The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part I: The Forest
They finished cutting on section seventeen during Thorpe's second week. It became necessary to begin on section fourteen, which lay two miles to the east. In that direction the character of the country changed somewhat.
The pine there grew thick on isolated "islands" of not more than an acre or so in extent,--little knolls rising from the level of a marsh. In ordinary conditions nothing would have been easier than to have ploughed roads across the frozen surface of this marsh. The peculiar state of the weather interposed tremendous difficulties.
The early part of autumn had been characterized by a heavy snow- fall immediately after a series of mild days. A warm blanket of some thickness thus overlaid the earth, effectually preventing the freezing which subsequent cold weather would have caused. All the season Radway had contended with this condition. Even in the woods, muddy swamp and spring-holes caused endless difficulty and necessitated a great deal of "corduroying," or the laying of poles side by side to form an artificial bottom. Here in the open some six inches of water and unlimited mud awaited the first horse that should break through the layer of snow and thin ice. Between each pair of islands a road had to be "tramped."
Thorpe and the rest were put at this disagreeable job. All day long they had to walk mechanically back and forth on diagonals between the marks set by Radway with his snowshoes. Early in the morning their feet were wet by icy water, for even the light weight of a man sometimes broke the frozen skin of the marsh. By night a road of trampled snow, of greater or less length, was marked out across the expanse. Thus the blanket was thrown back from the warm earth, and thus the cold was given a chance at the water beneath. In a day or so the road would bear a horse. A bridge of ice had been artificially constructed, on either side of which lay unsounded depths. This road was indicated by a row of firs stuck in the snow on either side.
It was very cold. All day long the restless wind swept across the shivering surface of the plains, and tore around the corners of the islands. The big woods are as good as an overcoat. The overcoat had been taken away.
When the lunch-sleigh arrived, the men huddled shivering in the lee of one of the knolls, and tried to eat with benumbed fingers before a fire that was but a mockery. Often it was nearly dark before their work had warmed them again. All of the skidways had to be placed on the edges of the islands themselves, and the logs had to be travoyed over the steep little knolls. A single misstep out on to the plain meant a mired horse. Three times heavy snows obliterated the roads, so that they had to be ploughed out before the men could go to work again. It was a struggle.
Radway was evidently worried. He often paused before a gang to inquire how they were "making it." He seemed afraid they might wish to quit, which was indeed the case, but he should never have taken before them any attitude but that of absolute confidence in their intentions. His anxiety was natural, however. He realized the absolute necessity of skidding and hauling this job before the heavy choking snows of the latter part of January should make it impossible to keep the roads open. So insistent was this necessity that he had seized the first respite in the phenomenal snow-fall of the early autumn to begin work. The cutting in the woods could wait.
Left to themselves probably the men would never have dreamed of objecting to whatever privations the task carried with it. Radway's anxiety for their comfort, however, caused them finally to imagine that perhaps they might have some just grounds for complaint after all. That is a great trait of the lumber-jack.
But Dyer, the scaler, finally caused the outbreak. Dyer was an efficient enough man in his way, but he loved his own ease. His habit was to stay in his bunk of mornings until well after daylight. To this there could be no objection--except on the part of the cook, who was supposed to attend to his business himself--for the scaler was active in his work, when once he began it, and could keep up with the skidding. But now he displayed a strong antipathy to the north wind on the plains. Of course he could not very well shirk the work entirely, but he did a good deal of talking on the very cold mornings.
"I don't pose for no tough son-of-a-gun," said he to Radway, "and I've got some respect for my ears and feet. She'll warm up a little by to-morrow, and perhaps the wind'll die. I can catch up on you fellows by hustling a little, so I guess I'll stay in and work on the books to-day."
"All right," Radway assented, a little doubtfully.
This happened perhaps two days out of the week. Finally Dyer hung out a thermometer, which he used to consult. The men saw it, and consulted it too. At once they felt much colder.
"She was stan' ten below," sputtered Baptiste Tellier, the Frenchman who played the fiddle. "He freeze t'rou to hees eenside. Dat is too cole for mak de work."
"Them plains is sure a holy fright," assented Purdy.
"Th' old man knows it himself," agreed big Nolan; "did you see him rammin' around yesterday askin' us if we found her too cold? He knows damn well he ought not to keep a man out that sort o' weather."
"You'd shiver like a dog in a briar path on a warm day in July," said Jackson Hines contemptuously.
"Shut up!" said they. "You're barn-boss. You don't have to be out in th' cold."
This was true. So Jackson's intervention went for a little worse than nothing.
"It ain't lak' he has nuttin' besides," went on Baptiste. "He can mak' de cut in de meedle of de fores'."
"That's right," agreed Bob Stratton, "they's the west half of eight ain't been cut yet."
So they sent a delegation to Radway. Big Nolan was the spokesman.
"Boss," said he bluntly, "she's too cold to work on them plains to-day. She's the coldest day we had."
Radway was too old a hand at the business to make any promises on the spot.
"I'll see, boys," said he.
When the breakfast was over the crew were set to making skidways and travoy roads on eight. This was a precedent. In time the work on the plains was grumblingly done in any weather. However, as to this Radway proved firm enough. He was a good fighter when he knew he was being imposed on. A man could never cheat or defy him openly without collecting a little war that left him surprised at the jobber's belligerency. The doubtful cases, those on the subtle line of indecision, found him weak. He could be so easily persuaded that he was in the wrong. At times it even seemed that he was anxious to be proved at fault, so eager was he to catch fairly the justice of the other man's attitude. He held his men inexorably and firmly to their work on the indisputably comfortable days; but gave in often when an able-bodied woodsman should have seen in the weather no inconvenience, even. As the days slipped by, however, he tightened the reins. Christmas was approaching. An easy mathematical computation reduced the question of completing his contract with Morrison & Daly to a certain weekly quota. In fact he was surprised at the size of it. He would have to work diligently and steadily during the rest of the winter.
Having thus a definite task to accomplish in a definite number of days, Radway grew to be more of a taskmaster. His anxiety as to the completion of the work overlaid his morbidly sympathetic human interest. Thus he regained to a small degree the respect of his men. Then he lost it again.
One morning he came in from a talk with the supply-teamster, and woke Dyer, who was not yet up.
"I'm going down home for two or three weeks," he announced to Dyer, "you know my address. You'll have to take charge, and I guess you'd better let the scaling go. We can get the tally at the banking grounds when we begin to haul. Now we ain't got all the time there is, so you want to keep the boys at it pretty well."
Dyer twisted the little points of his mustache. "All right, sir," said he with his smile so inscrutably insolent that Radway never saw the insolence at all. He thought this a poor year for a man in Radway's position to spend Christmas with his family, but it was none of his business.
"Do as much as you can in the marsh, Dyer," went on the jobber. "I don't believe it's really necessary to lay off any more there on account of the weather. We've simply got to get that job in before the big snows."
"All right, sir," repeated Dyer.
The scaler did what he considered his duty. All day long he tramped back and forth from one gang of men to the other, keeping a sharp eye on the details of the work. His practical experience was sufficient to solve readily such problems of broken tackle, extra expedients, or facility which the days brought forth. The fact that in him was vested the power to discharge kept the men at work.
Dyer was in the habit of starting for the marsh an hour or so after sunrise. The crew, of course, were at work by daylight. Dyer heard them often through his doze, just as he heard the chore-boy come in to build the fire and fill the water pail afresh. After a time the fire, built of kerosene and pitchy jack pine, would get so hot that in self-defense he would arise and dress. Then he would breakfast leisurely.
Thus he incurred the enmity of the cook and cookee. Those individuals have to prepare food three times a day for a half hundred heavy eaters; besides which, on sleigh-haul, they are supposed to serve a breakfast at three o'clock for the loaders and a variety of lunches up to midnight for the sprinkler men. As a consequence, they resent infractions of the little system they may have been able to introduce.
Now the business of a foreman is to be up as soon as anybody. He does none of the work himself, but he must see that somebody else does it, and does it well. For this he needs actual experience at the work itself, but above all zeal and constant presence. He must know how a thing ought to be done, and he must be on hand unexpectedly to see how its accomplishment is progressing. Dyer should have been out of bed at first horn-blow.
One morning he slept until nearly ten o'clock. It was inexplicable! He hurried from his bunk, made a hasty toilet, and started for the dining-room to get some sort of a lunch to do him until dinner time. As he stepped from the door of the office he caught sight of two men hurrying from the cook camp to the men's camp. He thought he heard the hum of conversation in the latter building. The cookee set hot coffee before him. For the rest, he took what he could find cold on the table.
On an inverted cracker box the cook sat reading an old copy of the Police Gazette. Various fifty-pound lard tins were bubbling and steaming on the range. The cookee divided his time between them and the task of sticking on the log walls pleasing patterns made of illustrations from cheap papers and the gaudy labels of canned goods. Dyer sat down, feeling, for the first time, a little guilty. This was not because of a sense of a dereliction in duty, but because he feared the strong man's contempt for inefficiency.
"I sort of pounded my ear a little long this morning," he remarked with an unwonted air of bonhomie.
The cook creased his paper with one hand and went on reading; the little action indicating at the same time that he had heard, but intended to vouchsafe no attention. The cookee continued his occupations.
"I suppose the men got out to the marsh on time," suggested Dyer, still easily.
The cook laid aside his paper and looked the scaler in the eye.
"You're the foreman; I'm the cook," said he. "You ought to know."
The cookee had paused, the paste brush in his hand.
Dyer was no weakling. The problem presenting, he rose to the emergency. Without another word he pushed back his coffee cup and crossed the narrow open passage to the men's camp
When he opened the door a silence fell. He could see dimly that the room was full of lounging and smoking lumbermen. As a matter of fact, not a man had stirred out that morning. This was more for the sake of giving Dyer a lesson than of actually shirking the work, for a lumber-jack is honest in giving his time when it is paid for.
"How's this, men!" cried Dyer sharply; "why aren't you out on the marsh?"
No one answered for a minute. Then Baptiste:
"He mak' too tam cole for de marsh. Meester Radway he spik dat we kip off dat marsh w'en he mak' cole."
Dyer knew that the precedent was indisputable.
"Why didn't you cut on eight then?" he asked, still in peremptory tones.
"Didn't have no one to show us where to begin," drawled a voice in the corner.
Dyer turned sharp on his heel and went out.
"Sore as a boil, ain't he!" commented old Jackson Hines with a chuckle.
In the cook camp Dyer was saying to the cook, "Well, anyway, we'll have dinner early and get a good start for this afternoon."
The cook again laid down his paper. "I'm tending to this job of cook," said he, "and I'm getting the meals on time. Dinner will be on time to-day not a minute early, and not a minute late."
Then he resumed his perusal of the adventures of ladies to whom the illustrations accorded magnificent calf-development.
The crew worked on the marsh that afternoon, and the subsequent days of the week. They labored conscientiously but not zealously. There is a deal of difference, and the lumber-jack's unaided conscience is likely to allow him a certain amount of conversation from the decks of skidways. The work moved slowly. At Christmas a number of the men "went out." Most of them were back again after four or five days, for, while men were not plenty, neither was work. The equilibrium was nearly exact.
But the convivial souls had lost to Dyer the days of their debauch, and until their thirst for recuperative "Pain Killer," "Hinckley" and Jamaica Ginger was appeased, they were not much good. Instead of keeping up to fifty thousand a day, as Radway had figured was necessary, the scale would not have exceeded thirty.
Dyer saw all this plainly enough, but was not able to remedy it. That was not entirely his fault. He did not dare give the delinquents their time, for he would not have known where to fill their places. This lay in Radway's experience. Dyer felt that responsibilities a little too great had been forced on him, which was partly true. In a few days the young man's facile conscience had covered all his shortcomings with the blanket excuse. He conceived that he had a grievance against Radway!