NEVER call a man yellow till you're sure he's shown his color." Old "Red" Barlow was filling the card room of the Vancouver Logger's Club with poisonous fumes from a corn cob pipe-a sure sign that he was in a yarning mood. "For instance, Red?" One of the members shuffled a deck of cards expectantly. - "Well, I was thinkin' of - `Runt'
Magee,” answered Red. Cards at the neighboring tables were laid down and forgotten as men silently joined the group around the veteran.
TT WAS back in the days when the Cowichan Lumber Company used to “drive” their logs down the Cowichan River from the Lake. Cowichan Lake is on Vancouver Island and lies about twenty miles from Duncan by the road. You had to drive in by stage in those days—weren’t no automobiles then. You guys who work for loggin’ companies nowadays don’t know a thing about that kind of loggin’. Now you load your logs on flat cars and send ’em out by railroad. In those days we worked all winter cuttin’ down trees, haulin’ the logs down skid roads to the lake with a donkey engine, dumpin’ ’em into the water and boomin’ ’em to wait for the high water in the spring. When the lake rose and the river was runnin’ high, the booms were opened and the logs went shootin’ downstream like race horses. They’d climb atop of one another, stand up on end, grind together; and if one got stuck crossways against a rock there’d be a dozen more piled up against it before you could catch your breath. If she stuck and you couldn’t get her pried loose quick enough, the logs kep’ pilin’ up and spreadin’. That meant a log jam, and about the only way you could bust it loose was to dynamite the key logs. It was risky business, too, for the guy that did the blowin’, for dynamite is risky stuff to handle. Sometimes the fuse burned too fast and the jam went up before the fellow could get clear. And God help the guy that got caught and went down with a log jam! Usually he wasn’t recognizable when they pulled him out.
“J\[ever call a man yellow till you’re sure he’s shown his color” —particularly in a logging camp
Anyhow, the time I was thinkin’ of was back about 1902. I was workin’ at one of the company’s camps at Cowichan Lake. Bill Grindley was boss of the company then, and a pepper-pot if there ever was one. Funny, he never used to cuss even when he was maddest, but I don’t think I ever knew a man with a worse temper or one who could make you feel smaller when he tied into you. He’s dead now, but that guy sure knew his onions when it came to loggin’. He’d gone through the woods and the mill himself in Ontario and worked up to be manager of the company in B.C. You sure couldn’t fool him. He walked kind of stiff-legged— had one leg bad hurt when he was a kid, but where that bird couldn’t get wasn’t worth goin’. He used to drive a big black gelding that had a worse temper than old Bill himself; nobody else could handle the brute, but I guess he knew his master. Grindley wasn’t very big, but was he scared of the biggest man in camp? I’ll tell the world he wasn’t. They say he almost horsewhipped a guy to death in Ontario for bringin’ booze into the mill. One of the teamsters it was. Guess Grindley would have killed him, only his wife heard the row and come runnin’. She was the only one who wasn’t scared of old Bill in his tantrums. Anyhow, I didn’t start out to tell you Grindley’s story; that’d need a book.
AS I SAID, I was workin’ at Cowichan Lake, and one of the times when Grindley turned up unexpected like, he had a little guy with him and he told the cook to put him to work. Nobody ever knew where he came from or much about him. Don’t know’s we ever even knew his first name in camp, for someone called him “Runt” and the name stuck. That’s all he ever did get.
“Runt” Magee he stayed, and the name suited him, for he was a little weazenedup sort of a fellow, kind of sandycomplected, freckled and scrawny. You couldn’t guess his age; might have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty. He had kind of a nervous way of jumpin’ when somebody spoke to him, and he was scared of his own shadder in the bush.
How he ever came to get a job in a loggin’ camp was beyond me. Seemed as though he’d been raised in town, but even that didn’t seem an excuse for him bein’ so frightened. It was like pullin’ teeth to get him out of the bunkhouse after dark. And maybe he didn’t hate to get up before daylight in the mornin’! The boys played all sorts of tricks on him, but he took everything without a come-back till they all got tired pickin’ on him. As one of the boys said: “Hell, that guy’s so darn yellow there ain’t no fun kiddin’ him.”
Most everybody agreed with him, for the “Runt” sure acted as if he was yellow clear through. The only one of the gang who paid any attention to him at all except, to cuss him, was big Sandy MacDonald. “Mac” hadn’t much more use for Runt than the rest of us, but it was just his nature not to hurt anything. He’d pick up animals and birds in the woods that had been hurt* take ’em into camp and doctor ’em up. He was kind to Runt the same as he’d be kind to a stray mongrel. The consequences was that Runt followed Mac round about the same way a dog would. One day Mac gave him a big clasp-knife he had and you’d thought it was a fortune. He didn’t say much, but from then on you never saw Runt without that knife. We used to think he slept with it. He’d spend his evenings makin’ little models of ships. With not a thing to work with but that knife he’d make perfect models. Seemed to be kind of cracked about ships. Most of us thought he had a screw loose anyhow.
That was one of the worst winters I remember in camp. It snowed and froze and rained and snowed some more, and we had a flock of little accidents that Continued on page 36
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got everybody’s goat and the whole crew was as jumpy and nervous as a bunch of old maids. Guess maybe the boys kind of took their temper out on Runt, but that wasn’t an awful lot of satisfaction for he never made any comeback if you cussed him till you were black in the face—just kind of cringed and slunk off like a cur that’s been kicked.
One day the big Boss landed in to look things over. You never knew just when he’d bob up when you weren’t lookin’ for him. Anyhow he sashayed out to watch a couple of the boys failin’ a big Douglas fir. She was a whopper all right; a hundred and seventy-five feet if she was an inch, and six feet through at the butt. Grindley was far enough back to be out of reach of the tree’s line of fall—if she fell straight. Of course, bein’ who he was he wouldn’t get any farther away than he had to. She began to crack and the boys yelled “timber-r-r-r” and moved back to safety. The top began to shiver, then with a crack and a roar down she came. She fell straight enough but one of the big limbs struck another smaller tree that must have been “conky,” for it broke off short and came along with the first one. The second tree didn’t fall straight but swung sideways right in line with where Grindley was standin’. He saw it all right and, realizin’ that he wouldn’t have time to get clear, took a quick look around for somethin’ to protect him. A few feet away he saw a small tree that had been blown down by the wind. In one jump he’d reached that tree and flopped full length on the ground behind it, crowdin’ himself in as close as he could. We held our breaths waitin’ for the crash. There wasn’t a darn thing we could do. The two trees crashed almost together. Grindley sure must have been born under a lucky star, for the failin’ tree broke across the one he was under and buried him in a smother of branches and bark. We hauled him out stutterin’ and coughin’ with a face as red as a turkey gobbler, but he wasn’t hurt any. Didn’t even phaze him much, for after we got him brushed off he finished his inspection of camp as if nothin' had happened. Runt who happened to see the whole performance was a darn sight more scared than the Boss.
WHEN the drive started with the high water in the spring we sure did hump ourselves. Spite of all the trouble we’d had durin’ the winter, we’d got out an awful lot of logs. I want to tell you guys wot think you work hard that you don’t know a darn thing about work until you try followin’ a log drive. Gosh, you don’t even dress like loggers now! Those days we wore mackinaw shirts, “stagged” trousers and spiked boots. Nowadays, the only guy you see wearin’ spiked boots is some bird workin’ out on a boom in a sawmill pond.
The river was full of logs and the water runnin’ high and fast. We followed up, workin’ like beavers, splashin’ in icy water all day, generally soaked to the waist, runnin’ over slippery logs, workin’ with pike pole and peavy, gatherin’ up the trailers—that’s logs that get caught in backwaters or eddies—work, work, work, and nothin’ else to do. Grabbin’ a meal standin’ up at noon, workin’ as long as we could see at night and startin’ at dawn next day. Tryin’ to prevent jams and cussin’ everybody and everything when things went wrong.
This year we’d been pretty lucky about jams up to the time the drive reached the Falls. The river narrows there and there’s a bunch of rock in the middle that splits the channel. If you can keep the logs clear of the rocks it’s pretty plain sailin’ but the trouble is to keep ’em clear. They come so fast and crowd one another so, that it’s one hell of a job to keep them movin’. By the time we’d 1 reached the Falls most all the gang was
there strung out across the river workin’ like mad with pikes and peavies to keep those logs goin’. Things were goin’ pretty good when along comes a big butt with the roots on—most likely washed out of the bank by the high water. Down she comes all tangled up with the logs. Four of the boys jump to try to keep her movin’ but in spite of all they can do, the roots catch somewhere, the long butt swings crossways and lands against the rocks. Before you could say “Jack Robinson” there’s forty logs piled up on top of that butt and more cornin’. We worked like niggers, tryin’ to pry her loose but it was no use. She’d jammed and jammed fast. The logs kept pilin’ up and spreadin’ while we worked, till finally the river boss says: “Guess we’ll have to blow her boys; who wants the job?”
There was silence for a minute, for every man knew that the guy that blows a log jam takes his life in his hands.
Finally Mac says: “All right, Dan, guess I’m elected.”
That’s all there was to it and we set about gettin’ ready. The dynamite was tied to a long pole, caps and fuse attached and Mac was ready. While most of the fellows got back a safe distance, a few of us gathered on the bank to watch Mac, now pickin’ his way out over the jam, ready to run when he did. Just then a hand grabbed me by the arm and I was surprised to see Runt standin’ there, his face fairly waxy with terror.
“Wh-what’s M-Mac goin’ to do?” he stuttered.
“Blow the dam, you idiot,” one of the boys answered him gruffly. “What the hell do you want to stand and watch him for, if you’re so scared?”
Runt didn’t answer, just stood and shivered while we forgot him in watching Mac who by this time had reached a spot plumb over the key log. Deliberately he groped with the butt end of his pole findin’ the exact spot he was goin’ to drop that dynamite where it would do most good. In a couple of minutes he waved his hand to us to get ready, struck a match, lit the fuse, waited calmly till it was sputterin’ properly, shoved pole and dynamite into the hole he had picked, and turned to run. On he came in great jumps and we started to scatter to safety. Beside me I heard a gasp; “My God, look!” Glancin’ back over my shoulder I saw that Mac—the man we counted the steadiest, surest-footed man on the whole river, had slipped and stumbled. Stuck in my boots, I stopped while Mac dropped on one knee and started clawin’ frantically at his foot, and then we saw that he was caught fast between two logs. A couple of us started out to him, but he yelled with a curse: “Go back, you fools,” at the same time glancin’ white-faced over his shoulder, all the while twistin’ and pullin’ at his foot. At his yell we stopped, realizin’ that there was enough dynamite attached to that fuse to blow us all into Kingdom Come. While we hesi-
tated Mac hurled a string of curses at us. “Run you idiots, run,” he hollered.
I don’t suppose it all took more than a few seconds but it seemed hours. Before anyone could move again there was a scream beside me such as I never heard from a human throat and never want to hear again, and past me shot Runt, headed for Mac. Runt, that we’d all cursed and called a coward—maybe he was, poor devil, but he sure went loco when he saw the only friend he had in the world pinned fast facin’ certain death. We watched, holdin’ our breaths, while out over the logs raced Runt, pullin’ out his Jbig clasp-knife as he ran. Runt, who’d never been on the logs before, who was scared to death of the river, who didn’t even have on spiked shoes. He never even looked where he was goin’, never even slipped or faltered, but while Mac cursed him for a fool and an idiot and hollered to him to go back, he never even let on that he heard, but dropping on his knees at Mac’s side began slashin' at the laces of his boot. That wickedlookin’ clasp-knife was razor-sharp and it cut through those rawhide laces like thread.
“Pull,” Runt yelled at Mac as he
Mac “pulled” and managed to jerk his foot free leavin’ his boot fast in the logs. Jumpin’ up he reached out his hand to Runt who side-stepped and yelled at him to run, at the same time startin’ for shore himself. We all ran then and reachin’ a safe distance turned to watch. Mac was makin’ heavy weather of it with only one boot, but was nearly to shore with Runt a little ways behind him, but slippin’ now and slidin’. While we watched, he stumbled and fell, slippin’ half over the edge of the jam. We expected to hear him yell to Mac but to everybody’s surprise there wasn’t a cheep out of him and Mac didn’t even look round. Frozen with horror we watched Runt slowly squirm his way back. Mac reached the bank and lookin’ over his shoulder saw that Runt was down. He turned and took a step back to help him, but just then “BOOM!” Up she went.
The blast knocked Mac head over heels and landed him in a pile of brush. The jam heaved up like a giant hand had pushed it, a spout of muddy water shot into the air, then the river was full of fightin’ plungin’ logs that acted like they were mad because they’d been held back and were goin’ to make up for lost time. We had one glimpse of Runt as he disappeared and I’ll never forget that minute so long as I live.
When the air had cleared a bit and the rocks and chunks of bark had stopped failin’, we dragged Mac out of the brush pile. He was dazed and scratched up some, but otherwise didn’t seem to be hurt much. The first thing he said was “Runt?” I guess our white faces answered him, for he turned away with a groan hidin’ his face in his hands. Behind me I heard Jimmy Drew say softly: "My God, and I called that little guy yellow.”
We found Runt a couple of hours later about a mile down the river. Guess most every bone in his body was broken; the logs had pounded him almost to a pulp, but by some miracle his face was scarcely marked; and maybe it sounds kind of funny, but there was sort of a peaceful smile on it as if he was glad he’d died game.
We took him into Duncan, and as nobody knew anything about him, the Boss arranged to have him buried at the little Methodist graveyard at Somenos. One of the boys told the preacher the story and it was him that suggested the text to be cut on his tombstone. Just a plain marble stone it was—the boys all chipped in to buy it—and on it was cut just^his name and the words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”
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