The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part I: The Forest
Thorpe found the woods very different from when he had first traversed them. They were full of patches of wet earth and of sunshine; of dark pine, looking suddenly worn, and of fresh green shoots of needles, looking deliciously springlike. This was the contrast everywhere--stern, earnest, purposeful winter, and gay, laughing, careless spring. It was impossible not to draw in fresh spirits with every step.
He followed the trail by the river. Butterballs and scoters paddled up at his approach. Bits of rotten ice occasionally swirled down the diminishing stream. The sunshine was clear and bright, but silvery rather than golden, as though a little of the winter's snow,--a last ethereal incarnation,--had lingered in its substance. Around every bend Thorpe looked for some of Radway's crew "driving" the logs down the current. He knew from chance encounters with several of the men in Bay City that Radway was still in camp; which meant, of course, that the last of the season's operations were not yet finished. Five miles further Thorpe began to wonder whether this last conclusion might not be erroneous. The Cass Branch had shrunken almost to its original limits. Only here and there a little bayou or marsh attested recent freshets. The drive must have been finished, even this early, for the stream in its present condition would hardly float saw logs, certainly not in quantity.
Thorpe, puzzled, walked on. At the banking ground he found empty skids. Evidently the drive was over. And yet even to Thorpe's ignorance, it seemed incredible that the remaining million and a half of logs had been hauled, banked and driven during the short time he had lain in the Bay City hospital. More to solve the problem than in any hope of work, he set out up the logging road.
Another three miles brought him to camp. It looked strangely wet and sodden and deserted. In fact, Thorpe found a bare half dozen people in it,--Radway, the cook, and four men who were helping to pack up the movables, and who later would drive out the wagons containing them. The jobber showed strong traces of the strain he had undergone, but greeted Thorpe almost jovially. He seemed able to show more of his real nature now that the necessity of authority had been definitely removed.
"Hullo, young man," he shouted at Thorpe's mud-splashed figure, "come back to view, the remains? All well again, heigh? That's good!"
He strode down to grip the young fellow heartily by the hand. It was impossible not to be charmed by the sincere cordiality of his manner.
"I didn't know you were through," explained Thorpe, "I came to see if I could get a job."
"Well now I am sorry!" cried Radway, "you can turn in and help though, if you want to."
Thorpe greeted the cook and old Jackson Hines, the only two whom he knew, and set to work to tie up bundles of blankets, and to collect axes, peavies, and tools of all descriptions. This was evidently the last wagon-trip, for little remained to be done.
"I ought by rights to take the lumber of the roofs and floors," observed Radway thoughtfully, "but I guess she don't matter."
Thorpe had never seen him in better spirits. He ascribed the older man's hilarity to relief over the completion of a difficult task. That evening the seven dined together at one end of the long table. The big room exhaled already the atmosphere of desertion.
"Not much like old times, is she?" laughed Radway. "Can't you just shut your eyes and hear Baptiste say, 'Mak' heem de soup one tam more for me'? She's pretty empty now."
Jackson Hines looked whimsically down the bare board. "More room than God made for geese in Ireland," was his comment.
After supper they even sat outside for a little time to smoke their pipes, chair-tilted against the logs of the cabins, but soon the chill of melting snow drove them indoors. The four teamsters played seven-up in the cook camp by the light of a barn lantern, while Thorpe and the cook wrote letters. Thorpe's was to his sister.
"I have been in the hospital for about a month," he wrote. "Nothing serious--a crack on the head, which is all right now. But I cannot get home this summer, nor, I am afraid, can we arrange about the school this year. I am about seventy dollars ahead of where I was last fall, so you see it is slow business. This summer I am going into a mill, but the wages for green labor are not very high there either," and so on.
When Miss Helen Thorpe, aged seventeen, received this document she stamped her foot almost angrily. "You'd think he was a day-laborer!" she cried. "Why doesn't he try for a clerkship or something in the city where he'd have a chance to use his brains!"
The thought of her big, strong, tanned brother chained to a desk rose to her, and she smiled a little sadly.
"I know," she went on to herself, "he'd rather be a common laborer in the woods than railroad manager in the office. He loves his out- of-doors."
"Helen!" called a voice from below, "if you're through up there, I wish you'd come down and help me carry this rug out."
The girl's eyes cleared with a snap.
"So do I!" she cried defiantly, "so do I love out-of-doors! I like the woods and the fields and the trees just as much as he does, only differently; but I don't get out!"
And thus she came to feeling rebelliously that her brother had been a little selfish in his choice of an occupation, that he sacrificed her inclinations to his own. She did not guess,--how could she?-- his dreams for her. She did not see the future through his thoughts, but through his words. A negative hopelessness settled down on her, which soon her strong spirit, worthy counterpart of her brother's, changed to more positive rebellion. Thorpe had aroused antagonism where he craved only love. The knowledge of that fact would have surprised and hurt him, for he was entirely without suspicion of it. He lived subjectively to so great a degree that his thoughts and aims took on a certain tangible objectivity,--they became so real to him that he quite overlooked the necessity of communication to make them as real to others. He assumed unquestioningly that the other must know. So entirely had he thrown himself into his ambition of making a suitable position for Helen, so continually had he dwelt on it in his thoughts, so earnestly had he striven for it in every step of the great game he was beginning to play, that it never occurred to him he should also concede a definite outward manifestation of his feeling in order to assure its acceptance. Thorpe believed that he had sacrificed every thought and effort to his sister. Helen was becoming convinced that he had considered only himself.
After finishing the letter which gave occasion to this train of thought, Thorpe lit his pipe and strolled out into the darkness. Opposite the little office he stopped amazed.
Through the narrow window he could see Radway seated in front of the stove. Every attitude of the man denoted the most profound dejection. He had sunk down into his chair until he rested on almost the small of his back, his legs were struck straight out in front of him, his chin rested on his breast, and his two arms hung listless at his side, a pipe half falling from the fingers of one hand. All the facetious lines had turned to pathos. In his face sorrowed the anxious, questing, wistful look of the St. Bernard that does not understand.
"What's the matter with the boss, anyway?" asked Thorpe in a low voice of Jackson Hines, when the seven-up game was finished.
"H'aint ye heard?" inquired the old man in surprise.
"Why, no. What?"
"Busted," said the old man sententiously.
"How? What do you mean?"
"What I say. He's busted. That freshet caught him too quick. They's more'n a million and a half logs left in the woods that can't be got out this year, and as his contract calls for a finished job, he don't get nothin' for what he's done."
"That's a queer rig," commented Thorpe. "He's done a lot of valuable work here,--the timber's cut and skidded, anyway; and he's delivered a good deal of it to the main drive. The M. & D. outfit get all the advantage of that."
"They do, my son. When old Daly's hand gets near anything, it cramps. I don't know how the old man come to make such a contrac', but he did. Result is, he's out his expenses and time."
To understand exactly the catastrophe that had occurred, it is necessary to follow briefly an outline of the process after the logs have been piled on the banks. There they remain until the break-up attendant on spring shall flood the stream to a freshet. The rollways are then broken, and the saw logs floated down the river to the mill where they are to be cut into lumber.
If for any reason this transportation by water is delayed until the flood goes down, the logs are stranded or left in pools. Consequently every logger puts into the two or three weeks of freshet water a feverish activity which shall carry his product through before the ebb.
The exceptionally early break-up of this spring, combined with the fact that, owing to the series of incidents and accidents already sketched, the actual cutting and skidding had fallen so far behind, caught Radway unawares. He saw his rollways breaking out while his teams were still hauling in the woods. In order to deliver to the mouth of the Cass Branch the three million already banked, he was forced to drop everything else and attend strictly to the drive. This left still, as has been stated, a million and a half on skidways, which Radway knew he would be unable to get out that year.
In spite of the jobber's certainty that his claim was thus annulled, and that he might as well abandon the enterprise entirely for all he would ever get out of it, he finished the "drive" conscientiously and saved to the Company the logs already banked. Then he had interviewed Daly. The latter refused to pay him one cent. Nothing remained but to break camp and grin as best he might over the loss of his winter's work and expenses.
The next day Radway and Thorpe walked the ten miles of the river trail together, while the teamsters and the cook drove down the five teams. Under the influence of the solitude and a certain sympathy which Thorpe manifested, Radway talked--a very little.
"I got behind; that's all there is to it," he said. "I s'pose I ought to have driven the men a little; but still, I don't know. It gets pretty cold on the plains. I guess I bit off more than I could chew."
His eye followed listlessly a frenzied squirrel swinging from the tops of poplars.
"I wouldn't 'a done it for myself," he went on. "I don't like the confounded responsibility. They's too much worry connected with it all. I had a good snug little stake--mighty nigh six thousand. She's all gone now. That'd have been enough for me--I ain't a drinkin' man. But then there was the woman and the kid. This ain't no country for woman-folks, and I wanted t' take little Lida out o' here. I had lots of experience in the woods, and I've seen men make big money time and again, who didn't know as much about it as I do. But they got there, somehow. Says I, I'll make a stake this year-- I'd a had twelve thousand in th' bank, if things'd have gone right-- and then we'll jest move down around Detroit an' I'll put Lida in school."
Thorpe noticed a break in the man's voice, and glancing suddenly toward him was astounded to catch his eyes brimming with tears. Radway perceived the surprise.
"You know when I left Christmas?" he asked.
"I was gone two weeks, and them two weeks done me. We was going slow enough before, God knows, but even with the rank weather and all, I think we'd have won out, if we could have held the same gait."
Radway paused. Thorpe was silent.
"The boys thought it was a mighty poor rig, my leaving that way."
He paused again in evident expectation of a reply. Again Thorpe was silent.
"Didn't they?" Radway insisted.
"Yes, they did," answered Thorpe.
The older man sighed. "I thought so," he went on. "Well, I didn't go to spend Christmas. I went because Jimmy brought me a telegram that Lida was sick with diphtheria. I sat up nights with her for 'leven days."
"No bad after-effects, I hope?" inquired Thorpe.
"She died," said Radway simply.
The two men tramped stolidly on. This was too great an affair for Thorpe to approach except on the knees of his spirit. After a long interval, during which the waters had time to still, the young man changed the subject.
"Aren't you going to get anything out of M. & D.?" he asked.
"No. Didn't earn nothing. I left a lot of their saw logs hung up in the woods, where they'll deteriorate from rot and worms. This is their last season in this district."
"Got anything left?"
"Not a cent."
"What are you going to do?"
"Do!" cried the old woodsman, the fire springing to his eye. "Do! I'm going into the woods, by God! I'm going to work with my hands, and be happy! I'm going to do other men's work for them and take other men's pay. Let them do the figuring and worrying. I'll boss their gangs and make their roads and see to their logging for 'em, but it's got to be theirs. No! I'm going to be a free man by the G. jumping Moses!"