The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 1

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The youth in the road paused and listened intently. He was tall and thin, almost emaciated in appearance, and stood with shoulders stooped as if weary. But it was not fatigue that caused him to stay his steps and cock an ear curiously. What he had heard was the whine of a cross-cut saw, eating its way through a log. But all the wood sounds were new to him and as yet he could interpret none of them. Again the saw voiced a shrill complaint tinged with a note of anger at encountering a stubborn knot, and the youth left the rough road and awkwardly made his way through the alders.

He beheld two men operating the saw, only to his unpractised eye it seemed as if the smaller of the two were trying to prevent the other from obtaining possession of the notched steel blade.

Instantly his sympathy was aroused; he resented the unequal odds.

“Hi, you big fellow, quit that,” he called out, straightening his shoulders and briskly approaching..

“Bon jour,” cheerfully saluted the man addressed, turning to face the newcomer, but not releasing his hold on the saw.

“You needn’t ‘good morning’ me,” returned the youth. “But if the little fellow wants that saw you let him have it. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

The man grinned blankly, not understanding the command. Then he faced his companion and gave the saw a violent yank. The little man frowned and squaring his jaw pulled the handle for the return stroke. Like his companion he understood no English. Unlike his companion he was of a sullen temperament. Both knew they were there to saw the log and must waste no time on strangers. As they tugged and strained the good-natured light faded from the big man’s eyes, and with compressed lips he sought to keep up with the pace set by his mate, who despite his slender physique could tire out many a larger man.

The youth, already out of temper because of the hardships of the day, buttoned his coat to the chin, while his blue eyes kindled into little fires.

“Will you stop it?” he growled, advancing yet nearer.

The big Frenchman turned his head, but did not desist in his endeavor to take the saw as fast as his companion forced the stroke upon him. His face, also, in reflecting the physical strain under which he was laboring, impressed the youth as being distorted with malice.

“For the last time,” cautioned the youth; “quit it.”

Believing he was being praised by the stranger, he bared his teeth and with a hissing sound increased the pace.

The youth hesitated no longer, but with an inarticulate cry sprang forward and caught the brawny shoulder and whirled the man about. The Frenchman instinctively clasped his assailant in a bear-like embrace, while the latter attempted to clutch the brown neck.

“Here! here! Hi! break away!” screamed a shrill voice, and the poorly matched combatants paused in their struggle and remained in a rigid pose as a short, stocky built youth made towards them, clearing logs and stumps and rocks with marvelous agility.

Then seizing the interlocked arms he pushed between them. He first addressed himself to the Frenchman, jabbering at him angrily. The Frenchman flung out his hands and with equal rapidity explained the situation insofar as he understood it. The little man, with clouded brow, remained at his end of the saw, seemingly not interested in the scene.

“Say, what do you mean by jumping Big Louey in this way?” demanded the last comer of the pugnacious stranger.

“He lays the blame on me, eh?” panted the youth. “I don’t understand his lingo.”

“’Course he blames you. It’s his place to be working here. It isn’t your place to be here at all. What do you mean by trespassing on the company’s land and picking up rows with innocent workmen?”

“I don’t care what he told you,” answered the stranger, now more composed. “I am in the habit of telling the truth. I was passing along the road and heard a noise. I came here and found this big, hulking fellow trying to take this instrument from the little fellow. I told him to quit it, and let the little man alone. He paid no attention to my orders and I pitched into him. Now, what are you going to do about it? I can’t fight two of you; I’m not a fighter, anyway. But I’ll not stand by and see a small man abused by an overgrown bully.”

The stocky youth stared wide-eyed for nearly a minute; then with a sobbing cry of mirth he fell to the ground and rolled back and forth.

“O dear! O dear!” he cried between wild peals of laughter. “Can it be real! O you’ve killed me! Thought they was fighting over the saw! Ha! ha! ha!”

“Seems to strike you as being funny,” growled the stranger.

“Please don’t say any more just yet, or you’ll kill me, sure,” gasped the other. “I—I never expected a treat like this. I—I don’t mean to offend you, but—ha! ha! ha!”

“I hope you have your laugh out,” said the stranger. “It seems I have made some kind of a mistake and I’ll be going.”

“Wait, wait. I’m better now,” said the merry one, staggering to his feet. “What did you think these men were doing? Fighting over the saw?”

“Certainly,” stiffly replied the stranger, turning to go.

“But hold on; don’t get huffy. Let me explain to Big Louey.” And facing the now grinning giant he quickly explained to him the cause of the attack. Then he continued to the stranger, “These men are sawing a log. The little fellow was crowding Louey pretty hard. They are great chums. I guess you don’t know much about lumbering.”

The stranger flushed to his ears. “Tell your Louey I am sorry to have misunderstood the situation, and give him this.” The “this” was a silver dollar. “And tell him I sincerely hope I did not hurt him.”

The stocky one gave way to a new burst of merriment, unable to speak for a moment. “He—he thanks you for the doller,” he finally managed to inform; “and he says you didn’t hurt him enough to make him take his bed. You hurt French Louey, Big Louey, Fighting Louey—the best natured giant that ever licked a whole drive of loggers into shape! Why, for a doller’n a quarter he’d let you punch him for three days and he’d never raise a hand. If he’d just closed those arms of his he’d broke every rib in your body. Lucky for you he’s good-natured.”

“I thank you for your information. I’ll be going now.”

“Say, you don’t talk like me. You’re city bred, I guess.”

“I have lived much in the city, yes. Good-day.”

“But, hold your hosses for a second. Where are you bound for?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where were you going when you started to reform Louey?”

“I was looking for work and food.”

“I see,” mused the other, now grave of face. “You look as if you were about played out.”

“I am faint from walking and fasting.”

“Well, why don’t you rest and eat?”

“I have no money to buy food with.”

“Huh! well, well. Gave your last doller to Louey, eh?” admired the other. “I’ll go back and get it.”

“No you won’t,” growled the stranger, seizing his arm and pulling him into the road. “Men in my family don’t give and take back.”

“I see. What’s your name?”

“Stanley Malcolm.”

“Would you mind if I called you Splinter for short?”

“I certainly should,” cried Stanley.

“All right; I won’t, then. My name is Thomas, Bub Thomas, and the men at the mills will call you Reddy, or Rusty, as sure as you are born. Your hair is a reddish brown, you know.”

“My hair is my own and as for your men at the mills they’ll have no chance to make sport of me.”

“Dear! dear! how proper we be. Now, don’t git mad; it uses up your nerve force. Let’s git down to business. You want a job?”

“Certainly,” moodily replied Stanley. “But I can see there is no chance for me up here. I’ll go back to Errol and try to earn my way to Boston. I was a fool to have left the city.”

“Don’t git faint hearted. It’s because you want some grub. We’ll have that mighty soon. Thank the Lawd one can eat up here without paying, if it is simply a case of tough luck. As to work, you don’t know but what a job is waiting for you this minute.”

“I tried for work down below here at a big mill, but was not successful,” said Stanley dispiritedly.

“I see; called into the paper mill, eh? Queer you couldn’t fit in; they usually need a boy.”

“A boy! I am sixteen, if you please,” corrected Stanley.

Bub eyed him humorously. “So am I,” he informed, “but we rank as younkers up here. Say, if you git something to eat won’t it sort of soften that fiery temper of yours? Tempery, peppery people don’t git on very well up here: Shouldn’t think they would in the city.”

“I suppose not,” wearily conceded Stanley; “but this is all new to me and I’ve had a tough time this last week.”

“Well, well,” soothed Bub, studying his companion with new interest; “let’s cheer up. Your Uncle Thomas is going to take you in hand. But it’s mighty queer about the paper mill. Did you git huffy? Did you talk high-falutin with the boss?”

“I talked with no one,” replied Stanley coldly.

Bub’s eyes opened very wide, and he halted and faced the other in amazement. “Let’s git this straight. How did you know you couldn’t git a job if you didn’t ask for one?”

“I looked in the doors and saw that all the men were loafing. I knew there would be no work for me when the help had nothing to do. Even the big wheels in the engine room were idle.”

Bub’s facial expression first alarmed and then angered Stanley. For beginning with a strained, swollen look that puffed out the cheeks and made the dark eyes to fill with tears, it finally exploded in a shriek of laughter. “O my poor child! If you only knew how green you are! I shall never live to git to the mills. Men and wheels idle! Ha! ha! ha!”

“Your way lays up the road; I’ll return to Errol,” gritted Stanley, wheeling about.

“But don’t you see!” cried Bub, wiping his eyes and striving to sober his expression. “The—the men in a paper mill are always loafing when things go right. When you see ’em hustling and bustling about you can bet the company is losing money, ’cause something has gone wrong. But when they loll back and take it easy everything is going all hunkey dory. And—and you thought—ha! ha! There! I’ll laff no more. And the wheels were still! Ha! ha! ha! Don’t, please don’t leave me. I’ll quit; honest I will, but if you only knew how funny it is. Wheels stopped. Ha! ha! ha!”

“What is there funny about idle engine wheels?” demanded Stanley, now thoroughly irritated.

“They—they was using water power and saving seventy-five dollars a day,” feebly explained Bub. “If they could have water power the year ’round it would be a gold mine. Later, when the streams narrow up, they’ll have to use them wheels you saw idle and it’ll cost them seventy—five dollars for each day. Now, Stan, we’re friends again. You know I’m going to like you awfully; for if you’re green up here you know I’d be green in the city.”

“Yes, that’s probably so,” agreed Stanley, now mollified. “Most people are a bit green on their first trip to town. I was brought up there.”

“And what did you do?”

“Er—why, I haven’t done much of anything.” And Stanley’s voice and bearing were confused, Bub shrewdly observed.

“Hm,” muttered Bub; “never met a feller before but what could do something.”

“I’ve been to school and believe there are many things I could do if I had a chance to learn,” continued Stanley, earnestly.

“I see,” dryly commented Bub. “Well, we’ll have a talk with Mr. Hatton. That is, I’ll tell him you want a job. He’ll say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and that will end it.”

For about half a mile the two walked along in silence, Bub often stealing a compassionate glance at his foot-sore companion. The wind soughing through the pines came pleasantly to his ears, pricked through now and then with the tuneful call of a blue bird; but Stanley, with knit brows heeded nothing beyond the rough road before him.

“Here’s the mills,” finally announced Bub.

Stanley halted and raised his eyes. Before him was a collection of long buildings and small mountains of sawdust, while the soft spring breeze brought to his nostrils the aroma of the lumber.

“Them two over there are the sawmills. Next is the pulp mill, the brick one, and across the way are the three boarding houses and the company’s store and offices,” explained Bub, a proud note in his voice as he remembered he was a part of the busy industry.

“What’s the name of the company?” idly asked Stanley.

“Great Scott! but you are a cool one,” admired Bub. “Here you’ve come way up here to git a job, have given your last doller to Frenchy, and you don’t even know the name of the Great Northern Lumber and Paper company.”

“I’ve heard the name several times,” puzzled Stanley, frowning as he attempted to recall when and where.

“You have!” jeered Bub. “That’s mighty nice of you. Why, don’t you know we are the biggest thing in the lumber and paper game and that we cut, all told, more’n four hundred million a year?”

“Of what?” innocently inquired Stanley.

“Stan, you’re a wonder!” gasped Bub, throwing up his hands in dismay. “Millions of feet of lumber, greeny. That first mill over there eats four hundred cords of spruce a day. That’s some eating, ain’t it? And if it ain’t fed to the top-notch you’ll hear something drop. Then we own the paper mill down where you tried to git work. Ha! ha!”

“Who is ‘we’? Are you a part of the company?” sneered Stanley, resenting the other’s reference.

“Sure,” stoutly replied Bub. “The company would have to close up shop if I wasn’t here to help old Abner Whitten on his trips.”

“And I suppose that that tramp coming along the road, the one who looks more unfortunate than I, also is one of the company,” ironically remarked Stanley, pointing to the slouching figure of a man.

Bub’s eyes danced gleefully. “That is Wilson, our buyer. The company pays him ten thousand dollars a year. He knows the lumber game and the timber lands of New England and Canada as no other man knows it. Stanley, remember this; clothes don’t cut much of a figure up here. The only thing that counts is results. If you deliver the lumber you git the money and a dude isn’t worth forty cents a week.”

Stanley did not reply; he was humbled. For the first time he realized how utterly unlikely he was to fit in with this environment. Even French Louey was of more value than he. And as he pondered on this bitter truth his heart sank and a feeling of homesickness flooded his soul and the tears trembled in his eyes.

But Bub saw his emotion and his generous spirit urged him to find some diversion, something to distract his companion’s thoughts. Nearby, leaning against a pile of fresh spruce bolts, was a swarthy complexioned man, whose hair grew coarse, black and long. It was Big Nick, the half-breed, who had lost his license as a guide for poaching. He had been discovered trapping beaver out of season and for this summer at least he could not hire out to any party at three dollars a day. He had blamed the lumber company, believing Hatton had set the game wardens on his trail. He had come down to the settlement to interview the manager and ask him to have the license restored; for Hatton was a power in that section and the half-breed believed he had ample power to reverse the action of the officials. Hatton had refused to see him and he was in no frame of mind for jest.

But Bub in his desire to arouse his companion did not hesitate to make use of Nick, and in a tantalizing treble sang out,

“Beaver, beaver, taking a nap,
Big Nick caught him in a trap,
Then came—”

But before the crude taunt could be completed the half-breed was galvanized into action, and with a guttural oath leaped towards the boy, with one bronzed fist drawn back for a smashing blow.

Bub’s face blanched and he jumped aside, tripped and fell. Instantly the infuriated guide was over him, one foot raised to stamp down into the upturned, terrified face.

Then the guide shot backward, and Stanley, who had stood as if petrified, beheld Wilson, the buyer, standing over the fallen boy.

“Want any more?” he muttered.

The guide crawled to his feet, one hand stealing to his belt.

“Drop it! Touch that knife and I’ll shoot you,” warned Wilson in a low, metallic voice.

Without a word Big Nick faced about and hurried away. Then Wilson caught Bub by the collar, not only to lift him to his feet, but also to thoroughly shake him. “You young pup!” he upbraided. “What do you mean by trying to cut up with that Injun? Don’t you know he’s poison and would kill you as quickly as he would a mink? If you keep on with your smart Alec tricks you’ll stop growing quick some of these days.”

“I thank you very much, Mister Wilson,” humbly returned Bub.

“You’d better, but that doesn’t fill the bill. That Injun is now doubly sore on the company. If ever he gits you in the woods he’ll even up what he believes he owes you. But that ain’t the worst.” And the buyer dropped his chin and ruminated gloomily.

“Why, what worse can he do?” whispered Bub, his voice trembling as he fancied a meeting with Big Nick in the woods, where each man was a law unto himself.

“He’ll make a campaign against the company. He’ll start fires,” growled Wilson. “You young pup, it would almost be better if I’d let him smashed you. Now, get back where you belong.”

As Bub led the way to the small office he was much crestfallen. His step lagged and the light faded from his gaze.

“I’m sticking by you, Bub. Where you go I’ll go, and perhaps the two of us will be enough for the Indian,” murmured Stanley.

“You’re a good sort and we’re going to hitch up fine,” ruefully replied Bub. “And let this be a lesson to you, young man; it’s possible for a feller to be green even after he thinks he knows the ways of the woods and mills. What a greeny I was!”