Part One
Chapter IV
 

The train stopped about noon at a small board town. Fox and Bob descended. The latter drew his lungs full of the sparkling clear air and felt inclined to shout. The thing that claimed his attention most strongly was the dull green band of the forest, thick and impenetrable to the south, fringing into ragged tamaracks on the east, opening into a charming vista of a narrowing bay to the west. Northward the land ran down to sandpits and beyond them tossed the vivid white and blue of the Lake. Then when his interest had detached itself from the predominant note of the imminent wilderness, predominant less from its physical size--for it lay in remote perspective--than from a certain indefinable and psychological right of priority, Bob's eye was at once drawn to the huge red-painted sawmill, with its very tall smokestacks, its row of water barrels along the ridge, its uncouth and separate conical sawdust burner, and its long lines of elevated tramways leading out into the lumber yard where was piled the white pine held over from the season before. As Bob looked, a great, black horse appeared on one of these aerial tramways, silhouetted against the sky. The beast moved accurately, his head held low against his chest, his feet lifted and planted with care. Behind him rumbled a whole train of little cars each laden with planks. On the foremost sat a man, his shoulders bowed, driving the horse. They proceeded slowly, leisurely, without haste, against the brightness of the sky. The spider supports below them seemed strangely inadequate to their mass, so that they appeared in an occult manner to maintain their elevation by some buoyancy of their own, some quality that sustained them not only in their distance above the earth but in a curious, decorative, extra-human world of their own. After a moment they disappeared behind the tall piles of lumber.

Against the sky, now, the place of the elephantine black horse and the little tram cars and the man was taken by the masts of ships lying beyond. They rose straight and tall, their cordage like spider webs, in a succession of regular spaces until they were lost behind the mill. From the exhaust of the mill's engine a jet of white steam shot up sparkling. Close on its apparition sounded the exultant, high-keyed shriek of the saw. It ceased abruptly. Then Bob became conscious of a heavy rud, thud of mill machinery.

All this time he and Fox were walking along a narrow board walk, elevated two or three feet above the sawdust-strewn street. They passed the mill and entered the cool shade of the big lumber piles. Along their base lay half-melted snow. Soggy pools soaked the ground in the exposed places. Bob breathed deep of the clear air, keenly conscious of the freshness of it after the murky city. A sweet and delicate odour was abroad, an odour elusive yet pungent, an aroma of the open. The young man sniffed it eagerly, this essence of fresh sawdust, of new-cut pine, of sawlogs dripping from the water, of faint old reminiscence of cured lumber standing in the piles of the year before, and more fancifully of the balsam and spruce, the hemlock and pine of the distant forest.

"Great!" he cried aloud, "I never knew anything like it! What a country to train in!"

"All this lumber here is going to be sold within the next two months," said Fox with the first approach to enthusiasm Bob had ever observed in him. "All of it. It's got to be carried down to the docks, and tallied there, and loaded in those vessels. The mill isn't much--too old-fashioned. We saw with 'circulars' instead of band-saws. Not like our Minnesota mills. We bought the plant as it stands. Still we turn out a pretty good cut every day, and it has to be run out and piled."

They stepped abruptly, without transition, into the town. A double row of unpainted board shanties led straight to the water's edge. This row was punctuated by four buildings different from the rest--a huge rambling structure with a wide porch over which was suspended a large bell; a neatly painted smaller building labelled "Office"; a trim house surrounded by what would later be a garden; and a square-fronted store. The street between was soft and springy with sawdust and finely broken shingles. Various side streets started out bravely enough, but soon petered out into stump land. Along one of them were extensive stables.

Bob followed his conductor in silence. After an interval they mounted short steps and entered the office.

Here Bob found himself at once in a small entry railed off from the main room by a breast-high line of pickets strong enough to resist a battering-ram. A man he had seen walking across from the mill was talking rapidly through a tiny wicket, emphasizing some point on a soiled memorandum by the indication of a stubby forefinger. He was a short, active, blue-eyed man, very tanned. Bob looked at him with interest, for there was something about him the young man did not recognize, something he liked--a certain independent carriage of the head, a certain self-reliance in the set of his shoulders, a certain purposeful directness of his whole personality. When he caught sight of Fox he turned briskly, extending his hand.

"How are you, Mr. Fox?" he greeted. "Just in?"

"Hullo, Johnny," replied Fox, "how are things? I see you're busy."

"Yes, we're busy," replied the man, "and we'll keep busy."

"Everything going all right?"

"Pretty good. Poor lot of men this year. A good many of the old men haven't showed up this year--some sort of pull-out to Oregon and California. I'm having a little trouble with them off and on."

"I'll bet on you to stay on top," replied Fox easily. "I'll be over to see you pretty soon."

The man nodded to the bookkeeper with whom he had been talking, and turned to go out. As he passed Bob, that young man was conscious of a keen, gimlet scrutiny from the blue eyes, a scrutiny instantaneous, but which seemed to penetrate his very flesh to the soul of him. He experienced a distinct physical shock as at the encountering of an elemental force.

He came to himself to hear Fox saying:

"That's Johnny Mason, our mill foreman. He has charge of all the sawing, and is a mighty good man. You'll see more of him."

The speaker opened a gate in the picket railing and stepped inside.

A long shelf desk, at which were high stools, backed up against the pickets; a big round stove occupied the centre; a safe crowded one corner. Blue print maps decorated the walls. Coarse rope matting edged with tin strips protected the floor. A single step down through a door led into a painted private office where could be seen a flat table desk. In the air hung a mingled odour of fresh pine, stale tobacco, and the closeness of books.

Fox turned at once sharply to the left and entered into earnest conversation with a pale, hatchet-faced man of thirty-five, whom he addressed as "Collins." In a moment he turned, beckoning Bob forward.

"Here's a youngster for you, Collins," said he, evidently continuing former remarks. "Young Mr. Orde. He's been in our home office awhile, but I brought him up to help you out. He can get busy on your tally sheets and time checks and tally boards, and sort of ease up the strain a little."

"I can use him, right now," said Collins, nervously smoothing back a strand of his pale hair. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Orde. These 'jumpers' ... and that confounded mixed stuff from seventeen ..." he trailed off, his eye glazing in the abstraction of some inner calculation, his long, nervous fingers reaching unconsciously toward the soiled memoranda left by Mason.

"Well, I'll set you to work," he roused himself, when he perceived that the two were about to leave him. And almost before they had time to turn away he was busy at the papers, his pencil, beautifully pointed, running like lightning down the long columns, pausing at certain places as though by instinct, hovering the brief instant necessary to calculation, then racing on as though in pursuit of something elusive.

As they turned away a slow, cool voice addressed them from behind the stove.

"Hullo, bub!" it drawled.

Fox's face lighted and he extended both hands.

"Well, Tally!" he cried. "You old snoozer!"

The man was upward of sixty years of age, but straight and active. His features were tanned a deep mahogany, and carved by the years and exposure into lines of capability and good humour. In contrast to this brown his sweeping white moustache and bushy eyebrows, blenched flaxen by the sun, showed strongly. His little blue eyes twinkled, and fine wrinkles at their corners helped the twinkles. His long figure was so heavily clothed as to be concealed from any surmise, except that it was gaunt and wiry. Hands gnarled, twisted, veined, brown, seemed less like flesh than like some skilful Japanese carving. On his head he wore a visored cap with an extraordinary high crown; on his back a rather dingy coat cut from a Mackinaw blanket; on his legs trousers that had been "stagged" off just below the knees, heavy German socks, and shoes nailed with sharp spikes at least three-quarters of an inch in length.

"Thought you were up in the woods!" Fox was exclaiming. "Where's Fagan?"

"He's walkin' white water," replied the old man.

"Things going well?"

"Damn poor," admitted Tally frankly. "That is to say, the Whitefish branch is off. There's trouble with the men. They're a mixed lot. Then there's old Meadows. He's assertin' his heaven-born rights some more. It's all right. We're on their backs. Other branches just about down."

There followed a rapid exchange of which Bob could make little--talk of flood water, of "plugging" and "pulling," of "winging out," of "white water." It made no sense, and yet somehow it thrilled him, as at times the mere roll of Greek names used to arouse in his breast vague emotions of grandeur and the struggle of mighty forces.

Still talking, the two men began slowly to move toward the inner office. Suddenly Fox seemed to remember his companion's existence.

"By the way, Jim," he said, "I want you to know one of our new men, young Mr. Orde. You've worked for his father. This is Jim Tally, and he's one of the best rivermen, the best woodsman, the best boss of men old Michigan ever turned out. He walked logs before I was born."

"Glad to know you, Mr. Orde," said Tally, quite unmoved.