Authors: Victoria McKernan
By the end of the day Aiden had cut and trimmed only seven trees, and two of them had fallen in the wrong direction. Even though no one else had made the quota, and two of the men had only managed four, he felt embarrassed.
“Hey, girls!” the other men taunted the novices as they dragged back to the bunkhouse. “Let's see your pretty hands now!”
“You cryin’ for your mommy yet?”
“Cry a little louder—I hear she's coming on the next Bandy ride!”
Aiden didn't know what a Bandy ride was, but the rude laughter gave him some clue. He ignored the teasing and plunged his hands into the creek until the icy water numbed
them and turned the blisters white. He could barely carry his axe back to the sharpening shed. He didn't even know what supper was that night, only that it was hot and plentiful and stopped one part of the overwhelming hurt that throbbed in every bit of his body. He had pains in muscles that he didn't even know he had. Even his hair hurt. But the pain was also welcome. It was simple and complete and left no room for any other feeling.
He woke the next morning actually craving more of it. By noon that day he had cut down five trees. His limbs were trembling and his hands bleeding when he sat down to lunch, and his hands shook as he shoveled food into his mouth, but he was proud to think he was halfway to quota. As they were heading back out for the afternoon, Mr. Powhee nodded his tattooed chin at Aiden.
“Hey, you—Prairie Boy.” Powhee knew few actual names and didn't use them even when he did, but Aiden wondered where he had picked up that particularly annoying one. He didn't have to wonder long. “Take this one along.” Powhee tipped his head toward William Buck. Buck glowered at Aiden. “Teach him to cut down little trees,” Powhee said.
Buck had gone off the first day with the fallers and buck-ers, claiming he had experience. He was certainly convincing with his great size, but evidently he hadn't quite measured up. Aiden said nothing. When they reached their work site, Buck swung his axe angrily into the side of a tree.
“Crap operation this is!” he grumbled to the other men. “They don't know squat up here and the saws are bad and don't half these men know how to hold their end up.”
No one said anything. Finally Aiden spoke up. “Trees with an
fall that way,
go the other.”
He ducked his head and got back to work. He'd cut a total of nine by the end of the shift, though he got only eight fully trimmed. After a few more days, though, cutting trees felt like the most natural thing in the world. He liked the feel of the axe on the wood. He liked the sweet hurt the first stroke made each day, the stab at his palm and jangle up his arm. After that, it was just a good long burn in his muscles. He liked the noises a tree made just before it was about to fall, all the creaks and groans and the slow, fragrant splintering of the heartwood.
For the first few days everything hurt, but then his blisters turned to calluses, his back stopped aching and the little trees began to fall like cornstalks under his blade. He woke eager to chop and stopped only when the gong surprised him and food had to be packed into his body. It was true what the men had said about the food being good. Except for the last day or two before the supply mules came in, there was always plenty, and often a good variety, with vegetables and apple pie not uncommon. Aiden never really noticed what it was, though, only the feel of it going down, hot and filling. He had never known food that came along so easily, so much and so often. Sometimes he thought he could even feel it flowing into his muscles, the way a wilted plant plumped up with water.
Days passed in routine, and for the first time in Aiden's life, everything was reliable. He swung the axe, the tree fell; again and again, always the same. He didn't have to think about rain or drought or taking care of anyone else. Out here among the grand trees, he was gratefully and vastly alone. Out here he was simply arms and back and
swing and balance. Life was nothing but the damp wood and the piney quiet, the ache of morning and the soft balm of night. For the first time since Maddy had died, the crushing terrible panic was gone. It was cold kindness, but Aiden had learned to take kindness in the smallest dose that came his way. Best of all, he did not have to be himself anymore. Out here he could be no one at all. He swung the axe, the tree fell.
“Hey, Prairie Boy, you—Eeden.” The tall Negro Ezekiel squatted beside him at the stream one day as they washed for supper.
“My name is Aiden, not Eeden.”
Ezekiel slept in Aiden's bunkhouse, but Aiden had never spoken to him before. Aiden didn't really speak to anyone except for the most necessary communication. They were both on the skid road crew, but their paths didn't cross since Ezekiel worked the oxen, dragging the trees into place. His accent wasn't Southern, and he didn't look like the slaves Aiden remembered from Virginia. He was tall and thin, with fine features and skin so black it was almost purple.
“Howeva you name—I just pass you news. Warn you stop cutting so much tree,” he whispered.
Ezekiel glanced around to be sure no one saw them talking. “Powhee say ten a day. You cut twelve—fifteen now sometime—dis is no good. I hear dee other men complain. No good fa’ you show off so.”
“I'm not showing off. I just like cutting down trees,” Aiden protested.
“Ah, well.” Ezekiel stood up and shook the water from his hands. “Just tell you is all fa’ me.”
“I'm not asking for more pay.” Aiden splashed the cold water on his face. “I'm not asking for anything. Just to be left alone.”
But they weren't about to leave him alone. Two nights later Aiden woke suddenly from the dead of sleep with a hand slapped hard across his mouth. Other hands quickly grabbed his feet and arms and dragged him out of the bunk. A burlap sack was pulled over his head. A rag was tied around his mouth before he had a chance to cry out. The men bumped him roughly across the bunkhouse floor, out into the damp night. The gag pressed the hairy burlap between his teeth and against his tongue and made him choke. He kicked hard at someone; then a fist slammed into his stomach and knocked the wind out of him.
“Don't wear us out, boy,” a voice hissed. Aiden smelled boots and sweat, tobacco stench and sour clothes. He felt a piece of rope cinch around his hands and a knot tied tight. He steeled himself for a beating. He was pretty sure they wouldn't actually kill him; no sane man would do that. But then again, few sane men wound up in the lost corners of Napoleon Gilivrey's empire.
Then he heard the soft flick of a wooden latch, the squeak of hinges and the creak of a door. An unmistakable stench smacked him in the face. He knew where he was now. Hands grabbed the waist of his pants; other hands grabbed his ankles. Aiden felt himself turned upside down.
“Here's for showing us up.”
They dunked his head into the foul outhouse hole. He choked on the stench. His shoulders banged against the wooden seat; his head was enveloped in the overpowering stink. Someone tried to force his shoulders together to shove him all the way through, but Aiden struggled and kept himself braced against the seat.
“Come on!” someone whispered. “Be done before you wake the whole camp!”
Aiden couldn't place the voices to any man, but he was certain William Buck had to be in on this. He worked hard not to vomit, but the smell and fear were overpowering. Thick bile rose in the back of his throat and burned through his nose. Next thing he heard was hammering, then laughter. He heard the door slam and the men running off into the darkness.
Aiden gagged again. Flies buzzed around his head. He was stuck upside down, his head in the hole, his hands tied together and his pants nailed to the wall. He crunched his abdomen, wriggled his shoulders and pulled his head out. They had tied his hands in front, so it wasn't too hard to pull himself up and tear his pants free. He crashed back down on the wooden seat, knocking his head hard. Desperately he tore at the gag, pulled the sack off his head, fumbled for the latch and tumbled out into the cool misty night.
iden said nothing the next morning. If any of the men knew anything, they were also silent. He finished his breakfast, got his axe from the sharpening shed and started walking down to the end of the skid road.
“Hey.” Aiden heard Powhee's distinctive whistle. “Prairie Boy!” Aiden turned. “I got enough men there now. Come to the big trees.”
Powhee handed him a can of kerosene and a maul, which was like a sledgehammer with a shorter handle. “You do the dog work again, but better kind of dog work now, eh? Learn to cut the big trees, you're a rich man!” Powhee laughed. “Go with the old guys.”
The “old guys” were an established team, both in their early forties. One was a tall Finn with ice blue eyes and thick gray hair that he wore in a long braid down his back. He had an unpronounceable name and so was simply call Old Finn. He was generally a quiet man, but Aiden had seen him dance on tables when drunk.
“Your job is to clean the blade, knock the wedges in, stay out of our way and run like hell when I call timber,” Old Finn instructed him. Aiden looked at his new tools with skepticism: a can of kerosene for cleaning the blades, a bucket of iron wedges and the heavy maul for pounding them in. He didn't like the idea of sawing; it looked like dull and numbing work. Sawing with the crosscut also required working with
another man, timing your rhythm and pitch. He did not like having to pay attention so closely to another person. But it would mean fifty cents more a day to start.
“It's keeping the saw blade level that's the trick!” Roger Charbonex said. He was the same height as Old Finn—buckers pretty much had to be—but he had a stockier build and dark features. He was French Canadian and probably had some Indian blood in him, as most French out here did, and was called Bony. Bony had come up from East Royal St. Petersburg with Aiden's group, but something about him made Aiden think it was not his first time working for Gilivrey, nor would it be his last. Aiden remembered Jefferson J. Jackson telling him about the fur traders who made and spent a fortune every year, and figured Bony might be of similar habit.
Old Finn and Bony took up their axes and swung in a quick alternating rhythm to make the first cut. Then they picked up the long saw and slipped the blade into the cut. Their back muscles strained against their shirts as the metal whizzed through the soft outer bark.
“See how the sap and sawdust gum up the blade?” Bony explained, breathing hard. “Pour the kerosene on.”
“And ready the wedge,” Old Finn added.
Aiden cleaned the saw blade, then shoved the pointed piece of iron into the cut and drove it in with the maul. This would keep the massive weight of the trunk from squeezing the saw blade.
“Blade!” Bony called. Aiden put down his maul and scrambled back for the can of kerosene. The gummy mess had to be cleaned off frequently, and soon the mixture of sap, sawdust and kerosene stung the back of Aiden's throat.
It was always exciting to see a huge tree fall, but the
process of getting it there was slow. The men worked for hours, stopping frequently for short rests, for the job required endurance.
“Here—have a practice,” Bony finally offered when they were halfway through. He stepped back and let Aiden take his end of the saw. Aiden squared his feet the way Bony showed him. The sawing was much harder to do than it looked. It was difficult to keep the long blade level. He got stuck several times, but Old Finn was patient and Aiden finally found a workable rhythm. They showed him how to make the back-cut and how to direct which way the tree would fall.
“Though there's still no guarantee,” Old Finn said grimly. “Sometime they jump.”
“Whole tree jumps up off the stump like a jig dancer,” Bony explained.
When the tree came close to the fall point, Old Finn blew a whistle. Other whistles answered from all over, warning everyone throughout the woods. The tree fell with a crash that shook the ground. There was a burned smell in the air from the friction of tearing wood. Aiden looked at the raw new stump. Sap was still welling up, forming shiny little amber beads, as if the grand old tree were actually bleeding.