Jamie and Ned climbed into the back of the pickup, settled in between the boxes and gear, up against the painted wooden sideboards. Toby jumped up after, wormed his way between them and leaned against Ned. That got a hard look from Jamie’s father.
“I’m not sure Toby coming along is a good idea, son. A saw mill is not a place for play.”
“I’d really like to bring him, Daddy.”
“Well, all right. But if he gets in the way, you’ll have to walk him home through the woods. Understand?”
“And take off your hats while we’re drivin’, don’t want ‘em to blow off in the wind.”
Jamie watched his father climb into the cab of the pickup truck and pull the door closed behind him with a quiet click. The engine coughed to a smooth rumble. He held onto the sideboard with one hand and onto Toby’s collar with the other. When they pulled out onto the main road he watched the wind flatten Ned’s hair against the back of his head in the wind.
When their pickup stopped at the gas pump in front of ‘Fred & Adams’ store, Jamie saw Snow sitting on one of the benches under the lean-to shelter, opening a small can of beans with his knife. He was a black man with old eyes, smile creases around his mouth and a thin Caesar’s wreath of white hair crowning his head. His rangy bones set folds in his faded overalls to sharp angles.
Fred Black stepped down out of the store as they pulled up, belly straining his belt, all white shirt smiles and Brylcreem slick. “How much today, Mr. Garrath?”
“Just a couple of gallons, Fred. You goin’ away from Gulf like you were talkin’ about the other day?”
Fred walked over to the pump tower and began rocking the long handle back and forth to drive gas up into the glass cylinder on top. To Jamie gas pumps always looked like lighthouses sticking up out of the dirt.
“Not yet, Shell still wants too much for their gas.” He stretched his smile wider. “I’d have to go raise prices and you know how I’d hate to do that.”
“Uh-huh.” As Fred laughed Jamie’s father turned to Snow, who now calmly spooned baked beans from the small can into his mouth. “Beans for dinner?”
Snow nodded at Jamie’s father, smiled wide with his mouth closed then chewed and swallowed. “Yes sir, Mr. Garrath. Just workin’ on my popularity. S’afternoon I should be able to hire m’self out for crop dustin’.” Snow smiled at his own joke. “I’m on my own bach’in it for a couple’a days. Flora’s sister is sick so she’s takin’ care of the children.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Nah. Just some woman complaint.” Snow scraped the last of the beans into his mouth, stood up and tossed the empty can into the battered fifty-five gallon trash drum. “Glad you openin’ up the mill, Mr. Garrath. Good to have good work.”
“No more than I am. There’s nothing better’n the smell of fresh cut wood and sawdust.”
Snow pointed with two stiff wrinkled fingers. “My daddy used to say somethin’ like that ‘bout farmin’. Whenever first good spring day come ‘round my daddy he’d say ‘Lord, it’s the kind of day that just makes you wanna go plow some ground.’ And he was right, yessir.”
As the men talked Ned leaned over to Jamie. “Who’s that?”
“That’s Snow. He’s Daddy’s foreman.”
“He’s the foreman? Why does he point that way? Something wrong with his fingers?”
“His middle finger’s froze from being busted or something. When the mill closed before he started workin’ for us plowing corn, stuff like that. He’s a nice fella, but don’t fool with him ‘cause he’s smart as they come and tough as a pine knot.”
“You folks got enough money to pay somebody?”
“In vegetables and milk, we got more than we can use. And Daddy writes him a check when a crop comes in.”
Fred clattered the gasoline nozzle out of the fill pipe and hung it back up on the pump tower. “That’ll be a quarter, Mr. Garrath.”
“You sure, Fred? I just asked for a couple of gallons. I should be getting back a nickel.”
“Well I got to listening to you and Snow and put in a little extra by mistake. You know how it is.”
“Uh-huh.” Jamie’s father leveled his eyes at Fred’s slick smile. “Yeah. See you later, Fred.” He dropped the quarter into the man’s outstretched hand and turned toward the truck. “Come on fellas, let’s get to it. Snow, you come on and sit up here with me, we got a couple of things to talk about. First thing is that saw blade. If I remember right, it was running hot, so we’re gonna have to baby it till I can get it hammered or the teeth re-swaged and sharpened …”
Jamie watched Fred Black’s face shift from wide smile to hard dimpled frown as the man’s eyes glittered at Snow sliding onto the front seat of the pickup. The man’s face shifted right back when he saw Jamie looking at him and waved as they pulled away.
The truck slowed to a crawl at the bend in the road where the Widow Morrison lived close to Little Lake. Jamie both heard and felt his father’s smooth downshift before they bumped through the turn onto the road to the mill. He twisted around over the sideboard to see the sign hanging from a tall dead tree by the side of the road, ‘Garreth Lumber and Sawmill.’
The hard rippled road dead-ended in a solid wooden fence about eight feet high that cut into the woods both to the left and right. The mill gate was solid like the fence, two doors of rough cut planks weathered gray, held shut by a chain threaded through two holes drilled in each edge plank. The chain was neither enough to keep out a determined man with a hacksaw nor a man who could climb, but like his father said, a lock was just to keep an honest man honest anyway.
Both boys stood up in the truck while Snow got out and walked up to unlock the gate. They heard the dull staccato of chain pulled through the holes then rusty corduroy creaks as Snow dragged one door open through the dust, then the other. Snow stepped up onto the truck running board and his father drove through and inside.
Jamie hung on as the truck bounced up the short drive and stopped to the side of a small clapboard cabin. Jamie’s father stepped out then reached into the back of the truck and grabbed a broom.
He jumped down out of the back of the pickup and followed his father up to the screen door. Ned stayed in the back of the truck, looking around. Toby panted beside Ned, his paws on the top of the truck cab. “It looks like somebody’s house, Mr. Garrath.”
His father fished in his pocket for the key and responded to Ned over his shoulder. “That’s ‘cause it used to be somebody’s house, Ned. A fella by the name of Joe Carter came out here a few years ago to make a go of bein’ a farmer. Trouble was he had more money that he had sense and didn’t know a damn thing about farmin’. On top of that,” Jamie’s father unlocked the screen door and stepped up onto the porch, “he was too much of a damn fool to take anybody’s help. He did build a pretty fair little house though.”
It was a pretty fair little house. A small whitewashed clapboard cabin set on brick pilings, it had a tin roof and a large screened porch that stretched all the way across the front and down the near side. A tall red oak stood close by and spread its limbs over the screen porch and a well just beyond. The well was covered with a small pole shelter and the concrete cylinder was capped with a pine board disk and a black iron pitcher pump.
Further beyond, to the right, in a clearing amongst the trees, Jamie saw a long pole shelter with machinery underneath, and the great circular saw blade gleamed at him.
His father caught Jamie looking. “We’ll get over there soon enough. Come on, there’s work to do.”
Jamie mounted the steps onto the wide screen porch with Ned now close behind. His father unlocked the cabin door then raised and spun the broom in the air in front of him to wind down spider webs as he stepped inside. When Jamie followed he saw the front room went all the way across the house. There was one back room beyond. Toby squeezed by him and thumped his tail against Jamie’s leg.
“Just two rooms?”
“Yep.” His father handed him the broom and a dustpan. “And it’s your first job to clean it out. Ned, you go open up that back door and sweep in the back. Jamie, you start in here. Sweep the whole place, front and back, and clean what you can. That means the porch too and get your dog out of my office.” He gathered a few tools in his hands from shelves in the back room and stepped back outside onto the porch. “Snow? Let’s see if we can get that pitcher pump workin’.” Jaime’s father stepped outside and he and Snow headed off toward the well.
The inside of the house was smaller than it looked from the outside. The back room had mostly empty shelves lining the walls and piles of bits of paper and cardboard where mice had munched on files and boxes in search of nesting material.
The front room was more interesting. What walls were not windows were laid with surveyor’s plots of timber tracts and up behind the desk was a plat of the mill overlaid with glass. Jamie touched a grease pencil that hung from a piece of thick string. There were grease pencil hieroglyphics on the glass, codes of what wood were stacked where and how long. Low wooden filing cabinets lined one wall underneath the windows and a small potbelly wood heater perched in the corner with splayed legs. A blue enamel coffeepot waited on top. Most of the room was taken up by a simple desk and a large rough work table in the center with a wooden swivel chair in between.
Jamie took Toby by the collar and led him outside. “Sorry boy. You gotta stay out. We’ll be with you in a little while.”
He and Ned took the brooms and started sweeping. It was hard, digging at the dust caked on the floor. No sooner had they began than gray clouds filled the air and both of them started to sneeze.
Jamie’s father stepped back in and waved his hand in front of his face. “You boys might want to sweep more and flail around a little less. Keep the dirt on the floor where it belongs.” He coughed and waved his hand in front of his face. “And you might want to open the windows before you suffocate. Just a thought.” He grabbed a thin spout oil can from the back room shelf and went back outside.
The inside of the house was not finished; it wasn’t even painted. It was dark natural wood and when Jamie leaned to it and sniffed it smelled of dry oil.
There was a candlestick telephone sitting on the desk. Jamie spoke just loud enough for Ned to hear. “We don’t even have a phone in our house.”
Ned’s voice returned to him from the back room. “It’s a business. Pop’s got one too. You’d be surprised how much they talk when there’s money in it.”
It wasn’t long before Jamie’s father called from outside. “Put down the brooms, I got something else for you. You can come back to that.”
They dropped the brooms, went outside and followed Jamie’s father around to the back of the house. Piled up in the back inside ell corner of the cabin there was a big pile of boards, cans, bottles, sheets of tin and general junk.
“We need to get this cleaned up. Sort out the pile first. Make a neat stack of the wood that ain’t rotten over on the side of the house, but up against it and make a pile of the other junk out front where we can load onto the truck to haul it away. And,” he leaned down and pointed underneath the house, “clean out all that junk from under there.” He handed them both gloves and hoes. “Be careful of snakes and black widows. Use the hoes to drag stuff out from under the house. Don’t want you bit by a copperhead first day. Understand?”
Both boys nodded.
“Okay. The pitcher pump is working now, so if you get thirsty there it is. I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”
They watched Jamie’s father walk off with Snow toward the large shelter beyond the trees. He was talking and gesturing to Snow with his hands and Snow was nodding back.
Jamie heard Ned from behind him. “Ain’t this romantic, though?”
He glanced over at Ned and then back at his father’s back walking away from him. Ned was right. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but this wasn’t it. He sneezed dust from his nose. This certainly was not it.
They split up the chores. Jamie attacked the pile; Ned yanked stuff out from under the house. In a little while Jamie had an education about Ned. Mr. Edward Seth Custis could cuss like nobody Jamie had ever heard. It wasn’t constant and it was all quiet under his breath, but Ned could cuss long and naturally and more inventively than anyone Jamie had ever heard. It was like music and Jamie listened with the joy of learning and hoped he could imitate part of it in the future. He then heard silence behind him and turned to see Ned reaching up to unbutton his collar and looking at a tall rectangular box he had apparently just pulled out from under the house and set upright. Toby sniffed at the box.
“What’s that? What’s in it?”
Ned shook his head. “Some kind of box. Wonder what it’s for?”
Jamie dropped the board he had been heaving on. A big gray cloud rose up and he coughed, spit and went over to look.
The box was tall and narrow, about the size of a largish book on top and came up to their waists. It was wooden, weathered gray and nailed together. There was a sliding door on the top.
Ned slid the door back and forth. “It’s a queer sort of box, ain’t it? I can’t make out what would have been stored in here.”
“Something tall and skinny, I guess.”
“Let’s not break it up ‘til we figure it out.”
Snow’s voice echoed from behind them. “You boys lollygagging already?”
They both turned to Snow, who smiled at them from around the corner of the cabin in spite of his words. “Mr. Garrath said you might want to spit up the wood into two piles, one for wood we might be able to use the other to be cut up into firewood.” He grinned, clapped his hands, said “Hot damn!” and walked off with a spring in his step carrying a great smile on his face a mile wide and twice as shiny.
Jamie looked over at Ned. “You get a sneaking suspicion he’s happy to be here?”
Ned gave one laugh snort. “Oh yeah. But what does that mean?”
“More work for us, more’d likely.”