. "We're logging just as everybody always logs!"

"That's just what I object to. And when you fell a tree or pull a log to the skids, I do wish we could induce you to pay a little attention to the young growth. It's a little more trouble, sometimes, to go around instead of through, but it's worth it to the forest."

Bob's brows were bent on the Supervisor in puzzled surprise. Thorne laughed, and slapped the young man's horse on the flanks to start him.

"You think it over!" he called.

A half-hour's ride took Bob to the clearing where the logging crews had worked the year before. Here, although the hour was now late, he reined in his horse and looked. It was the first time he had ever really done so. Heretofore a slashing had been as much a part of the ordinary woodland landscape as the forest itself.

He saw then the abattis of splintered old trunks, of lopped limbs, and entangled branches, piled up like jackstraws to the height of even six or eight feet from the ground; the unsightly mat of sodden old masses of pine needles and cedar fans; the hundreds of young saplings bent double by the weight of debris, broken square off, or twisted out of all chance of becoming straight trees in their age; the long, deep, ruthless furrows where the logs had been dragged through everything that could stand in their way; the few trees left standing, weak specimens, undesirable species, the culls of the forest, further scarred where the cruel steel cables had rasped or bitten them. He knew by experience the difficulty of making a way, even afoot, through this tangle. Now, under the influence of Thorne's suggestion, he saw them as great piles of so much fuel, laid as though by purpose for the time when the evil genius of the forest should desire to warm himself.