The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
Toward dusk Welton entered the boarding house where Bob was sitting rather gloomily by the central stove. The big man plumped himself down into a protesting chair, and took off his slouch hat. Bob saw his low, square forehead with the peculiar hair, black and gray in streaks, curling at the ends.
"Why don't you take a little trip with me up to the Cedar Branch?" he asked Bob without preamble. "No use your going home right now. Your family's in Washington; and will be for a month or so yet."
Bob thought it over.
"Believe I will," he decided at last.
"Do so!" cried Welton heartily. "Might as well see a little of the life. Don't suppose you ever went on a drive with your dad when you were a kid?"
"No," said Bob, "I used to go up to the booms with him--I remember them very well; but we moved up to Redding before I was old enough to get about much."
Welton nodded his great head.
"Good old days," he commented; "and let me tell you, your dad was one of the best of 'em. Jack Orde is a name you can scare fresh young rivermen with yet," he added with a laugh. "Well, pack your turkey to-night; we'll take the early train to-morrow."
That evening Bob laid out what he intended to take with him, and was just about to stuff it into a pair of canvas bags when Tommy Gould, the youngest scaler, pushed open the door.
"Hello!" he smiled engagingly; "where are you going? Been transferred from the office?"
"On drive," said Bob, diplomatically ignoring the last question.
Tommy sat down on the edge of the bed and laughed until he was weak. Bob stared at him.
"Is there anything funny?" he inquired at last.
"Did you say on drive?" inquired Tommy feebly.
"With that?" Tommy pointed a wavering finger at the pile of duffle.
"What's the matter with it?" inquired Bob, a trifle uncertainly.
"Oh, it's all right. Only wait till Roaring Dick sees it. I'd like to see his face."
"Look here, Tommy," said Bob with decision, "this isn't fair. I've never been on drive before, and you know it. Now tell me what's wrong or I'll wring your fool neck."
"You can't take all that stuff," Tommy explained, wiping his eyes. "Why, if everybody had all that mess, how do you suppose it would be carried?"
"I've only got the barest necessities," objected Bob.
"Spread out your pile," Tommy commanded. "There. Take those. Now forget the rest."
Bob surveyed the single change of underwear and the extra socks with comical dismay. Next morning when he joined Welton he discovered that individual carrying a tooth brush in his vest pocket and a pair of woolen socks stuffed in his coat. These and a sweater were his only baggage. Bob's "turkey," modest as it was, seemed to represent effete luxury in comparison.
"How long will this take?" he asked.
"The drive? About three weeks," Welton told him. "You'd better stay and see it. It isn't much of a drive compared with the old days; but in a very few years there won't be any drives at all."
They boarded a train which at the end of twenty minutes came to a stop. Bob and Welton descended. The train moved on, leaving them standing by the track.
The remains of the forest, overgrown with scrub oak and popple thickets pushed down to the right of way. A road, deep with mud and water, beginning at this point, plunged into the wilderness. That was all.
Welton thrust his hands in his pockets and splashed cheerfully into the ankle-deep mud. Bob shouldered his little bag and followed. Somehow he had vaguely expected some sort of conveyance.
"How far is it?" he asked.
"Oh, ten or twelve miles," said Welton.
Bob experienced a glow of gratitude to the blithe Tommy Gould. What would he have done with that baggage out here in this lonesome wilderness of unbroken barrens and mud?
The day was beautiful, but the sun breaking through the skin of last night's freezing, softened the ground until the going was literally ankle-deep in slush. Welton, despite his weight, tramped along cheerfully in the apparently careless indifference of the skilled woods walker. Bob followed, but he used more energy. He was infinitely the older man's superior in muscle and endurance, yet he realized, with respect and admiration, that in a long or difficult day's tramp through the woods Welton would probably hold him, step for step.
The road wound and changed direction entirely according to expedient. It was a "tote road" merely, cutting across these barrens by the directest possible route. Deep mire holes, roots of trees, an infrequent boulder, puddles and cruel ruts diversified the way. Occasional teeth-rattling stretches of "corduroy" led through a swamp.
"I don't see how a team can haul a load over this!" Bob voiced his marvel, after a time.
"It don't," said Welton. "The supplies are all hauled while the ground is frozen. A man goes by hand now."
In the swamps and bottom lands it was a case of slip, slide and wallow. The going was trying on muscle and wind. To right and left stretched mazes of white popples and willows tangled with old berry vines and the abattis of the slashings. Water stood everywhere. To traverse that swamp a man would have to force his way by main strength through the thick growth, would have to balance on half-rotted trunks of trees, wade and stumble through pools of varying depths, crawl beneath or climb over all sorts of obstructions in the shape of uproots, spiky new growths, and old tree trunks. If he had a gun in his hands, he would furthermore be compelled, through all the vicissitudes of making his way, to hold it always at the balance ready for the snap shot. For a ruffed grouse is wary, and flies like a bullet for speed, and is up and gone almost before the roar of its wings has aroused the echoes. Through that veil of branches a man must shoot quickly, instinctively, from any one of the many positions in which the chance of the moment may have caught him. Bob knew all about this sort of country, and his pulses quickened to the call of it.
"Many partridge?" he asked.
"Lots," replied Welton; "but the country's too confounded big to hunt them in. Like to hunt?"
"Nothing better," said Bob.
After a time the road climbed out of the swamp into the hardwoods, full of warmth and light and new young green, and the voices of many creatures; with the soft, silent carpet of last autumn's brown, the tiny patches of melting snow, and the pools with dead leaves sunk in them and clear surfaces over which was mirrored the flight of birds.
Welton puffed along steadily. He did not appear to talk much, and yet the sum of his information was considerable.
"That road," he said, pointing to a dim track, "goes down to Thompson's. He's a settler. Lives on a little lake.
"There's a deer," he remarked, "over in that thicket against the hill."
Bob looked closely, but could see nothing until the animal bounded away, waving the white flag of its tail.
"Settlers up here are a confounded nuisance," went on Welton after a while. "They're always hollering for what they call their 'rights.' That generally means they try to hang up our drive. The average mossback's a hard customer. I'd rather try to drive nails in a snowbank than tackle driving logs through a farm country. They never realize that we haven't got time to talk it all out for a few weeks. There's one old cuss now that's making us trouble about the water. Don't want to open up to give us a fair run through the sluices of his dam. Don't seem to realize that when we start to go out, we've got to go out in a hurry, spite o' hell and low water."
He went on, in his good-natured, unexcited fashion, to inveigh against the obstinacy of any and all mossbacks. There was no bitterness in it, merely a marvel over an inexplicable, natural phenomenon.
"Suppose you didn't get all the logs out this year," asked Bob, at length. "Of course it would be a nuisance; but couldn't you get them next year?"
"That's the trouble," Welton explained. "If you leave them over the summer, borers get into them, and they're about a total loss. No, my son, when you start to take out logs in this country, you've got to take them out!"
"That's what I'm going in here for now," he explained, after a moment. "This Cedar Branch is an odd job we had to take over from another firm. It is an unimproved river, and difficult to drive, and just lined with mossbacks. The crew is a mixed bunch--some old men, some young toughs. They're a hard crowd, and one not like the men on the main drive. It really needs either Tally or me up here; but we can't get away for this little proposition. He's got Darrell in charge. Darrell's a good man on a big job. Then he feels his responsibility, keeps sober and drives his men well. But I'm scared he won't take this little drive serious. If he gets one drink in him, it's all off!"
"I shouldn't think it would pay to put such a man in charge," said Bob, more as the most obvious remark than from any knowledge or conviction.
"Wouldn't you?" Welton's eyes twinkled. "Well, son, after you've knocked around a while you'll find that every man is good for something somewhere. Only you can't put a square peg in a round hole."
"How much longer will the high water last?" asked Bob.
"Hard to say."
"Well, I hope you get the logs out," Bob ventured.
"Sure we'll get them out!" replied Welton confidently. "We'll get them out if we have to go spit in the creek!" With which remark the subject was considered closed.
About four o'clock of the afternoon they came out on a low bluff overlooking a bottom land through which flowed a little stream twenty-five or thirty feet across.
"That's the Cedar Branch," said Welton, "and I reckon that's one of the camps up where you see that smoke."
They deserted the road and made their way through a fringe of thin brush to the smoke. Bob saw two big tents, a smouldering fire surrounded by high frames on which hung a few drying clothes, a rough table, and a cooking fire over which bubbled tremendous kettles and fifty-pound lard tins suspended from a rack. A man sat on a cracker box reading a fragment of newspaper. A boy of sixteen squatted by the fire.
This man looked up and nodded, as Welton and his companion approached.
"Where's the drive, doctor?" asked the lumberman.
"This is the jam camp," replied the cook. "The jam's upstream a mile or so. Rear's back by Thompson's somewheres."
"Is there a jam in the river?" asked Bob with interest. "I'd like to see it."
"There's a dozen a day, probably," replied Welton; "but in this case he just means the head of the drive. We call that the 'jam.'"
"I suppose Darrell's at the rear?" Welton asked the cook.
"Yep," replied that individual, rising to peer into one of his cavernous cooking utensils.
"Who's in charge here?"
"H'm," said Welton. "Well," he added to himself, "he's slow, safe and sure, anyway."
He led the way to one of the tents and pulled aside the flap. The ground inside was covered by a welter of tumbled blankets and clothes.
"Nice tidy housekeeping," he grinned at Bob. He picked out two of the best blankets and took them outside where he hung them on a bush and beat them vigorously.
"There," he concluded, "now they're ours."
"What about the fellows who had 'em before?" inquired Bob.
"They probably had about eight apiece; and if they hadn't they can bunk together."
Bob walked to the edge of the stream. It was not very wide, yet at this point it carried from three to six or eight feet of water, according to the bottom. A few logs were stranded along shore. Two or three more floated by, the forerunners of the drive. Bob could see where the highest water had flung debris among the bushes, and by that he knew that the stream must be already dropping from its freshet.
It was now late in the afternoon. The sun dipped behind a cold and austere hill-line. Against the sky showed a fringe of delicate popples, like spray frozen in the rise. The heavens near the horizon were a cold, pale yellow of unguessed lucent depths, that shaded above into an equally cold, pale green. Bob thrust his hands in his pockets and turned back to where the drying fire, its fuel replenished, was leaping across the gathering dusk.
Immediately after, the driving crews came tramping in from upstream. They paid no attention to the newcomers, but dove first for the tent, then for the fire. There they began to pull off their lower garments, and Bob saw that most of them were drenched from the waist down. The drying racks were soon steaming with wet clothes.
Welton fell into low conversation with an old man, straight and slender as a Norway pine, with blue eyes, flaxen hair, eyebrows and moustache. This was Larsen, in charge of the jam, honest, capable in his way, slow of speech, almost childlike of glance. After a few minutes Welton rejoined Bob.
"He's a square peg, all right," he muttered, more to himself than to his companion. "He's a good riverman, but he's no river boss. Too easy-going. Well, all he has to do is to direct the work, luckily. If anything really goes wrong, Darrell would be down in two jumps."
"Grub pile!" remarked the cook conversationally.
The men seized the utensils from a heap of them, and began to fill their plates from the kettles on the table.
"Come on, bub," said Welton, "dig in! It's a long time till breakfast!"