The Golden Spike Chapter of the R&LHS presents a short story by crew member Jay Hudson.
The timber fallers were strung out along Dad’s Pinnacle, Montana oak bar reliving their day in the woods that cold night in 1947. Over in the corner a smelly knot of men from the Great Northern Railroad’s section gang silently pulled on cheap Olympia draft beer. The lone nickel slot machine near the door where my dad set it so the men could spend their last nickel on the way out the door, swayed on its rickety stand every time the door slammed shut. Kerosene lamps kept enough light in the bar for good conversation carried on through a screen of cigarette smoke. The brass spittoon lay in a thin layer of chaw drying on the wooden floor holed by hob-nailed boots. Everything was just the way it was the night before, and the night before that.
I heard the raspy putter of a Model “T” Ford pull up in the small parking lot and knew it was the new man hired to run on top of floaters on the mill pond pushing them with a long pole with a pike on its end. It had to be him. He was the only employee of the Rocky Mountain Lumber Mill with a car except the Push (foreman) and the camp cook and they never drank at the bar.
The door slammed shut, the slot machine swayed, and the new man stood just inside the door softly bathed in the kerosene lamp above the poker table. He adjusted his eyes in the dim light looking like he was about to make a silent statement. He stood over six foot, was on the slim side as were all the men in the woods during those years, but his shoulders were broad enough to impress both bad-smelling men and sweet-smelling ladies. His shoulders were the first part of him that drew my attention. He wore the typical logger’s winter outfit of brown canvas pants cut high enough to lace his “White” brand hobnail boots and to not carry the weight of water and mud which always hung at the bottom of long pants when the men worked in the wet or snowy forest. A clump of dark chest hair showed at the neck above his woolen long johns and a woolen black and red checkered shirt open at the wrists seemed much too tight about the shoulders.
He strode across the floor in steps as long as his shoulders were wide, and began to rudely elbow his way up to the bar. The section gang swung their eyes around knowing that trouble was on its way and I moved around the end of the bar instinctively knowing that the pecking order was about to be tested. The faller that was nuzzled up to the bar with his foot on the rail moved to his right without a hint of antagonism. Like dominos, the rest of the men on his right pulled a foot off the rail and moved on down the bar. Shorty was on the new man’s left when he tried to force his way in. Shorty didn’t budge, didn’t look around and obviously didn’t like the new man’s play.
Shorty was a chokerman built for the difficult task of running and crawling on and under felled trees setting the hard steel choker around fallen trees. The fallen trees had been cleared of their branches by cruiser axes and were ready to be dragged up the steep slopes of the mountain by the donkey engine pulling a steel cable attached to a “High Line”. The tree trunks would be stacked in the cold pile waiting to be hoisted on trucks. Shorty was compact, hard as the tempered teeth on the mills big circular saw and it wasn’t his nature to be pushed around by six foot diameter fallen Douglas fir trees or a new man on the payroll. He did a mean, nasty, wet, cold and dangerous job and because he still had all his fingers you could bet he was one tough puppy.
The new man had failed to move Shorty and their eyes locked in the dirty mirror over the bar. New man backed off a couple of feet. Looked down at the back of Shorty’s head and boldly spoke in a voice meant to be heard by every manjack in the bar, “When I come up to the bar, you move over, Shorty!”
This quieted the bar and even Tip, my dog, knew something was about to happen. Shorty slowly turned around and his elbows rested on the bar while he looked up into the new man eyes. Shorty looked like he was going to tell a story with his elbows resting in a non-threatening position and the rest of us waiting for action.
There was a pause, new man insulted Shorty to get his attention, and then what happened next was still being talked about until my dad sold the bar in 48 and it was turned into a summer cabin in the 1960’s.
Shorty had had enough and new man needed to remember that he started at the bottom and not the top of the closely knit group of regulars at the bar. It happened so quickly, I still wonder at just how lucky I was to be looking at them. Shorty pushed down hard on his elbows and shot off the bar straight up into the air. His knees came back to his chest and he kicked out straight into new man’s face. New man staggered backward, hit the wall and slid down in a heap of leather and wool with his hat still lying halfway across the floor. New man’s face was peppered with the holes of Shorty’s hobnailed boots and blood was streaming down into his long johns. He suddenly had a case of what the men now called “loggers smallpox”. He lay there and twitched like he had the St. Vitus dance. Shorty landed on his feet, turned around to finish his beer all the while keeping an eye on new man in the mirror on the back of the bar.
New man staggered to his feet, wiped his face with his big red neckerchief, walked over to pick up his hat and the last thing I heard was the sound of the nickel slot machine wavering on its stand as the door slammed shut and the Model “T” cranked over.
Order had been restored and the boss would have to look for a new employee to push around floaters on the mill pond.