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A short story by Charles G. D. Roberts

At The Rough-And-Tumble Landing

Title:     At The Rough-And-Tumble Landing
Author: Charles G. D. Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

The soft smell of thawing snow was in the air, proclaiming April to the senses of the lumbermen as unmistakably as could any calendar.

The ice had gone out of the Big Aspohegan with a rush. There was an air of expectation about the camp. Everything was ready for a start down-stream. The hands who had all winter been chopping and hauling in the deep woods were about to begin the more toilsome and perilous task of "driving" the logs down the swollen river to the great booms and unresting mills about its mouth. One thing only remained to be done ere the drive could get under way. The huge "brow" of logs over-hanging the stream had yet to be released. To whom would fall the task of accomplishing its release, was a question still undecided.

The perils of "stream-driving" on a bad river have been dwelt upon, I suppose, by every writer who has occupied his pen at all with the life of the lumber-camps. But to the daring backwoodsman there seldom falls a task more hazardous than that of cutting loose a brow of logs when the logs have been piled in the form of what is called a "rough-and-tumble landing." Such a landing is constructed by driving long timbers into the mud at the water's edge, below a steep piece of bank. Along the inner side of these are laid horizontally a certain number of logs, to form a water front; and into the space behind are tumbled helter-skelter from the tops of the bank the logs of the winter's chopping. It is a very simple and expeditious way of storing the logs. But when the ice has run out, and it is time to start the lumber down-stream, then comes trouble. The piles sustaining the whole vast weight of the brow have to be cut away, and the problem that confronts the chopper is how to escape the terrific rush of the falling logs.

Hughey McElvey, the boss of the Aspohegan camp, swinging an axe (rather as a badge of office than because he thought he might want to chop anything), sauntered down to the water's edge and took a final official glance at the brow of logs. Its foundations had been laid while McElvey was down with a touch of fever, and he was ill satisfied with them. For perhaps the fiftieth time, he shook his head and grumbled, "It's goin' to be a resky job gittin' them logs clear." Then he rejoined the little cluster of men on top of the bank.

As he did so, a tall girl with splendid red hair came out of the camp and stepped up to his side. This was Laurette, the boss's only daughter, who had that morning driven over from the settlements in the back country, to bring him some comforts of mended woollens and to bid "the drive" God-speed. From McElvey the girl inherited her vivid hair and her superb proportions; and from her mother, who had been one Laurette Beaulieu, of Grande Anse, she got her mirthful black eyes and her smooth, dusky complexion, which formed so striking a contrast to her radiant tresses. A little conscious of all the eyes that centred upon her with varying degrees of admiration, love, desire, or self-abasing devotion, she felt the soft color deepen in her cheeks as she playfully took possession of McElvey's axe.

"_You're_ not goin' to do it, father, I reckon!" she exclaimed.

"No, sis," answered the boss, smiling down at her, "leastways, not unless the hands is all scared."

"Well, who _is_ goin' to?" she inquired, letting her glance sweep rapidly over the stalwart forms that surrounded her. A shrewd observer might have noted that her eyes shyly avoided one figure, that stood a little apart from the rest,--the figure of a strongly-built man of medium size, who looked small among his large-moulded fellows. As for Jim Reddin, who was watching the girl's every movement, his heart tightened with a bitter pang as her eyes thus seemed to pass him over. Having, for all his forty years, a plentiful lack of knowledge of the feminine heart and its methods, he imagined himself ignored. And yet had he not Laurette's promise that none other than he should have the privilege of driving her home to the settlements that afternoon?

"That's what we're just a-goin' to decide," said McElvey, in answer to Laurette's question. "But first," he continued, with a sly chuckle, "hadn't you better pick out the feller that's goin' to drive you home, sis? We're goin' to be powerful well occupied, all hands, when we git a start on them logs, I tell you!"

At this suggestion a huge young woodsman who was standing behind some of the others, out of Laurette's range of vision, started eagerly forward. Bill Goodine was acknowledged to be the best-looking man on the Big Aspohegan,--an opinion in which he himself most heartily concurred. He was also noted as a wrestler and fighter. He was an ardent admirer of Laurette; but his passion had not taught him any humility, and he felt confident that in order to gain the coveted honor of driving the girl home he had nothing to do but apply for it. He felt that it would hardly be the "square thing" to put Laurette to the embarrassment of inviting him right there before all the hands. Before he could catch her eye, however, Laurette had spoken what surely the devil of coquetry must have whispered in her ear. Undoubtedly, she had promised Jim Reddin that he should drive her home. But "let him show that he appreciates the favor," she thought to herself; and aloud, with a toss of her head, she exclaimed, "I'll take the one that cuts out the logs,--if he wants to come!"

The effect of this speech was instantaneous. Fully half the hands stepped forward, exclaiming, "I'll do it!--I'll do it, boss!--I'm your man, Mr. McElvey!" But Bill Goodine sprang to the front with a vigor that brushed aside all in his path. Thrusting himself in front of the laughing McElvey, he shouted, "I spoke first! I claim the job!" And, snatching up an axe, he started down the bank.

"Hold on!" shouted McElvey; but Goodine paid no attention. "Come back, I tell you!" roared the boss. "The job's yours, so hold on!" Upon this Bill came swaggering back, and gazed about him triumphantly.

"I guess _I'm_ your teamster, eh, Laurette?" he murmured. But, to his astonishment, Laurette did not seem to hear him. She was casting quick glances of anger and disappointment in the direction of Jim Reddin, who leaned on a sled-stake and appeared to take no interest in the proceedings. Goodine flushed with jealous wrath, and was about to fling some gibe at Reddin, when McElvey remarked,--

"That's all very well, sis; and has kinder simplified matters a lot. But I'm thinkin' you'd better have another one of the boys to fall back on. This 'ere's an onusual ticklish job; and the feller as does it'll be lucky if he comes off with a whole skin."

At these words so plain an expression of relief went over Laurette's face that Bill Goodine could not contain himself.

"Jim Reddin _dasn't_ do it," he muttered to her, fiercely.

The girl drew herself up. "I never said he dast," she replied. "An' what's Jim Reddin to me, I'd like to know?" And then, being furious at Jim, at herself, and at Goodine, she was on the point of telling the latter that _he_ shouldn't drive her home, anyway, when she reflected that this would excite comment, and restrained herself. But Reddin, who imagined that the whole thing was a scheme on Laurette's part for getting out of her promise to him, and who felt, consequently, as if the heavens were falling about his ears, had caught Goodine's mention of his name. He stepped up and asked sharply, "What's that about Jim Reddin?"

Laurette was gazing at him in a way that pierced his jealous pain and thrilled his heart strangely; and as he looked at her he began to forget Bill Goodine altogether. But Goodine was not to be forgotten.

"I said," he cried, in a loud voice, "that you, Jim Reddin, jest _dasn't_ cut out them logs. You think yourself some punkins, you do; but ye're a coward!" And, swinging his great form round insolently, Goodine picked up his axe and sauntered down the bank.

Now, Laurette, as well as most of the hands, looked to see this insult promptly resented in the only way consistent with honor. Reddin, though tender-hearted and slow to anger, was regarded as being, with the possible exception of Goodine, the strongest man in that section of the country. He had proved his daring by many a bold feat in the rapids and the jams; and his prowess as a fighter had been displayed more than once when a backwoods bully required a thrashing. But now he gave the Aspohegan camp a genuine surprise. First, the blood left his face, his eyes grew small and piercing, and his hands clenched spasmodically as he took a couple of steps after Goodine's retreating figure. Then his face flushed scarlet, and he turned to Laurette with a look of absolutely piteous appeal.

"I _can't_ fight him," he tried to explain, huskily. "You don't understand. I ain't _afeard_ of him, nor of any man. But I vowed to his mother I'd be good to the lad, and--"

"Oh, I reckon I quite understand, Mr. Reddin," interrupted the girl, in a hard, clear voice; and, seeing the furious scorn in her face, Reddin silently turned away.

Laurette's scorn was sharpened by a sense of the bitterest disappointment. She had allowed herself to give her heart to a coward, whom she had fancied a hero. As she turned to her father, big tears forced themselves into her eyes. But the episode had passed quickly; and her distress was not observed, as all attention now turned to Goodine and his perilous undertaking. Only McElvey, who had suspected the girl's sentiments for some time, said in an undertone, "Jim Reddin ain't no coward, and don't you forget it, sis. But it _is_ queer the way he'll just take anything at all from Bill Goodine. It's somethin' we don't none of us understand."

"I reckon he does well to be scared of him," said Laurette, with her head very high in the air.

By this time Goodine had formed his plans, and had got to work. At first he called in the assistance of two other axemen, to cut certain of the piles which had no great strain upon them. This done, the assistants returned to safe quarters; and then Bill warily reviewed the situation. "He knows what he's about," murmured McElvey, with approbation, as Bill attacked another pile, cut it two-thirds through, and left it so. Then he severed completely a huge timber far on the left front of the landing. There remained but two piles to withstand the main push of the logs. One of these was in the centre, the other a little to the right,--on which side the chopper had to make his escape when the logs began to go. This latter pile Goodine now cut half-way through. Feeling himself the hero of the hour, he handled his axe brilliantly, and soon forgot his indignation against Laurette. At length he attacked the centre pile, the key to the whole structure.

Everybody, at this point, held his breath. Loud sounded the measured axe-strokes over the rush of the swollen river. No one moved but Reddin, and no one but Laurette noticed his movement. His skilled eye had detected a danger which none of the rest perceived. He drew close to the brow, and moved a little way down the bank.

"What can he be up to?" wondered Laurette; and then she sniffed angrily because she had thought about him at all.

Goodine dealt a few cautious strokes upon the central pile, paused a moment or two to reconnoitre, and then renewed his attack. Reddin became very fidgety. He watched the logs, and shouted earnestly,--

"Better come out o' that right now and finish on this 'ere nigh pile."

Goodine looked up, eyed first his adviser, then very narrowly the logs, and answered, tersely, "Go to h--ll!"

"That's just like the both of 'em," muttered McElvey, as Goodine turned and resumed his chopping.

At this moment there came a sullen, tearing sound; and the top of the near pile, which had been half cut through, began to lean slowly, slowly. A yell of desperate warning arose. Goodine dropped his axe, turned like lightning, and made a tremendous leap for safety. He gained the edge of the landing-front, slipped on an oozy stone, and fell back with a cry of horror right beneath the toppling mass of logs.

As his cry re-echoed from every throat, Jim Reddin dropped beside him as swiftly and almost miraculously as a sparrow-hawk flashes upon its prey. With a terrific surge he swung Goodine backward and outward into the raging current, but away from the face of the impending avalanche. Then, as the logs all went with a gathering roar, he himself sprang outward in a superb leap, splashed mightily into the stream, disappeared, and came up some yards below. Side by side the two men struck out sturdily for shore, and in a couple of minutes their comrades' eager hands were dragging them up the bank.

"Didn't I _tell_ you Jim Reddin wasn't no coward?" said McElvey, with glistening eyes, to Laurette; and Laurette, having no other way to relieve her excitement and give vent to her revulsion of feelings, sat down on a sled and cried most illogically.

As the two dripping men approached the camp, she looked up to see a reconciliation. Presently Goodine emerged from a little knot of his companions, approached Reddin, and held out his hand.

"I ask yer pardon," said he. "You're a man, an' no mistake. It is my life I owe to you; an' I'm proud to owe it to sech as you!"

But Reddin took no notice of the outstretched hand. The direct and primitive movements of the backwoodsman's mind may seem to the sophisticated intelligence peculiar; but they are easy to comprehend. Jim Reddin quite overlooked the opportunity now offered for a display of exalted sentiment. In a harsh, deliberate voice he said,--

"An' now, Bill Goodine, you've got to stand up to me, an' we'll see which is the better man, you or me. Ever sence you growed up to be a man you've used me just as mean as you knowed how; an' now we'll fight it out right here."

At this went up a chorus of disapproval: and Goodine said, "I'll be d--d if I'm a-goin to strike the man what's jest saved my life!"

"You needn't let _that_ worry you, Bill," replied Reddin. "We're quits there. I reckon you forget as how your mother, God bless her, saved my life, some twenty year back, when you was jest a-toddlin'. An' I vowed to her I'd be good to you the very best I knowed how. An' I've kep' my vow. But now I reckon I'm quit of it; an' if you ain't a-goin' to give me satisfaction now my hands is free, then you ain't no man at all, an' I'll try an' find some way to _make_ you fight!"

"Jim's right!--You've got to fight, Bill!--That's fair!" and many more exclamations of like character, showed the drift of popular sentiment so plainly that Goodine exclaimed, "Well, if you sez so, it's got to be! But I don't want to hurt you, Jim Reddin; an' lick you I kin, every day in the week, an' you know it!"

"You're a liar!" remarked Jim Reddin, in a business-like voice, as the hands formed a ring.

At this some of the hands laughed, and Goodine, glancing around, caught the ghost of a smile on Laurette's face. This was all that was needed. The blood boiled up to his temples, and with an oath under his breath he sprang upon his adversary.

Smoothly and instantaneously as a shadow Reddin eluded the attack. And now his face lost its set look of injury and assumed a smile of cheerful interest. Bill Goodine, in spite of his huge bulk, had the elasticity and dash of a panther; but his quickness was nothing to that of Reddin. Once or twice the latter parried, with seeming ease, his most destructive lunges, but more often he contented himself with moving aside like a flash of light. Presently Goodine cried out,--

"Why don't yer _fight_, like a man, stidder skippin' out o' the road like a flea?"

"'Cause I don't want to hurt you," laughed Reddin.

But that little boastful laugh delayed his movements, and Goodine was upon him. Two or three terrible short-arm blows were exchanged, and then the two men grappled.

"Let 'em be," ordered McElvey. "They'd better wrastle than fight."

For a second or two, nay, for perhaps a whole minute, it looked to the spectators as if Reddin must be crushed helpless in Bill's tremendous embrace. Then it began to dawn on them that Reddin had captured the more deadly hold. Then the dim rumors of Reddin's marvellous strength began to gather credence, as it was seen how his grip seemed to dominate that of his great opponent.

For several minutes the straining antagonists swayed about the ring. Then suddenly Reddin straightened himself, and Bill's hold slipped for an instant. Before he could recover it Reddin had stooped, secured a lower grip, and in a moment hurled his adversary clear over his shoulder. A roar of applause went up from the spectators; and Goodine, after trying to rise, lay still and groaned, "I'm licked, Jim. I've had enough."

The boss soon pronounced that Bill's shoulder was dislocated, and that he'd have to go back to the settlements to be doctored. This being the case, Laurette said to him benevolently, after her horse was harnessed to the pung, "I'm sorry I can't ask you to drive me home, though you _did_ cut out the logs, Bill. But I reckon it'll be the next best thing fur you if _I_ drive _you_ home. An' Jim Reddin'll come along, maybe, to kind of look after the both of us."

To which proposition poor Bill grinned a rather ghastly assent.

[The end]
Charles G. D. Roberts's short story: At The Rough-And-Tumble Landing