The Boss of Wind River/Chapter 3

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III

WILLIAM CROOKS, the old lumberman who had been the friend of the elder Kent, was big and broad and burly, and before the years had silvered his mane it was as red as any danger flag that ever wagged athwart steel rails. He held strong opinions, he used strong language, he was swift to anger, he feared no man on earth, and he knew the logging business from stump to market.

He inhabited a huge, square, brick structure that would have given an architect chronic nightmare. Twenty odd years before he had called to him one Dorsey, by trade a builder. “Dorsey,” said Crooks, “I want you to build me a house.”

Dorsey, who was a practical man, removed his pipe, scratched his head and asked: “What of?”

“Red brick,” said Crooks. He held out a sheet of foolscap. “Here's the number of rooms and the sizes of them.”

Dorsey scanned the paper. “What do you want her to cost?”

“What she's worth, and a fair profit to you,” said Crooks. “Get at her and finish her by frost. I'll want to move in by then.”

“All right,” said Dorsey. “She'll be ready for you.”

By frost “she” was finished, and Crooks moved in. There he had lived ever since; and there he intended to live as long as he could. Kindly time had partially concealed the weird creation of Dorsey's brain by trees and creepers; here and there an added veranda or bow window was offered in mitigation of the original crime; but its stark, ungraceful outline remained a continual offence to the eye. That was outside. Inside it was different. The rooms were big and airy and well lighted. There was an abundance of open fireplaces, as became the residence of a man whose life had been spent in devastating forests, and the furniture and furnishings were practical and comfortable, for Bill Crooks hated “frills.”

In that house his children were born, and there three of them and his wife died. There Jean, his youngest girl, grew to womanhood, a straight, lithe, slender, dark-haired young tyrant, with his own fearlessness and directness of speech. She was known to her intimates as “Jack,” and she and Joe Kent had been friends all their young lives.

Since coming home Kent had seen little of her. He was very busy mastering details of the business, and either went back to his office in the evenings or spent them quietly at the club. But on the day of his interview with Mr. Ackerman it occurred to him that he should call upon Jack Crooks.

When he opened the gate that evening he saw that the wide veranda was well occupied. Four young men were making exceedingly light conversation to two young women. William Crooks was nowhere visible. Miss Crooks came down the walk to meet him, and held out two slim hands in welcome.

“I'm so glad to see you, Joe. I've been looking for you for days.”

“You see, I've been busy,” said Kent. “And then, naturally, I haven't been going out much.”

She nodded sympathetic comprehension. “I understand, of course. Come up and be presented. I have a very charming visitor.”

“Any one I know?”

“Edith Garwood. She's my guest for a few weeks. Have you met her?”

Joe had never met Miss Garwood. He decided as he shook hands with her that this was his distinct loss. Edith Garwood was tall and fair and blue eyed, with the dainty bloom and colouring of a flower. Her smile was simply distracting. Her voice was low and musical, and her laughter carried a little trill that stuck in the memory like the first bird notes of spring. She seemed to be one of those rare girls who are made to be loved by everybody, madly adored by several, and finally captured by some undeservingly lucky man.

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MISS CROOKS CAME DOWN THE WALK TO MEET HIM … “I'M SO GLAD TO SEE YOU, JOE. I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR YOU FOR DAYS”

At that moment she was holding a little court. Mallane, a young lawyer; Drew, of Drew & Son; Leadly, whose chief occupation was the dissemination of his father's money, which he had almost accomplished; and young Jolly, who honoured a bank with his presence by day, clustered around her closely. Each was quite positive that her glances and laughter held a meaning for him which the others did not share. The charmed circle, momentarily broken by the entrance of Kent, closed again. They talked at Miss Garwood, they postured at her, and when, now and then, they remembered the existence of their young hostess and included her in the conversation, it was evidently as a matter of duty only. Just then Edith Garwood was the only star in all the heavens.

Joe drew chairs for himself and Miss Jack just outside the group.

“Well?” she asked.

“Quite, thank you.”

“I didn't mean that. Is it love at first sight with you, too?”

“No chance for me,” laughed Joe. “Competition is too keen. Besides, Jack, I've been in love with you for years.”

“Nonsense!” she said, so sharply that he looked at her in surprise. “I waive my prior claim,” she added, with a laugh. “Confess, Joe! Isn't she the prettiest girl you ever saw?”

“She seems to be a good deal of a peach,” Joe admitted. “Is she related to Hugh Garwood, the president of the O. & N. Railway?”

“Daughter,” said Jack briefly. “His only che-ild.”

Joe grinned. “Which probably accounts for the obvious devotion of Mallane and Leadly.”

“Don't be so cynical; it isn't nice. She can't help it, can she?”

“Of course not. I was speaking of the men.”

“Well, she's very pretty and charming. If I were a young man I'd fall in love with her. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see you smitten.”

Joe reddened a trifle, conscious that while he had been talking to Jack his eyes had been on Miss Garwood. Once or twice her glance had met his and she had given him a friendly smile. It seemed to hint at an understanding between them—as if she would have been very glad to have him change places with one of the others. And yet it was absolutely frank and open.

Kent, being an average young man, did not analyze the quality of it. He merely felt that he liked Edith Garwood, and she probably did not dislike him. At the same time he began to feel a slight aversion to the four men who monopolized her; but he explained this to himself quite honestly on the ground that it was boorish of them to neglect Jack Crooks for a guest, no matter how charming the latter might be. His reply to Jack's prediction was interrupted by William Crooks.

“Well, young people,” said the old lumberman, emerging upon the veranda, “why don't you come into the house and have some music?”

“It's cooler out here, dad,” said Jack. “Sit down and make yourself at home and have a smoke. Here's Joe.”

Crooks laid a huge hand on Kent's shoulder. “I want to talk over some business with you, Joe. You won't mind if I take him away for half an hour, Jack?”

“Not a bit, dad. Don't keep him all night, though.”

“I won't,” he promised, smiling at her fondly. “Come on, Joe. We'll go to the library.”

William Crooks's library held few books. Such as there were mainly dealt with the breeding, training, and diseases of horses and dogs. Stuffed birds and fish, guns and rods adorned the walls. A huge table in the centre of the room bore a mass of papers in which pipes, cartridge cases, trout flies, and samples of various woods mingled in gorgeous confusion. Crooks laid an open box of cigars on top of the disarray.

“Well, Joe,” he asked, “how you makin' it?”

“I don't quite know yet,” Kent replied. “I'm just beginning to learn the ropes around the office. So far I like it.”

“You'll like it better,” said Crooks. “You come to me if you get stuck; but work things out for yourself if you can. Now, about those notes I've indorsed!”

“Yes,” said Kent. “I don't see how I'm to take them up just yet.”

“Nobody wants you to,” said Crooks. “Your father helped me out often enough. I was doing the same for him, and what I'd do for him I'll do for you. Don't worry about the notes or renewals. Only—I may as well talk straight to you, Joe—I don't want to increase my liabilities without I have to. Understand, if it's a case of need I'll back you up to any amount in reason, but if you can worry along without more accommodation I wish you would.”

“It's very good of you,” said Joe. “I'll try to get along. Anyway, I never thought of asking you for more endorsements.”

“Well, you think of it if you need them,” said Crooks gruffly. “Come to me as if I were your father, boy. I'll go with you as far as I would with him, and that's to the rim-ice of Hades.”

For acknowledgment Joe took his hand and shook it, an action which embarrassed the old lumber baron exceedingly.

“All right, all right,” he growled. “Don't be a blamed young fool. I'm not going away anywhere.”

Joe laughed. “I'm glad of that. I'll ask your advice pretty often, Mr. Crooks. By the way, what would you think of turning my business into a joint stock company? I don't fancy the idea myself.”

“Who's been talking to you?” demanded Crooks.

“Well, Mr. Ackerman dropped in this morning.”

“What did he want?”

“I don't suppose he wanted anything in particular. He just happened in, being in town. This came up in the course of conversation.”

“Son,” said Crooks, “Ackerman doesn't go anywhere or see anybody without he wants something. You tie into that. What did he talk about?”

Joe told him. Crooks listened intently, chewing his cigar.

“He suggested the same thing to your father, and your father refused to consider it,” he said. “Now he comes to you. Huh!” He smoked in silence for several moments. “I wonder what his game is?” he concluded thoughtfully.

“Why, I suppose if he organized the company he'd get a block of stock for his services,” said Joe, and he thought the comment particularly shrewd. “That's all I see in it, Mr. Crooks.”

“You don't know a thing about it,” growled the lumberman bluntly. “If you fell in with his proposition he'd kick you out when he got ready.”

“No,” said Joe. “He suggested that I retain a majority of the shares.”

Crooks eyed him pityingly. “In about six months he'd issue more and cut your throat.”

“How could he do that unless I consented?”

“You would consent—the way they'd put it up to you. However, you won't deal with him if you have any sense. Now, look here. You're not twenty-five, just starting business. You think all there is to it is to cut your logs, bring down your drives, cut them up into lumber, and the demand will take care of the rest. That's how it used to be. It isn't so now. Timber is getting scarcer and prices are going up. There is a scramble for what timber limits are left, and the men with the pull get them. Same way with contracts. You'll find it out. The big concerns are eating up the little ones in our line, just as in others. That's why you'd better keep clear of any proposals of Ackerman's.”

“I will,” Joe promised. At the same time he thought Crooks unduly pessimistic.

“Now about timber,” the old lumberman went on. “I'm starting men to cruise all north of Rat Lake to the divide. You'd better send a couple of cruisers into Wind River and let them work east over that stuff, so you will be in shape to bid for it. That was what your father intended to do.”

“We have two men there now,” Joe told him.

“Do you know how this bidding works?” asked Crooks.

“The government calls for tenders and accepts the highest,” Joe replied.

“Theoretically,” said Crooks. “Practically, if you're not a friend of their rotten outfit you might tender the mint and not get a look in. They used to have sales by public auction, and those were square enough; though sometimes the boys pooled on 'em. Now what happens is this: The government may open any timber for sale on any man's application, and they are supposed to advertise for tenders. If the applicant isn't a friend they won't open it. If he is, they advertise in a couple of issues of some backwoods paper that no one sees, nobody else tenders, and he gets it for a song. Of course some one high up gets a rake-off. Only you can't prove it.”

“How do you buy, then?” Joe asked. “You're not friendly to the present government, and I'm not.”

Crooks hesitated for a moment.

“You'll have to know sooner or later,” he said. “I tender in the name of another man, and I pay him from ten to twenty per cent. of the amount I tender for the bare use of his name—if I get what I want. Oh, I know it's rotten, but I have to stand for it or shut down. Your father did the same thing; you'll have to do it, too. I'm not defending it. I'll tell you more. This infernal political graft is everywhere. You can't supply a foot of lumber to a contractor on any public work unless you stand in.”

Joe whistled astonishment, not unmixed with disbelief.

“Sounds pretty stiff, hey?” said Crooks. “Well, here's something else for you to digest. There's a concern called the Central Lumber Company, capitalized for a hundred thousand, composed of a young lawyer, a bookkeeper, a real estate man, and an insurance agent—individuals, mind you, who couldn't raise ten thousand dollars between them—who have bought in timber lands and acquired going lumber businesses worth several millions. What do you think of that?”

Joe did not know what to think of it, and said so. The suspicion that Crooks was stringing him crossed his mind, but the old lumberman was evidently in deadly earnest.

“And now I'll tell you one thing more,” said Crooks, instinctively lowering his voice. “I had an offer for my business some time ago, and I turned it down. It came through a firm of lawyers for clients unnamed. Since then I've had a run of bad luck. My sales have fallen off, I have trouble in my mills, and the railway can't supply me with cars. There isn't a thing I can fasten on, either.”

“Oh, you must be mistaken,” said Joe. It seemed to him that bad luck, which often runs in grooves, had given rise to groundless suspicions in Crooks's mind.

“I'm not mistaken,” the latter replied. “I'm playing with a cold deck, and though I can't see a blame thing wrong with the deal I notice I draw rags every time. That's enough for me. I'm going to find out why, because if I don't I may as well quit playing.” He banged his big fist viciously on the table. “I'll know the reason why!” he thundered. “I will, by the Glory Eternal! If any gang of blasted high-bankers think they can run me out of my own business without a fight they miss their guess.”

His white hair bristled and his cold blue eyes blazed. Thirty years before he had been a holy terror with fists and feet. Few men then had cared to arouse Bill Crooks. Now the old fighting spirit surged up and took possession of him, and he was proceeding to stronger language when Miss Jack tapped imperatively at the door and opened it.

“May I come in? Dad, this isn't playing fair. You've kept Joe all evening. Edith and I have been waiting alone for half an hour. Come in, Edith, and tell him what you think of him.”

“Well, you girls had four young fellows without Joe. How many do you want?”

She raised inquiring eyebrows at his tone. “Anything the matter, daddy? I didn't mean to intrude.”

“You never do that, Jack,” he smiled at her fondly. “Business bothers—nothing to worry about. It'll be all right 'when the drive comes down!'”

“That always means I mustn't ask questions. I won't; but for being rude to me you shall sing the song. Edith wants to hear it.”

“Oh, do please, Mr. Crooks,” said Miss Garwood sweetly.

“I've no more voice than a crow, and Jack knows it,” said Crooks, but followed his daughter meekly to the piano in the next room.

“'When the Drive Comes Down,' as sung by Mr. William Crooks, Selected Record,” Jack announced in a metallic voice. She struck a chord, and Crooks, his face beaming and his ill humour forgotten, with the preliminary whine of the genuine shanty vocalist struck into an ancient ballad of the river, which was his especial favourite:

 

“Come all ye gallant shanty boys, an' listen while I sing,
We've worked six months in cruel frosts, but soon we'll take our fling.
The ice is black an' rotten, an' the rollways is piled high,
So boost upon yer peavey sticks while I do tell ye why-y-y.
For it's break the rollways out, me boys, an' let the big stick slide,
An' file yer corks, an' grease yer boots, an' start upon the drive,
A hundred miles of water is the nearest way to town,
So tie into the tail of her, an' keep her hustlin' down-n-n.”

 

He roared it in a heavy bass, beating time with a thunderous fist. Jack's clear alto and Joe's strong baritone struck into the first refrain:

 

“When the drive comes dow-un, when the jam comes down,
Oh, it's then we're paid our money, an' it's then we own the town.
All the gutters runs with whiskey when the shanty boys so frisky
Sets their boot corks in the sidewalks when the drive is down-n-n.”

 

“Splendid!” cried Miss Garwood. “More, Mr. Crooks!” He nodded at her indulgently, and let his big voice go:

 

“There's some poor lads will never lift a peavey-hook again,
Nor hear the trees crack wid the frost, nor feel a warm spring rain.
'Twas fallin' timber, rowlin' logs that handed them their time;
It was their luck to get it so—it may be yours or mine.
But break the rollways out, me lads, an' let the big sticks slide,
For one man killed within the woods ten's drownded on the drive.
So make yer sowls before ye take the nearest way to town
While the lads that be's in Heaven watch the drive go down-n-n.

“When the drive starts dow-un, when the drive starts down,
Oh, it's every lad in Heaven he wud swop his golden crown
For a peavey stick again, an' a soakin' April rain,
An' to birl a log beneath him as he drives the river down-n-n.”

 

“Oh, I don't like that verse,” protested Miss Garwood. “It's sad, fatalistic, reckless—anything and everything it shouldn't be. I thought shanty songs were more cheerful.”

“Some of 'em are cheerful enough,” said Crooks, winking at Joe, who had the grace to blush.

“But most describe the lingering deaths of true lovers,” said Jack. “A shantyman requires sentiment or murder, and preferably both, in his music. Dad, sing us 'The Fate of Lovely May.'”

“I will not,” Crooks refused. “It has five hundred verses, more or less. I'm going to bed. You can lose sleep if you want to.”

“Don't take that hint, Joe,” laughed Jack. “You're not company.”

“Hint nothing,” said Crooks. “Jack knows it wasn't.”

“I'm a business man now,” said Joe. “I feel it my duty to set an example to frivolous young people.”

“Come around often, the way you used to,” said Jack.

Miss Garwood, obviously, could not second the invitation in words: but much can be expressed by a pair of blue eyes. Joe felt that, unless he was an absolute dub at interpreting such things, his visits would not be unwelcome to her.