Part Five
Chapter VIII
 

Bob took his examinations, passed successfully, and was at once appointed as ranger. Thorne had no intention of neglecting the young man's ability. After his arduous apprenticeship at all sorts of labour, Bob found himself specializing. This, he discovered, was becoming more and more the tendency in the personnel of the Service. Jack Pollock already was being sent far afield, looking into grazing conditions, reporting on the state of the range, the advisable number of cattle, the trespass cases. He had a natural aptitude for that sort of thing. Ware, on the other hand, developed into a mighty builder. Nothing pleased him more than to discover new ways through the country, to open them up, to blast and dig and construct his trails, to nose out bridge sites and on them to build spans hewn from the material at hand. He made himself a set of stencils and with them signed all the forks of the trails, so that a stranger could follow the routes. Always he painstakingly added the letters U.S.F.S. to indicate that these works had been done by his beloved Service. Charley Morton was the fire chief--though any and all took a hand at that when occasion arose. He could, as California John expressed it, run a fire out on a rocky point and lose it there better than any other man on the force. Ross Fletcher was the best policeman. He knew the mountains, their infinite labyrinths, better than any other; and he could guess the location of sheep where another might have searched all summer.

Though each and every man was kept busy enough, and to spare, on all the varied business inseparable from the activities of a National Forest, nevertheless Thorne knew enough to avail himself of these especial gifts and likings. So, early in the summer he called in Bob and Elliott.

"Now," he told them, "we have plenty of work to do, and you boys must buckle into it as you see fit. But this is what I want you to keep in the back of your mind: someday the National Forests are going to supply a great part of the timber in the country. It's too early yet. There's too much private timber standing, which can be cut without restriction. But when that is largely reduced, Uncle Sam will be going into the lumber business on a big scale. Even now we will be selling a few shake trees, and some small lots, and occasionally a bigger piece to some of the lumbermen who own adjoining timber. We've got to know what we have to sell. For instance, there's eighty acres in there surrounded by Welton's timber. When he comes to cut, it might pay us and him to sell the ripe trees off that eighty."

"I doubt if he'd think it would pay," Bob interposed.

"He might. I think the Chief will ease up a little on cutting restrictions before long. You've simply got to over-emphasize a matter at first to make it carry."

"You mean----?"

"I mean--this is only my private opinion, you understand--that lumbering has been done so wastefully and badly that it has been necessary, merely as education, to go to the other extreme. We've insisted on chopping and piling the tops like cordwood, and cutting up the down trunks of trees, and generally 'parking' the forest simply to get the idea into people's heads. They'd never thought of such things before. I don't believe it's necessary to go to such extremes, practically; and I don't believe the Service will demand it when it comes actually to do business."

Elliott and Bob looked at each other a little astonished.

"Mind you, I don't talk this way outside; and I don't want you to do so," pursued Thorne. "But when you come right down to it, all that's necessary is to prevent fire from running--and, of course, to leave a few seed-trees. Yo' can keep fire from running just as well by piling the debris in isolated heaps, as by chopping it up and stacking it. And it's a lot cheaper."

He leaned forward.

"That's coming," he continued. "Now you, Elliott, have had as thorough a theoretical education as the schools can give you; and you, Orde, have had a lot of practical experience in logging. You ought to make a good pair. Here's a map of the Government holdings hereabouts. What I want is a working plan for every forty, together with a topographical description, an estimate of timber, and a plan for the easiest method of logging it. There's no hurry about it; you can do it when nothing else comes up to take you away. But do it thoroughly, and to the best of your judgment, so I can file your reports for future reference when they are needed."

"Where do you want us to begin?" asked Bob.

"Welton is the only big operator," Thorpe pointed out, "so you'd better look over the timber adjoining or surrounded by his. Then the basin and ranges above the Power Company are important. There's a fine body of timber there, but we must cut it with a more than usual attention to water supplies."

This work Bob and Elliott found most congenial. They would start early in the morning, carrying with them their compass on its Jacob's-staff, their chain, their field notes, their maps and their axes. Arrived at the scene of operations, they unsaddled and picketed their horses. Then commenced a search for the "corner," established nearly fifty years before by the dead and gone surveyor, a copy of those field notes now guided them. This was no easy matter. The field notes described accurately the location, but in fifty years the character of a country may change. Great trees fall, new trees grow up, brush clothes an erstwhile bare hillside, fire denudes a slope, even the rocks and boulders shift their places under the coercion of frost or avalanche. The young men separated, shoulder deep in the high brakes and alders of a creek bottom, climbing tiny among great trees on the open slope of a distant hill, clambering busily among austere domes and pinnacles, fading in the cool green depths of the forest. Finally one would shout loudly. The other scrambled across.

"Here we are," Bob said, pointing to the trunk of a huge yellow pine.

On it showed a wrinkle in the bark, only just appreciable.

"There's our line blaze," said Bob. "Let's see if we can find it in the notes." He opened his book. "'Small creek three links wide, course SW,'" he murmured. "'Sugar pine, 48 in. dia., on line, 48 links.' That's not it. 'Top of ridge 34 ch. 6 1. course NE.' Now we come to the down slope. Here we are! 'Yellow pine 20 in. dia., on line, 50 chains.' Twenty inches! Well, old fellow, you've grown some since! Let's see your compass, Elliott."

Having thus cut the line, they established their course and went due north, spying sharply for the landmarks and old blazes as mentioned in the surveyor's field notes.

When they had gone about the required distance, they began to look for the corner. After some search, Elliott called Bob's attention to a grown-over blaze.

"I guess this is our witness tree," said he.

Without a word Bob began to chop above and below the wrinkle in the bark. After ten minutes careful work, he laid aside a thick slab of wood. The inner surface of this was shiny with pitch. The space from which it had peeled was also coated with the smooth substance. This pitch had filmed over the old blaze, protecting it against the new wood and bark which had gradually grown over it. Thus, although the original blaze had been buried six inches in the living white pine wood, nevertheless the lettering was as clear and sharp as when it had been carved fifty years before. Furthermore, the same lettering, only reversed and in relief, showed on the thick slab that Bob had peeled away. So the tree had preserved the record in its heart.

"Now let's see," said Bob. "This witness bears S 80 W. Let's find another."

This proved to be no great matter. Sighting the given directions from the two, they converged on the corner. This was described by the old surveyor as: "Oak post, 4 in. dia., set in pile of rocks," etc. The pile of rocks was now represented by scattered stones; and the oak post had long since rotted. Bob, however, unearthed a fragment on which ran a single grooved mark. It was like those made by borers in dead limbs. Were it not for one circumstance, the searchers would not have been justified in assuming that it was anything else. But, as Bob pointed out, the passageways made by borers are never straight. The fact that this was so, established indisputably that it had been made by the surveyor's steel "scribe."

Having thus located a corner, it was an easy matter to determine the position of a tract of land. At first hazy in its general configuration and extent, it took definition as the young men progressed with the accurate work of timber estimating. Before they had finished with it, they knew every little hollow, ridge, ravine, rock and tree in it. Out of the whole vast wilderness this one small patch had become thoroughly known.

The work was the most pleasant of any Bob had ever undertaken. It demanded accuracy, good judgment, knowledge. It did not require feverish haste. The surroundings were wonderfully beautiful; and if the men paused in their work, as they often did, the spirit of the woods, which as always had drawn aside from the engrossments of human activity, came closer as with fluttering of wings. Sometimes, nervous and impatient from the busy, tiny clatter of facts and figures and guesses, from the restless shuttle-weaving of estimates and plans, Bob looked up suddenly into a deathless and eternal peace. Like the cool green refreshment of waters it closed over him. When he again came to the surface-world of his occupation, he was rested and slowed down to a respectable patience.

Elliott was good company, interested in the work, well-bred, intelligent, eager to do his share--an ideal companion. He and Bob discussed many affairs during their rides to and from the work and during the interims of rest. As time went on, and the tracts to be estimated and plotted became more distant, they no longer attempted to return at night to Headquarters. Small meadows offered them resting places for the day or the week. They became expert in taking care of themselves so expeditiously that the process stole little time from their labours. On Saturday afternoon they rode to headquarters to report, and to spend Sunday.