The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
The week's hard physical toil was unrelieved. After Bob and Jack Pollock had driven the last staple in the last strand of barbed wire, they turned their horses into the new pasture. The animals, overjoyed to get free of the picket ropes that had heretofore confined them, took long, satisfying rolls in the sandy corner, and then went eagerly to cropping at the green feed. Bob, leaning on the gate, with the rope still in his hand, experienced a glow of personal achievement greater than any he remembered to have felt since, as a small boy, he had unaided reasoned out the problem of clear impression on his toy printing press. He recognized this as illogical, for he had, in all modesty, achieved affairs of some importance. Nevertheless, the sight of his own animal enjoying its liberty in an enclosure created by his own two hands pleased him to the core. He grinned in appreciation of Elliott's humorous parody on the sentimental slogan of the schools--"to make two cedar posts grow where none grew before." There was, after all, a rather especial satisfaction in that principle.
It next became necessary, he found, that the roof over the new office at headquarters should receive a stain that would protect it against the weather. He acquired a flat brush, a little seat with spikes in its supports, and a can of stain whose base seemed to be a very evil-smelling fish oil. Here all day long he clung, daubing on the stain. When one shingle was done, another awaited his attention, over and over, in unvarying monotony. It was the sort of job he had always loathed, but he stuck to it cheerfully, driving his brush deep in the cracks in order that no crevice might remain for the entrance of the insidious principle of decay. Casting about in his leisure there for the reason of his patience, he discovered it in just that; he was now at no task to be got through with, to be made way with; he was engaged in a job that was to be permanent. Unless he did it right, it would not be permanent.
Below him the life of headquarters went on. He saw it all, and heard it all, for every scrap of conversation rose to him from within the office. He was amazed at the diversity of interests and the complexity of problems that came there for attention.
"Look here, Mr. Thorne," said one of the rangers, "this Use Book says that a settler has a right to graze ten head of stock actually in use free of grazing charge. Now there's Brown up at the north end. He runs a little dairy business, and has about a hundred head of cattle up. He claims we ought not to charge him for ten head of them because they're all 'actually in use.' How about it?"
Thorne explained that the exemption did not apply to commercial uses and that Brown must pay for all. He qualified the statement by saying that this was the latest interpretation of which he had heard.
In like manner the policies in regard to a dozen little industries and interests were being patiently defined and determined--dairies, beef cattle, shake makers, bees, box and cleat men, free timber users, mining men, seekers for water concessions, those who desired rights of way, permits for posts, pastures, mill sites--all these proffered their requests and difficulties to the Supervisor. Sometimes they were answered on the spot. Oftener their remarks were listened to, their propositions taken under advisement. Then one or another of the rangers was summoned, given instructions. He packed his mule, saddled his horse, and rode away to be gone a greater or lesser period of time. Others were sent out to run lines about tracts, to define boundaries. Still others, like Ross Fletcher, pounded drill and rock, and exploded powder on the new trail that was to make more accessible the tremendous canon of the river. The men who came and went rarely represented any but the smallest interests; yet somehow Bob felt their importance, and the importance of the little problems threshed out in the tiny, rough-finished office below him. These but foreshadowed the greater things to come. And these minute decisions shaped the policies and precedents of what would become mighty affairs. Whether Brown should be allowed to save his paltry three dollars and a half or not determined larger things. To Bob's half-mystic mood, up there under the mottled shadows, every tiny move of this game became portentous with fate. A return of the old exultation lifted him. He saw the shadows of these affairs cast dim and gigantic against the mists of the future. These men were big with the responsibility of a new thing. It behooved them all to act with circumspection, with due heed, with reverence----
Bob applied his broad brush and the evil-smelling stain methodically and with minute care as to every tiny detail of the simple work. But his eyes were wide and unseeing, and all the inner forces of his soul were moving slowly and mightily. His personality had nothing to do with the matter. He painted; and affairs went on with him. His being held itself passive, in suspension, while the forces and experiences and influences of one phase of his life crystallized into their foreordained shapes deep within him. Yesterday he was this; now he was becoming that; and the two were as different beings. New doors of insight were silently swinging open on their hinges, old prejudices were closing, fresh convictions long snugly in the bud were unfolding like flowers. These things were not new. They had begun many years before when as a young boy he had stared wide-eyed, unseeing and uncomprehending, gazing down the sun-streaked, green, lucent depths of an aisle in the forest. Bob painted steadily on, moving his little seat nearer and nearer the eaves. When noon and night came, he hung up his utensils very carefully, washed up, and tramped to the rangers' camp, where he took his part in the daily tasks, assumed his share of the conversation, entered into the fun, and contributed his ideas toward the endless discussions. No one noticed that he was in any way different from his ordinary self. But it was as though some one outside of himself, in the outer circle of his being, carried on these necessary and customary things. He, drawn apart, watched by the shrine of his soul. He did nothing, either by thought or effort--merely watched, patient and rapt, while foreordained and mighty changes took place--
He reached the edge of the roof; stood on the ladder to finish the last row of the riven shingles. Slowly his brush moved, finishing the cracks deep down so that the principle of decay might never enter. Inside the office Thorne sat dictating a letter to some applicant for privilege. The principle was new in its interpretation, and so Thorne was choosing his words with the greatest care. Swiftly before Bob's inner vision the prospect widened. Thorne became a prophet speaking down the years; the least of these men in a great new Service became the austere champions of something high and beautiful. For one moment Bob dwelt in a wonderful, breathless, vast, unreal country where heroic figures moved in the importance of all the unborn future, dim-seen, half-revealed. He drew his brush across the last shingle of all. Something seemed to click. Swiftly the gates shut, the strange country receded into infinite distance. With a rush like the sucking of water into a vacuum the everyday world drew close. Bob, his faculties once more in their accustomed seat, looked about him as one awakened. His hour was over. The change had taken place.
Thorne was standing in the doorway with Amy, their dictation finished.
"All done?" said he. "Well, you did a thorough job. It's the kind that will last."
"I'm right on deck when it comes to painting things red," retorted Bob. "What next?"
"Next," said Thorne, "I want you to help one of the boys split some cedar posts. We've got a corral or so to make."
Bob descended slowly from the ladder, balancing the remainder of the red stain. Thorne looked at him curiously.
"How do you like it as far as you've gone?" he permitted himself to ask. "This isn't quite up to the romantic idea of rangering, is it?"
"Well," said Bob with conviction, "I suppose it may sound foolish; but I never was surer of anything in my life than that I've struck the right job."
As he walked home that night, he looked back on the last few days with a curious bewilderment. It had all been so real; now apparently it meant nothing. Thorne was doing good work; these rangers were good men. But where had vanished all Bob's exaltation? where his feeling of the portent and influence and far-reaching significance of what these men were doing? He realized its importance; but the feeling of its fatefulness had utterly gone. Things with him were back on a work-a-day basis. He even laughed a little, good-humouredly, at himself. At the gate to the new pasture he once more stopped and looked at his horse. A deep content came over him.
"I've sure struck the right job!" he repeated aloud with conviction.
And this, could he have known it, was the outward and visible and only sign of the things spiritual that had been veiled.