The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 4

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Despite his promise to Bub, Stanley had but a hazy idea how he was to overcome Abner’s opposition and participate in the trip north. When he went to sleep he had only planned to steal away and follow the party till they got far on their way and then boldly join them. When he awoke in the morning he remembered that much of the trip would be made by water and he realized there would be hardly a possibility of his crossing Umbagog lake, following Rapid river, conquering the long stretches of Molechunkamunk and Mooselucmaguntic lakes in the Rangeley chain and arriving at the mouth of the Kennebago river in time to keep abreast of the cruisers. Too proud to confess defeat to the still sleeping Bub, he quietly rose and stole down stairs.

He had begun with the loading gang with much elation; now he loathed it all. But how to win Abner’s consent? Long and hard he weighed this problem, his gaze vacantly fixed on the North. The woods and waters up there seemed to call him in every murmur of the scattered pines near the edge of the settlement. He had yet to learn that these solitary monarchs were left undisturbed because they were already doomed by “red rot,” or cancer, and were unfit for lumber. He only knew the gentle song sung by their boughs was pleading with him to penetrate the fastness of the big woods and seldom-visited streams and lakes.

“If I only knew a little of what Bub knows,” he regretted. This in itself was a goodly sign, for by temperament Stanley was inclined to be overbearing.

Then the bell summoned him to breakfast. He ate scarcely anything, but did not know that Abner had observed his lack of appetite and had applauded it. Nor did he attempt to engage the cruiser in conversation, being now convinced that all entreaty would be useless. As a result he entered upon his dreary task sore at heart and oblivious of all about him.

“Say, Rusty,” broke in White, the boss, “could you find it convenient to wake up and do as told?”

“I beg pardon, Mr. White, I fear my poor wits were wool-gathering,” confessed Stanley.

“All right; you’re honest, anyway,” chuckled White. “Run down to the mill and ask McPherson if I’m to keep on with the lumber. And, say, don’t run, walk. Take your time.” The last was occasioned by the tired look about the youth’s eyes. The boss interpreted his haggard expression as being the result of physical exhaustion.

Stanley bowed and hastened to the mill. As he entered he was sorry to see Abner and Bub talking with Hatton. The sight of his room-mate recalled to his mind what he must miss, and for the moment he was selfish enough to envy the happy faced fellow. Then, ashamed of this selfish emotion, he turned to leave and, was only restrained by a glimpse of McPherson coming towards him, walking through a storm of sawdust.

As he waited, his eyes always returning to the bowed form of Abner, the latter backed away from Hatton, and catching his heel on the end of a board started to fall backward. Before he realized his own action, Stanley had leaped forward and had hurled the cruiser violently forward, causing him to bump into Hatton.

“What in sin—” Abner began to protest, when he stopped, his wrinkled face turning white.

He pointed a trembling hand at a small saw, revolving silently, and Hatton nodded his head to show that he understood. If it had not been for Stanley he would have fallen upon this and death must have been the result. Bub, quick of eye, pointed to Stanley’s sleeve, where the sharp teeth had slit the cloth like a razor. Actuated by one impulse the group moved for the door, where Stanley delivered his message to McPherson.

As he was about to return to his work Abner stayed his steps, saying, “Why ain’t ye gittin’ ready to start with us? We won’t wait a second for ye; not by a long chalk.”

“Do you mean I can go?” asked Stanley, hardly believing his senses.

“No, he does not,” quickly broke in Hatton. “He feels obliged to you for pushing him off the saw. That’s natural. But anyone would have done the same. Hardly a day goes by but what some man lends a hand to prevent injury to another. That’s all in a day’s work. But you can’t make the wood trip. Go back to your work.”

“If ye could only see it plain to let him come,” pleaded Abner.

“No, sirreel There’s too much at stake to risk a misfire just to please a homeless boy. He obtained work in the kitchen and got into a fight. McPherson interceded and I allowed him to stay. Now he wants to jump that job, it seems. By the time you struck Kennebago stream he would be wanting to return.”

“I’d never want to turn back,” cried Stanley. “I’d die first.”

“Which would inconvenience Whitten. Return to the gang, or get your time,” coldly directed Hatton.

Stanley’s eyes filled and his heart seemed as if it would burst. Then he wheeled and walked back to the manager, his face strained and his eyes feverish. “If I can give you one practical idea which you will adopt, will you let me make the cruise?” he asked in a hoarse voice.

Hatton’s first impulse was to repulse him harshly; but he changed his mind and in a sneering tone replied, “If you can give any idea that I will adopt you may make the trip. If you don’t give me such an idea you take your time and hunt a new job. I can’t afford to have young men around of your importance. You must make good your bluff, or clear out. What is this wonderful idea of yours?”

“Ever since Bub pitched into me last night for not using my eyes and brains, even in loading pulp and lumber, I’ve been thinking and thinking; so if the idea is any good a part of the credit is due to him—”

“Leave out all this explanation. What is the idea?” barked Hatton.

“It’s this,” desperately replied Stanley; “pipe the pulp to the paper mill instead of pressing it out in squares and sending it by cars.”

Hatton stood rigid, his eyes blazing and boring into Stanley’s flushed face.

“It struck me as practical,” cried Stanley, believing his last chance to be gone, including an opportunity of earning a bed and board. “They sluice logs from Peppercorn to Richardson lake. Even a six feet drop, the men tell me, is sufficient in a mile sluiceway. It’s a sharp grade to the paper mills below. You’d only have to be careful that there were no pockets for the pulp to settle in and harden. It seemed to me that it would be considerably cheaper than hiring men to press and load and transport and unload the pulp.”

“When did you think of that scheme?” asked Hatton in a low voice, never removing his searching gaze.

“This morning, while waiting for the seven o’clock whistle. I was hating the work, to be honest, and wondering how it could be done away with,” mumbled Stanley, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.

“And that is your idea?” continued Hatton in the same voice.

“Yes; I know it isn’t much. It seemed a good one when I first thought of it,” surrendered Stanley. “But I can see now that if it were any good a man of your experience would have thought of it. So, I’ll get my time and quit. Good-by, Bub.” And he turned aside as he extended his hand; for he had grown to love Bub without knowing it, and he feared that tears would fill his eyes and cause him to appear unmanly.

“McPherson,” called Hatton loudly. “Put another man on the loading gang in place of Reddy. He’s going north on the cruise. And, McPherson, send the surveyor up to the office and get me figures on a couple of miles of sewer pipe. Hope you have a good trip, Whitten. Don’t come back unless you win out.”

Neither of the astounded trio could believe his ears. Hatton had nearly gained his office before a word was said, and then Abner yelled, “Wal, I vum!”

“Why, Stan, it means you’re going!” fairly screamed Bub, as the true situation finally filtered through his head.

“Are you sure?” gasped Stanley.

“Of course he’s sure, ye young inventor,” heartily assured Abner. “Pipe line for pulp. Pulp pipe line. Who’d a thought it? And all out of his own head! And the boss never thought of it. Bet he gits a letter of thanks and a raise in pay for his ‘idea.’ Wal, wal, wal.”

“Stanley, I take it all back,” said Bub in an awed voice. “To think of your going to work and thinking that out all alone. What I told you someone had told me, but you make an entirely new thought.”

“I never would have thought of it if you hadn’t dinged into me so and if Abner hadn’t refused to take me along,” reminded the happy youth.

“Stop talking and git ready. The gas boat is waiting at the landing,” commanded Abner, once again assuming the role of timber cruiser.

The delighted youths sprinted to the boarding house where Bub’s slender outfit was ready to be strapped on his back.

“I’ve got some extra blankets,” bubbled Bub. “That’s all you need till we strike the Kennebago wangan. There you’ll be outfitted like the rest of us. This is going to be a very lively trip, my son.”

“It can’t be too lively for me,” joyously proclaimed Stanley.

“It can for me,” soberly declared Bub. “I’ve been in the woods lots of times, and when you git way in things seem different. I shouldn’t be surprised if you had some of the starch taken out of your courage before you see the mills again.”

“Pooh, pooh,” belittled Stanley. “We’re four and need not be afraid of anything. I say, Abner, why do we carry so many rifles? I thought game was protected at this time of year.”

“Some critters are never protected by game laws,” grimly replied Abner.

“Bears and panthers?” hazarded Stanley.

“The bears won’t hurt us, I guess. And what ye call panther is at the worst the Canadian lynx, that only fights men when cornered. But there is other critters I won’t mention and hope we won’t meet. Here comes Noisy Charlie, on time to a second as usual.”

This was the guide, an Indian. He had been nicknamed “Noisy” because it was seldom one heard him speak. The lumber men thought it a good jest to represent him to strangers as being loquacious.

“This young man goes with us, Charlie,” informed Abner as the Indian took the lead, walking with long strides.

A guttural sound was the only acknowledgment Charlie made. The others seemed infected by his silence and hardly a word was spoken till the wharf was reached. Then Abner gave sharp commands and the motor boat was headed for Rapid river.

But youth will have its way and before the little craft had chugged a mile on its course Stanley and Bub were evidencing their high spirits by a rapid fire of questions and jokes. Even Abner melted a bit beneath their sallies, while Charlie expanded his nostrils and stared dreamily at the hill covered shores.

“Why do you start so early on a cruise?” asked Stanley, now hungry for information.

“Leaves ain’t out and we can see better,” mumbled Abner.

“I’ve been out on the crust. That’s lots of fun,” cried Bub.

“Crust no good,” muttered Charlie. “Deer hear; no shoot.”

“Eating’s more necessary than good walking,” agreed Abner, smacking his thin lips at the mention of venison.

In a short time Rapid river was reached. Here the boat was abandoned. A three mile tramp brought the party to a second motor boat belonging to the company. This boat made the entire trip through the great lakes to the mouth of the Kennebago, where the four landed and struck into a tote road.

“I thought we were to make the trip by canoe,” remarked Stanley, beginning to feel a bit disappointed.

“Think canoes grow on bushes?” quietly asked Abner. “Ain’t gitting sick of the job so quick, be ye?”

“O no, indeed,” hastily replied Stanley.

“We’ll walk about a mile and then we’ll strike the wangan and our eighteen foot canoe,” whispered Bub. “Want to go on ahead? I’ll show you a good trick. Can I show Stanley my crow trick?” The last to Abner.

“Wal, I don’t know as we’ll have time,” Abner was beginning to refuse when Charlie grunted, “Good trick. Make fool of crow.”

“Go ahead, but don’t git lost,” warned Abner.

Bub sprang ahead, closely followed by Stanley. Making a sharp detour to the left he forced his way some distance through the rank growth till he came to the edge of a bog, or swamp. Here he stationed Stanley in some bushes, and warning him to keep perfectly quiet, took up a position at the foot of a scraggly pine. First he drew his coat collar up over his head and thrust his hands into his pockets. Then he began making a choking sound, a most alarming noise to Stanley. Almost as soon as Bub began his vocal efforts a crow cawed excitedly from the other side of the swamp. The cry was taken up and repeated from all points of the compass, and to Stanley’s great amazement a score of black winged investigators swept into the small clearing. Stanley rubbed his eyes in wonderment to see the crows circle about the bowed figure and then fiercely assail it. More came, and more, until the air was black with them. Stanley estimated that fully two hundred were buffeting and pecking at Bub’s silent form. And the choking sound continued. The crows now seemed like demons, red of eye and bristling of feather. Their harsh, discordant voices seemed fairly to scream as they renewed their attacks.

Then Stanley received his second surprise. Bub beat a hand against his leg and hooted like an owl. Instantly every crow turned in flight and faded from view like so many black shadows.

“But what does it all mean?” begged Stanley, as Bub proudly arranged his collar and left the tree.

“The choking sound was a young crow being choked to death,” he explained. “The minute a crow heard it he gave the signal and the warning was cawed from crow to crow. ‘Come-and-bring-help,’ was what the first feller said. The next came on the jump, sending back word over his shoulder. If I’d kept on I’d had every crow in the plantation here.”

“But why did they leave?” puzzled Stanley.

“Why, when I slapped my leg they thought it was the flap of a wing. Then I hooted like an owl and they felt sure Mister Owl was in their midst. Funny thing, a crow is mighty curious and smart, but they are easily fooled. They know when a man has a gun and all that. But they ain’t learned that owls hunt at night. Queer, eh?”

“What’s that?” whispered Stanley, nervously clutching his companion’s arm and pointing into the underbrush. “I saw something move.”

For an answer Bub picked up a stick and threw it into the thicket. Then he dashed forward, only to soon return carrying in his arms a stupid looking fowl, dark of body and barred with darker colors.

“It’s a booby,” he explained, holding the bird out at arm’s length and surveying it critically. “It’s a wonder he ever grows up. He won’t run when you throw things at him. He’s simply stupid. That’s why they call him booby. He’s really a Canadian grouse. Up here they’re called spruce partridge. They’re good to eat, but taste a little strong. Go it!” And he tossed the bird from him. With a low squawk it ambled leisurely into the bushes.

“This life is great,” cried Stanley, enthusiastically, throwing back his shoulders and breathing deep and long.

“We haven’t started yet,” smiled Bub. “It’s been easy going so far; but wait. My, but it’s getting late. We must hurry.”

“There is nothing to hurt us, is there?” asked Stanley, quickening his pace.

“N-o,” replied Bub, “but there are easier things than tote roads to follow, once the sun gits down. And when it’s dark up here, it’s real dark; none of your village darkness, but so black you can’t cut it with a knife.”

“Here’s the road,” cried Stanley, his voice much relieved.

“But not our road,” corrected Bub. “That was made last year. It leads in where we came from. This is ours dead ahead. See how it’s filling up with alders and willers and shad-bushes.”

“You’ve been over it before,” observed Stanley.

“No,” said Bub, “My first trip.”

“How do you know it then?”

“I know we should go north and that this is the old tote road. One on the other side just like it. Leads up to the lake. The bushes don’t fool me ’cause I can see the old timbers left from the first swamping. Now we come to a bit of corduroy road—or poles laid across.”

“Kind of tough walking,” muttered Stanley, as a limb sprang back and left a livid welt across his forehead.

“O this ain’t bad,” encouraged Bub. “See, here’s where Abner and Charlie went through and Abner got into the muck. See, here’s where he slipped off the ends of the poles. Some bad places in here, too. A little later we might find some snakes.”

“Don’t regret their absence on my account,” shuddered Stanley. “It’s getting cold.”

“The nights are pretty cold up here way into June or July,” comforted Bub. “Push on faster. When the sun goes behind that mountain it’s going to be some dark in this neighborhood.”

Even as he spoke the shadows began to filter through the swamp and in what seemed to Stanley to be an exceedingly short space of time Bub ahead was but a blur.

“Don’t hustle so,” cried Stanley. “I’m not used to this work. Guess I’ve lost both of my eyes.”

“Hold your head down,” warned Bub, pausing.

“What if we get lost?” asked Stanley in a hushed voice.

“Camp and build two fires near together. Two smokes means ‘lost’ to Abner and me. I’m glad you spoke of it,” said Bub.

The next few rods were covered in silence, and as the two came to a rest Stanley leaped frantically into the air, crying out in inarticulate horror, as a loud “Wish-h-h” hissed at his heels.

“What—what was it?” he half sobbed, crowding close to Bub.

That young gentleman laughed until too weak to laugh longer. Then he pounded Stanley on the back until the latter threatened to get angry.

“O Stanley, Stanley! You’ll finish me yet. I never knew you were a record breaker on jumping. What did you think that was?”

“It sounded like a cat spitting, only more dangerous,” sullenly replied Stanley.

“It was a little brown thrasher. She use to scare me before I knew. Really, old feller, if you could have seen—Ha! ha!”

“Quit it! Let’s be moving,” grumbled Stanley.

This admonition was timely, as the shadows now were very thick and the crude traces of the tote road were rapidly being blotted from the view of even the keen-eyed Bub.

“I think we are about there,” Bub was saying, when right beside them the night was made hideous with notes of wrath. The uproar consisted of snarling and growling, ranging from a bass to a shrill key, and each note a menace.

Even Bub lost his composure and with a frightened ejaculation jumped ahead. Stanley kept at his heels, his heart beating wildly.

“Sprint!” hoarsely directed Bub, as they reached a clear space and beheld the light of the wangan twinkling ahead.

“What was it?” cried Stanley, his breath coming in great lumps.

“Slow down; here’s the men,” panted Bub.

“What you two running for?” demanded Abner as he came up to the exhausted youths.

“Only a little race,” replied Bub, speaking with difficulty.

“White face,” said Noisy Charlie as they entered into the rays of the kerosene lamp.

“I vum! but ye look as if ye’d seen a ghost. What was it?” asked Abner.

“O nothing,” mumbled Stanley.

“Be ye goin’ to speak out, or not?” bellowed Abner, striding toward them.

“It was a couple of lucerfees,” confessed Bub.

“And they were right at our heels,” added Stanley.

Abner reached for his rifle, but Noisy Charlie stayed him by asking, “Make sound like this?” And the youths jumped convulsively from the open doorway and wheeled about with their eyes filled with horror. But Charlie was the author of the alarm.

“It was just like that,” said Bub.

“Two foxes fighting,” said Charlie, his lips twitching for a second. “Face red now.” Stanley and Bub retired to the shadows.