The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part V: The Following of the Trail
Winter set in early and continued late; which in the end was a good thing for the year's cut. The season was capricious, hanging for days at a time at the brink of a thaw, only to stiffen again into severe weather. This was trying on the nerves. For at each of these false alarms the six camps fell into a feverish haste to get the job finished before the break-up. It was really quite extraordinary how much was accomplished under the nagging spur of weather conditions and the cruel rowelling of Thorpe.
The latter had now no thought beyond his work, and that was the thought of a madman. He had been stern and unyielding enough before, goodness knows, but now he was terrible. His restless energy permeated every molecule in the economic structure over which he presided, roused it to intense vibration. Not for an instant was there a resting spell. The veriest chore-boy talked, thought, dreamed of nothing but saw logs. Men whispered vaguely of a record cut. Teamsters looked upon their success or failure to keep near the top on the day's haul as a signal victory or a disgraceful defeat. The difficulties of snow, accident, topography which an ever-watchful nature threw down before the rolling car of this industry, were swept aside like straws. Little time was wasted and no opportunities. It did not matter how smoothly affairs happened to be running for the moment, every advantage, even the smallest, was eagerly seized to advance the work. A drop of five degrees during the frequent warm spells brought out the sprinklers, even in dead of night; an accident was white-hot in the forge almost before the crack of the iron had ceased to echo. At night the men fell into their bunks like sandbags, and their last conscious thought, if indeed they had any at all, was of eagerness for the morrow in order that they might push the grand total up another notch. It was madness; but it was the madness these men loved.
For now to his old religion Thorpe had added a fanaticism, and over the fanaticism was gradually creeping a film of doubt. To the conscientious energy which a sense of duty supplied, was added the tremendous kinetic force of a love turned into other channels. And in the wild nights while the other men slept, Thorpe's half-crazed brain was revolving over and over again the words of the sentence he had heard from Hilda's lips: "There can be nothing better than love."
His actions, his mind, his very soul vehemently denied the proposition. He clung as ever to his high Puritanic idea of man's purpose. But down deep in a very tiny, sacred corner of his heart a very small voice sometimes made itself heard when other, more militant voices were still: "It may be; it may be!"
The influence of this voice was practically nothing. It made itself heard occasionally. Perhaps even, for the time being, its weight counted on the other side of the scale; for Thorpe took pains to deny it fiercely, both directly and indirectly by increased exertions. But it persisted; and once in a moon or so, when the conditions were quite favorable, it attained for an instant a shred of belief.
Probably never since the Puritan days of New England has a community lived as sternly as did that winter of 1888 the six camps under Thorpe's management. There was something a little inspiring about it. The men fronted their daily work with the same grim-faced, clear-eyed steadiness of veterans going into battle;--with the same confidence, the same sure patience that disposes effectively of one thing before going on to the next. There was little merely excitable bustle; there was no rest. Nothing could stand against such a spirit. Nothing did. The skirmishers which the wilderness threw out, were brushed away. Even the inevitable delays seemed not so much stoppages as the instant's pause of a heavy vehicle in a snow drift, succeeded by the momentary acceleration as the plunge carried it through. In the main, and by large, the machine moved steadily and inexorably.
And yet one possessed of the finer spiritual intuitions could not have shaken off the belief in an impending struggle. The feel of it was in the air. Nature's forces were too mighty to be so slightly overcome; the splendid energy developed in these camps too vast to be wasted on facile success. Over against each other were two great powers, alike in their calm confidence, animated with the loftiest and most dignified spirit of enmity. Slowly they were moving toward each other. The air was surcharged with the electricity of their opposition. Just how the struggle would begin was uncertain; but its inevitability was as assured as its magnitude. Thorpe knew it, and shut his teeth, looking keenly about him. The Fighting Forty knew it, and longed for the grapple to come. The other camps knew it, and followed their leader with perfect trust. The affair was an epitome of the historic combats begun with David and Goliath. It was an affair of Titans. The little courageous men watched their enemy with cat's eyes.
The last month of hauling was also one of snow. In this condition were few severe storms, but each day a little fell. By and by the accumulation amounted to much. In the woods where the wind could not get at it, it lay deep and soft above the tops of bushes. The grouse ate browse from the slender hardwood tips like a lot of goldfinches, or precipitated themselves headlong down through five feet of snow to reach the ground. Often Thorpe would come across the irregular holes of their entrance. Then if he took the trouble to stamp about a little in the vicinity with his snowshoes, the bird would spring unexpectedly from the clear snow, scattering a cloud with its strong wings. The deer, herded together, tramped "yards" where the feed was good. Between the yards ran narrow trails. When the animals went from one yard to another in these trails, their ears and antlers alone were visible. On either side of the logging roads the snow piled so high as to form a kind of rampart. When all this water in suspense should begin to flow, and to seek its level in the water-courses of the district, the logs would have plenty to float them, at least.
So late did the cold weather last that, even with the added plowing to do, the six camps beat all records. On the banks at Camp One were nine million feet; the totals of all five amounted to thirty- three million. About ten million of this was on French Creek; the remainder on the main banks of the Ossawinamakee. Besides this the firm up-river, Sadler & Smith, had put up some twelve million more. The drive promised to be quite an affair.
About the fifteenth of April attention became strained. Every day the mounting sun made heavy attacks on the snow: every night the temperature dropped below the freezing point. The river began to show more air holes, occasional open places. About the center the ice looked worn and soggy. Someone saw a flock of geese high in the air. Then came rain.
One morning early, Long Pine Jim came into the men's camp bearing a huge chunk of tallow. This he held against the hot stove until its surface had softened, when he began to swab liberal quantities of grease on his spiked river shoes, which he fished out from under his bunk.
"She's comin', boys," said he.
He donned a pair of woolen trousers that had been chopped off at the knee, thick woolen stockings, and the river shoes. Then he tightened his broad leather belt about his heavy shirt, cocked his little hat over his ear, and walked over in the corner to select a peavey from the lot the blacksmith had just put in shape. A peavey is like a cant-hook except that it is pointed at the end. Thus it can be used either as a hook or a pike. At the same moment Shearer, similarly attired and equipped, appeared in the doorway. The opening of the portal admitted a roar of sound. The river was rising.
"Come on, boys, she's on!" said he sharply.
Outside, the cook and cookee were stowing articles in the already loaded wanigan. The scow contained tents, blankets, provisions, and a portable stove. It followed the drive, and made a camp wherever expediency demanded.
"Lively, boys, lively!" shouted Thorpe. "She'll be down on us before we know it!"
Above the soft creaking of dead branches in the wind sounded a steady roar, like the bellowing of a wild beast lashing itself to fury. The freshet was abroad, forceful with the strength of a whole winter's accumulated energy.
The men heard it and their eyes brightened with the lust of battle. They cheered.