Part One
Chapter VI
 

Bob followed this streaming multitude to the large structure that had earlier been pointed out to him as the boarding house. It was a commodious affair with a narrow verandah to which led steps picked out by the sharp caulks of the rivermen's boots. A round stove held the place of honour in the first room. Benches flanked the walls. At one end was a table-sink, and tin wash-basins, and roller towels. The men were splashing and blowing in the plunge-in-all-over fashion of their class. They emerged slicked down and fresh, their hair plastered wet to their foreheads. After a moment a fat and motherly woman made an announcement from a rear room. All trooped out.

The dining room was precisely like those Bob remembered from recollections of the river camps of his childhood. There were the same long tables covered with red oilcloth, the same pine benches worn smooth and shiny, the same thick crockery, and the same huge receptacles steaming with hearty--and well-cooked--food. Nowhere does the man who labours with his hands fare better than in the average lumber camp. Forest operations have a largeness in conception and execution that leads away from the habit of the mean, small and foolish economics. At one side, and near the windows, stood a smaller table. The covering of this was turkey-red cloth with white pattern; it boasted a white-metal "caster"; and possessed real chairs. Here Bob took his seat, in company with Fox, Collins, Mason, Tally and the half-dozen active young fellows he had seen handling the scaling rules near the ships.

At the men's tables the meal was consumed in a silence which Bob learned later came nearer being obligatory than a matter of choice. Conversation was discouraged by the good-natured fat woman, Mrs. Hallowell. Talk delayed; and when one had dishes to wash----

The "boss's table" was more leisurely. Bob was introduced to the sealers. They proved to be, with one exception, young fellows of twenty-one or two, keen-eyed, brown-faced, alert and active. They impressed Bob as belonging to the clerk class, with something added by the outdoor, varied life. Indeed, later he discovered them to be sons of carpenters, mechanics and other higher-class, intelligent workingmen; boys who had gone through high school, and perhaps a little way into the business college; ambitious youngsters, each with a different idea in the back of his head. They had in common an air of capability, of complete adequacy for the task in life they had selected. The sixth sealer was much older and of the riverman type. He had evidently come up from the ranks.

There was no general conversation. Talk confined itself strictly to shop. Bob, his imagination already stirred by the incidents of his stroll, listened eagerly. Fox was getting in touch with the whole situation.

"The main drive is down," Tally told him, "but the Cedar Branch hasn't got to the river yet. What in blazes did you want to buy that little strip this late in the day for?"

"Had to take it--on a deal," said Fox briefly. "Why? Is it hard driving? I've never been up there. Welton saw to all that."

"It's hell. The pine's way up at the headwaters. You have to drive her the whole length of the stream, through a mixed hardwood and farm country. Lots of partridges and mossbacks, but no improvements. Not a dam the whole length of her. Case of hit the freshet water or get hung."

"Well, we've done that kind of a job before."

"Yes, before!" Tally retorted. "If I had a half-crew of good, old-fashioned white-water birlers, I'd rest easy. But we don't have no crews like we used to. The old bully boys have all moved out west--or died."

"Getting old--like us," bantered Fox. "Why haven't you died off too, Jim?"

"I'm never going to die," stated the old man, "I'm going to live to turn into a grindstone and wear out. But it's a fact. There's plenty left can ride a log all right, but they're a tough lot. It's too close here to Marion."

"That is too bad," condoled Fox, "especially as I remember so well what a soft-spoken, lamb-like little tin angel you used to be, Jim."

Fox, who had quite dropped his old office self, winked at Bob. The latter felt encouraged to say:

"I had a course in college on archaeology. Don't remember much about it, but one thing. When they managed to decipher the oldest known piece of hieroglyphics on an Assyrian brick, what do you suppose it turned out to be?"

"Give it up, Brudder Bones," said Tally, dryly, "what was it?"

Bob flushed at the old riverman's tone, but went on.

"It was a letter from a man to his son away at school. In it he lamented the good old times when he was young, and gave it as his opinion that the world was going to the dogs."

Tally grinned slowly; and the others burst into a shout of laughter.

"All right, bub," said the riverman good-humouredly. "But that doesn't get me a new foreman." He turned to Fox. "Smith broke his leg; and I can't find a man to take charge. I can't go. The main drive's got to be sorted."

"There ought to be plenty of good men," said Fox.

"There are, but they're at work."

"Dicky Darrell is over at Marion," spoke up one of the scalers.

"Roaring Dick," said Tally sarcastically, "--but there's no denying he's a good man in the woods. But if he's at Marion, he's drunk; and if he's drunk, you can't do nothing with him."

"I heard it three days ago," said the scaler.

Tally ruminated. "Well," he concluded, "maybe he's about over with his bust. I'll run over this afternoon and see what I can do with him. If Tom Welton would only tear himself apart from California, we'd get on all right."

A scraping back of benches and a tramp of feet announced the nearly simultaneous finishing of feeding at the men's tables. At the boss's table everyone seized an unabashed toothpick. Collins addressed Bob.

"Mr. Fox and I have so much to go over this afternoon," said he, "that I don't believe I'll have time to show you. Just look around a little."

On the porch outside Bob paused. After a moment he became aware of a figure at his elbow. He turned to see old Jim Tally bent over to light his pipe behind the mahogany of his curved hand.

"Want to take in Marion, bub?" he enquired.

"Sure!" cried Bob heartily, surprised at this mark of favour.

"Come on then," said the old riverman, "the lightning express is gettin' anxious for us."