Part Four
Chapter V
 

Bob saw that afternoon the chopping contest. Thorne assigned to each a tree some eighteen or twenty inches in diameter, selecting those whose loss would aid rather than deplete the timber stand, and also, it must be confessed, those whose close proximity to others might make axe swinging awkward. About twenty feet from the base of each tree he placed upright in the earth a sharpened stake. This, he informed the axe-man, must be driven by the fall of the tree.

As in the previous contests, three classes of performers quickly manifested themselves--the expert, the man of workmanlike skill, and the absolute duffer. The lumberjacks produced the implements they had that noon so carefully ground to an edge. It was beautiful to see them at work. To all appearance they struck easily, yet each stroke buried half the blade. The less experienced were inclined to put a great deal of swift power in the back swing, to throw too much strength into the beginning of the down stroke. The lumberjacks drew back quite deliberately, swung forward almost lazily. But the power constantly increased, until the axe met the wood in a mighty swish and whack. And each stroke fell in the gash of the one previous. Methodically they opened the "kerf," each face almost as smooth as though it had been sawn. At the finish they left the last fibres on one side or another, according as they wanted to twist the direction of the tree's fall. Then the trunk crashed down across the stake driven in the ground.

The mountaineers, accustomed to the use of the axe in their backwoods work, did a workmanlike but not expert job on their respective trees. They felled their trees accurately over the mark, and their axe work was fairly clean, but it took them some time to finish the job.

But some of the others made heavy weather. Young Elliott was the worst. It was soon evident that he had probably never had any but a possible and casual wood-pile axe in his hand before. The axe rarely hit twice in the same place; its edge had apparently no cutting power; the handle seemed to be animated with a most diabolical tendency to twist in mid-air. Bob, with the wisdom of the woods, withdrew to a safe distance. The others followed.

Long after the others had finished, poor Elliott hacked away. He seemed to have no definite idea of possible system. All he seemed to be trying to do was to accomplish some kind of a hole in that tree. The chips he cut away were small and ragged; the gash in the side of the tree was long and irregular.

"Looks like somethin' had set out to chaw that tree down!" drawled a mountain man to his neighbour.

But when the tree finally tottered and crashed to the ground it fairly centred the direction stake!

The bystanders stared; then catching the expression of ludicrous astonishment on Elliott's face, broke into appreciative laughter.

"I'm as much surprised as you are, boys," said Elliott, showing the palms of his hands, on which were two blisters.

"The little cuss is game, anyhow," muttered California John to Thorne.

"It was an awful job," confided the other; "but I marked him something on it because he stayed with it so well."

Toward sunset Bob said farewell, expressing many regrets that he could not return on the morrow to see the rest of the examinations. He rode back through the forest, thoughtfully inclined. The first taste of the Western joy of mere existence was passing with him. He was beginning to look upon his life, and ask of it the why. To be sure, he could tell himself that his day's work was well done, and that this should suffice any man; that he was an integral part of the economic machine; that in comparison with the average young man of his age he had made his way with extraordinary success; that his responsibilities were sufficient to keep him busy and happy; that men depended on him--all the reasons that philosophy or acquiescence in the plan of life ultimately bring to a man. But these did not satisfy the uneasiness of his spirit. He was too young to settle down to a routine; he was too intellectually restless to be contented with reiterations, however varied, of that which he had seen through and around. It was the old defect--or glory--of his character; the quality that had caused him more anxiety, more self-reproach, more bitterness of soul than any other, the Rolling Stone spirit that--though now he could not see it--even if it gathered no moss of respectable achievement, might carry him far.

So as he rode he peered into the scheme of things for the final satisfaction. In what did it lie? Not for him in mere activity, nor in the accomplishment of the world's work, no matter how variedly picturesque his particular share of it might be. He felt his interest ebbing, his spirit restless at its moorings. The days passed. He arose in the morning: and it was night! Four years ago he had come to California. It seemed but yesterday. The days were past, gone, used. Of it all what had he retained? The years had run like sea sands between his fingers, and not a grain of them remained in his grasp. A little money was there, a little knowledge, a little experience--but what toward the final satisfaction, the justification of a man's life? Bob was still too young, too individualistic to consider the doctrine of the day's work well done as the explanation and justification of all. The coming years would pass as quickly, leaving as little behind. Never so poignantly had he felt the insistence of the carpe diem. It was necessary that he find a reality, something he could winnow from the years as fine gold from sand, so that he could lay his hand on the treasure and say to his soul: "This much have I accomplished." Bob had learned well the American lesson: that the idler is to be scorned; that a true man must use his powers, must work; that he must succeed. Now he was taking the next step spiritually. How does a man really use his powers? What is success?

Troubled by this spiritual unrest, the analysis of which, even the nature of which was still beyond him, he arrived at camp. The familiar objects fretted on his mood. For the moment all the grateful feeling of power over understanding and manipulating this complicated machinery of industry had left him. He saw only the wheel in which these activities turned, and himself bound to it. In this truly Buddhistic frame of mind he returned to his quarters.

There, to his vague annoyance, he found Baker. Usually the liveliness of that able young citizen was welcome, but to-night it grated.

"Well, Gentle Stranger," sang out the power man, "what jungle have you been lurking in? I laboured in about three and went all over the works looking for you."

"I've been over watching the ranger examinations at their headquarters," said Bob. "It's pretty good fun."

Baker leaned forward.

"Have you heard the latest dope?" he demanded.

"What sort?"

"They're trying to soak us, now. Want to charge us so much per horse power! Now what do you think of that!"

"Can't you pay it?" asked Bob.

"Great guns! Why should we pay it?" demanded Baker. "It's the public domain, isn't it? First they take away the settler's right to take up public land in his own state, and now they want to charge, actually charge the public for what's its own."

But Bob, a new light shining in his eyes, refused to become heated.

"Well," he asked deliberately, "who is the public, anyhow?"

Baker stared at him, one chubby hand on each fat knee.

"Why, everybody," said he; "the people who can make use of it. You and I and the other fellow."

"Especially the other fellow," put in Bob drily.

Baker chuckled.

"It's like any business," said he. "First-come collect at the ticket office for his business foresight. But we'll try out this hold-up before we lie down and roll over."

"Why shouldn't you pay?" demanded Bob again. "You get your value, don't you? The Forest Service protects your watershed, and that's where you get your water. Why shouldn't you pay for that service, just the same as you pay for a night watchman at your works?"

"Watershed!" snorted Baker. "Rot! If every stick of timber was cleaned off these mountains, I'd get the water just the same."[A]

"Baker," said Bob to this. "You go and take a long, long look at your bathroom sponge in action, and then come back and I'll talk to you."

Baker contemplated his friend for a full ten seconds. Then his fat, pugnacious face wrinkled into a grin.

"Stung on the ear by a wasp!" he cried, with a great shout of appreciation. "You merry, merry little josher! You had me going for about five minutes."

Bob let it go at that.

"I suppose you won't be able to pay over twenty per cent. this next year, then?" he inquired, with an amused expression.

"Twenty per cent.!" cried Baker rolling his eyes up. "It's as much as I can do to dig up for improvements and bond interest and the preferred."

"Not to mention the president's salary," amended Bob.

"But I've got 'em where they live," went on Baker, complacently, without attention to this. "You don't catch Little Willie scattering shekels when he can just as well keep kopecks. They've left a little joker in the pack." He produced a paper-covered copy of the new regulations, later called the Use Book. "They've swiped about everything in sight for these pestiferous reserves, but they encourage the honest prospector. 'Let us develop the mineral wealth,' says they. So these forests are still open for taking up under the mineral act. All you have to do is to make a 'discovery,' and stake out your claim; and there you are!"

"All the mineral's been taken up long ago," Bob pointed out.

"All the valuable mineral," corrected Baker. "But it's sufficient, so Erbe tells me, to discover a ledge. Ledges? Hell! They're easier to find than an old maid at a sewing circle! That's what the country is made of--ledges! You can dig one out every ten feet. Well, I've got people out finding ledges, and filing on them."

"Can you do that?" asked Bob.

"I am doing it."

"I mean legally."

"Oh, this bunch of prospectors files on the claims, and gets them patented. Then it's nobody's business what they do with their own property. So they just sell it to me."

"That's colonizing," objected Bob. "You'll get nailed."

"Not on your tintype, it isn't. I don't furnish a cent. They do it all on their own money. Oldham's got the whole matter in hand. When we get the deal through, we'll have about two hundred thousand acres all around the head-waters; and then these blood-sucking, red-tape, autocratic slobs can go to thunder."

Baker leaned forward impressively.

"Got to spring it all at once," said he, "otherwise there'll be outsiders in, thinking there's a strike been made--also they'll get inquisitive. It's a great chance. And, Orde, my son, there's a few claims up there that will assay about sixty thousand board feet to the acre. What do you think of it for a young and active lumberman? I'm going to talk it over with Welton. It's a grand little scheme. Wonder how that will hit our old friend, Thorne?"

Bob rose yawning.

"I'm tired. Going to turn in," said he. "Thorne isn't a bad sort."

"He's one of these damn theorists, that's what he is," said Baker; "and he's got a little authority, and he's doing just as much as he can to unsettle business and hinder the legitimate development of the country." He relaxed his earnestness with another grin. "Stung again. That's two rises you got out of me," he remarked. "Say, Orde, don't get persuaded to turn ranger. I hear they've boosted their salaries to ninety a month. Must be a temptation!"

[Footnote A: Extraordinary as it may seem to the modern reader, this sentiment--or this ignorance--was at that time sincerely entertained by men as influential, as powerful, and as closely interested in water power as Baker is here depicted.]