The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part I: The Forest
Thorpe was awakened a long time before daylight by the ringing of a noisy bell. He dressed, shivering, and stumbled down stairs to a round stove, big as a boiler, into which the cripple dumped huge logs of wood from time to time. After breakfast Thorpe returned to this stove and sat half dozing for what seemed to him untold ages. The cold of the north country was initiating him.
Men came in, smoked a brief pipe, and went out. Shearer was one of them. The woodsman nodded curtly to the young man, his cordiality quite gone. Thorpe vaguely wondered why. After a time he himself put on his overcoat and ventured out into the town. It seemed to Thorpe a meager affair, built of lumber, mostly unpainted, with always the dark, menacing fringe of the forest behind. The great saw mill, with its tall stacks and its row of water-barrels-- protection against fire--on top, was the dominant note. Near the mill crouched a little red-painted structure from whose stovepipe a column of white smoke rose, attesting the cold, a clear hundred feet straight upward, and to whose door a number of men were directing their steps through the snow. Over the door Thorpe could distinguish the word "Office." He followed and entered.
In a narrow aisle railed off from the main part of the room waited Thorpe's companions of the night before. The remainder of the office gave accommodation to three clerks. One of these glanced up inquiringly as Thorpe came in.
"I am looking for work," said Thorpe.
"Wait there," briefly commanded the clerk.
In a few moments the door of the inner room opened, and Shearer came out. A man's head peered from within.
"Come on, boys," said he.
The five applicants shuffled through. Thorpe found himself in the presence of a man whom he felt to be the natural leader of these wild, independent spirits. He was already a little past middle life, and his form had lost the elastic vigor of youth. But his eye was keen, clear, and wrinkled to a certain dry facetiousness; and his figure was of that bulk which gives an impression of a subtler weight and power than the merely physical. This peculiarity impresses us in the portraits of such men as Daniel Webster and others of the old jurists. The manner of the man was easy, good- natured, perhaps a little facetious, but these qualities were worn rather as garments than exhibited as characteristics. He could afford them, not because he had fewer difficulties to overcome or battles to fight than another, but because his strength was so sufficient to them that mere battles or difficulties could not affect the deliberateness of his humor. You felt his superiority even when he was most comradely with you. This man Thorpe was to meet under other conditions, wherein the steel hand would more plainly clink the metal.
He was now seated in a worn office chair before a littered desk. In the close air hung the smell of stale cigars and the clear fragrance of pine.
"What is it, Dennis?" he asked the first of the men.
"I've been out," replied the lumberman. "Have you got anything for me, Mr. Daly?"
The mill-owner laughed.
"I guess so. Report to Shearer. Did you vote for the right man, Denny?"
The lumberman grinned sheepishly. "I don't know, sir. I didn't get that far."
"Better let it alone. I suppose you and Bill want to come back, too?" he added, turning to the next two in the line. "All right, report to Tim. Do you want work?" he inquired of the last of the quartette, a big bashful man with the shoulders of a Hercules.
"Yes, sir," answered the latter uncomfortably.
"What do you do?"
"I'm a cant-hook man, sir."
"Where have you worked?"
"I had a job with Morgan & Stebbins on the Clear River last winter."
"All right, we need cant-hook men. Report at 'seven,' and if they don't want you there, go to 'thirteen.'"
Daly looked directly at the man with an air of finality. The lumberman still lingered uneasily, twisting his cap in his hands.
"Anything you want?" asked Daly at last.
"Yes, sir," blurted the big man. "If I come down here and tell you I want three days off and fifty dollars to bury my mother, I wish you'd tell me to go to hell! I buried her three times last winter!"
Daly chuckled a little.
"All right, Bub," said he, "to hell it is."
The man went out. Daly turned to Thorpe with the last flickers of amusement in his eyes.
"What can I do for you?" he inquired in a little crisper tones. Thorpe felt that he was not treated with the same careless familiarity, because, potentially, he might be more of a force to deal with. He underwent, too, the man's keen scrutiny, and knew that every detail of his appearance had found its comment in the other's experienced brain.
"I am looking for work," Thorpe replied.
"What kind of work?"
"Any kind, so I can learn something about the lumber business."
The older man studied him keenly for a few moments.
"Have you had any other business experience?"
"What have you been doing?"
The lumberman's eyes hardened.
"We are a very busy firm here," he said with a certain deliberation; "we do not carry a big force of men in any one department, and each
of those men has to fill his place and slop some over the sides. We do not pretend or attempt to teach here. If you want to be a lumberman, you must learn the lumber business more directly than through the windows of a bookkeeper's office. Go into the woods. Learn a few first principles. Find out the difference between Norway and white pine, anyway."
Daly, being what is termed a self-made man, entertained a prejudice against youths of the leisure class. He did not believe in their earnestness of purpose, their capacity for knowledge, nor their perseverance in anything. That a man of twenty-six should be looking for his first situation was incomprehensible to him. He made no effort to conceal his prejudice, because the class to which the young man had belonged enjoyed his hearty contempt.
The truth is, he had taken Thorpe's ignorance a little too much for granted. Before leaving his home, and while the project of emigration was still in the air, the young fellow had, with the quiet enthusiasm of men of his habit of mind, applied himself to the mastering of whatever the books could teach. That is not much. The literature on lumbering seems to be singularly limited. Still he knew the trees, and had sketched an outline into which to paint experience. He said nothing of this to the man before him, because of that strange streak in his nature which prompted him to conceal what he felt most strongly; to leave to others the task of guessing out his attitude; to stand on appearances without attempting to justify them, no matter how simple the justification might be. A moment's frank, straightforward talk might have caught Daly's attention, for the lumberman was, after all, a shrewd reader of character where his prejudices were not concerned. Then events would have turned out very differently.
After his speech the business man had whirled back to his desk.
"Have you anything for me to do in the woods, then?" the other asked quietly.
"No," said Daly over his shoulder.
Thorpe went out.
Before leaving Detroit he had, on the advice of friends, visited the city office of Morrison & Daly. There he had been told positively that the firm were hiring men. Now, without five dollars in his pocket, he made the elementary discovery that even in chopping wood skilled labor counts. He did not know where to turn next, and he would not have had the money to go far in any case. So, although Shearer's brusque greeting that morning had argued a lack of cordiality, he resolved to remind the riverman of his promised assistance.
That noon he carried out his resolve. To his surprise Shearer was cordial--in his way. He came afterward to appreciate the subtle nuances of manner and treatment by which a boss retains his moral supremacy in a lumber country,--repels that too great familiarity which breeds contempt, without imperiling the trust and comradeship which breeds willingness. In the morning Thorpe had been a prospective employee of the firm, and so a possible subordinate of Shearer himself. Now he was Shearer's equal.
"Go up and tackle Radway. He's jobbing for us on the Cass Branch. He needs men for roadin', I know, because he's behind. You'll get a job there."
"Where is it?" asked Thorpe.
"Ten miles from here. She's blazed, but you better wait for th' supply team, Friday. If you try to make her yourself, you'll get lost on some of th' old loggin' roads."
"I'm busted," he said at last frankly.
"Oh, that's all right," replied the walking-boss. "Marshall, come here!"
The peg-legged boarding-house keeper stumped in.
"What is it?" he trumpeted snufflingly.
"This boy wants a job till Friday. Then he's going up to Radway's with the supply team. Now quit your hollerin' for a chore-boy for a few days."
"All right," snorted Marshall, "take that ax and split some dry wood that you'll find behind the house."
"I'm very much obliged to you," began Thorpe to the walking-boss, "and---"
"That's all right," interrupted the latter, "some day you can give me a job."