Part Five
Chapter I
 

Next morning Bob was set to work with young Jack Pollock stringing barbed wire fence. He had never done this before. The spools of wire weighed on him heavily. A crowbar thrust through the core made them a sort of axle with which to carry it. Thus they walked forward, revolving the heavy spool with the greatest care while the strand of wire unwound behind them. Every once in a while a coil would kink, or buckle back, or strike as swiftly and as viciously as a snake. The sharp barbs caught at their clothing, and tore Bob's hands. Jack Pollock seemed familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the stuff, for he suffered little damage. Indeed, he even found leisure, as Bob soon discovered, to scrutinize his companion with a covert curiosity. In the eyes of the countryside, Bob had been "fired," and had been forced to take a job rangering. When the entangling strand had been laid along the ground by the newly planted cedar posts, it became necessary to stretch and fasten it. Here, too, young Jack proved himself a competent teacher. He showed Bob how to get a tremendous leverage with the curve on the back of an ordinary hammer by means of which the wire was held taut until the staples could be driven home. It was aggravating, nervous, painful work for one not accustomed to it. Bob's hands were soon cut and bleeding, no matter how gingerly he took hold of the treacherous wire. To all his comments, heated and otherwise, Jack Pollock opposed the mountaineer's determined inscrutability. He watched Bob's efforts always in silence until that young man had made all his mistakes. Then he spat carefully, and, with quiet patience, did it right.

Bob's sense of humour was tickled. With all his education and his subsequent wide experience and training, he stood in the position of a very awkward subordinate to this mountain boy. The joke of it was that the matter was so entirely his own choice. In the normal relations of industry Bob would have been the boss of a hundred activities and twice that number of men; while Jack Pollock, at best, would be water-boy or fuel-purveyor to a donkey engine. Along in the middle of the morning young Elliott passed carrying a crowbar and a spade.

"How'll you trade jobs?" he called.

"What's yours?" asked Bob.

"I'm going to make two cedar posts grow where none grew before," said Elliott.

At noon they knocked off and went back to the ranger camp where they cooked their own meal. Most of the older rangers were afield. A half-dozen of the newcomers and probationers only were there. Elliott, Jack Pollock, two other young mountaineers, Ware and one of the youths from the valley towns had apparently passed the examinations and filled vacancies. All, with the exception of Elliott and this latter youth--Curtis by name--were old hands at taking care of themselves in the woods, so matters of their own accord fell into a rough system. Some built the fire, one mixed bread, others busied themselves with the rest of the provisions. Elliott rummaged about, and set the rough table with the battered service. Only Curtis, seated with his back against a tree, appeared too utterly exhausted or ignorant to take hold at anything. Indeed, he hardly spoke to his companions, ate hastily, and disappeared into his own quarters without offering to help wash the dishes.

This task accomplished, the little group scattered to its afternoon work. In the necessity of stringing wire without cutting himself to ribbons, Bob forgot everything, even the flight of time.

"I reckon it's about quittin' time," Jack observed to him at last.

Bob looked up in surprise. The sun was indeed dropping low.

"We must be about half done," he remarked, measuring the extent of the meadow with his eye.

"Two more wires to string," Pollock reminded him.

The mountaineer threw the grain sack of staples against the last post, tossed his hammer and the hatchet with them.

"Hold on," said Bob. "You aren't going to leave them there?"

"Shore," said Pollock. "We'll have to begin there to-morrow."

But Bob's long training in handling large bodies of men with tools had developed in him an instinct of tool-orderliness.

"Won't do," he stated with something of his old-time authority in his tones. "Suppose for some reason we shouldn't get back here to-morrow? That's the way such things get mislaid; and they're valuable."

He picked up the hatchet and the axe. Grumbling something under his breath, Pollock shouldered the staples and thrust the hammer in his pocket.

"It isn't as if these things were ours," said Bob, realizing that he had spoken in an unduly minatory tone.

"That's right," agreed Jack more cheerfully.

In addition to the new men, they found Ross Fletcher and Charley Morton at the camp. The evening meal was prepared cheerfully and roughly, eaten under a rather dim lamp. Pipes were lit, and they all began leisurely to clean up. The smoke hung low in the air. One by one the men dropped back into their rough, homemade chairs, or sprawled out on the floor. Some one lit the fire in the stone chimney, for the mountain air nipped shrewdly after the sun had set. A general relaxing after the day's work, a general cheerfulness, a general dry, chaffing wit took possession of them. Two played cribbage under the lamp. One wrote a letter. The rest gossiped of the affairs of the service. Only in the corner by himself young Curtis sat. As at noon, he had had nothing to say to any one, and had not attempted to offer assistance in the communal work. Bob concluded he must be tired from the unaccustomed labour of the day. Bob's own shoulders ached; and he was in pretty good shape, too.

"What makes me mad," Ross Fletcher's voice suddenly clove the murmur, "is the things we have to do. I was breaking rock on a trail all day to-day. Think of that! Day labourer's work! State prison work!"

Bob looked up in amazement, as did every one else.

"When a man hires out to be a ranger," Ross went on, "he don't expect to be a carpenter, or a stone mason; he expects to be a ranger!"

Immediately Charley Morton chimed in to the same purpose. Bob listened with a rising indignation. This sort of talk was old, but he had not expected to meet it here; it is the talk of incompetence against authority everywhere, of the sea lawyer, the lumberjack, the soldier, the spoiled subordinate in all walks of life. He had taken for granted a finer sort of loyalty here; especially from such men as Ross and Charley Morton. His face flushed, and he leaned forward to say something. Jack Pollock jogged his elbow fiercely.

"Hush up!" the young mountaineer whispered; "cain't you see they're tryin' for a rise?"

Bob laughed softly to himself, and relaxed. He should have been experienced enough, he told himself, to have recognized so obvious and usual a trick of all campers.

But it was not for Bob, nor his like, that Ross was angling. In fact, he caught his bite almost immediately. For the first time that day Curtis woke up and displayed some interest.

"That's what I say!" he cried.

The older man turned to him.

"What they been making you do to-day, son?" asked Ross.

"I've been digging post holes up in those rocks," said Curtis indignantly.

"You don't mean to tell me they put you at that?" demanded Ross; "why, they're supposed to get Injins, just cheap dollar-a-day Digger Injins, for that job. And they put you at it!"

"Yes," said Curtis, "they did. I didn't hire out for any such work. My father's county clerk down below."

"You don't say!" said Ross.

"Yes, and my hands are all blistered and my back is lame, and----"

But the expectant youngsters could hold in no longer. A roar of laughter cut the speaker short. Curtis stared, bewildered. Ross and Charley Morton were laughing harder than anybody else. He started to his feet.

"Hold on, son," Ross commanded him, wiping his eyes. "Don't get hostile at a little joke. You'll get used to the work. Of course we all like to ride off in the mountains, and do cattle work, and figure on things, and do administrative work; and we none of us are stuck on construction." He looked around him at his audience, now quiet and attentive. "But we've got to have headquarters, and barns, and houses, and corrals and pastures. Once they're built, they're built and that ends it. But they got to be built. We're just in hard luck that we happen to be rangers right now. The Service can't hire carpenters for us very well, way up here; and somebody's got to do it. It ain't as if we had to do it for a living, all the time. There's a variety. We get all kinds. Rangering's no snap, any more than any other job. One thing," he ended with a laugh, "we get a chance to do about everything."

The valley youth had dropped sullenly back into the shadows, nor did he reply to this. After a little the men scattered to their quarters, for they were tired.

Bob and Jack Pollock occupied together one of the older cabins, a rough little structure, built mainly of shakes. It contained two bunks, a rough table, and two stools constructed of tobacco boxes to which legs had been nailed. As the young men were preparing for bed, Bob remarked:

"Fletcher got his rise, all right. Much obliged for your tip. I nearly bit. But he wasted his talk in my notion. That fellow is hopeless. Ross labours in vain if he tries to brace him up."

"I reckon Ross knows that," replied Jack, "and I reckon too, he has mighty few hopes of bracin' up Curtis. I have a kind of notion Ross was just usin' that Curtis as a mark to talk at. What he was talkin' to was us."