The New World
Jamie could not understand why he was awake. A deep body shiver answered and he groped for his sheet, tried to pull it back up over his shoulders to re-establish his warm cocoon and found himself in a tug-of-war. He strained his head up in the darkness and saw the dim outline of a round furry head. “Toby? What the hell are you doin’?”
He heard tendril voices, the faint clatter of dishes and heavy clank of the cast iron stove door.
Oh, yeah. Work. Jamie pushed upright and ached across his shoulders. He felt for matches on his bedside table, closed his eyes against the eye-stabbing blaze, and then held the match to the candle wick. He swung his legs over, placed his bare feet on the wooden floor and yawned a quiet curse.
“Yeah.” Ned groaned from the shadows.
Jamie squinted past the flickering candle glare at Ned. “You too? You awake long?”
“Since I heard your mom bang her frying pan on the stove. Then he trotted in and bit the covers off your bed. The tug-a-war was a show. You wake up slow, don’t you?”
A yawn took over Jamie’s mouth so he just nodded ‘Uh-huh’.
His father’s head appeared in the doorway and nodded in approval. “Hmm, good. You’re already awake.”
Jamie yawned again and shivered. “Don’t blame me; it’s Toby’s doin’.”
His father looked down at Toby sitting on the floor by Ned’s cot with the sheet swirled around him. Toby thumped his tail on the floor, bright eyed and laughing.
His father addressed the dog. “Not gonna be too much fun today, boy. The mill is a place for work, y’know.”
Toby closed his mouth, nodded at Jamie’s father, and then raised his ears back over to Jamie.
His father narrowed one eye at Toby, and then looked back at Jamie. “Come on, boys.” He clapped hands just once. “Up and at ‘em, time’s a wastin’, no time like the present, don’t sleep your life away.”
Jamie yawned so wide he had to cough himself out of it. Knowing his father loved to overuse sayings to emphasize how stupid they were did not make them any less painful to hear.
But his father knew that. “You up?”
Jamie nodded and scratched his head.
“Good, ‘cause it’s time for breakfast.” He clapped his hands together. “Boots on, remember.” His father’s head disappeared from the doorway. “With socks.”
Jamie reached for his clothes. Only then did the tendril scent of bacon and toast reach his nose. He hoped his mother would let him have coffee this morning like his father. It wouldn’t hurt to ask.
No such luck. Breakfast was quiet, little talk, less dawdling and no coffee. Jamie brushed his teeth, pulled on his denim work coat and followed his dad out the door into the moist scent of dew on the grass. The charcoal night gave way to the sun, much as Jamie gave ground to wakefulness, fatigue fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable.
Jamie clambered into the back of the open truck and slumped down with his back against the cab and propped his elbow up on the side. Toby scrambled up too and sat right beside him. He watched Ned vault over the side of the truck to plop down beside him and slide his cap off and stuff it into his coat pocket. He closed his eyes to Ned’s grin. “Where’d you get so all-fired full of piss and vinegar?”
His father’s voice rose from the driver’s side window. “I heard that, young man. You watch your language.” The truck engine rumbled to life. “And take off that hat if you don’t want it to blow away.”
Jamie pulled off his straw hat and shoved it under one leg.
The truck dipped, pitched and rolled out of the long driveway over dusty mud holes and bumped out onto the main road. As the truck gained speed on the smoother track Jamie felt damp morning air blowing around his neck. He pulled his collar close and held his arm around Toby for warmth. The wind pounded the sides of his head and ears. He shut his eyes to it until he felt the truck brake for the turn down to the mill.
Jamie heard Ned’s voice in his ear. “Ya think Nosy’ll be at it again?”
He squinted his eyes open. “I don’t know. Let’s take a look when we go by.”
But as the truck rattled and ground onto the second-gear washboard dirt road that led to the mill he looked right past the widow’s house over toward Little Lake across the road. Jamie was drawn to water. Every time he saw a lake or a stream he felt he needed to stop and stare, needed to let the sight soak in through his eyeballs if he couldn’t dive in or fish in it.
The lake was glass. The trees held a dim ghost of fog around the lower trunks like a lady lifting bustle skirts to step over mud, but not so much that their reflections were dimmed in the slick mirror of the dark water.
His eyes caught movement across the surface. Then it came again, a long switch flicking against the sky, this time with a dark trailing hair of line attached. He lifted up on his hands and craned his neck just a bit higher and saw a faded dark brown fedora pushed back onto the crown of a thin man’s head before the truck rattled around a bend and the lake was blocked from sight by the pines. He sifted his memory for an image to connect with but came up empty. He filed it away with all the other things he did not understand and opened his eyes to the sawmill.
A small group of men were gathered at the gate, waiting.
The pickup rattled to a stop in front of them and Jamie’s father handed Jamie the key to the gate out of the truck window. Jamie reached for it and hopped out. Toby followed.
They made way as he walked up through them, unlocked the gate and pulled the chain from the worn hole in the vertical wooden board in two corduroy pulls. He swung both doors wide and stood by one with the chain in his hand.
As his father drove through, he spoke to Jamie through the truck window. “Close one gate, but leave the other one open for them to come on in.”
Jamie said ‘Yessir’ to the side of the truck as it passed. Jamie closed the stationary gate, shoving the vertical lock bar down into a pipe driven down flush with the surface of the ground. He fastened the other gate back with the chain looped around the stop post.
When the men saw the gate was to remain open they moved as a group past Jamie through the gate. He followed their footprints in the dusty sand earth up to the cabin office.
Men at the back of the group elbowed each other in conversation. Only one had he seen before. ‘Dancin’ Charlie’ was small, red-headed, bow-legged in baggy overalls and always in motion. Charlie chattered with a huge black man who nodded back down at him, calm hands in his pockets.
Jamie’s eyes were drawn to a very thin, very still, very quiet Indian who wore a broad brimmed army campaign hat and carried a woven bag slung crossways across his back. The man walked a little apart from the others, stepping lightly on the balls of his feet.
By the time Jamie reached the cabin his father had gotten out of the pickup. Snow stood beside him, talking with a slender black man who limped in place. Ned stood behind and watched.
His father half-turned toward Jamie. “Why don’t you and Ned go fire up the wood stove? I don’t know about these folks, but I could use some coffee.” He turned to the men. “How ‘bout it?”
“Would be nice.”
“All right.” Jamie’s father nodded and held out a paper bag to Jamie. “Take this, get the fire going in the stove and put on the big pot from the back room. There’s tin cups in the back room and water in the well. Go on.”
Jamie climbed the stairs onto the porch and went inside to get the fire started while Ned went to the well. He slid fat light lighter wood into the stove and held a match to it. Ned came in with a bucket of water then charged the coffee pot.
While the coffee cooked they walked back out onto the porch and watched Jamie’s father through the screens as he moved among the men.
Jamie’s father looked over the group. He reached out and shook hands with a couple of them, then climbed up into the back of the pickup bed and clasped his hands behind his back. His voice was no louder than usual but carried clear like Jamie had never heard it.
“Good morning gentlemen. Glad you could make it. For you folks who have worked here before this is old hat, but for those who haven’t, I need to say a couple of things.” He slid his gray fedora back on his head. “First, this can be a hazardous place to work, so there will be no drinking on the job or showing up with a couple under your belt. Now don’t go thinking I’m a prohibitionist. What you drink or don’t drink on your own time is none of my business; I really don’t give a damn. But I do give a damn what happens inside these gates and things are a whole lot safer when everybody’s sober. For the same reason there is no horseplay. You fellas who have worked here before have seen it same as me, so you know what I’m talking about. A loose log can crush a leg, the kiln gets hot enough to burn you right down to the bone, and that saw over there will take a hand or an arm and never even know you were there.”
Jamie saw the slender black man beside Snow shift his weight and look down at his feet.
His father rubbed the back of his neck. “We’ll get you gloves for the logging crews and such, but no gloves, long sleeve shirts or anything that dangles will be worn anywhere close to the engine, the saw or the planer. That’s ‘cause if anything loose attached to you gets caught up, the machinery is too stupid to stop, and nobody on this earth will be quick enough to save you.” Jamie’s father turned his head to the side and Jamie caught just a glimpse of a smile. “That’s in case somebody might be so much of a dandy to wear a tie.”
There was a gentle chuckle from the group. Jamie noticed though some had their collars buttoned all the way up like Ned, not a single man had a tie around his neck.
His father paused, pressed his lips together and scanned the faces looking up at him, steady in the eyes. “One last thing. This year, as the senior men, Snow is my foreman and lead sawyer and James Carson is lead on the kiln. They know those things inside out, I trust them and pretty much what they say goes. Any man got a problem with that; there’s the gate right behind you. Fellas, raise your hands so everybody’ll know who I’m talking about.”
His father pointed at Snow and the slender black man with the limp. They leaned against the side of the cabin, their hands lifted in the air. James Carson was young, his face almost girlish, but he held his head up straight and held back whatever smile may have been in him. He shifted his weight.
Snow looked bored, but his eyes moved over the group. Snow looked much older to Jamie now that he was standing next to Carson, what little hair he had ringed round his head as white as his name.
Three men in the middle of the group frowned hard, shook their heads, then turned and shouldered their way through the others and stalked out the gate. No one else moved.
Jamie’s father waited until they were gone then pulled on his braces and let them go with a snap. He took a deep breath. “All right, good. Oh, and by the way, pay is a quarter a day more than last time. That takes it up to eighteen bucks a week for labor, a couple more for the foremen.”
An appreciative murmur rippled across the group. Jamie’s father talked right across the top of it. “But don’t go to thinking that’s ‘because I’m getting soft in my old age. You’ll earn every cent. I’m happy to tell you that between the Army contracts for pine and the hardwood contracts with the furniture folks, we should stay busy, maybe even into cold weather. And we’ve been talking with some boat-builders down on the coast that want quarter-sawn and some special clear pine for masts and spars, especially if we can do a little draw knife work to save them some time. So things looks pretty good.” He clapped his hands together. “Now, let’s get some coffee and start cleaning up the place. See Snow so we can get all your names down and shake out what everybody’s work is. Thanks for coming.”
Jamie watched his father step down and motion Snow and James over to him. He spoke to them quietly, one hand light on James Carson’s shoulder. He’d never seen his father touch another man like that. His father looked up at Jamie as if he sensed he was being watched and motioned both of them back out to speak to them.
“When the coffee’s done set up the cups and big pot out here on the tailgate of the pickup and keep pouring til it’s gone. This is just for this morning. Your every-day chores are to clean out the ashes in the stove if they’ve been left from the night before, light a new fire, put on the small pot for us, and then fill up the wood box and keep it filled. Fill up the water cask by the well and keep it filled. I don’t need these men falling out in the heat because they didn’t get enough water. I know it doesn’t sound very important, but when you see how thirsty these men can get you’ll understand. Heat stroke is not fun. When you get that done, finish sweeping out the cabin. I’m sorry, but I’ll not have a whole lot of time to spend with you today. Okay, let’s get to it.” Jamie’s father clapped his hands together, and then turned to walk over towards the saw where it loomed low in its long pole shelter behind sparse trees.
As they set up the coffee pot and cups on the tailgate of the pickup Jamie got a closer look at the men who had come to work. He knew Snow and he’d seen Dancin’ Charlie at the Post Office a few times. The rest were new to him.
Standing next to Charlie was the large black man. Now that he was up close Jamie saw he was a full head and a shoulder taller than Charlie, bigger than the strong man at the State Fair when Jamie sneaked a peek through the canvas Midway tent. When the two of them came up for their coffee Charlie was jabbering, as usual.
“Bwana, I’m tellin’ ya it can’t miss. Ya gotta go in with me on this one.” Charlie laughed, slapped one hand against another then adjusted his short brimmed fedora.
The huge black man just half smiled and shook his head. “Like that thing you tried to set me up selling hand cream? That stuff was just lard with food coloring. And why did you have to use that yellow-brown? It looked like mason jars of baby shit.”
“Now Marshall, my good buddy, Bwana, you gotta know I learned my lesson on that one. How could you think I’d steer you if I didn’t have a really great feeling about this one, hmm? Here, have some coffee. Jamie, this is Marshall. You met Jamie? Mr. Garrath’s his daddy, ain’t that right, Jamie?”
Jamie opened his mouth to say hello, but Charlie had no intention of letting Jamie get a word in edgewise and pulled Marshall away by the elbow, chattering about his grand plan.
Ned set more tin coffee cups on the truck tailgate and snickered under his breath. “That man’s got more wind than a bag of assholes.”
Jamie snorted. “Got enough tongue for ten sets of teeth.”
Snow came up. “Give me two cups, if you would. I need one for Little Foot.” Jamie poured. Snow stepped away and handed the second cup to James Carson.
The rest of them came in a group. Stepping up after Snow was a thick-set man with a beard Jamie thought could be a dead ringer for Paul Bunyan, a lightly built dark haired young man who kept combing his slicked back hair, a tall blond man who looked like a Viking, and then a little man with a parchment skin and a high voice who cupped his hand over his ear.
Last was the Indian, who leaned on one hip a little apart from the others and waited with one hand grasping the opposite elbow behind his back. When he came forward he reached for his cup with long slender hands. Close up Jamie could see deep scars on his face. The man nodded silent thanks and moved on.
Ned spoke behind his ear. “I can’t say I like the feel of that one.”
“Me neither.” Jamie picked up the coffee pot and looked at Ned. “Come on, lets’ get the chores done so we can take a look around.”
After their chores they set out. Some of the older men cleaned up and worked in and around the saw. Others swung the heavy curved bush axes and sling blades to clear off weeds and brush in the wood storage yard. Still others sharpened axes and the steel points on cant hooks.
Jamie nearly jumped a foot when his father’s voice found him. He and Ned had been watching the Viking sharpen a cross cut saw.
“You finished with what I told you to do?”
Both Jamie and Ned nodded.
“All right, then finish cleaning up the corner behind the cabin. Get to work now. And keep Toby out of the way.” Jamie’s father turned away, looking down at papers in his hand.
Jamie heard Ned cough behind him. “He’s busier than a rooster in a two story chicken house.”
Jamie watched his father’s back. “Yeah.”
“Let’s see if we can finish this up today, all right?”
Jamie and Ned were behind the cabin in the inside corner, cleaning up the trash pile and under the cabin. Jamie spit dust, turned around and stared at Ned. “What did you say?”
“I said let’s see if we can …”
Jamie cursed. “I heard you, I just can’t believe you said it.”
“I’m just tired of working in this little hole, is all. The only thing interesting is that box I ain’t figured out yet.”
“That ain’t the only thing you ain’t figured out. Why’re you sticking your hand down there underneath? You should be pulling that stuff out with the hoe.”
“I’m just trying to hurry.”
“You’re going to hurry yourself right into a bite from a copperhead. They love holes like that and their bite ain’t very forgiving.”
“Copperheads?” Ned froze. “You mean snakes? What do they look like?”
“I don’t mean pennies. You never seen a copperhead?”
Ned shook his head.
Jamie warmed to telling Ned something. “They’re fat in the middle, fairly short and real strong. You usually don’t see them until it’s too late ‘cause they blend in with the ground.”
“So why do you call them copperheads?”
“They’re kinda copper colored like dead leaves and their head is real triangular, like this.” Jamie put the tips of his thumbs and first fingers together with his thumbs lined up straight. “’Cept of course their heads ain’t quite that big.”
“And they’re dangerous?”
“Oh, yeah. If you’re weak like a girl you might even die, but you’ll get sick for sure. Come on, let’s throw that box on the trash pile, it’s mostly rotten anyway.”
“I think it might come in handy, but okay.” Ned picked up one end of the box. “You ever seen a copperhead around here?”
“Oh yeah.” Jamie picked up the other end of the box and the two of them carried it around to the front of the cabin to the trash pile. “Snow told me one time that the only way to cure snakebite is to tie a toad to the snake bite wound. If the toad dies, get a fresh one and tie it on. You just keep doin’ that till the toad lives and you should be cured.”
Jamie watched Ned’s face draw up. “You pullin’ my leg.”
“Not a bit of it. Ask him.” Jamie pointed to Snow walking up behind Ned. Ned glanced over his shoulder and shook his head.
“Why you boys throwin’ away a perfectly good rabbit box?”
Jamie watched Ned’s head lift like a hound on a scent. “A rabbit box?”
Snow nodded to the box between them. “Yeah. It’s a pretty old one by the looks of it, but it looks alright.”
Jamie looked at the box. “Is that what it is? How does it work?”
“Put it down and I’ll show ya.” Snow guided the box down on the ground, laid it on its side then lifted the slide door and let it slide back down. “You hook a string to the top of this door, run it back to the back of the box to a trip stick and when the rabbit come inside the box he hits the stick. The door slides down and you got yoursef’ a rabbit.”
Jamie saw Ned screw up his face. “Why do you catch rabbits, anyway?”
“Free meat, and that’s a thing worth doing. But you boys be careful now. There’s lots of things that get caught in a box trap besides rabbits and some of ‘em ain’t so kind.”