Part Five
Chapter VII
 

On returning to headquarters, as Bob was naturally somewhat incapacitated for manual work, he was given the fire patrol. This meant that every day he was required to ride to four several "lookouts" on the main ridge, from which points he could spy abroad carefully over vast stretches of mountainous country. One of these was near the meadow of the cold spring whence the three of them had first caught sight of the Granite Creek fire. Thence he turned sharp to the north along the ridge top. The trail led among great trees that dropped away to right and left on the slopes of the mountain. Through them he caught glimpses of the blue distance, or far-off glittering snow, or unexpected canon depths. The riding was smooth, over undulating knolls. Every once in a while passing through a "puerto suelo," he looked on either side to tiny green meadows, from which streams were born. Occasionally he saw a deer, or more likely small bands of the wild mountain cattle that swung along before him, heads held high, eyes staring, nostrils expanded. Then Bob felt his pony's muscles stiffen beneath his thighs, and saw the animal's little ears prick first forward at the cattle, then back for his master's commands.

After three miles of this he came out on a broad plateau formed by the joining of his ridge with that of the Baldy range. Here Granite Creek itself rose, and the stream that flowed by the mill. It was a country of wild, park-like vistas between small pines, with a floor of granite and shale. Over it frowned the steeps of Baldy, with its massive domes, its sheer precipices, and its scant tree-growth clinging to its sides. Against the sky it looked very rugged, very old, very formidable; and the sky, behind its yellowed age, was inconceivably blue.

Sometimes Bob rode up into the pass. More often he tied his horse and took the steep rough trail afoot. The way was guarded by strange, distorted trees, and rocks carved into fantastic shapes. Some of them were piled high like temples. Others, round and squat, resembled the fat and obscene deities of Eastern religions. There were seals and elephants and crocodiles and allegorical monsters, some of them as tiny as the grotesque Japanese carvings, others as stupendous as Egypt. The trail led by them, among them, between them. At their feet clutched snowbush, ground juniper, the gnarled fingers of manzanita, like devotees. A foaming little stream crept and plunged over bare and splintered rocks. Twisted junipers and the dwarf pines of high elevations crouched like malignant gnomes amongst the boulders, or tossed their arms like witches on the crags. This bold and splintered range rose from the softness and mystery of the great pine woods on the lower ridge as a rock rises above cool water.

The pass itself was not over fifty feet wide. Either side of it like portals were the high peaks. It lay like the notch of a rifle sight between them. Once having gained the tiny platform, Bob would sit down and look abroad over the wonderful Sierra.

Never did he tire of this. At one eye-glance he could comprehend a summer's toilsome travel. To reach yonder snowy peak would consume the greater part of a week. Unlike the Swiss alps, which he had once visited, these mountains were not only high, but wide as well. They had the whole of blue space in which to lie. They were like the stars, for when Bob had convinced himself that his eye had settled on the farthest peak, then still farther, taking half-guessed iridescent form out of the blue, another shone.

But his business was not with these distances. Almost below him, so precipitous is the easterly slope of Baldy, lay canons, pine forests, lesser ridges, streams, the green of meadows. Patiently, piece by piece, he must go over all this, watching for that faint blue haze, that deepening of the atmosphere, that almost imagined pearliness against the distant hills which meant new fire.

"Don't look for smoke," California John had told him. "When a fire gets big enough for smoke, you can't help but see it. It's the new fire you want to spot before it gets started. Then it's easy handled. And new fire's almighty easy to overlook. Sometimes it's as hard for a greenhorn to see as a deer. Look close!"

So Bob, concentrating his attention, looked close. When he had satisfied himself, he turned square around.

From this point of view he saw only pine forests. They covered the ridge below him like a soft green mantle thrown down in folds. They softened the more distant ranges. They billowed and eddied, and dropped into unguessed depths, and came bravely up to eyesight again far away. At last they seemed to change colour abruptly, and a brown haze overcast them through which glimmered a hint of yellow. This Bob knew was the plain, hot and brown under the July sun. It rose dimly through the mist to the height of his eye. Thus, even at eight thousand feet, Bob seemed to stand in the cup of the earth, beneath the cup of the sky.

The other two lookouts were on the edge of the lower ridge. They gave an opportunity of examining various coves and valleys concealed by the shoulder of the ridge from the observer on Baldy. To reach them Bob rode across the plateau of the ridge, through the pine forests, past the mill.

Here, if the afternoon was not too far advanced, he used to allow himself the luxury of a moment's chat with some of his old friends. Welton, coat off, his burly face perspiring and red, always greeted him jovially.

"Spend all your salary this month?" he would ask. "Does the business keep you occupied?" And once or twice, seriously, "Bob, haven't you had enough of this confounded nonsense? You're getting too old to find any great fun riding around in this kid fashion pretending to do things. There's big business to be done in this country, and we need you boys to help. When I was a youngster I'd have jumped hard at half the chance that's offered you."

But Bob never would answer seriously. He knew this to be his only chance of avoiding even a deeper misunderstanding between himself and this man whom he had learned to admire and love.

Once he met Baker. That young man greeted him as gaily as ever, but into his manner had crept the shadow of a cold contempt. The stout youth's standards were his own, and rigid, as is often the case with people of his type. Bob felt himself suddenly and ruthlessly excluded from the ranks of those worthy of Baker's respect. A hard quality of character, hitherto unsuspected, stared from the fat young man's impudent blue eyes. Baker was perfectly polite, and suitably jocular; but he had not much time for Bob; and soon plunged into a deep discussion with Welton from which Bob was unmistakably excluded.

On one occasion, too, he encountered Oldham riding down the trail from headquarters. The older man had nodded to him curtly. His eyes had gleamed through his glasses with an ill-concealed and frosty amusement, and his thin lips had straightened to a perceptible sneer. All at once Bob divined an enemy. He could not account for this, as he had never dealt with the man; and the accident of his discovering the gasoline pump on the Lucky Land Company's creeks could hardly be supposed to account for quite so malignant a triumph. Next time Bob saw Welton, he asked his old employer about it.

"What have I ever done to Oldham?" he inquired. "Do you know?"

"Oldham?" repeated Welton.

"Baker's land agent."

"Oh, yes. I never happened to run across him. Don't know him at all."

Bob put down Oldham's manifest hatred to pettiness of disposition.

Even from Merker, the philosophic storekeeper, Bob obtained scant comfort.

"Men like you, with ability, youth, energy," said Merker, "producing nothing, just conserving, saving. Conditions should be such that the possibility of fire, of trespass, of all you fellows guard against, should be eliminated. Then you could supply steam, energy, accomplishment, instead of being merely the lubrication. It's an economic waste."

Bob left the mill-yards half-depressed, half-amused. All his people had become alien. He opposed them in nothing, his work in no way interfered with their activities; yet, without his volition, and probably without their realization, he was already looked upon as one to be held at arms' length. It saddened Bob, as it does every right-thinking young man when he arrives at setting up his own standards of conduct and his own ways of life. He longed with a great longing, which at the same time he realized to be hopeless, to make these people feel as he felt. It gave him real pain to find that his way of life could never gain anything beyond disapproval or incomprehension. It took considerable fortitude to conclude that he now must build his own structure, unsupported. He was entering the loneliness of soul inseparable from complete manhood.

After such disquieting contacts, the more uncomfortable in that they defied analysis, Bob rode out to the last lookout and gazed abroad over the land. The pineclad bluff fell away nearly four thousand feet. Below him the country lay spread like a relief map--valley, lesser ranges, foothills, far-off plain, the green of trees, the brown of grass and harvest, the blue of glimpsed water, the haze of heat and great distance, the thread-like gossamer of roads, the half-guessed shimmer of towns and cities in the mirage of summer, all the opulence of earth and the business of human activity. Millions dwelt in that haze, and beyond them, across the curve of the earth, hundreds of millions more, each actuated by its own selfishness or charity, by its own conception of the things nearest it. Not one in a multitude saw or cared beyond the immediate, nor bothered his head with what it all meant, or whether it meant anything. Bob, sitting on his motionless horse high up there in the world, elevated above it all, in an isolation of pines, close under his sky, bent his ear to the imagined faint humming of the spheres. Affairs went on. The machine fulfilled its function. All things had their place, the evil as well as the good, the waste as well as the building, balancing like the governor of an engine the opposition of forces. He saw, by the soft flooding of light, rather than by any flash of insight, that were the shortsightedness, the indifference, the ignorance, the crass selfishness to be eliminated before yet the world's work was done, the energies of men, running too easily, would outstrip the development of the Plan, as a machine "races" without its load. A humility came to him. His not to judge his fellows by the mere externals of their deeds. He could only act honestly according to what he saw, as he hoped others were doing.

"Just so a man isn't mean, I don't know as I have any right to despise him," he summed it all up to his horse. "But," he added cheerfully, "that doesn't prevent my kicking him into the paths of righteousness if he tries to steal my watch."

The sun dipped toward the heat haze of the plains. It was from a golden world that Bob turned at last to ride through the forest to the cheerfulness of his rude camp.