Under the Far-West Greenwood Tree
TEN miles from a new Western mill town, ten miles up a tortuous river full fed and brackish with salt of the Pacific, lay Macky’s logging camp. Last year it did not exist as a camp, and next year it will be burned over, leaving a stump-blackened waste like those that lie in hideous desolation in several places along the bayou-like river, — timber claims which in other years have been “logged over,” as this will be before the short Washington summer ends.
A bend in the olive river, dark with reflected evergreens, 0brought us to a floating raft of freshly cut logs, held near the river’s bank by great boomsticks coupled together lengthwise, forming a flexible inclosure for the raw logs that move restlessly in their crowded confinement, heaving with the lift of the tide and never still. The steep bank of the river above the boom, worn to a bald smoothness, marked the place where the logs are “ shot ” into the river, and beside it a narrow trail climbed the hill. As we followed the steep trail, we saw the logging road beyond leading into the forest ; it was an ordinary roadway, across which, corduroy fashion, half-imbedded logs, “ skids,” lay at intervals of several feet, forming a raised track over which logs are hauled on their way to the boom. As we climbed upward, the clanking of iron chains, the harsh groaning of yokes, and the voice of a man raised in the angry command and expostulation of the “bull-puncher ” prepared us for the procession that the lift of the hill showed advancing toward us down the skid road. First came the bulls, ten of them yoked in pairs, a swaying, creaking caravan, the wide-spreading brass-tipped horns of the leaders springing in noble curves from their massive heads; the hangingskin of the throat, from the head down to the short, close forelegs, swaying from side to side, as they planted cautious, sprawling hoofs upon the rounding skids. Haltingly, deliberately, they moved, with something fine in their stolid indifference to the voluble activities of the ranting driver, darting from one to the other, abusing, exhorting, prodding with his round, blunt goad, keeping the wavering line straight. At the flank of the last bull walked the “ skid-greaser,‘” lazily dipping a long-handled brush into a pail of melted grease which he carried, and halting at every two steps to grease the worn skid over which the logs were about to pass. Then the load itself, three logs tandem, coupled with chains, slid over the greased skids with a gliding, majestic motion, — great fir logs, skinned smooth beneath to offer little resistance along the roadway, each with its harsh bark uppermost. Upon the last a red-shirted logger rode, dangling his feet far above the ground. We stood aside to let them pass, and as they plodded slowly by all the air was full of a sweet milking-time odor. We climbed on up the loggingroad to where the air was still warm with the slow passage of the bulls’ great bodies and cud-sweet breath, .lustahead was their rough shelter, open at the sides, — merely a roof resting upon the trunks of forest trees sawn to a uniform height, the thatch lying lightly on its deeply rooted supports ; within, bundles of straw, near the troughs, lay ready for feeding-time. Beyond were the unpainted shanties of the camp itself, the open door of the bunk-house showing a wild disorder of blankets and scattered clothing. The whole little settlement had a look of raw discomfort, with its rough-hewn boards and careless débris of oil-cans and grocery - boxes. All about the shanties the timber had been “ slashed ” for breathing and moving space, and lay tossed about in cyclonic confusion. From the evergreen depths beyond the pleasant resonance of axes called us. Soon we could hear the slow grate of the saw and the dull strokes of the axes upon felled trees, but more clearly than all else the finely timed alternate strokes of two choppers, as the ringing impact of their blows thrilled up the great length of a Standing tree. If we had known the woods, we could have counted the men by the sounds which reached us; but there was no need for that, as in another moment we were in sight of most of the gang at work near a prostrate giant, which lay across the road, its great body broken from the fall. Ah, the majesty of a fallen firtree ! Two hundred feet of clean shapely trunk without limb, knot, or blemish, stretching across the road and far into the tangle of underbrush beyond ; all the proud top torn and broken, lyingshattered among tons of the tossed debris of its own green plumes. As we looked, an active logger, with shirt open on a sun-baked hairy chest, vaulted upon the log, and, with a fearlessness born of custom and steel - spiked hoots, ran the length of the tree, to return presently with his eight-foot saw and bottle of coal oil. Then this Lilliputian set to work to divide the felled fir into logs. Back and forth went his saw, and the loose sound of the half-idle teeth changed into the steady grate of real work, as the saw sank into the bark and caught the firm wood beneath. From time to time the logger paused to jerk some oil from the half-corked bottle into the crevice down which the laboring saw worked its slow way. Near by four loggers stood upon one log, chipping the bark off with a quick, careless motion, each doublebitted axe, with blade back and front, held in one hand, and swung in fearful proximity to the logger just behind. This " stick of timber ” was nearly ready to be hauled out by the team, the “ barkers ” swiftly clearing off the bark that it might glide upon the skids. A second team of bulls stood waiting for work, breathing from their backs, where two dints showed on either side of their spines clear through to their breasts, and seeming to shorten and their bellies to broaden with each deep-taken breath. We could not help noticing the strong individuality that marked them. Within easy touch stood one with the short, thick head and heavy horns of a buffalo, telling of some ancient wild strain in his blood, while his yoke-mate, an immense surly brute, had the dry wrinkled hide of an elephant; and still another had great lumps behind the ears, like the protuberances that give an added touch of the hideous to the hippopotamus. One was a beauty, sleekly covered by the smooth flexible skin of youth, red beneath, overlaid irregularly with creamy hair ; in the sunshine the whole skin took on a softly dappled look that in itself suggested the delicate play of light and shade. His long, tasseled tail snapped the flies away with swift precision. But his beauty did not spare him ; for, as we filled our eyes with his sleek fairness, the blunt goad descended. “Haw! You, back! There! You Mormon ! " bellowed the driver, and slowly, reluctantly, as though each foot were glued to the ground, the bulls began to move. They seemed to take the quietly superior enjoyment of absolutely phlegmatic beings in the presence of absurd excitability. Without haste and with an infinite number of pauses, the team was prodded, sworn, and cajoled into position. Meanwhile, an ingeniously simple tackle of pulleys and wire cables was thrown into place, and fastened upon neighboring trees and stumps. The “ dogs ” — half - hooks of steel — were driven deeply into the back of the log that was to be jerked out of its bed into the roadway, and the chain from the team was attached to the cables. The heaviest part of the labor of the camp falls upon the “ hook -tender ” and his assistant. The log, being generally deeply imbedded from its fall, has to be thrown out upon the roadway, often over the roughest stump-covered ground, and a considerable amount of rude science is required to arrange the pulleys and tackle to accomplish this without accident or waste of time. At this moment, when every man stands ready, if need be, to lend a hand in shifting tackle or flinging aside impediments, one is struck by the discipline of the camp. Scarcely an order is heard except the ceaseless stream of language from the driver ; nor do the men collide or interfere with one another. This is the result of the specialization of the gang. Each man, being hired for a definite purpose, as chopper, hook-tender, barker, sawyer, bull - puncher, or skid - greaser, keeps closely to his own job, except at such a moment when equally definite service is required of a different sort.
Once upon the skids of the roadway, the log is easily manageable, and ten could be hauled with less effort than is required in getting one into place. As before, however, three logs chained tandem constituted the load, and we vaulted upon the last log for a ride to the boom. It was a pleasant motion, gliding along more than a hundred feet, behind the last bull, with now and then a rolling joggle to turn one off upon the road. When the logs reached the precipitous bank above the river, the team was detached by unhooking the hauling-chain. The end of this chain, when not in use, is heaped upon the off quarter of the last bull, where the breadth of his back easily retains it. As the skid-greaser, driver, and team crawled back up the road, one man was left to “ shoot ” the logs into the boom. After measuring the length and diameter of each log with a rude yardstick, and chalking the figures on a tally-board, he pried out the dogs, and, taking an axe with a misshapen blade, gave the smooth-sawn end of the log a number of sharp pecking blows, each stroke leaving a clear S imprinted in the wood. To saw off the end of a log bearing its distinctive mark is tantamount to horse-stealing, a sin for which there is no absolution. After the measuring and marking comes the slow business of “ hand-logging ” the “ stick of timber ” into the boom, forty feet below. One feels, in watching this tedious process, that the log might be rolled the foot or two required to send it down the hill by throwing the whole weight against it; but the logger knows better than to try any such futile straining. Setting his jackacrew behind the log, with its edge caught in the bark, he turns the handle, and as the screw creeps up the log starts faintly to move. When the screw is out. its whole length, it is left slightly lifting the log, while a fresh jackscrew is set close beneath and advances the log another hair’s-breadth toward turning. After the logger has shifted his screws a dozen times or more, the log gives a heavy roll, like a half-roused sleeper, and then plunges down the hill with furious speed. Striking some impediment, it leaps the track, and lands with a terrific crash full upon the back of a log in the boom beneath. The spray, beaten upward, dashes into our faces, and all the boomful of logs plunge about madly. The whole river is stirred ; the evergreen reflections near the other bank blur their olives with the reds of the turning huckleberry, and even the small gnats, that circle endlessly in the cool of the bank where the maidenhair ferns hang, break rank and scatter. As we stand watching the last log swimming uneasily about among its fellows, a pert blue jay flings past us, and, lighting on a charred stump, against whose blackness his coat shines like the blue of tempered steel, jerks his crested head from side to side in snappish inquiry. It is at such moments that the wonderful silence of these Washington forests is borne in upon the mind. Even the breeze upon the evergreens makes scarce a rustle. The intense dampness in the woods the greater part of the year keeps animal life at a low ebb, and the multitudinous insect-buzz and bird-calls of sunlit Eastern woods are strangely absent. The solemn stillness of the dark forest seems ever waiting for some great event. The attention is strained as upon the eve of tragedy. It is a relief when up the side of a fallen log near us a chipmunk darts, advancing by a series of quick flashes, his golden-brown sides making a warm note on the violet gray of the weather-blanched log. It is strange how so silent a creature can so irresistibly suggest gayety. In watching the joyous sprite, the heart of man enters the little body, and darts in swift content upon those tiny feet. But even as we stood in the broad sunshine of the roadway the stillness took a far rhythmic pulse. It was the choppers once more at work upon a standing tree.
We followed the sound, keeping to the fork of the skid road that led into the deeper forest, passed beyond the main group of Loggers and the deep-breathing team, until we could hear the voices of the choppers. As we came up, the two men paused, and one said good-humoredly, " That ‘ right! Come to see us fall this tree ? ” Then the axes swung again. Each man stood lifted up on a springboard, whose end was slipped into a notch cut in the base of the tree four or five feet from the ground. They always work above the ground this way, in order to escape the increased work of cutting through the great swell at the base. Standing with feet apart upon the springy perches, they were " under-cutting ” the tree on the side toward which they wanted it to fall. The axes sent their pleasant reverberation up the straight limbless trunk, communicating only a quiver to the plumed limbs two hundred feet above. Clean white chips were cleared out from the shaped cleft of the under-cut, and after a little measuring and squinting along the tree the men dropped down, and shifted their boards to notches in the opposite side of the tree from the under-cut. Then the long saw with a handle at each end came into use. The men started carefully, holding the saw quite true that later it might not wedge. They drew it back and forth cautiously at first, until it penetrated the rough bark evenly and the teeth caught on the wood. A thin shower of pale sawdust floated down from either side, as the saw grated in and out, and the loggers swayed slightly from hip to hip, their red-shirted arms moving with the iron regularity of piston-rods. Back and forth, back and forth, went the handle of the saw. It Seemed an endless business for those two men to drive that edge of steel through twelve feet of solid, flawless wood. There is the dull monotony of machine-work in the sawing, different from the spirited rise and fall of the axes, and the sharp cracking away, beneath the telling blows, of great white chips, and our eyes wandered beyond the workers to the green stillness. Little clearing had been done at this point. The whole upper growth was of evergreens, and so dense that no speck of sky could be seen beyond their exalted tops, — so dense that in this virgin forest the running elk throws his antlered head backward and from side to side to pass through the close phalanx of trees, and is sometimes wedged between their bodies and slowly perishes. Beneath the lofty canopy, supported upon its close, shaftlike columns, grew a matted tangle of underbrush and man-high elk fern, the pale green of the small - leafed huckleberry and salmonberry making a delicious note of freshness beneath the sombre grandeur of the dull green vault above. So dense is the overshadowing of the evergreens that the air is moisture-laden in midsummer, and is seen through the vista of endless columns a vaporous blue, as of drifting incense. Upon the rough ground muscular with plaited roots, mats of heavy moss, vividly green during the rainy season, lay in yellow patches.
The saw labored heavily as the weight of the tree began to settle upon the deeply imbedded blade ; two steel wedges were driven a little way into the cleft, but although the weight was lifted the saw still moved hard. The men paused again, and one took the adjustable handle from his end of the saw, while the other drew the toothed blade half its length out toward him and spattered a liberal supply of kerosene oil from his bottle upon it; then, pushing it back, the handle was readjusted. The men jerked up their trousers, wiped the sweat from their foreheads, and jumped heavily on their springboards to jar them back into place.
“ All set! ” called the older man, and once more the even grating, the pistonrod arms, and the drifting drizzle of pale gold sawdust. Then the sound of the saw suddenly changed from the dry grate to a dull, soft mumble.
“ Pitch! ” exclaimed both men in a tone of deep disgust; and as they spoke, through the fine cleft the saw had made oozed a thick sluggish stream of turpentine, and crept down the side of the tree to the ground.
“ There’s barrels of it in this tree, and it’s as slow as molasses in January.”
But they settled themselves once more for work. The saw, gummed with pitch, moved with heavy resistance, and the steady ooze of the turpentine increased in volume.
“ You ‘d better get the can, Jim,” said the older man, and the other dropped from his perch into the underbrush and started for the road.
Jest as well try to saw through a stick of taffy candy as this kind of a tree,” explained the waiting logger. " He ’s gone for the water-can, and we ’ll see if we can get through this vein.”
Jim came back presently, carrying a leaky oil-can heavy with water. A wedge was driven into the tree well above the saw, and the can hung upon the wedge, so that the water leaked down upon the saw as it worked in and out.
“ What good does it do ? ” I asked incredulously.
“ Don’ know,” returned Jim, laboring at the saw, “ but it makes awful easy sawing.”
“ Soi’t o’ freezes the pitch,” said the other philosophically.
As a matter of fact, the saw did move more freely, drawing in a little cold water each time, and the “ frozen ” pitch mixed with water frothed out. in a white foam. After a long time of heavy sawing, the teeth began to catch more firmly, and a few more moments’ work brought the Saw very near to the “ under-cut.”
No message of its coming fall has reached the far top, now that the body of the tree is nearly severed ; the branches stir less than at the first blows of the axe. The fir stands beautifully erect. The loggers squint up its length, and say oracularly which way it will fall; they move the axes and water-can out of harm’s way, and spring back to their perches:. We stand on a fallen tree, a few yards behind the loggers, and wait expectantly. There is an irresistible sense of excitement; even these men to whom it is such an old story feel it. Who can say what sudden wind will snatch the tree and throw it suddenly backward upon us? The brooding silence of the forest is absolute, save for the steady grate of the saw in and out, like stertorous breathing. Erect and motionless the tree waits.
The men nod to each other; the sawing ceases; one handle is slipped off, and the saw drawn all the way through and laid back of the tree ; one man springs down and lifts his perch out, and hands a great mallet to the other, who still stands upon his springboard. The mallet is lifted, and a loud sonorous chant rings through the stillness: " All clear ahead! Timber!” Then the mallet falls, once, twice, thrice, upon the heads of the wedges. There is a slight creaking, the logger flings the mallet aside and rushes backward, the cleft widens, the great green head stirs ; then, with a rushing, thundering roar, mingled with the sound of the rending fibres of the trunk, the giant tears its mighty arc through the air; a cloud of blackness envelops the fall; the air is dark with dust and moss and flying fragments. The roar is superb as the tree crashes its way through the underbrush, louder than cannon, but with no harshness; more like some mighty breaker that has climbed ten thousand miles of sea to beat its heart out on a lonely shore.
Before the air had cleared, and while the neighboring trees still oscillated violently, we mounted the springboard to look at the Stump. The pitch was pumping from a slight gap as blood from a wound, and we could see that the tree, in falling, had leaped forward a clear twenty feet from the bole. Climbing up on the log, so lately a tree, we walked two hundred feet before we came to the first limb ; that first limb, only now so infinitely removed, lay beneath our feet.
“ We were too quick with that,” said Jim to us, as he dragged from his pistol pocket a large silver watch. “ But it’s too late to fall another. We ’re goin’ to a dance down the river to-night. It don’t do to work too hard Saturdays.” He grinned at us very amiably. We ‘ll jest set here and clean up some.” He reached for the kerosene bottle where it was stuck against a tree by the hook tied to its neck, and jerked that cosmetic lavishly upon his pitch-blackened hands. “ Say! ” he added, with sudden inspiration, “ ain’t you folks going to the dance? ”
We looked down at our coarse mossstrewn clothes, and my comrade said, “ We have no party clothes with us, and they would n’t let us come in these things.”
“ You bet they would ! ” he ejaculated, with the pleasantest friendliness; and I longed to go. But it was my weary partner, not I, who had pulled ten miles up the river that morning.
Presently the long-drawn toot of the first horn for supper sounded, and when we got back to camp most of the men were gathered about the bench in front of the bunk-liouse, cleaning themselves as fast as tin basins of water and large bars of laundry soap could be made to do the work. One of the men had reached the combing stage, and was arranging hair sticky with soap, water, and perspiration by the aid of a small warped mirror hanging outside of the bunk-house. As they splashed and sputtered, they called to each other about the dance.
“ Wear ? ” laughed one, pausing, towel in hand, to look down at his faded blue overalls and flannel shirt. “ These here’s my party clo’es.”
“ You can have my white flannel shirt, if it ain’t shrinked too bad. I’m going to wear my black silk shirt,” said the man who was wiping on the other end of the same towel.
“ I ’ll have to get into something pretty quick. My girl lives five miles up the river, to the forks, and I ‘ll have to buck the tide the whole way.” I recognized in the enterprising speaker the hardworked hook-tender.
We borrowed a towel and bar of soap, and washed at the long cattle trough; when the ripples had subsided, its surface made a mirror by which I arranged my hair, and we were ready for supper when the .muzzle of the long horn was leveled out of the eating-house window and blown at us. We all sat down together at the long table, and wholesome, palatable food was served by the gay young dish - washer who squeaked about in tight party shoes.
After supper, the younger men hurried back to the bunk-house to finish their toilets for the dance, while we returned to the woods to find a place for our night’s lodging. The great overarching evergreens tempted us, but we knew, if we slept beneath them, that the hemlock worms which were just then ravaging the trees would measure us all night; so we chose an open place on the skid road, in the shelter of a felled tree, and began the delicate work of making a woodman’s bed. Plenty of material lay at hand in the shattered top of a spruce, and in the woods beyond endless quantities of dried moss. We stripped the smaller branches from the spruce boughs and cast them into a great heap upon the ground, which afterwards we leveled into a deep springy mattress ; on toj) of this we piled great double armfuls of dried moss. It took many trips back and forth into the rough tangle of underbrush and felled trees to gather the moss, and as we worked the long twilight deepened. The sweet balsam of our bed filled the air, and the primal nest-building instinct awoke, elating us with an idyllic pleasure. In a return to nature there is the joy of a home-coming, and we felt the blood of our nomadic ancestry astir in the sweet familiarity of our homely task. When we had at last plucked and moulded the moss and twigs into harmony with our notions, and stood off to appreciate the crowning effect of our woolen and rubber blankets, the light was almost gone, and our desire turned toward a camp fire.
Our foolish wish to " roost ” in the woods, when we might have been under shelter, was looked upon with tolerant amusement by our host of the cookinghouse, and now he came with additional blankets to see how we were making out. We had just succeeded in getting a sulky little flame astart, at which he smiled scornfully. He at once set to work selecting and discarding material for our fire with the air of a connoisseur, and then with skillful hands built dried bark into the shape of an Indian tepee around our small beginning. The flames were soon lashing their way through the cracks in hot fury, and the sprays of green spruce we threw on top cast up volleys of snapping sparks.
In the drowsy comfort of the fire the long day of incessant activity made itself felt, and the delicious languor of animal fatigue made us glad to draw off our heavy shoes and creep between the blankets. Just over us and through the cleared strip of the roadway we saw the sky, but on all other sides only the sentinel evergreens drawn close about, with their martial cloaks around them. As we lay thus, facing the innumerable white stars, the heavens seemed to withdraw until they became inconceivably distant; even the trees, whose tops during the day pierced the blue at remotely measurable height, were now immeasurably remote. The majesty of the pageant of the deepening night presses upon the spirit with the solemnity of a great religious ceremony. What wonder that primitive man worshiped ! His eyes and spirit were not ceiled to earth by yards of colorless plaster. The heart grows great in striving to people with high thoughts the empty cup of night, lit from above by millions of mild eyes. And so from sweet and solemn dreams we slipped through soft degrees to dreamless sleep.
I waked suddenly until a curious tickling sensation on my face. Putting my hand up, I found it was drizzling an almost imperceptibly fine, steady mist; our rubber top blanket was heavily dewed with standing drops, and our shoes, as I thrust them under cover, were clammy to the touch. The last faint star was blurred out by the mist and the first gray of dawn. In the dim light and through the sifting mist, the trees looked miles away and of the most indescribably soft gray. The whole landscape, as I sat up, seemed a great moss agate ; the nearest trees forming the darkest tracery, and those more remote graded off to an impalpable shadow of smoke. In a tree that last night was very near I heard
Then through the mist a large bird swirled close over our heads, uttering a long, hungry cry. Suddenly from the camp came a raucous cheering, answered far down the river. For a moment I thought it was the dancers returning, as usual, at daybreak ; but after the sound cut again and again through the mist, with always the same far-answering response, I knew that it must be the first cock’s crow of the morning, and that the
answer came from some rancher’s shack far down the river.
Turning about in the nest my weight had hollowed in the moss, with the cheery voice dulled by the blankets to only a suggestion of home and comfort near at hand, I slept once more.
Louise Herrick Wall.