The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part I: The Forest
In the office shanty one evening about a week later, Radway and his scaler happened to be talking over the situation. The scaler, whose name was Dyer, slouched back in the shadow, watching his great honest superior as a crafty, dainty cat might watch the blunderings of a St. Bernard. When he spoke, it was with a mockery so subtle as quite to escape the perceptions of the lumberman. Dyer had a precise little black mustache whose ends he was constantly twisting into points, black eyebrows, and long effeminate black lashes. You would have expected his dress in the city to be just a trifle flashy, not enough so to be loud, but sinning as to the trifles of good taste. The two men conversed in short elliptical sentences, using many technical terms.
"That 'seventeen' white pine is going to underrun," said Dyer. "It won't skid over three hundred thousand."
"It's small stuff," agreed Radway, "and so much the worse for us; but the Company'll stand in on it because small stuff like that always over-runs on the mill-cut."
The scaler nodded comprehension.
"When you going to dray-haul that Norway across Pike Lake?"
"To-morrow. She's springy, but the books say five inches of ice will hold a team, and there's more than that. How much are we putting in a day, now?"
"About forty thousand."
Radway fell silent.
"That's mighty little for such a crew," he observed at last, doubtfully.
"I always said you were too easy with them. You got to drive them more."
"Well, it's a rough country," apologized Radway, trying, as was his custom, to find excuses for the other party as soon as he was agreed with in his blame, "there's any amount of potholes; and, then, we've had so much snow the ground ain't really froze underneath. It gets pretty soft in some of them swamps. Can't figure on putting up as much in this country as we used to down on the Muskegon."
The scaler smiled a thin smile all to himself behind the stove. Big John Radway depended so much on the moral effect of approval or disapproval by those with whom he lived. It amused Dyer to withhold the timely word, so leaving the jobber to flounder between his easy nature and his sense of what should be done.
Dyer knew perfectly well that the work was behind, and he knew the reason. For some time the men had been relaxing their efforts. They had worked honestly enough, but a certain snap and vim had lacked. This was because Radway had been too easy on them.
Your true lumber-jack adores of all things in creation a man whom he feels to be stronger than himself. If his employer is big enough to drive him, then he is willing to be driven to the last ounce of his strength. But once he gets the notion that his "boss" is afraid of, or for, him or his feelings or his health, he loses interest in working for that man. So a little effort to lighten or expedite his work, a little leniency in excusing the dilatory finishing of a job, a little easing-up under stress of weather, are taken as so many indications of a desire to conciliate. And conciliation means weakness every time. Your lumber-jack likes to be met front to front, one strong man to another. As you value your authority, the love of your men, and the completion of your work, keep a bluff brow and an unbending singleness of purpose.
Radway's peculiar temperament rendered him liable to just this mistake. It was so much easier for him to do the thing himself than to be harsh to the point of forcing another to it, that he was inclined to take the line of least resistance when it came to a question of even ordinary diligence. He sought often in his own mind excuses for dereliction in favor of a man who would not have dreamed of seeking them for himself. A good many people would call this kindness of heart. Perhaps it was; the question is a little puzzling. But the facts were as stated.
Thorpe had already commented on the feeling among the men, though, owing to his inexperience, he was not able to estimate its full value. The men were inclined to a semi-apologetic air when they spoke of their connection with the camp. Instead of being honored as one of a series of jobs, this seemed to be considered as merely a temporary halting-place in which they took no pride, and from which they looked forward in anticipation or back in memory to better things.
"Old Shearer, he's the bully boy," said Bob Stratton. "I remember when he was foremap for M. & D. at Camp 0. Say, we did hustle them saw-logs in! I should rise to remark! Out in th' woods by first streak o' day. I recall one mornin' she was pretty cold, an' the boys grumbled some about turnin' out. 'Cold,' says Tim, 'you sons of guns! You got your ch'ice. It may be too cold for you in the woods, but it's a damm sight too hot fer you in hell, an' you're going to one or the other!' And he meant it too. Them was great days! Forty million a year, and not a hitch."
One man said nothing in the general discussion. It was his first winter in the woods, and plainly in the eyes of the veterans this experience did not count. It was a "faute de mieux," in which one would give an honest day's work, and no more.
As has been hinted, even the inexperienced newcomer noticed the lack of enthusiasm, of unity. Had he known the loyalty, devotion, and adoration that a thoroughly competent man wins from his "hands," the state of affairs would have seemed even more surprising. The lumber-jack will work sixteen, eighteen hours a day, sometimes up to the waist in water full of floating ice; sleep wet on the ground by a little fire; and then next morning will spring to work at daylight with an "Oh, no, not tired; just a little stiff, sir!" in cheerful reply to his master's inquiry,--for the right man! Only it must be a strong man,--with the strength of the wilderness in his eye.
The next morning Radway transferred Molly and Jenny, with little Fabian Laveque and two of the younger men, to Pike Lake. There, earlier in the season, a number of pines had been felled out on the ice, cut in logs, and left in expectation of ice thick enough to bear the travoy "dray." Owing to the fact that the shores of Pike Lake were extremely precipitous, it had been impossible to travoy the logs up over the hill.
Radway had sounded carefully the thickness of the ice with an ax. Although the weather had of late been sufficiently cold for the time of year, the snow, as often happens, had fallen before the temperature. Under the warm white blanket, the actual freezing had been slight. However, there seemed to be at least eight inches of clear ice, which would suffice.
Some of the logs in question were found to be half imbedded in the ice. It became necessary first of all to free them. Young Henrys cut a strong bar six or eight feet long, while Pat McGuire chopped a hole alongside the log. Then one end of the bar was thrust into the hole, the logging chain fastened to the other; and, behold, a monster lever, whose fulcrum was the ice and whose power was applied by Molly, hitched to the end of the chain. In this simple manner a task was accomplished in five minutes which would have taken a dozen men an hour. When the log had been cat-a-cornered from its bed, the chain was fastened around one end by means of the ever-useful steel swamp-hook, and it was yanked across the dray. Then the travoy took its careful way across the ice to where a dip in the shore gave access to a skidway.
Four logs had thus been safely hauled. The fifth was on its journey across the lake. Suddenly without warning, and with scarcely a sound, both horses sank through the ice, which bubbled up around them and over their backs in irregular rotted pieces. Little Fabian Laveque shouted, and jumped down from his log. Pat McGuire and young Henrys came running.
The horses had broken through an air-hole, about which the ice was strong. Fabian had already seized Molly by the bit, and was holding her head easily above water.
"Kitch Jenny by dat he't!" he cried to Pat.
Thus the two men, without exertion, sustained the noses of the team above the surface. The position demanded absolutely no haste, for it could have been maintained for a good half hour. Molly and Jenny, their soft eyes full of the intelligence of the situation, rested easily in full confidence. But Pat and Henrys, new to this sort of emergency, were badly frightened and excited. To them the affair had come to a deadlock.
"Oh, Lord!" cried Pat, clinging desperately to Jenny's headpiece. "What will we'z be doin'? We can't niver haul them two horses on the ice."
"Tak' de log-chain," said Fabian to Henrys, "an' tie him around de nec' of Jenny."
Henrys, after much difficulty and nervous fumbling, managed to loosen the swamp-hook; and after much more difficulty and nervous fumbling succeeded in making it fast about the gray mare's neck. Fabian intended with this to choke the animal to that peculiar state when she would float like a balloon on the water, and two men could with ease draw her over the edge of the ice. Then the unexpected happened.
The instant Henrys had passed the end of the chain through the knot, Pat, possessed by some Hibernian notion that now all was fast, let go of the bit. Jenny's head at once went under, and the end of the logging chain glided over the ice and fell plump in the hole.
Immediately all was confusion. Jenny kicked and struggled, churning the water, throwing it about, kicking out in every direction. Once a horse's head dips strongly, the game is over. No animal drowns more quickly. The two young boys scrambled away, and French oaths could not induce them to approach. Molly, still upheld by Fabian, looked at him piteously with her strange intelligent eyes, holding herself motionless and rigid with complete confidence in this master who had never failed her before. Fabian dug his heels into the ice, but could not hang on. The drowning horse was more than a dead weight. Presently it became a question of letting go or being dragged into the lake on top of the animals. With a sob the little Frenchman relinquished his hold. The water seemed slowly to rise and over- film the troubled look of pleading in Molly's eyes.
"Assassins!" hissed Laveque at the two unfortunate youths. That was all.
When the surface of the waters had again mirrored the clouds, they hauled the carcasses out on the ice and stripped the harness. Then they rolled the log from the dray, piled the tools on it, and took their way to camp. In the blue of the winter's sky was a single speck.
The speck grew. Soon it swooped. With a hoarse croak it lit on the snow at a wary distance, and began to strut back and forth. Presently, its suspicions at rest, the raven advanced, and with eager beak began its dreadful meal. By this time another, which had seen the first one's swoop, was in view through the ether; then another; then another. In an hour the brotherhood of ravens, thus telegraphically notified, was at feast.