The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
The two left Bob to his own devices. The old riverman and the astonishingly thawed and rejuvenated Mr. Fox disappeared in the private office. Bob proffered a question to the busy Collins, discovered himself free until afternoon, and so went out through the office and into the clear open air.
He headed at once across the wide sawdust area toward the mill and the lake. A great curiosity, a great interest filled him. After a moment he found himself walking between tall, leaning stacks of lumber, piled crosswise in such a manner that the sweet currents of air eddied through the interstices between the boards and in the narrow, alley-like spaces between the square and separate stacks. A coolness filled these streets, a coolness born of the shade in which they were cast, the freshness of still unmelted snow lying in patches, the quality of pine with its faint aromatic pitch smell and its suggestion of the forest. Bob wandered on slowly, his hands in his pockets. For the time being his more active interest was in abeyance, lulled by the subtle, elusive phantom of grandeur suggested in the aloofness of this narrow street fronted by its square, skeleton, windowless houses through which the wind rattled. After a little he glimpsed blue through the alleys between. Then a side street offered, full of sun. He turned down it a few feet, and found himself standing over an inlet of the lake.
Then for the first time he realized that he had been walking on "made ground." The water chugged restlessly against the uneven ends of the lath-like slabs, thousands of them laid, side by side, down to and below the water's surface. They formed a substructure on which the sawdust had been heaped. Deep shadows darted from their shelter and withdrew, following the play of the little waves. The lower slabs were black with the wet, and from them, too, crept a spicy odour set free by the moisture. On a pile head sat an urchin fishing, with a long bamboo pole many sizes too large for him. As Bob watched, he jerked forth diminutive flat sunfish.
"Good work!" called Bob in congratulation.
The urchin looked up at the large, good-humoured man and grinned.
Bob retraced his steps to the street on which he had started out. There he discovered a steep stairway, and by it mounted to the tramway above. Along this he wandered for what seemed to him an interminable distance, lost as in a maze among the streets and byways of this tenantless city. Once he stepped aside to give passage to the great horse, or one like him, and his train of little cars. The man driving nodded to him. Again he happened on two men unloading similar cars, and passing the boards down to other men below, who piled them skilfully, two end planks one way, and then the next tier the other, in regular alternation. They wore thick leather aprons, and square leather pieces strapped across the insides of their hands as a protection against splinters. These, like all other especial accoutrements, seemed to Bob somehow romantic, to be desired, infinitely picturesque. He passed on with the clear, yellow-white of the pine boards lingering back of his retina.
But now suddenly his sauntering brought him to the water front. The tramway ended in a long platform running parallel to the edge of the docks below. There were many little cars, both in the process of unloading and awaiting their turn. The place swarmed with men, all busily engaged in handing the boards from one to another as buckets are passed at a fire. At each point where an unending stream of them passed over the side of each ship, stood a young man with a long, flexible rule. This he laid rapidly along the width of each board, and then as rapidly entered a mark in a note-book. The boards seemed to move fairly of their own volition, like a scutellate monster of many joints, crawling from the cars, across the dock, over the side of the ship and into the black hold where presumably it coiled. There were six ships; six, many-jointed monsters creeping to their appointed places under the urging of these their masters; six young men absorbed and busy at the tallying; six crews panoplied in leather guiding the monsters to their lairs. Here, too, the sun-warmed air arose sluggish with the aroma of pitch, of lumber, of tar from the ships' cordage, of the wetness of unpainted wood. Aloft in the rigging, clear against the sky, were sailors in contrast of peaceful, leisurely industry to those who toiled and hurried below. The masts swayed gently, describing an arc against the heavens. The sailors swung easily to the motion. From below came the quick dull sounds of planks thrown down, the grind of car wheels, the movement of feet, the varied, complex sound of men working together, the clapping of waters against the structure. It was confusing, confusing as the noise of many hammers. Yet two things seemed to steady it, to confine it, keep it in the bounds of order, to prevent it from usurping more than its meet and proper proportion. One was the tingling lake breeze singing through the rigging of the ship; the other was the idle and intermittent whistling of one of the sailors aloft. And suddenly, as though it had but just commenced, Bob again became aware of the saw shrieking in ecstasy as it plunged into a pine log.
The sound came from the left, where at once he perceived the tall stacks showing above the lumber piles, and the plume of white steam glittering in the sun. In a moment the steam fell, and the shriek of the saw fell with it. He turned to follow the tramway, and in so doing almost bumped into Mason, the mill foreman.
"They're hustling it in," said the latter. "That's right. Can't give me yard room any too soon. The drive'll be down next month. Plenty doing then. Damn those Dutchmen!"
He spoke abstractedly, as though voicing his inner thoughts to himself, unconscious of his companion. Then he roused himself.
"Going to the mill?" he asked. "Come on."
They walked along the high, narrow platform overlooking the water front and the lading of the ships. Soon the trestles widened, the tracks diverging like the fingers of a hand on the broad front to the second story of the mill. Mason said something about seeing the whole of it, and led the way along a narrow, railed outside passage to the other end of the structure.
There Bob's attention was at once caught by a great water enclosure of logs, lying still and sluggish in the manner of beasts resting. Rank after rank, tier after tier, in strange patterns they lay, brown and round, with the little strips of blue water showing between like a fantastic pattern. While Bob looked, a man ran out over them. He was dressed in short trousers, heavy socks, and spiked boots, and a faded blue shirt. The young man watched with interest, old memories of his early boyhood thronging back on him, before his people had moved from Monrovia and the "booms." The man ran erratically, but with an accurate purpose. Behind him the big logs bent in dignified reminiscence of his tread, and slowly rolled over; the little logs bobbed frantically in a turmoil of white water, disappearing and reappearing again and again, sleek and wet as seals. To these the man paid no attention, but leaped easily on, pausing on the timbers heavy enough to support him, barely spurning those too small to sustain his weight. In a moment he stopped abruptly without the transitorial balancing Bob would have believed necessary, and went calmly to pushing mightily with a long pike-pole. The log on which he stood rolled under the pressure; the man quite mechanically kept pace with its rolling, treading it in correspondence now one way, now the other. In a few moments thus he had forced the mass of logs before him toward an inclined plane leading to the second story of the mill.
Up this ran an endless chain armed with teeth. The man pushed one of the logs against the chain; the teeth bit; at once, shaking itself free of the water, without apparent effort, without haste, calmly and leisurely as befitted the dignity of its bulk, the great timber arose. The water dripped from it, the surface streamed, a cheerful patter, patter of the falling drops made itself heard beneath the mill noises. In a moment the log disappeared beneath projecting eaves. Another was just behind it, and behind that yet another, and another, like great patient beasts rising from the coolness of a stream to follow a leader through the narrowness, of pasture bars. And in the booms, up the river, as far as the eye could see, were other logs awaiting their turn. And beyond them the forest trees, straight and tall and green, dreaming of the time when they should follow their brothers to the ships and go out into the world.
Mason was looking up the river.
"I've seen the time when she was piled thirty feet high there, and the freshet behind her. That was ten year back."
"What?" asked Bob.
"A jam!" explained Mason.
He ducked his head below his shoulders and disappeared beneath the eaves of the mill. Bob followed.
First it was dusky; then he saw the strip of bright yellow sunlight and the blue bay in the opening below the eaves; then he caught the glitter and whirr of the two huge saws, moving silently but with the deadly menace of great speed on their axes. Against the light in irregular succession, alternately blotting and clearing the foreground at the end of the mill, appeared the ends of the logs coming up the incline. For a moment they poised on the slant, then fell to the level, and glided forward to a broad platform where they were ravished from the chain and rolled into line.
Bob's eyes were becoming accustomed to the gloom. He made out pulleys, belts, machinery, men. While he watched a black, crooked arm shot vigorously up from the floor, hurried a log to the embrace of two clamps, rolled it a little this way, a little that, hovered over it as though in doubt as to whether it was satisfactorily placed, then plunged to unknown depths as swiftly and silently as it had come. So abrupt and purposeful were its movements, so detached did it seem from control, that, just as when he was a youngster, Bob could not rid his mind of the notion that it was possessed of volition, that it led a mysterious life of its own down there in the shadows, that it was in the nature of an intelligent and agile beast trained to apply its powers independently.
Bob remembered it as the "nigger," and looked about for the man standing by a lever.
A momentary delay seemed to have occurred, owing to some obscure difficulty. The man at the lever straightened his back. Suddenly all that part of the floor seemed to start forward with extraordinary swiftness. The log rushed down on the circular saw. Instantly the wild, exultant shriek arose. The car went on, burying the saw, all but the very top, from which a stream of sawdust flew up and back. A long, clean slab fell to a succession of revolving rollers which carried it, passing it from one to the other, far into the body of the mill. The car shot back to its original position in front of the saw. The saw hummed an undersong of strong vibration. Again it ploughed its way the length of the timber. This time a plank with bark edges dropped on the rollers. And when the car had flown back to its starting point the "nigger" rose from obscurity to turn the log half way around.
They picked their way gingerly on. Bob looked back. Against the light the two graceful, erect figures, immobile, but carried back and forth over thirty feet with lightning rapidity; the brute masses of the logs; the swift decisive forays of the "nigger," the unobtrusive figures of the other men handling the logs far in the background; and the bright, smooth, glittering, dangerous saws, clear-cut in outline by their very speed, humming in anticipation, or shrieking like demons as they bit--these seemed to him to swell in the dim light to the proportions of something gigantic, primeval--to become forces beyond the experience of to-day, typical of the tremendous power that must be invoked to subdue the equally tremendous power of the wilderness.
He and Mason together examined the industriously working gang-saws, long steel blades with the up-and-down motion of cutting cord-wood. They passed the small trimming saws, where men push the boards between little round saws to trim their edges. Bob noticed how the sawdust was carried away automatically, and where the waste slabs went. They turned through a small side room, strangely silent by contrast to the rest, where the filer did his minute work. He was an old man, the filer, with steel-rimmed, round spectacles, and he held Bob some time explaining how important his position was.
They emerged finally to the broad, open platform with the radiating tram-car tracks. Here Bob saw the finished boards trundled out on the moving rollers to be transferred to the cars.
Mason left him. He made his way slowly back toward the office, noticing on the way the curious pairs of huge wheels beneath which were slung the heavy timbers or piles of boards for transportation at the level of the ground.
At the edge of the lumber piles Bob looked back. The noises of industry were in his ears; the blur of industry before his eyes; the clean, sweet smell of pine in his nostrils. He saw clearly the row of ships and the many-jointed serpent of boards making its way to the hold, the sailors swinging aloft; the miles of ruminating brown logs, and the alert little man zigzagging across them; the shadow of the mill darkening the water, and the brown leviathan timbers rising dripping in regular succession from them; the whirr of the deadly circular saws, and the calm, erect men dominating the cars that darted back and forth; and finally the sparkling white steam spraying suddenly against the intense blue of the sky. Here was activity, business, industry, the clash of forces. He admired the quick, compact alertness of Johnny Mason; he joyed in the absorbed, interested activity of the brown young men with the scaler's rules; he envied a trifle the muscle-stretching, physical labour of the men with the leather aprons and hand-guards, piling the lumber. It was good to draw in deep breaths of this air, to smell deeply of he aromatic odours of the north.
Suddenly the mill whistle began to blow. Beneath the noise he could hear the machinery beginning to run down. From all directions men came. They converged in the central alley, hundreds of them. In a moment Bob was caught up in their stream, and borne with them toward the weather-stained shanty town.