The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
Bob made the earliest chance to obtain California John's promised advice. The old man was unlettered, but his understanding was informed by a broad and gentle spirit and long experience of varied things. On this the head ranger himself touched.
"Bob," he began, "I'm an old man, and I've lived through a lot. When I come into this state the elk and deer and antelope was running out on the plains like sheep. I mined and prospected up and down these mountains when nobody knew their names. There's hardly a gold camp you can call over that I ain't been in on; nor a set of men that had anything to do with making the state that I ain't tracked up with. Most of the valley towns wasn't in existence those days, and the rest was little cattle towns that didn't amount to anything. The railroad took a week to come from Chicago. There wasn't any railroad up the coast. They hadn't begun to irrigate much. Where the Redlands and Riverside orange groves are there was nothing but dry washes and sage-brush desert. It cost big money to send freight. All that was shipped out of the country in a season wouldn't make up one shipment these days. I suppose to folks back East this country looked about as far off as Africa. Even to folks living in California the country as far back as these mountains looked like going to China. They got all their lumber from the Coast ranges and the lower hills. This back here was just wilderness, so far off that nobody rightly thought of it as United States at all.
"Of course, by and by the country settled up a little more but even then nobody ever thought of timber. You see, there was no market to amount to anything out here; and a few little jerk-water mills could supply the whole layout easy. East, the lumber in Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota never was going to give out. In those days you could hardly give away land up in this country. The fellow that went in for timber was looked on as a lunatic. It took a big man with lots of sand to see it at all."
Bob nodded, his eye kindling with the beginnings of understanding.
"There was a few of them. They saw far enough ahead, and they come in here and took up some timber. Other folks laughed at them; but I guess they're doing most of the laughing now. It took nerve, and it took sense, and it took time, and it took patience." California John emphasized each point with a pat of his brown, gnarled hand.
"Now those fellows started things for this country. If they hadn't had the sheer nerve to take up that timber, nobody would have dared do anything else--not for years anyhow. But just the fact that the Wolverine Company bought big, and other big men come in--why it give confidence to the people. The country boomed right ahead. If nobody had seen the future of the country, she'd have been twenty year behind. Out West that means a hell of a lot of value, let me tell you!"
"The timber would have belonged to the Government," Bob reminded him.
"I'm a Forest officer," said California John, "and what's more, I was a Forest officer for a good many years when there was nothin' to it but kicks. There can't nobody beat me in wishing a lot of good forest land was under the Service instead of being due to be cut up by lumbermen. But I've lived too long not to see the point. You can't get benefits without paying for 'em. The United States of America was big gainers because these old fellows had the nerve just to come in and buy. It ain't so much the lumber they saw and put out where it's needed--though that's a good deal; and it ain't so much the men they bring into the country and give work to--though that's a lot, too. It's the confidence they inspire, it's the lead they give. That's what counts. All the rest of these little operators, and workmen, and storekeepers, and manufacturers wouldn't have found their way out here in twenty years if the big fellows hadn't led the way. If you should go over and buy ten thousand acres of land by Table Mountain to-morrow, next year there'd be a dozen to follow you in and do whatever you'd be doing. And while it's the big fellow that gives the lead, it's the little fellow that makes the wealth of the country!"
Bob stared at the old man in fascinated surprise. This was a new California John, this closely reasoning man, with, clear, earnest eyes, laying down the simple doctrine taught by a long life among men.
"The Government gives alternate sections of land to railroads to bring them in the country," went on California John. "In my notion all this timber land in private hands is where it belongs. It's the price the Government paid for wealth."
"And the Basin----" cried Bob.
"What the hell more confidence does this country need now?" demanded California John fiercely; "what with its mills and its trolleys, its vineyards and all its big projects. What right has this man Baker to get pay for what he ain't done?"
The distinction Bob had sensed, but had not been able to analyze, leaped at him. The equities hung in equal balance. On one side he saw the pioneer, pressing forward into an unknown wilderness, breaking a way for those that could follow, holding aloft a torch to illumine dark places, taking long and desperate chances, or seeing with almost clairvoyant power beyond the immediate vision of men; waiting in faith for the fulfillment of their prophecies. On the other he saw the plunderer, grasping for a wealth that did not belong to him, through values he had not made. This fundamental difference could never again, in Bob's mind, be gainsaid.
Nevertheless though a difference in deeper ethics, it did not extend to the surface of things by which men live. It explained; but did it excuse, especially in the eye of abstract ethics? Had not these men broken the law, and is not the upholding of the law important in its moral effect on those that follow?
"Just the same," he voiced this thought to California John, "the laws read then as they do to-day."
"On the books, yes," replied the old man, slowly; "but not in men's ideas. You got to remember that those fellows held pretty straight by what the law says. They got other men to take up the timber, and then had it transferred to themselves. That's according to law. A man can do what he wants with his own. You know."
"But the intention of the law is to give every man a----"
"That's what we go by now," interrupted California John.
"What other way is there to go by?"
"None--now. But in those days that was the settled way to get timber land. They didn't make any secret of it. They just looked at it as the process to go through with, like filing a deed, or getting two witnesses. It was a nuisance, and looked foolish, but if that was the way to do it, why they'd do it that way. Everybody knew that. Why, if a man wanted to get enough timber to go to operating on, his lawyer would explain to him how to do it; any of his friends that was posted would show him the ropes; and if he'd take the trouble to go to the Land Office itself, the clerk would say: 'No, Mr. Man, I can't transfer to you, personally, more'n a hundred and sixty acres, but you can get some of your friends to take it up for you.'[Footnote: A fact.] Now will you tell me how Mr. Man could get it any straighter than that?"
Bob was seeing a great light. He nodded.
"They've changed the rules of the game!" said California John impressively, "and now they want to go back thirty year and hold these fellows to account for what they did under the old rules. It don't look to me like it's fair."
He thought a moment.
"I suppose," he remarked reflectively, going off on one of his strange tangents, and lapsing once more into his customary picturesque speech, "that these old boys that burned those Salem witches was pretty well thought of in Salem--deacons in the church, and all such; p'ticular elect, and held up to the kids for high moral examples? had the plumb universal approval in those torchlight efforts of theirn?"
"So I believe," said Bob.
"Well," drawled California John, stretching his lank frame, "suppose one of those old bucks had lived to now--of course, he couldn't, but suppose he did--and was enjoying himself and being a good citizen. And suppose some day the sheriff touched him on the shoulder and says: 'Old boy, we're rounding up all the murderers. I've just got Saleratus Bill for scragging Franklin. You come along, too. Don't you know that burnin' witches is murder?'" California John spat with vigour. "Oh, hell!" said he.
"Now, Baker," he went on, after a moment, "is Saleratus Bill because he knows he's agin what the people knows is the law; and the other fellows is old Salem because they lived like they were told to. Even old Salem would know that he couldn't burn no witches nowadays. These old timers ain't the ones trying to steal land now, you notice. They're too damn honest. You don't need to tell me that you believe for one minute when he took up this Wolverine land, that your father did anything that he, or anybody else, courts included, thought was off-colour."
"My father!" cried Bob.
"Why, yes," said California John, looking at him curiously; "you don't mean to say you didn't know he is the Wolverine Company!"