The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER NINE

BIG NICK PAYS HIS COMPLIMENTS


The camp was pitched that night at the foot of Mt. Jim, the leanto being put up as before.When Stanley was informed that Kennebago lake was eighteen hundred feet above sea level and the ponds now about them were more than two thousand feet he began to understand why the nights were cold and a fire was necessary.

Abner’s preliminary preparations for cruising the east cant of the mountain, or the Dead river watershed, puzzled while interesting Stanley. With the early morning sun the old man produced somewhere from his big knapsack a pair of powerful field glasses and spent some minutes in studying the dark heights above him.

Fascinated, yet diffident, Stanley stood at his elbow, his lips repeatedly framing unspoken questions.

At last Abner lowered his glasses and demanded, “Wal, why don’t ye do it?”

“Do what?” stammered Stanley.

“Ask some fool questions,” replied Abner, his eyes reflecting his good humor.

“I will,” said Stanley. “What are you looking for, bears?”

“Not being out for bears I’m not looking fer ’em,” replied Abner. “But I’ll add that bear hunters often use glasses when they want one of the varmints. The first to do it was laughed at by the o1d hunters, but soon the veterans found it was a great saving of time to sweep the ridges of a mountain with a good glass before climbing up its sides in search of bruin. But I was trying to pick out the ridge we will follow. I guess I’ve got it now.”

Bub already had prepared the breakfast and after this was eaten he packed up a parcel of food and strapped his blankets.

“Shall we stay all night on the mountain?” inquired Stanley.

“We’ll go prepared to,” said Abner. “It’ll be easier than coming back here. I sha’n’t put in much time on this cant, just waiting for Charlie to overtake us. Now if we’re ready we’ll start.” And picking up his rifle he led the way towards the mountain.

To Stanley he seemed to proceed with no purpose, winding in and out, turning first to the left and then to the right. But had the youth been stationed in one of the seventy-foot spruces now beginning to line their course he would have observed that the woodsman always turned back towards a certain point and that his detours were made to avoid embarrassing obstacles, such as ledges and windfalls.

Abner paused and pointed to one of the latter and remarked, “That’s the trap that catches the green hunter. See how the wind some time has torn through here, laying the trees flat like nine pins. The swath is a clean cut one, ye’ll notice, and the boughs and trunks make a pretty high fence. When ye try to climb over it ye’ll find it mighty rough going. Then comes the green hunter and makes the attempt. His rifle he drags behind him, a limb catches the trigger. Bang! and he’s shot and sinks down between the trunks and boughs and a searching party may crawl oyer him, or pass within ten feet of him, and never suspect where his body lies. He’s simply marked as disappearing.”

On reaching the mountain proper Stanley turned to look down the course they had ascended thus far. To his surprise he could not observe any particular ascent. There was nothing to show they had climbed a foot, and yet he was muscle-sore from ever plunging upward.

“We are just about to start in,” dryly informed Abner, catching and reading the youth’s surprised expression. “That’s why it’s easy for a man new to the woods to git lost. Every time he turns around he finds the scenery has shifted. When ye start out in the woods always take notice of yer general direction, and first look behind ye and mark the hills and mountains. Of course ye should carry a map such as the government survey turns out. Then, if the country is new to ye, ye should occasionally climb a tree and look back as well as ahead. Each time ye do it the back trails seem changed. A humped back mountain becomes round and the next time it may look square, according to yer angle. But it’s always yer mountain if ye don’t let it git away from ye. See that sharp pointed feller over there? It’s about six miles. Could ye make it to-day if there wasn’t any unusual obstacles in the way?”

“Certainly,” replied Stanley. “I would only have to keep this mountain at my back and my eyes fixed on the one in front.”

Abner chuckled. “The chances are ye would wind up on Round mountain. For after ye’d gone a half a mile the mountain behind ye, or this one would look entirely different and over its shoulder ye’d see another mountain and then When ye’d face to the front ye’d find someone had sneaked in more mountains, and if ye didn’t pay attention to the sun and got to turning round ye’d soon find a dozen mountains to choose from—and ye’d always choose the wrong one.”

“But not if you had one of the maps you spoke of,” reminded Stanley, smiling confidently.

“The map is good as far as it goes,” warned Abner, “but it’s drawn on a big scale. Say ye had one of the Rangeleys and started from Umbagog, intending to skirt Moose mountain and strike Upper Dam. Then, say ye veered off to the northwest a few miles and got off the map. Ye wouldn’t know where ye was. Ye might blunder ’round a couple of days trying to git back onto the map. Now, give me the hatchet, Bub.”

Bub, who had been an amused listener to this dialogue, passed over the small tool and Stanley was interested to note that Abner was making a back-blaze as they ascended a ridge.

After the veteran had chipped some half a dozen trees in passing the youth could not restrain himself from inquiring, “Do we follow this ridge to the top?”

“I was waiting for that,” chuckled Abner, blazing another tree. “No, not to the top, but as far as we go. Now, ask again.”

“Well, I did want to know why you do it, seeing how plain the way is. All you have to do is to keep the black growth in front of you. On each side it is light and one would have to be a blind man to leave the ridge. It would be like quitting the peak of a roof. Couldn’t you find your way up without the blaze?”

“Land of sin,” cried Abner, “I’d hoped better of ye. Can’t ye see I am making a back blaze? No one coming up the mountain can see these signs. They’re to be used when we come down, if we want to come this way.”

“But if you make a blaze at the stopping point and find that point when you want to return all you’ve got to do is to descend,” insisted Stanley, believing he must be right.

Abner sighed in despair. “Ever come down a strange mountain covered with timber?” he asked.

Stanley replied in the negative and the cruiser continued, “Then never try it unless ye’ve back-blazed; that is, don’t try it unless ye’ve got lots of time to spare and grub to eat. For when ye start to come down ye’ve got an entirely different mountain. Instead of having it open on the sides and the black growth or ledges ahead, to show the slope of the ridge, you have it all open in front and on the sides and ye only know ye are going down. And ye’d prob’ly find yerself on the other side of the mountain when ye reached the foot. Look behind ye and tell me where we come from?”

Stanley did as directed and confidently pointed in the wrong direction. It was difficult for Bub to make him believe he was mistaken.

While Bub was climbing a tree Abner volunteered the information that the townships in this particular range were designated by letters or figures or names. “This is Jim, town 3, Range 1,” he said. “Hi, Bub, what do ye see?”

“There’s an old burn down to the northeast, just a sea of grey birch and poplar.”

“That’s right,” mused Abner, studying the map. “Come down and we’ll see if we can’t start in here.”

In what seemed to Stanley to be an exceedingly short space of time Bub gave a whoop and Abner in joining him, explained over his shoulder, “He’s found the monument.”

This boundary marking Stanley learned was a cedar post, surrounded by small rocks, while in a thirty foot circle the trees had been blazed.

“The section line runs north and we should find a cedar post every one-fourth mile,” said Bub, as Abner plunged into the tangle. “Each post is blazed, of course and it is easy work making the trip around the second, outside the work of walking.”

“It’s easy work when the line is marked as it was run,” grumbled Abner. “But if the posts have been shifted, or the monuments destroyed ye sometimes find yerself in court with a lawsuit going ag’in ye.”

But no such drawback was encountered on this cant and after a weary tramp Abner said he was prepared to “make stands.”

“Make stands,” muttered Stanley, casting his eyes about. “Where are your tools? And what would you do with the stands after you’ve made them?”

“You’re the only one of your kind, Stan,” screamed Bub, dropping on a lichen-covered rock the better to indulge in mirth.

“But that’s what he said,” remonstrated Stanley, gazing after Abner, who was striding away with long methodical steps.

“Let’s follow him and see how his carpenter work progresses,” snickered Bub, rising.

Stanley, still puzzled, willingly fell in behind Bub and soon came up with Abner, who stood with head uplifted and slowly revolving on his heel.

He gave no sign of seeing the youths, but muttering to himself started away at a hurried pace, only to slow down to the long mechanical stride. Then again did he look over their heads and moving his lips begin to slowly turn about as he had before.

“Bub,” whispered Stanley, “this is becoming serious. Is he crazy, or is he looking for timber to make into stands?”

Bub’s eyes were watery and he placed a finger on his lips to impose silence. Abner shot one frowning glance at the boy’s mischievous face and shaking his head and grumbling led on into the forest. For some half a dozen times he went through his peculiar movements and each time did Stanley find his curiosity increasing as well as his fears.

Finally Abner returned to the starting point and peeling a piece of bark from a birch began figuring rapidly.

Finishing he raised his head and pursed his lips in satisfaction. “It will average five thousand to a stand right here. The first fifty trees will figger that easy,” he informed. “Down below in the big stuff it will go better. It’s safe to say there’s six million in the section.”

“Will you reckon in all the six-inch stuff?” asked Bub, casting a critical eye about.

“We’ll have to, but on the other side we’ll take nothing under ten or eleven inches.”

“All of which is Greek to me,” broke in Stanley. “I know you mean you’ll take everything down to a six-inch diameter here, but why here and not on the west cant?”

“That’s the most intelligent question ye’ve asked in an hour,” encouraged Abner. “We’ll take it down to six inches here because it isn’t firmly rooted and in case of fire it’s poorly protected. Take it on the other cant, that'll go down Kennebago stream, and a fire wouldn’t have so much of a chance. Then again, the timber over there is in good ground and is firmly rooted. Over here we’ll snake out everything that will go into pulp. In thirty years from now the west cant will be good cutting again; this won’t be. Shows the difference between careful and wasteful lumbering.”

“And how about the next section?” eagerly inquired Bub.

“It won’t go more’n three million if it does that,” regretted Abner. “I’ll say that, and I haven’t made a single stand there yet. I won’t tackle it now, but when I do it’ll take a day or two more’n this did and it’ll run under three million. We’ll find a lot of ledge and a sheer drop into a hog.”

Stanley pressed his lips firmly, as he screwed up his courage and then said, “Mr. Whitten, are you now ready to tell me about these stands?”

Bub exploded and Abner even was forced to admire, “I’ll say this fer ye, ye’re like a bull pup when it comes to hanging on. I was wondering if I’d sidetracked ye. Wal, when I paced off some seventy-five feet in a straight line and stopped and swung my eye ’round in a circle, the same having the distance paced as the radius, I was counting the sizeable trees in that circle. I was making a stand. I was gitting an idea how the timber ran. I took a sparsely growing lot and then a thick growth. Sometimes, if it runs even, five or six stands will tell the story. But if I had time I’d make five times that many on this piece, it being uneven. Of course you divided the total estimate by the number of stands, remember yer acreage and there ye have yer section. I’ve seen men that could estimate a section down to a foot of timber—that is, almost.” And Abner chuckled softly over Stanley’s wonderment.

“He’s trying to have some fun with you,” whispered Bub.

“I’m glad of it,” smiled Stanley. “I’m sure I’ve bothered him enough.”

“That is all past now,” warmly declared Bub. “You’re breaking in fine. The bear and the fire told rather against you, but it might have happened to any fellow. I’m positive that for the rest of the jaunt you’ll be more help than you are bother.”

“Thank you,” murmured Stanley, a bit downcast. “But I didn’t know I had been so much of a bother outside of one or two mistakes. I’ve certainly kept up with you and you’ve lost no time on account of me.”

Bub eyed him doubtfully; then frankly said, “I guess you can stand the truth, Stan. If we hadn’t been holding back for Noisy Charlie you’d been a brake on us. Why, my son, if Abner and I were in a hurry to get anywhere how long do you suppose you could keep up with us? Abner is past middle age by quite a lot, but he can walk a moose to death. You’ve picked up weight and hardened your muscles; on the loading gang you probably could give me a tight rub. But when it comes to cruising you’ve simply got to learn it, my son. And we’d leave you so far behind you’d think you started out alone. Fortunately we are not in a hurry.”

“Is it possible, Bub?” cried Stanley, his eyes wide open.

“It is,” solemnly assured Bub. “When we start off just watch how Abner seems to take it easy but still gets over the ground, favoring himself at every step and never wasting a step. Don’t watch me, watch him. I’m more wasteful of my strength. Don’t you know that you often have to trot a few steps to get up with us?”

“Yes, that is so,” slowly admitted Stanley. “I’d not thought of it before, but I remember now you two were always just a bit ahead. I’ll watch Abner and profit by it.”

The object of the last remark now called them to join him, announcing it was time to return. “We’ll go back to camp.” Then to Stanley, “It’ll give ye a chance to pick up our back trail and see how easy it is to go down the mountain the way ye come up.”

Stanley smiled good naturedly and cheerfully replied, “No, Mr. Whitten, it will allow me a chance to learn something that is best learned by experience.”

“Stop that mistering me,” grumbled Abner, yet much pleased with Stanley’s frank admission. “Mebbe we can teach ye something after all. Seems if he was improving, Bub.”

“He picks up every minute,” heartily cried Bub, glad to give his friend a boost. “Now for the homeward trail.”

Stanley happened to be the first to find the end of the blaze and as he gazed down the slope he was amazed. It did not seem possible that the white spots on the trees could indicate the path they made in ascending. Where was the ridge they had so easily traversed? Gone. Aside from the blazed trail there was nothing to indicate Where they should descend. What seemed to be a ridge led off at different places and split up into other ridges, any of which might be the right one so far as Stanley could determine. It was all open before them; in coming up they had had the black growth to aim at.

“It beats me,” he cried, rubbing his head in perplexity.

“Turn ’round and look back,” suggested Abner.

He did so. “Why, it’s our ridge; the way is perfectly plain,” he cried. And he wheeled quickly as if expecting to catch the ledge as obviously extending downward. Again it had vanished.

“It is so plain to ascend that you are not blazing the lower side of the trees,” he remarked, on noticing Abner’s hatchet thrust in his belt.

“That’s it,” confirmed Abner. “When we git to the bottom I’ll leave a mark to show me what ridge to take.”

“If you don’t cruise the next section you can’t cut it this fall,” said Stanley.

“Time enough to cut it in the next few years,” replied Abner. “If it wan’t fer fires and windfalls I’d let this go over several years. As it is we’ve got to begin gitting it out. If it wan’t that important I’d not bother with it on this trip.”

“It has only taken a day,” reminded Stanley.

“But I ain’t made my estimates on how much equipment we’ll need, or how many hosses and men we’ll need; or how much can be-cut without crowding the Kennebec mills too hard. A cruiser has to keep all those things in mind. What the boss wants to know first is, How big a camp is necessary?”

“This is the end of the trail, and here is the ledge I stood on when you told me to look across country,” proudly announced Stanley.

As Abner paused beside him, gazing out over the spruce and sprinkle of birch, Bub alarmed them by crying, “See, Abner! Look! The smoke!”

“Our camp fire,” said Stanley, not catching the import of Bub’s excitement.

Abner whipped out his glasses and gazed earnestly for a minute.

“You’re overlooking,” cried Bub, throwing forward his rifle. “Look right down below us. See that movement in the bushes? It’s Big Nick following our trail.”

Almost as he finished there came a whip-like report down below the ledge and Bub’s hair was fanned by the passing of a bullet.

“Shoot! shoot!” yelled Abner, as a figure of a man, bowed over as it made away, met their eyes. With one accord Bub and the cruiser threw up their rifles and pulled the trigger. But no cartridge exploded. Frantically working the levers the two tried again.

“Not a shot in either gun,” foamed Abner.

“Great Scott!” faltered Stanley. “I forgot to load them after cleaning them.”

Abner had no time for words. Throwing aside his rifle he sprang forward.

“He’s going to set a back fire,” cried Bub. “Nick has started his at the edge of the swamp, intending to burn up the mountain, not only destroying our timber but our lives. Git busy over by that boulder and start a blaze. For your life don’t let it eat up the mountain.”

It was now near sun-down and the wind fortunately had died out. From the swamp the frightened chorus of animal voices began to be heard, while rabbits, squirrels and several lynx dashed into view, the hunting instinct in the cats and the fear in the others all being lost in the greater fear of that terrible thing—fire.

As Stanley struck his match a noble buck swiftly passed near him, trying to circle the mountain and find water.

Thus the three men worked, trampling and beating out the tongues that sought to creep upward; and meanwhile the yellow cloud in front grew taller and was often punctuated with pillars of red.

“Look out for the ends!” roared Abner, as their efforts finally resulted in a racing streak of opposing flames that promised to rescue them from their pen.

This advice was timely. If the back fire was allowed to creep about the base of the mountain it would eat upward and end in raging at their backs.

Fortunately for them the swamp land in front was crescent in shape, its horns reaching almost to the ledges. The back fire quickly reached the half-breed’s conflagration and died down and the ends of the fiery menace were quickly subdued.

“Boys,” Abner panted; “ye’ve had a mighty narrer escape. If it comes nat’ral to ye to say prayers at night, ye’d better throw in a few thanks fer to-day. I’m going to fer one. But by jing! I’d had that Nick if I’d had a bullet. The sight was just between his shoulders.”

“Would you have killed him?” cried Stanley in a horrified voice.

“Would I have killed him?” roared Abner. Then speaking very daintily, “O no. I’d write a letter to the city and ask them to send up a policeman to arrest him for burning me up.” Then exploding again, “Why, younker, do ye s’pose there’s a man in the woods but what would shoot him down like a mad wolf if he caught him trying to burn up timber, let alone trying to burn up men?”

“Well, he failed and I’m glad you didn’t kill him,” said Stanley.

P164, The Young Timber-cruisers.jpg

Thus the three worked, trampling and beating

See page 163

 
“So am I,” grinned Bub through his mask of ashes and smoke. “It will give him another chance to build fires and shoot me.”

“Let us hope he’ll be defeated without any of us killing him,” said Stanley. “Of course, if it came to choosing between him and either of you I’d shoot him myself.”

“Ye’ll do mighty little shooting if ye keep the guns unloaded,” reminded Abner.

“Well, if we ain’t in a pickle,” half-sobbed Bub, glancing quickly and fearfully about.

“What d’ye mean? Speak out!” demanded Abner, shaking him by the collar.

“Don’t you see! Nick has been to our camp. Of course he stole everything he could lay his hands to, including our ammunition. We haven’t a single shot to defend ourselves with. He can pick us off one at a time and run no chance of being hurt. He knows we haven’t any bullets, by our not shooting him.”

Crack! again sounded the whip-like report, and Abner’s hat leaped from his head.

Crack! sounded the half-breed’s rifle for the third time and Stanley felt something caress his hair with a whining noise.