THEY WERE sitting on the mangled earth of the river bank, looking across the shining stream to the edge of the woods where the steel bones of the new railway bridge came to rest. The reporter had the story of that new bridge in his notebook; the tons of cement, of sand, of aggregate, of steel; the millions of feet of timber, yes, even the gallons of paint that would cover it when the job was done.
He had the number of men employed, and the impressive total of their wages. He knew just what stresses the big girders would carry when the trains finally rolled across, and he had to a decimal of an inch the contraction that would take place in that rigid metal skeleton between the heat of this summer day and a winter temperature of twenty below zero.
He had several pages of proof that the new bridge was secure against flood and ice when the river broke up in spring, for that had been the downfall of the old one. His head reeled and his notebook bristled with figures—wind pressure and deformation stress and dead load and live load, and the impact of live load plus speed. And he was bored stiff. So was the Assistant Superintendent of Construction, who had been told to usher the reporter over the job and see that the Archimedes Construction Company had prominent mention in the account.
A cool breeze came down the river in little gusts, and with its uncertain breath the tac-tac-tac of riveting hammers sounded faintly and rattled suddenly with the violence of machine-gun fire.
“Those riveters,” the reporter said. “Look here, there’s something odd about those riveters.’
“French Canadians?” murmured the Assistant Superintendent. “They’re good men. What s odd about them?”
“Well, some of ’em are very dark. There's a certain set of the eyes and cheek bones.”
"Why not? The Caughnawagas have their reservation right alongside a big structural steel plant and they’ve learned the trade. What’s strange about that?”
“Well, after all, the red man’s supposed to be incapable of learning a skilled trade; and there he is, crawling like a fly in that spider web of steel, handling a hammer as if he was born to it.”
“Yes, and getting a dollar or two an hour, while plenty of the more or less lordly whites are below, mucking away with a pick and shovel at forty cents an hour, and glad to get it. Anywhere between the Soo and the sea, when you see a structural-steel worker with a sunburn that doesn’t wear off—ten to one he's a Caughnawaga and a darn good man.”
“It upsets all the traditions,” the reporter said. “Environment, eh?”
“Put the Indian next to white man's business and make a white man of him.”
The Assistant Superintendent pondered that for a moment. “An Indian’s an Indian.”
“But—a dollar an hour!”
"Makes no difference.”
LISTEN! (the A.S. went on.) Fifteen years ago I had a job at Michekanni Falls. That’s how I fell in with the Archimedes people; they’d got the contract to build a big paper mill back in the bush, and I was sent up there to represent the architect. I lived in a drafty barrack of pine boards and tar-paper with the rest of the construction staff, but I had a little office of my own, a small board shack in the midst of the job, with a chair and a pine plank desk and a telephone. There were blueprints tacked all over the walls and stuffed under the desk—enough to sink a ship—and more arriving in every mail.
In six months I had the blues—environment, as you’d say. I was city-bred and I was young. I’d looked forward to this job at Michekanni as an adventure in the wilds, not to mention being my own boss for a time, and the importance of being high priest of the sacred blue scrolls and having men running to me from morn to night with questions about them. But after a time the novelty went out of it, and I was far from being my own boss. The architect, my boss, was no farther away than the end of a telegraph wire, which he kept humming with instructions.
The construction company’s telegraph bill averaged five hundred dollars a month, and most of it had to do with the deep blue sea of plans that beat up around me and threatened to drown me and cut me off from everything—you know, like Robinson Crusoe.
The steel frame of the big mill was sprouting from the bedrock by the river, with the camp, all grey tarred-felt roofs and walls and tin chimney pipes, sprawling on the slope behind, and the railway line running off into the woods as straight as a rifle barrel. When you stood on the track, it led your eye toward the horizon through that narrow corridor in the bush, until the rails came together in a final glitter far in the distance, like the farewell wave of a hand. You felt as if you were a thousand miles from anywhere.
Actually there was a town, a village rather, not forty miles away, a cluster of unpainted wooden houses, a bank and a church and a barber's shop, all squatting round a bankrupt lumber mill like crows about a corpse.
It wasn’t long before the camp began to find its way over there. A bootlegger appeared; then a whole flock of bootleggers. When a construction worker hits town after a week in the camp, liquor's first on his list. Supply followed demand. That little dead settlement came to life with a bang. We had nine hundred men in camp, and the payroll was never less than thirty thousand dollars a week, and often more.
Personally I preferred the camp, noisy and dirty as it was; but to get away now and again from the monotony of grey huts and blueprints I went for walks in the woods. And one day I discovered the Indians. Steel workers. They wouldn’t live in the grey barracks like the rest of us, but brought their women and children over the railway and stuck up queer little shacks in the bush, a quarter mile from the job. Fifteen huts perhaps—wigwams, whatever you want to call ’em—made of poles and boards swiped from the concrete forms, the cement still crusted on ’em, with a covering of burlap sacks and bits of roofing felt, and brushwood and sheets of birch bark, and a lot of those indestructible paper sacks the cement companies use, all slung together anyhow.
They looked as if a stiff breeze would blow ’em away, but the spot was chosen for shelter, a gully in the hillside, shut in by spruce and fir and birch, with a little clear spring trickling out of the ledge rock under a poplar tree. A snug place. You might hunt the bush for a month to find such a place. Those Indians had gone to it by instinct. What else? They’d lived on the edge of a big city for generations, spoke French, yes, and read and wrote French, and had a pretty fair smattering of English besides; and they’d been earning big money all their adult lives, on construction jobs mostly in cities scattered over half the Dominion, and they knew the world of shops and cars and theatres as well as we do; but they had that ancient instinct for seclusion, for shelter, and knew how to find it.
I can’t say they welcomed me, the stranger, the white-collar man, the intruder from the woman-less camp below; but they were polite, and I sat on a log beside one of the huts, with the men squatting about me, and we talked. It was no great effort. The kids were friendly; we got along very well. I was able to do small favors for the men, in the way of banking their pay and so on, and after a few visits they thawed.
We had fine talks in that hidden camp in the hillside. They were intelligent and good-humored, they’d been everywhere and used their eyes and ears, and they had the Indian love of a tale. I came to know their names, and when you can hail people by name, without fail, and with the exact pronunciation, you’re practically in the family bosom.
The men were in the twenties and early thirties—you have to be young in the steel game—and when in the hot summer evenings they went down to the river and stripped for a bathe, you found yourself at a Greek frieze. They were lean and beautifully muscled from head to foot. Steel work does that for a man, where you have to hang on with your legs to some dizzy perch and work very hard with your arms. Their knees and ankles were callused from eternal shinning up and down the vertical steel, and from hanging onto the horizontals.
And steel work had done something else for them; it had given those stolid Caughnawagas an air of potential activity, a ready-for-anything manner, like sailors. I liked to watch them at work. You know how steel goes up? The erectors come first, slinging the posts and girders and trusses and braces into place with their cranes, and fixing them true with bolts and nuts. That’s all blueprint work. I watched it like a mother at a christening. Then the riveters come along, taking out the bolts one by one and hammering rivets in their place.
OF ALL the riveting gang, the Indians were best. It was fine to watch ’em—as good as a ball game. Teams of four, you know; riveter, sticker and bucker-up perching themselves on a girder, and the heater with his little portable forge somewhere below, on the nearest solid footing he can find.
The best team was a dark-skinned quartet named Napoléon, Onésime, Grégoire, and just plain John. John was the heater. He’d pick a red-hot rivet out of the coals with his tongs and give it a long underarm swing, opening the tongs at the end of the arc with a precision that took your breath, and the rivet went sailing up, up, straight as a bullet to the sticker waiting on the girder above. And the sticker—that was Onésime—sat there with his little tin pail in one hand, cool as ice, while the rivet came at him; and no more than twenty inches from his own brown beak nose he’d make a swift pass at the thing, a scooping gesture from right to left, and—tang!—there was the hot rivet in his bucket. He’d pick it out with his tongs and slip it into place in the steel.
Then Grégoire’d shove his heavy bucking-up iron against the rivet’s head while ’Poléon, on the other side, battered the glowing end with his pneumatic hammer—Tat-a-tat-tat!—working the hammer with a circular motion as the hot metal squeezed down, “rolling it.” as we say, until there was another perfect head, round and even-shouldered as the one on the other end. ’Poléon got the highest pay. Nobody could roll a rivet head like ’Poléon. It was an art.
It was more; when you consider those men hanging over the edge of nothing, holding on by the grip of their knees, working both arms, shoving with all their might on bucking-up iron and hammer, with the hammer blows shaking them like a fit of the palsy, and maybe a stiff wind blowing down the river and whistling in the high steel. I tell you it was a feat as good as anything you’d see in a circus. And not performed for a few dramatic minutes to the roll of drums, with the ringmaster pointing a theatrical white-gloved finger, but carried on, “Comin’ up!—tang!—Tat-a-tat-tat!” for ten hours on end, and nobody caring a hoot.
These four I came to know well. ’Poléon was unmarried. His sister, a squat solemn woman, was the wife of Grégoire, and ’Poléon lived in their hut. Onésime had a wife as like Mrs. Grégoire as one brown frog is like another, and two small round-eyed boys. John was the oldest of the four, active and muscular as any, but thirty-five or forty, a little fat, a little past his prime. You could see that John would never be anything but a heater, would never hold Grégoire’s heavy bucking-up iron, would never be able to boast, like ’Poléon, of the rivets he could drive in a ten-hour day.
But he was a good heater. I’ve seen John toss a hot rivet sixty-five feet straight to the mark, and Onésime catching it—tang!—in the shallow tin bucket, with the superb and careless skill that comes of long practice and a complete confidence in the heater’s throw. But in the little camp in the woods John could boast what ’Poléon could not, nor Grégoire nor Onésime for that matter—a young and handsome wife.
She couldn't have been more than eighteen, for she was slim as a sapling birch, and those women get fat early. She had the long oval face and pointed chin, the strong cheek bones and wide-set eyes of her people, and the thin nose jutting above the short tight mouth and rising and curving back, beak-like, to the straight black brows. Her eyes were lively and black—black as her shining hair—and she carried herself in the erect square-shouldered fashion bequeathed her by untold squaw's carrying infants strapped to their backs.
The other Indian women dressed like their steel-working men, in blue denim overalls and grey flannel shirts, with a cast-off cap or an old felt hat of their husband’s, and a pair of their husband’s old boots as like as not. You could spot a steel-worker’s boots at a glance—grooved up the inner sides from just before the heel to a point near the swell of the ankle bone, from sliding down I-beams, with heels hooked on the flanges, whenever the whistle blew.
But none of that for Madeleine! She wore skirts always, and silk stockings that showed more than they covered of her slim strong legs. It was ridiculous in that hole in the bush, where the women were as far from the public gaze as an Oriental harem. But there was something pathetic about it. You could sense her longing to be home, in the glimmer of city lights, where a young wife could parade her finery for the admiration of the world. What was the use of earning all this money, of living in this primitive economy for months on end, if you couldn’t make some show of the earnings and savings?
The other steel workers respected the Indians for their skill, but despised them otherwise. I used to think it was jealousy—after all it’s not very edifying to be beaten at your own game by what your white egoism has always considered an inferior race. But I came to know that it was the Indians’ frugality that made them contemptible in the eyes of the big camp. The steel workers were gorgeous spendthrifts, the finest in the camp, and that made the little Indian group seem all the more parsimonious.
When the steel gang went down the line for a week-end spree in Timberton. the bootleggers rubbed their hands and got out their most poisonous stock, and the town constable took to the woods. I’ve said the steel men despised the Indians; that’s too sweeping, there was an exception. They liked ’Poléon. ’Poléon was one of the boys. ’Poléon went to town and whooped it up with the best of ’em. He could drink that Timberton rot-gut hour after hour and keep charge of his hands and feet, and never got nasty as Indians in liquor are supposed to do; though when it came to a fight, ’Poléon would fight with gusto.
And he could sit in that blood-curdling poker game in the big room over Merton’s bowling alley, where the sky was the limit and money poured across the table like water, and draw and bluff and ante-up with a hand that never shook, a grin that never wavered. And he laughed and roared the bawdy songs of the camp, and bragged of the rivets he could drive in a day, of the money he earned in a week and spent in a week-end. Some said ’Poléon had white blood in his veins, and that made the difference; but, white or red, everybody liked ’Poléon.
SUDDENLY, in September, in the long fine days between summer and fall, with the maples turning color and the river flowing thinly after the summer’s drought, with the northern lights making their first experimental flickers in the evening sky, ’Poléon stopped going to town. He lay about the little Indian camp for days at a time, sending excuses down to the steel boss by John or Grégoire.
“ ’Poléon,” John would explain in his charming English, “he don’ feel pritty good.”
On these days Grégoire took over the hammer job, and the boss sent up a young French Canadian to hold the bucking-up iron. He was a good man, but somehow the team didn’t work as well. Even John fell off, the steady unerring John, and frequently a rivet went wild, beyond Onésime’s reach.
Now a red-hot rivet falling fifty or a hundred feet is an uncomfortable thing to the men below. The ground crew swore up into the air, and complained to the erector foreman, and the foreman spoke to John.
“Keep your mind on your work,” he suggested.
John shrugged. The ground crew took to watching. When ’Poléon was on the job, all went well; when ’Poléon was absent, they kept a wary eye on John and his rivets. The bricklayers didn’t mind very much. They were directly below, but the wild rivets always went outward.
It was tough on the blasting crew, the steam shovel men, the pneumatic drill men and the gang of muckers. They were grading what was to be the mill yard, and there was a big reef of exposed bedrock to be shattered and picked and shovelled and trucked away. At the cry of “Heads, there!” they had to scuttle over a jumble of broken rock to safety, and they didn't like it—who would? The ground foreman cussed and talked darkly of helmets, but the construction boss grunted at that, and said it was easier to hire a heater who could throw.
One day when ’Poléon was absent on one of his frequent “spells.” John tossed a rivet clear of Onésime’s bucket, clear of everything, and it came down in a beautiful arc to the roof of the temporary oil store, a tar-paper shack like the rest of the camp. Nobody saw where it landed till smoke began to curl up from the roof, and there was a mighty scurry for fire buckets. There was no great damage, but it gave the construction boss a scare, and he got the crane operator to sling him up onto the steel where John’s little forge was glowing. He told John a number of things in a wrapping of really brilliant profanity, and at the end he said
“Another one like that, fella, an’ you’re fired. It's a hard game, the steel, an’ if you’re gettin’ past it, why, say so, an’ I’ll get another man now.”
“I'm all ri’,” John protested quietly. “Eet's ’Poléon, boss. ’Poléon ain’ ’ere, I’m no good. ’Poléon's ’ere, I’m all ri’.”
That touched another sore spot. “ ’Poléon!” snapped the boss. “Is ’Poléon the only riveter on this job? I’ll fire ’Poléon too if he don’t show up more reg’lar. Lazy, that's what’s wrong with ’Poléon. I won’t stand for any o’ this on-again-off-again stuff on a job o’ mine—mind what I say! I’m a patient man, but I'm no Injun’s uncle an’ you’ll find that out!”
I missed this affair, because that afternoon I knocked off for a stroll in the bush, away from that bedlam of jack hammers and riveting hammers and steam shovels and cranes and hoists. They'd set up an air compressor outside my board-and-tar-paper office, one of those gasoline things that roar and then whisper, in irregular periods, hour after hour, and it was slowly driving me mad. I couldn’t ask the ground crew to tear up the pipe line and shift it, so I got away from it as much as I could.
I didn’t visit the Indians—I never went up there when the men weren’t present. Besides, a change had come over that little rustic paradise. The quiet was still there, and the shade, and the kids playing on the bare earth by the spring. But the people were different. They talked to me in an indifferent way, as if they were thinking of something else, and there was a tenseness about them, as if they were waiting for something to happen—something that was none of my business. So I walked by the river. The maples shut off all sight of the job, the grey squalor of the camp and the brick walls of the new mill rising out of it like a great pink monument to Mammon.
About a mile above, where a wedge of wild meadow came out of the tamaracks to the river, I heard the voices of a man and a girl. The girl’s first, singing something in a low husky voice, rather pleasing. It was ‘‘A la Claire Fontaine.” You know how it goes—
“A la claire fontaine
M’en allant promener—”
Her tune ended abruptly, and I heard the man’s voice low and urgent. I halted then, in a clump of alders. They were sitting in the wild grass under the gnarled trunk of an old swamp maple, and making love; or perhaps I should say ’Poléon was making love and Madeleine taking it greedily. The bobbed hair, black and smooth and faintly iridescent like the folded wings of a grackle, that usually made a frame for her intense face, hung down as her head went back and back under the rain of his kisses, a black and shining mop.
And between the kisses she laughed softly, a queer cooing sound. A disturbing sound—I was young then, and romantic. But I was shocked. I was no prude, you understand. After all, I’d lived six months in the atmosphere of the camp. I can’t explain it exactly. I respected those Indian people. They’d discovered how to earn the white man’s money in big chunks, but they weren’t letting it drag them down to the white man’s level—his frantic way of life. I liked that. They were sane, sane, and the rest of us lunatics, money-mad. And now—well, it was as if you'd walked into a garden and caught a whiff of offal among the flowers. I went away in a stealthy rush.
NEXT day 'Poléon was back on the job, and the team as usual went like clockwork. I went up on the steel in the morning because the erector foreman claimed something wrong with the blueprints, and I knew quite well it was nothing more than a piece of steel wrongly marked. It was the framework of the mill’s chip loft, the topmost part of the main building, and the riveting gangs were hard on the heels of the erector crew, with the bricklayers coming a bad third. From where I stood I could look down at John busily grinding the bellows crank of his smoking forge, and up at ’Poléon and Onésime and Grégoire sitting astride a girder on the edge of the framework.
They were in good form; it was an easy toss for John, thirty feet perhaps, and the rivets went up straight as bullets to Onésime’s little bucket, tang! tang! tang! and the chatter of ’Poléon’s hammer rose triumphantly above the noise of the big job. Have you ever heard a yellow-flicker on a camp roof, setting up a tattoo on the tin chimney, not because he thinks there’s a worm inside but for the sheer joy of it, the lovely rolling sound of it? It was like that—’Poléon’s hammer.
The erector boss said, “Jiminy! Those Indians are on today. If they keep it up there’ll be a new day’s record.” And he turned to the blueprints, aware that all this demanded more speed from his bolting crew. We got the tangle straightened out—a truss incorrectly marked—and I stood there for a time, an arm round an I-beam, looking over the ant heap of the works.
It was a grey day, with a threat of rain in a wind that blew in a fidgety way across the slope and ruffled the trees like a squall ruffling a green sea, and bent the various smokes of the camp and job in long ragged wisps against the earth. The river ran cleanly—soon to be poisoned by the discharge of pulp screenings and waste sulphite liquor—and on the far side the conifers stretched mile on mile, the forest doomed to be reaped for the grinders and chippers so that somebody far away could read a newspaper. Below, the toy steam shovels rattled and puffed, and toy trucks lurched away with their loads of jagged grey rock, and human ants swarmed in the debris of the shattered outcrop.
My eyes wandered back to ’Poléon and his riveting team. I watched John whip a glowing rivet out of the coals, watching the smooth swing of the tongs, the release at the end of it, and the rivet sailing up. John stood posed like a golfer at the end of a swing, a statue in bronze, arm outstretched, tongs rigidly pointed, watching the rivet’s flight as a golfer watches the driven ball. Then the swift pass of Onésime’s hand and the tin bucket crying tang! and the lightning transfer from bucket to bolt hole, the rivet glowing still but a duller red, and a little ripple of yellow sparks flittering over it as it entered the cold steel of the beam; and the slam of Grégoire’s bucking-up iron against the head of it, and ’Poléon leaning out over the abyss, held by the crook of a knee and the thrust of a toe, shoving the hammer hard on the rivet end, and the hammer’s harsh song rising once more.
I don’t know what made me look down at John then. He was whipping another rivet out of the forge, stepping clear for the swing. I glanced up quickly; ’Poléon was beginning to roll the head with an expert rotary movement of the jumping hammer—and Grégoire bearing hard on the bucking-up iron, and Onésime crouched on the girder beside them, watching the rolling of the head, as he always did. I looked down again, puzzled, as John swung his tongs, saw them open, saw the bright red rivet flying upward, saw John poised for a moment in the intent follow through, saw him break the pose sharply and busy himself with the forge. All this in seconds.
The rivet took ’Poléon full in the face; he gave a cry, not very loud, a sharp “Ha!” and threw up his hands. He seemed to launch himself into space like a diver into a pool, with his legs rigid and together, but with his hands clutched to his face. He floated downward slowly—it was incredible how slowly—as if he cared no more for the law of gravity than the law of man and wife, and far down he flung out his arms as a bird launched from the nest puts out its wings.
But ’Poléon had no wings, and it was ninety feet to the blasted rocks in the yard below. Beyond that first exclamation of agonized surprise he uttered no sound.
When the delayed thud of his fall came up to me, it was followed by a confusion of shouts from the mucker gang, and the human ants swarmed. One after another the sounds of machinery halted until there was a vast and awful silence over the whole job. You could have heard the drop of a nail anywhere. I wanted to go down at once, but my knees were knocking and I had to wait. Above me Grégoire and Onésime sat astride the girder, staring at each other. Then slowly they turned their faces down—down to John, at his little forge.
And he looked up at them, a long inscrutable gaze. Behind those three brown masks you sensed something fierce and old, I don’t know what, the satisfaction of a primitive rite and a giving of account, a pondering and a vote of confidence, all in the awful flood of silence that welled up from the ground and drowned us and went on to the grey sky.
And then John made a curious gesture, a stroke of the clenched hand in air, and you had a queer feeling you’d seen it before, in some other existence, long ago; but there was something missing, and you couldn’t for the life of you think what it was. And then you knew, you missed the haft of the tomahawk in the fist, the gleam of the heavy descending blade, the dull chock of stone or steel on bone as the death stroke fell.
’Poléon was beyond recognition when they picked him up. He’d fallen face down. They took the body to Timberton’s coroner on a work train. Grégoire was the only witness. ’Poléon had been hitting up the booze, he said. ’Poléon had been “maladif” two and three days at a time lately—here Grégoire appealed to the men with a sweep of his dark eyes, and there were confirming nods all round—and must have taken a fit; he fumbled for the exact English word, and failing said “le vertige.” That was all he knew. It was enough for the jury. The inquest rendered a verdict of death by accident, and with the usual pomposity recommended that some sort of net be suspended beneath the riveting gangs—a joke in the camp for months.
So there you are! You see the point? The primitive justice of the thing, considered, measured, delivered, and no questions asked. Indians! I tell you an Indian’s a separate creation. Appeal to his intelligence and you can make a very good white man of him, a matter of education. Scratch his emotions and you’ll find the savage he was, is now, and evermore shall be.
BUT YOU can’t leave the story there!” the reporter protested. “What happened to Madeleine?”
“Ah, you newspaper fellows are so darned objective. Why should there be any more? Proved my point, haven’t I? I don’t know what happened to Madeleine. I never went up to the gully again. Something told me they weren’t receiving visitors any more. I can fancy Grégoire and Onésime walking up to the gully that day and announcing ’Poléon’s dramatic exit from life in a few grunted words. And I can fancy them all standing silent before the ramshackle huts, and John and Madeleine staring at each other as John and Grégoire and Onésime had stared, up there on the steel—the question, the answer, the stolid acceptance of a thing foreordained, and the seal of an ancient code over all, a code going back to a time—who knows?—when the whites themselves dressed in skins and swung the early European counterpart of a tomahawk.
“Grégoire took over ’Poléon’s riveting hammer, and Onésime got the reward of his long and patient study—the job of bucker-up. They put a nephew of Grégoire’s on as sticker. John—John kept tossing rivets, with never a miss. At the job’s end they came out of the woods and vanished over the railway, just as they’d come. Mysterious, mysterious. A separate creation, I tell you.
“Look there—you see that new bridge, don’t you? It fills the eye. When you stand at this spot you can’t see anything else. But look—there’s the river, old as the face of the earth. It flows out of the woods, it passes quietly under that glittering metallic thing and disappears into the woods again. When you and I are dead and forgotten, when this bridge is gone like the one before it, and gone forever because there’s no need of rails and bridges any more—that river will still flow out of the woods, and past the ruin, and into the woods again.”
“Like the spirit of John, I suppose!”
“And Madeleine and ’Poléon.”
“Grégoire, of course! There must always be someone to covet ’Poléon’s job, to bide his time, to drop the inflaming word, and see the ends of justice served. Always a Grégoire to profit by the sins of others. That’s where the red man’s code joins with ours. From there we march together.”