The Boss of Wind River/Chapter 11

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THE east line of Kent's limit butted on the west line of Clancys', and in due course MacNutt began to cut along the line. The snow he had been longing for fell in plenty and the road already bottomed and made became good. A constant stream of logs flowed down it on the big-bunked sleighs, draining the skidways, which were continually replenished by more logs travoyed out of the woods. At the banking grounds the big piles grew. The work was going merrily.

About the time MacNutt began to cut to his line McCane did the same. The crews fraternized to some extent, but the bosses had nothing to say to each other, each keeping to his own side. Hence Kent's foreman was surprised when one morning, after a fresh fall of snow, Rough Shan accompanied by two other men came to him. He noted, also, with an eye experienced in reading signs of trouble, that most of McCane's crew were working, or making a pretence of working, just across the line.

“These men is sawyers, MacNutt,” said Rough Shan. “Yesterday, late on, they dropped a tree an' cut her into two lengths. This morning the logs is gone.”

“What have I got to do with that?” asked MacNutt.

“That's what I've come to find out,” retorted McCane. “Our teamsters never touched them. Logs don't get away by themselves.”

MacNutt frowned at him. “If you think we took your logs there's our skidways, and the road is open to the river. Take a look for yourself.”

McCane and his men went to the nearest skidway and examined the logs. They passed on to another, and MacNutt thought it advisable to follow. At the second skidway one of the sawyers slapped a stick of timber.

“This is her,” he announced. “I know her by this here knot. Yes, an' here's the other length.”

Jackson, Ward, and Haggarty, cant-hook men and old employees of the Kents, had been regarding McCane and his followers with scowling disfavour, and Haggarty, from his post on top of the pile where he had been “decking” the logs as they were sent up to him, asked:

“What's wrong wid them sticks?”

“We cut them yesterday on our limit,” the man told him.

“Ye lie!” cried Haggarty fiercely, dropping his cant-hook and leaping to the ground. Jackson and Ward sprang forward as one man.

“You keep out o' this,” said Rough Shan. “This is log stealin', and a matter for your boss, if he's man enough to talk to me face.”

“Man enough? Come over here an' say we stole yer logs, ye dirty——” Haggarty's language became lurid. He was an iron-fisted old-timer and hated McCane.

MacNutt, when he saw Haggarty drop his cant-hook and jump, ran across to the skids. So did other men at hand. A ring of fierce, bearded faces and level, inquiring eyes gathered about the intruders.

“Here is the logs, MacNutt,” said Rough Shan. “Now, I want to know how they come here.”

MacNutt examined the logs. They had not yet been branded by the marking-iron with the big K which proclaimed Kent ownership. They were in no material particular different from the rest. It was possible that his teamsters had made a mistake. His sawyers could not identify the logs positively; they thought they had cut them, but were not sure. On the other hand, the two teamsters, Laviolette and old Ben Watkins, were very sure they had never drawn those particular sticks to the pile.

“One o' yeez must 'a done it,” asserted McCane.

“Not on your say-so,” retorted Watkins, whose fighting blood had not cooled with age. “Don't you get gay with the old man, Shan McCane. I'll——

“Shut up, Ben!” MacNutt ordered. He turned to McCane. “I'll give you the logs because your men are sure and mine ain't. Break them out o' that, Haggarty; and you, Laviolette, hitch on and pull them across the line to wherever they say they laid. All the same I want to tell ye it wasn't my teamsters snaked them here.”

“An' do ye think mine did?—a likely t'ing” said Rough Shan. “Mind this, now, MacNutt, you be more careful about whose logs ye take.”

MacNutt lit his pipe deliberately before replying.

“The next one ye pull onto our skidways we'll keep,” said he.

McCane glowered at him. “Ye've got a gall. Steal our logs, an' tell me I done it meself! I want to tell ye, MacNutt, I won't take that from you nor anny man.”

“Go back and boss your gang,” said MacNutt coldly, refusing the evident challenge.

He had made up his mind to give no provocation; but he had also determined to push the fight to a finish when it came, as he saw it inevitably must. The occurrence of the morning confirmed his suspicion that McCane was following out a deliberate plan. He perceived, too, that the matter of the logs was a tactical mistake of the latter's. For, if Rough Shan had confined his activities to supplying the men with whiskey and fomenting discontent, MacNutt would have been forced to discharge half of them, and good hands were scarce. Thus the camp would have been practically crippled. But an accusation of log stealing would weld the men solidly together for the honour of their employer.

Haggarty, the iron-fisted cant-hook man, who had drawn Kent pay for years, took up the matter in the bunk-house that night.

“Nobody knows better nor Rough Shan hisself who put them logs on our skidway,” he declared with a tremendous oath. “An' for why did he do it? To pick a row, no less. He thought ould Mac would keep the sticks an' tell him to go to the divil. Mac was too foxy for him that time.”

“If he wants a row he can have it,” said Regan; “him or anny of his gang. It's the dirty bunch they are. An' I want to say right here,” he continued, glaring at the row of men on the “deacon seat,” “that the man that fills himself up on rotgut whiskey from McCane's camp after this is a low-lived son of a dog, an' I will beat the head off of him once when he's drunk an' again when he's sober.”

A growl of approval ran along the bench.

“That's right.”

“That's the talk, Larry!”

“To hell wid McCane an' his whiskey, both!”

“Mo' Gee! we pass ourself on hees camp an' clean heem out.”

The temperance wave was so strong that the minority maintained a discreet silence. Indeed, even those who relished the contraband whiskey most would have relished no less an encounter with McCane's crew, for whom they had little use, individually or collectively. Save for the first few bottles to whet their appetites, the whiskey had not been supplied free. They had paid high for it, and the mystery of the fatal keg had never been cleared up. The sufferers were inclined to blame one or more of McCane's men, and, not being able to fasten the responsibility for the outrage on any individual, saddled it on the entire crew.

At this juncture Joe Kent arrived in camp, following out a laudable determination to become acquainted with the woods end of his business. He came at night, and took up his quarters with MacNutt.

Although he had visited camps before with his father, it was still fresh and new to Joe—the roomy box stove, the log walls hung with mackinaw garments, moccasins, and snowshoes, the water pail on the shelf beside the door, the bunks with their heavy gray blankets and bearskins—all the raffle that accumulates in a foreman's winter quarters. And because his imagination was young and active and unspoiled he saw in these things the elements of romance where an older hand would have seen utility only. He felt that they typified a life which he had come to learn, that they were part of a game which he had studied theoretically from a distance, but was now come to play himself.

MacNutt was silent from habit. A foreman cannot mingle socially with his men to any extent and preserve his authority. Hence his life is lonely and loneliness begets silence. He answered questions with clear brevity, but did not make conversation. He was not at all embarrassed by the presence of his employer; nor would he have been if the latter had been old and experienced instead of young and green. He knew very well that Kent had come to learn the practical side of the woods business. That was all right and he approved of it. He would tell him whatever he wanted to know; but as a basis he must know enough to ask intelligent questions. Outside of that he must learn by experience. That was how MacNutt had learned himself, and if Joe had asked him the best way to obtain practical knowledge he would have been advised to go into the woods with another man's crew and use an axe.

“And now about McCane's gang,” said Joe when he had learned what he could absorb as to the progress of the work. “Are they giving you any trouble.”

“Not more than I can handle,” said MacNutt, and for the first time told of the doctored whiskey.

Joe roared at the recital, and MacNutt smiled grimly. He was not a humourist, and his narrative was not at all embellished. He went on to relate the incident of the logs and his deductions.

Kent thought of Finn Clancy and frowned. He told the foreman of the contract with the Clancy firm and of the narrowly averted row with Finn.

“Then they are behind McCane,” said MacNutt conclusively. “That means he will make it bad for us yet—unless we stop him.”

“I don't understand,” said Joe.

“It's this way,” MacNutt explained. “McCane has his instructions, but you can't prove them. Suppose he claims a log and doesn't get it and a fight starts between the crews—why, he's jobbing the limit himself and the Clancys ain't responsible.”

“A bit of a scrap won't matter,” said Joe cheerfully.

“It will matter if the woods ain't big enough to hold but one crew—ours or theirs,” returned MacNutt. “I've seen it happen before.”

“Tell me about it,” said Joe. He listened eagerly to the concise narrative that followed, which was the little-known history of a logging war in which the casualties were large.

“The dead men were reported killed by falling timber,” the foreman concluded. “Five of them there was—five lives, and all for one pine tree that turned out punk when it was cut.” He tapped his pipe out against the stove. “You'll be tired. I get up before light, but I'll try not to wake you, Mr. Kent.”

“I'll get up when you do,” said Joe. “I'm going out on the job with the crew.”

“All right; I'll wake you,” said the foreman without comment, but likewise without conviction.

In the morning—or as it seemed to Joe about midnight—he awoke with a light in his eyes and the foreman's hand on his shoulder. The light came from the lamp. Outside it was pitch dark, and the wind was shouting through the forest and whining around the cabin. Now and then a volley of snow pattered against the window.

By way of contrast never had a bed seemed so absolutely comfortable. For a moment he was tempted to exercise his right to sleep. The ghost of a smile on MacNutt's face decided for him. He tumbled out, soused his head in water, pulled on his heavy clothes, high German socks, and moccasins, and in five minutes stood, a very solid, good-looking young lumber jack with a very healthy appetite for breakfast.

The darkness was lifting when the crew left camp for the woods. Joe and the foreman tramped behind. There was little speech. However excellent early rising may be theoretically it does not sweeten the temper, especially in mid-winter. There was a notable absence of laughter, of jest, even of ordinarily civil conversation. Almost every man bent his energies to the consumption of tobacco. They had not shaken off the lethargy of the night, and their mental processes were not yet astir. They plodded mechanically, backs humped, eyes upon the ground, dully resentful of the weather, the work, of existence itself.

Arrived at the scene of operations, the lethargy vanished. Men sighed as they lifted axes for the first blow—such a sigh as one gives when stooping to resume a burden. With the fall of the blow, and the shock of it running up the helve through arms and shoulders, they were completely awake. What remained of the dull, aimless resentment was directed at the timber that ringed them around—the timber that represented at once a livelihood and an unending toil.

Joe followed MacNutt, keenly observant. He knew little about the work—how it should be done, how much each man and team should do, where odd moments might be saved, and the way in which a desired object might be accomplished with the least expenditure of effort. But he was by no means absolutely ignorant, for, like the average young American, he had spent considerable time in the woods, which involves a more or less intimate acquaintance with the axe, and he had also the average American's aptitude for tools and constructive work of any kind. Then, too, he had absorbed unconsciously much theory from his father and from the conversation of his father's friends, added to which was the study and thought of the past few months. Thus he possessed a groundwork. Remained analysis of the actual individual operations as they were performed before his eyes, and synthesis into a whole.

With the foreman he went over most of the job, from the first slashings to the river rollways, and thus gained a comprehensive idea of what had been done, what remained to do, and what time there was to do it in. He drank scalding tea and ate pork, bread, and doughnuts with the men at noon, and smoked a pipe, sheltered from the biting north wind by a thick clump of firs. In the afternoon, to keep himself warm, he took an axe and trimmed tree tops with the swampers, showing a fair degree of efficiency with the implement. Also he took a turn at the end of the long, flexible cross-cut saw, an exercise which made a new set of muscles ache; but he learned the rudiments of it—to pull with a long, smooth, level swing, not to push, but to let the other man pull on the return motion, to tap in a wedge when the settling trunk began to bind the thin, rending ribbon of steel, and to use kerosene on the blade when it gummed and pulled heavily and stickily. When the work ceased with the falling darkness he tramped back to camp with the men, ate a huge supper, spent an hour in the bunk-house with them, and sang them a couple of songs which were received with wild applause, and then rolled into his bunk, dog-tired, and was asleep as his head settled in the pillow.

Behind him, in the sleeping-camp, he left a favourable impression.

“He's good stuff, that lad,” said Haggarty. “He minds me of some one—a good man, too.”

“Would it be Alec Macnamara, now?” asked Regan. Macnamara, a famous “white-water birler,” had met his fate in the breaking of a log-jam some years before.

“That's who it is, God rest his soul,” said Haggarty. “He's younger, but he's the dead spit of Alec in the eyes an' mouth. It's my belief he laughs when he fights, like him, an' he'd die game as Alec died.”

Whether Haggarty's belief was right or wrong did not appear. Nothing arose to put the young boss's courage to a test. All went merry as a marriage bell, and the quantity of logs pouring down to the banking grounds attested the quality of the work done. Then came trouble out of a comparatively clear sky.

One day Joe was bossing the job, MacNutt being in camp. His bossing, truth to tell, lay more in the moral effect of his presence than in issuing orders or giving instruction. Having the good sense to recognize his present limitations, he let the men alone. The air was soft with a promise of snow, and he lit his pipe and sauntered up the logging road.

Before a skidway stood four men in hot argument. Two of these were Haggarty and Jackson. One was unknown to Kent. The fourth he recognized as Rough Shan McCane.

“Here's Mr. Kent now,” said Haggarty, catching sight of him.

Rough Shan favored Joe with a contemptuous stare. “Where's MacNutt?” he demanded. “I told him this log stealin' had got to stop.”

“MacNutt is in camp,” said Joe. “You can talk to me if you like. What's the matter?”

Rough Shan cursed the absent foreman. “Log stealin's the matter,” he announced. “A load of our logs has gone slick an' clean.”

“Gone where?” asked Joe coldly.

“MacNutt knows where!” asserted Rough Shan with an oath. “This is the second time. I'm goin' to find them, an' when I do——

“What'll ye do?” demanded Haggarty truculently. “It is the likes of you can come over here an' say——

“Dry up, Haggarty!” Joe commanded shortly. “Now, look here, Mr. McCane, we haven't got your logs.”

“But ye have,” Rough Shan proclaimed loudly. “I know the dirty tricks of ye. That's stealin'—stealin', d'ye mind, young felly? I want them logs an' I want 'em quick, drawed over an' decked on our skidways an' no words about it. As it is, I'm a good mind to run ye out o' the woods.”

Joe's temper began to boil. Here was an elemental condition confronting him. Rough Shan was big and hard and tough, but he was not much awed. To him the big lumber jack was not more formidable than any one of a score of husky young giants who had done their several and collective bests to break his neck on the football field, and he was not inclined to take any further gratuitous abuse.

“What makes you think we took your logs?” he asked.

“Who else could 'a' done it?” demanded Rough Shan with elemental logic.

“You might have done it yourself,” Joe told him. “Now, you listen to me for a minute and keep a civil tongue in your head. You're trying to make trouble for us, and I know it, and I know who is behind you. If you want a row you can have it, now or any old time. You won't run anybody out of the woods. As for the logs, you know what MacNutt told you. Still, if you can prove ownership of any, satisfactorily to me, you may haul them back with the team you hauled them in with. But, mind you, this is the last time. The trick is stale, and you mustn't play it again.”

“I'll find them an' then I'll talk to you,” said Rough Shan with contempt. “Come on, Mike.” He made for the nearest skidway.

“You two men go along and tell the boys to let him look till he's tired,” said Joe to Haggarty and Jackson. “Don't scrap with him, remember.”

“Well, we'll try not,” said Haggarty. “That's Mike Callahan wid him—a divil!”

“You do what I tell you!” Joe snapped, and Haggarty and Jackson uttered a suddenly respectful “Yes, sir.”

In half an hour Jackson came for Joe. He found Rough Shan at the banking grounds. Before him lay a little pile of thin, round circles of wood; also sawdust. McCane picked one circle up and handed it to him.

It was a slice cut from the end of a saw log. One side was blank. On the other the letters “CB” proclaiming the ownership of Clancy Brothers were deeply indented.

“Well, what about it?” asked Joe.

“What about it!” Rough Shan repeated. “Here's the ends sawed from our marked logs. Then ye mark them fresh for yerself. A nice trick! That's jail for some wan.”

“Pretty smooth,” said Joe. “Saves you the trouble of hauling the logs in here, doesn't it? One man could carry these ends in a sack.”

Rough Shan glared at him. “I want them logs, an' I want them now,” he cried with an oath.

“All right; take them,” Joe retorted. “Of course you'll have to match these ends on the logs they belong to. Possibly you overlooked that little detail. Haggarty, you see that he makes a good fit.”

Haggarty grinned. “Then I'm thinkin' I'll be goin' over onto Clancys' limit wid him,” he commented.

Rough Shan took a fierce step forward. Joe stood his ground and the other paused.

“Our logs is here,” he exclaimed. “These ends proves it. I'll not match them, nor try to. I give ye an hour to deliver a full load of logs, average twelve-inch tops, at our skidways.”

“Not a log, unless you prove ownership of it, and then you do your own delivering,” said Joe. “Pshaw! McCane, what's the use? You can't bluff me. Let your employers go to law if they want to.”

“Law!” cried Rough Shan. “We run our own law in these woods, young felly. I give ye fair warnin'!”

“You make me tired,” Joe retorted. “Why don't you do something?”

Joe was quick on his feet, but he was quite unprepared for the sudden blow which Rough Shan delivered. It caught him on the jaw and staggered him. Instantly Haggarty hurled himself at McCane, while Jackson tackled Callahan. The men at the rollways ran to the scrap. Callahan floored Jackson and went for Joe, who met him with straight, stiff punches which surprised the redoubtable Mike. As reinforcements came up, McCane and his henchman backed against a pile of timber.

“Come on, ye measly log stealers!” roared the foreman, thoroughly in his element. The odds against him had no effect save to stimulate his language. He poured forth a torrent of the vilest abuse that ever defiled a pinery. Beside him Callahan, heavy-set and gorilla-armed, supplemented his remarks. There was no doubt of the thorough gameness of the pair.

In went Haggarty, Reese, Ward, and Chartrand. Others followed. The rush simply overwhelmed the two. They went down, using fists, knees, and feet impartially. A dozen men strove to get at them.

Joe's sense of fair play was outraged. He caught the nearest man by the collar and slung him back twenty feet.

“Quit it!” he shouted. “Haggarty! Chartrand! White! Let them alone, do you hear me?” In his anger he rose to heights of unsuspected eloquence and his words cut like whips. The men disentangled before his voice and hands. At the bottom Haggarty and Rough Shan, locked in a deadly grip, fought like bulldogs, each trying for room to apply the knee to the other's stomach.

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“Pull 'em apart!” Joe ordered sharply, and unwilling hands did so. They cursed each other with deep hatred. Their vocabularies were much on a par and highly unedifying.

“That'll do, Haggarty!” Joe rasped. “McCane, you shut your dirty mouth and get out of here.”

“You——” McCane began venomously.

“Don't say it,” Joe warned him. “Clear out!”

“A dozen of ye to two!” cried McCane. “If I had ye alone, Kent, I'd put ye acrost me knee!”

“Come to my camp any night this week and I'll take you with the gloves,” said Joe. “If you want a scrap for all hands bring your crew with you. Now, boys, get back on the job. We've wasted enough time. These men are going.”

He turned away, and the men scattered unwillingly to their several employments. Rough Shan and Callahan, left alone, hesitated, shouted a few perfunctory curses, and finally tramped off. But every one who knew them knew also that this was only the beginning.