«Letter from the Editors..2 Interview: Peter Mountford..3 Customer Care, Eric Severn..11 Professor M, Corinne Manning..19 Interview: T.V. Reed on ...»
Bert could hear the old man cough, and hear the crackling of the brush stop while the old man gagged and caught his breath.
The soapboxer was leaning against a tree, breathing hard because he had been coughing, looking up out of eyes that were sunken and dim, wearied now but normal, as if the coughing and the pain had brought him back to earth. “Stick close to me,” Bert said. “I thought I saw somebody.” He tried to whisper but his voice was hoarse and loud. The old man nodded.
“Get down,” Bert said. The old man got down obediently. The heavier drops from the leaves sprinkled over him as he sank into the brush. They waited.
Bert could hear the old man breathe and hear the rustle of his water-repellent clothing when he moved. Bert raised himself slowly to where he could look out over the hillside and the patch of shadowed brush he had left. He could see the drenched leaves, the dark glistening trunks of the fir and spruce.
Beyond the hill daylight showed between the trees. They were near a town, or there was a clearing or a logged-off stretch somewhere ahead.
Sometimes he thought he could hear the faint deceptive hum of a mill, indistinguishable from the sound of the rain. The old man lay stretched out on the muddy soil, face down, his forehead resting on his arm. The soles of his loggers were torn and the calks stripped out and twisted. His pants and soaked heavy mackinaw were mud colored; a little pool of muddy water formed where a tiny downhill stream washed against his body. While he watched the old man’s legs stiffened spasmodically, like those of a dog that sleeps and dreams that it is running.
Bert pulled at his shoulder. “Come on, Pop,” he said. “We better get on.” In a few moments the old man got to his feet, staggering, dazed and drunken with fatigue. Against his gray face the bruised and infected places were dark and enlarged. He forced himself into a kind of drugged alertness and Bert said silently, game old bastard, wondering how many miles the old man was good for. The old man asked, “Where are we?” “We’re in Paradise Lumber Company timber. There was a marker back there. Near Paradise or one of the Paradise Company towns. Paradise, I think.” The soapboxer swayed on his feet. “It’s full of corruption,” he said.
“We’ll have to go in.” The old man was starting again. His eyes glazed and he began talking loudly. “Corruption,” he said again. “God forsaken company town.
God forsaken highball outfit.” Then he began to cough and Bert quieted him.
The old man tried to whisper, “I know that town. Double rent for them leaky houses. I worked there. God forsaken place.” “I know,” Bert said. “Take it easy.” “Company money,” the old man said. “Jesus Christ. That God damn brass money you had to spend at their store.” Bert nodded. “We’ll have to try it,” he said.
The old man looked at him, straining to keep his mind clear and on the subject while his body sagged in exhaustion. “You go down there they’ll kill you,” he said.
“Come on.” “They’ll kill you.” Bert asked, “You want to drown? You want to starve to death?” There was a long silence. The old man strained to think clearly and not give up or forget again. “They’ll kill you,” he said.
“You want to stay here and drown?” The old man pulled his drenched mackinaw around his shoulders.
“They won’t only kill you,” he said. “They’ll cut you up. What did they do to Wesley? You want your balls cut off?” Bert turned away from him and looked out over the brush. Hills and trees swayed as his eyes darkened. “Wesley showed them how,” the old man said. “Now they know what to do. And even if nothing had happened they’ed run you out of town.” That was true. And it must be worse now. Or better. What would it take to awaken the people and make them see? But the mills were still running and the men had not laid down their tools.
The old man said, “They’re wiping us out, Bert. This is their way.
They whip up the people and get them confused. This is their way.” He knew it was true. But he said stubbornly, “There must be somebody in them little towns. And we can’t make it to camp.” “How can you find them?” “I’ll find somebody. Somebody will be friendly.” The old man said, “The people don’t know, Bert. How can they know? Who will tell them? They’re slow, slow, and there’s a lot of cattle there. They’ll kill you. They won’t ask who you are. They won’t give you a chance to get away.” “You want to starve? You want to wait here and starve?” The old man’s face twisted; the strength seemed to go out of him again. After a long time he said slowly, “They turn on the screws and sooner or later somebody is bound to shoot back. Maybe in Centralia or Everett or Butte—it don’t make any difference because it gives them their excuse and they turn the people against us. And they are wiping us out and they won’t stop now. This is their way. This is their chance. This is what they wanted.” Bert said, “They can’t make these company towns without making the people friendly. They can’t make them live in them houses without making them friendly. They can’t make them pay double for everything without making them friendly. It don’t make any difference how many guards they put around the people will be friendly. They won’t do anything or they’ll be friendly.” “Friendly,” the old man said. “Friendly to Warren Grimm.” His voice cracked; the speeches started again. He wavered and spread his arms in wide soapbox gestures as he called out to the brush. “Poor misguided bastards! Slaves in mind and body!” Bert turned away and started down the hill, closing his ears to the anguished words and breaking through the brush without caution. Who are your friends? Are they your friends, the bosses and the company rats, you buckers and fallers, choker setters and firemen, you loaders and whistlepunks? Are they your friends, you doggers and edgermen, you offbearers and boom-men and pilers in the rain? Your friends? Do they work as you do? Share the same risks? Dodge under the firs when the widow-makers come down and the snags fall and the butt logs tumble from the cold deck?
What have you in common with them? When the price of spruce jumped from twenty to a hundred a thousand, did the raise go to you? Did your wages go up except where we led you and forced them up? Your friends?
Who are your friends? Are they your friends, the men who hate us and exploit you?
He broke away from the voice and the old man’s warning. And if the old man was right? If in the little towns the workers were behind the Legion and the deputies, behind Hubbard and Warren Grimm, unstirred and inert and glad that Wesley was dead? Who are your friends? the old man asked, and he cried out in reply, Who are ours? He felt himself tear frantically at the brush because he could not stand the thoughts that flooded him when he stopped. At the base of the hill the underbrush was heavier. The tangle of salal and devils club reached to his shoulders. There was a creek at the base of the hill, swollen over its banks. The dark soil, stained with moss and decayed wood, was cut with hundreds of day-old streams. There was no cleared ground. He pushed into the tangle of brush, too stiff and cold to search for a way through it, and the thought of warmth, even the warmth of jail, pulled at him like the memory of some happy time before his life had darkened and his friends had been killed. Sometimes when he strained at the brush a red haze over his eyes blinded him, and sometimes he thought he could hear the blurred hum of a mill over the rain and the muffled sound of the stream, but he could no longer trust his eyes or his ears or his body, and he did not know if what he heard was a mill whistle in the distance or only a louder singing in his ears.
Then at a turn in the stream he saw the deputy again. This time there was no mistake. He stood in a clump of alders on the bank, pale and smiling, hatless, dry in the drenched woods, the gun still idly swinging by his side—Bert lifted his rifle and fired. His hands were stiff and he felt a moment’s surprise that the trigger was so heavy. The sound awakened him.
The man disappeared. The sound rolled louder through the hills, amplifying with each echo until the trees were shaken with its thunder. He stared at the place where the deputy had been and there was no one there, only a torn place on the tree where his bullet had gone through. An alder waved jerkily as the overflowing stream washed around its roots.
The soapboxer called, “What is it?” He hurried through the brush toward Bert, anxious, awake, calling to him.
Bert said dully, “I thought I saw something.” The sound hovered, holding them paralyzed. Then they ran downstream, spending their hour of panic-driven strength, fear clearing their minds and awakening them, driving them from the doomed spot where the echoes still roared and repeated like a great bell calling their enemies. The old man collapsed and crawled into the underbrush, where he stretched out choking and coughing, his feet digging into the mud each time a spasm of coughing shook him. Bert sat down with his rifle between his knees, holding the barrel with both hands and resting his head in his arms. He did not know how long he rested. The woods were darker when he looked up again.
He could see a short way down the stream. Again in the rainy shadow someone moved behind the screen of brush. He lifted the rifle again. Two boys came up the stream. He could see them clearly. The one in front pushed on busily, hoisting himself over the fallen snags and stepping far out, sure of himself, on the tree trunks that reached over the water. He was younger, towheaded, blank-faced, dressed in torn blue overalls and the coat of some uniform—the coat was too large for him and the shoulders sloped down on his arms. Army leggings were wrapped unevenly over the legs of his overalls.
Behind him the second boy moved more slowly, with dainty awkwardness. He was taller, wearing a long raincoat, and his features, dark and thin and almost girlish, twisted with distaste when he put his hand on the wet surface of a log to hoist himself over it. The younger boy called out. He jumped from a half sunken log to the bank where Bert was standing, landing hard with a grunt of satisfaction just as he saw Bert and stiffened with fear. His face went gaping and senseless. The second boy looked up, shuddered and half-bent, as if waiting to be struck.
Bert stepped between them. He looked down the stream to see if they were being followed. From the brush the old man asked, “What’s the matter?” “Just a couple kids.” No one followed them. The old man climbed the bank; the boys stared at him and then looked into the woods to see if more were coming. The older boy made an incomplete, convulsive movement, as if he started to run and found his feet caught firmly in the mud. Bert held him. “Where do you think you’re going?” The boy could not answer. His face was strained into an idiot expressionlessness. Bert shook him a little. “What are you doing up here?” The boy gasped, “Let go. We’re on a hike.” The younger boy gawked, startled but less afraid, waiting for something to happen. “We’re boy scouts,” he said. “Boy scouts.” Bert said, “Have you got anything to eat?” “No.” “Nothing,” Bert said. “No sandwiches.” The boy drew a deep breath and shook his head.
“Where you from?” “Paradise.” “Where’s that?” The boy nodded backwards. “Five-six miles,” he said.
“What are you doing up here?” He hesitated. Bert could see the boy’s fear give way a little, trying to think of what he should say. He said, boldly and hopefully, “We’re looking for the wobblies.” He stared at their faces to see what effect it had.
The old man sat down on a log and began to cough, bending over and gagging. When he straightened up he said, “That’s a pneumonia cough, Bert.” Bert released the older boy. He said incredulously, “They’ve got the kids after us.” He heard the old man clear his throat and saw the boys shuffle uncertainly. The little kids, he thought dully. Even the little boys. They were staring at the old man, at the bruised and infected places on his face. “Sending the little kids after us,” Bert said. “Look.” The old man said, “They’re against us. I said they’ed be against us.” “Little kids,” Bert said dully. “Sending the little kids out.” “I said they’d be against us. They’ll kill you down there. Time and again I said.” Yes, Bert thought, the little kids. He walked nervously to the younger boy.
“Who else is with you, boy? How many more? How many men?” The boy said, “Nobody.” Bert’s hand tightened, black and blue, on his arm.
“You want me to throw you in the crick?” “Nobody! Just the boy scouts! Just the troop!” “Who put you up to it?” “Nobody! Just Froggy Anderson.” “Who’s he?” “The scoutmaster.” “Where is he?” “I don’t know. Back at camp, I guess.” Bert said, “I ought to throw you in the crick.” The older boy began to cry. Bert stood close to the boys so they would not run, listening to the rain draining through the trees and straining for some other sound. Suppose I’d shot, he thought. He felt tired and helpless, defeated more than he had been by the rain and his weariness and his hunger, more than he had been when he shot blindly into the woods. Let them come, his mind said. All the little kids. All the little kids and all the cripples and all the old women and the old men, send them out in the woods and let them hunt for us. In a dull voice the old man asked, Where is justice for the workingman? and Bert thought: the people are against us. I thought they would be friendly and here the little kids, the little kids.
The little kids, he thought, the little devils scared and cold. The older boy well-dressed and crying, pale as a girl; the little kid gawking with his mouth open while the soapboxer started to rave. The people must be crazy, he thought, and the old soapboxer mumbled, Whose justice? Justice for the millowners, yes.