Part Three
Chapter VII
 

Bob and Welton left the buckboard at Sycamore Flats and rode up to the mill by a detour. There they plunged into active work. The labour of getting the new enterprise under way proved to be tremendous. A very competent woods foreman, named Post, was in charge of the actual logging, so Welton gave his undivided attention to the mill work. All day the huge peeled timbers slid and creaked along the greased slides, dragged mightily by a straining wire cable that snapped and swung dangerously. When they had reached the solid "bank" that slanted down toward the mill, the obstreperous "bull" donkey lowered its crest of white steam, coughed, and was still. A man threw over the first of these timbers a heavy rope, armed with a hook, that another man drove home with a blow of his sledge. The rope tightened. Over rolled the log, out from the greased slide, to come, finally, to rest among its fellows at the entrance to the mill.

Thence it disappeared, moved always by steam-driven hooks, for these great logs could not be managed by hand implements. The sawyers, at their levers, controlled the various activities. When the time came the smooth, deadly steel ribbon of the modern bandsaws hummed hungrily into the great pines; the automatic roller hurried the new-sawn boards to the edgers; little cars piled high with them shot out from the cool dimness into the dazzling sunlight; men armed with heavy canvas or leather stacked them in the yards; and then----

That was the trouble; and then, nothing!

From this point they should have gone farther. Clamped in rectangular bundles, pushing the raging white water before their blunt noses, as strange craft they should have been flashing at regular intervals down the twisting, turning and plunging course of the flume. Arrived safely at the bottom, the eight-and twelve-horse teams should have taken them in charge, dragging them by the double wagon load to the waiting yards of Marshall & Harding. Nothing of the sort was happening. Welton did not dare go ahead with the water for fear of prejudicing his own case. The lumber accumulated. And, as the mill's capacity was great and that of the yards small, the accumulation soon threatened to become embarrassing.

Bob acted as Welton's lieutenant. As the older lumberman was at first occupied in testing out his sawyers, and otherwise supervising the finished product, Bob was necessarily much in the woods. This suited him perfectly. Every morning at six he and the men tramped to the scene of operations. There a dozen crews scattered to as many tasks. Far in the van the fellers plied their implements. First of all they determined which way a tree could be made to fall, estimating long and carefully on the weight of limbs, the slant of the trunk, the slope of ground, all the elements having to do with the centre of gravity. This having been determined, the men next chopped notches of the right depth for the insertion of short boards to afford footholds high enough to enable them to nick the tree above the swell of the roots. Standing on these springy and uncertain boards, they began their real work, swinging their axes alternately, with untiring patience and incomparable accuracy. Slowly, very slowly, the "nick" grew, a mouth gaping ever wider in the brown tree. When it had gaped wide enough the men hopped down from their springboards, laid aside their axes, and betook themselves to the saw. And when, at last, the wedges inserted in the saw-crack started the mighty top, the men calmly withdrew the long ribbon of steel and stood to one side.

After the dust had subsided, and the last reverberations of that mighty crash had ceased to reecho through the forest, the fellers stepped forward to examine their work. They took all things into consideration, such as old wind shakes, new decay, twist of grain and location of the limbs. Then they measured off the prostrate trunk into logs of twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, or even twenty feet, according to the best expediency. The division points between logs they notched plainly, and, shouldering their axes and their sledge and their long, limber saw, pocketing their wedges and their bottle of coal oil, they moved on to where the next mighty pine had through all the centuries been awaiting their coming.

Now arrived on the scene the "swampers" and cross-cut men, swarming over the prostrate tree like ants over a piece of sugar. Some of them cut off limbs; others, with axes and crowbars, began to pry away great slabs of bark; still others, with much precaution of shovel, wedge and axe against jamming, commenced the slow and laborious undertaking of sawing apart the logs.

But most interesting and complicated of all were the further processes of handling the great logs after they had been peeled and sawed.

The ends of steel cables were dragged by a horse to the prostrate tree, where they were made fast by means of chains and hooks. Then the puffing and snorting donkey engine near the chute tightened the cable. The log stirred, moved, plunged its great blunt nose forward, ploughing up the soil. Small trees and bushes it overrode. But sooner or later it collided head on, with a large tree, a stump, or a boulder. The cable strained. Men shouted or waved their arms in signal. The donkey engine ceased coughing. Then the horse pulled the end of the log free. Behind it was left a deep trough, a half cylinder scooped from the soil.

At the chutes the logs were laid end to end, like a train of cars. A more powerful cable, endless, running to the mill and back again, here took up the burden. At a certain point it was broken by two great hooks. One of these, the one in advance, the men imbedded in the rear log of the train. The other was dragged behind. Away from the chutes ten feet the returning cable snapped through rude pulleys. The train of logs moved forward slowly and steadily, sliding on the greased ways.

On the knoll the donkey engine coughed and snorted as it heaved the mighty timbers from the woods. The drag of the logs was sometimes heavier than the engine, so it had to be anchored by other cables to strong trees. Between these opposing forces--the inertia of the rooted and the fallen--it leaped and trembled. At its throttle, underneath a canopy knocked together of rough boards, the engineer stood, ready from one instant to another to shut off, speed up, or slow down, according to the demands of an ever-changing exigence. His was a nervous job, and he earned his repose.

At the rear of the boiler a boy of eighteen toiled with an axe, chopping into appropriate lengths the dead wood brought in for fuel. Next year it would be possible to utilize old tops for this purpose, but now they were too green. Another boy, in charge of a solemn mule, tramped ceaselessly back and forth between the engine and a spring that had been dug out down the hill in a ravine. Before the end of that summer they had worn a trail so deep and hard and smooth that many seasons of snow failed to obliterate it even from the soft earth. On either side the mule were slung sacks of heavy canvas. At the spring the boy filled these by means of a pail. Returned to the engine, he replenished the boiler, draining the sacks from the bottom, cast a fleeting glance at the water gauge of the donkey engine, and hastened back to the spring. He had charge of three engines; and was busy.

And back along the line of the chutes were other men to fill out this crew of many activities--old men to signal; young men to stand by with slush brush, axe, or bar when things did not go well; axe-men with teams laying accurately new chutes into new country yet untouched.

Bob found plenty to keep him busy. Post, the woods foreman, was a good chute man. By long experience he had gained practical knowledge of the problems and accidents of this kind of work. To get the logs out from the beds in which they lay, across a rugged country, and into the mill was an engineering proposition of some moment. It is easy to get into difficulties from which hours of work will not extricate.

But a man involved closely in the practical management of a saw log may conceivably possess scant leisure to correlate the scattered efforts of such divergent activities. The cross cutters and swampers may get ahead of the fellers and have to wait in idleness until the latter have knocked down a tree. Or the donkey may fall silent from lack of logs to haul; or the chute crews may smoke their pipes awaiting the donkey. Or, worst and unpardonable disgrace of all, the mill may ran out of logs! When that happens, the Old Fellow is usually pretty promptly on the scene.

Now it is obvious that if somewhere on the works ten men are always waiting--even though the same ten men are not thus idle over once a week--the employer is paying for ten men too many. Bob found his best activity lay in seeing that this did not happen. He rode everywhere reviewing the work; and he kept it shaken together. Thus he made himself very useful, he gained rapidly a working knowledge of this new kind of logging, and, incidentally, he found his lines fallen in very pleasant places indeed.

The forest never lost its marvel to him, but after he had to some extent become accustomed to the immense trees, he began to notice the smaller affairs of the woodland. The dogwoods and azaleas were beginning to come out; the waxy, crimson snow plants were up; the tiny green meadows near the heads of streams were enamelled with flowers; hundreds of species of birds sang and flashed and scratched and crept and soared. The smaller animals were everywhere. The sun at noon disengaged innumerable and subtle tepid odours of pine and blossom.

One afternoon, a little less than a week subsequent to the beginning of work, Bob, riding home through the woods by a detour around a hill, came upon sheep. They were scattered all over the hill, cropping busily at the snowbush, moving ever slowly forward. A constant murmur arose, a murmur of a silent, quick, minute activity. Occasionally some mother among them lifted her voice. Bob sat his horse looking silently on the shifting grays. In ten seconds his sight blurred; he experienced a slight giddiness as though the substantial ground were shifting beneath him in masses, slowly, as in a dream. It gave him a curious feeling of instability. By an effort he focused his eyes; but almost immediately he caught himself growing fuzzy-minded again, exactly as though he had been gazing absently for a considerable period at a very bright light. He shook himself.

"I don't wonder sheep herders go dotty," said he aloud.

He looked about him, and for the first time became aware of a tow-headed youth above him on the hill. The youth leaned on a staff, and at his feet crouched two long-haired dogs. Bob turned his horse in that direction.

When he had approached, he saw the boy to be about seventeen years old. His hair was very light, as were his eyebrows and eyelashes. Only a decided tinge of blue in his irises saved him from albinism. His lips were thick and loose, his nose flat, his expression vacant. In contrast, the two dogs, now seated on their haunches, their heads to one side, their ears cocked up, their eyes bright, looked to be the more intelligent animals.

"Good evening," said Bob.

The boy merely stared.

"You in charge of the sheep?" inquired the young man presently.

The boy grunted.

"Where are you camped?" persisted Bob.

No answer.

"Where's your boss?"

A faint gleam came into the sheep-herder's eyes. He raised his arm and pointed across through the woods.

Bob reined his horse in the direction indicated. As he passed the last of the flock in that direction, he caught sight of another herder and two more dogs. This seemed to be a bearded man of better appearance than the boy; but he too leaned motionless on his long staff; he too gazed unblinking on the nibbling, restless, changing, imbecile sheep.

As Bob looked, this man uttered a shrill, long-drawn whistle. Like arrows from bows the two dogs darted away, their ears flat, their bodies held low to the ground. The whistle was repeated by the youth. Immediately his dogs also glided forward. The noise of quick, sharp barkings was heard. At once the slow, shifting movement of the masses of gray ceased. The sound of murmurous, deep-toned bells, of bleating, of the movement of a multitude arose. The flock drew to a common centre; it flowed slowly forward. Here and there the dark bodies of the dogs darted, eager and intelligently busy. The two herders followed after, leaning on their long staffs. Over the hill passed the flock. Slowly the sounds of them merged into a murmur. It died. Only remained the fog of dust drifting through the trees, caught up by every passing current of air, light and impalpable as powder.

Bob continued on his way, but had not proceeded more than a few hundred feet before he was overtaken by Lejeune.

"You're the man I was looking for," said Bob. "I see you got your sheep in all right. Have any trouble?"

The sheepman's teeth flashed.

"Not'tall," he replied. "I snik in ver' easy up by Beeg Rock."

At the mill, Bob, while luxuriously splashing the ice cold water on his face and throat, took time to call to Welton in the next room.

"Saw your sheep man," he proffered. "He got in all right, sheep and all."

Welton appeared in the doorway, mopping his round, red face with a towel.

"Funny we haven't heard from Plant, then," said he. "That fat man must be keeping track of Leejune's where-abouts, or he's easier than I thought he was."