FICTION

LEADFOOT

It takes a tough, proud breed to cut a road through a mountain wilderness. The drifter proved to the camp —and to his girl—that he was both

HAROLD CHANNING WIRE August 1 1941
FICTION

LEADFOOT

It takes a tough, proud breed to cut a road through a mountain wilderness. The drifter proved to the camp —and to his girl—that he was both

HAROLD CHANNING WIRE August 1 1941

LEADFOOT

FICTION

It takes a tough, proud breed to cut a road through a mountain wilderness. The drifter proved to the camp —and to his girl—that he was both

HAROLD CHANNING WIRE

WE HAD finished our meal in the mess tent that noon and still had ten minutes’ smoke time left, when we went out and found this drifter waiting among the giant road machines in our camp yard. He was standing beside one of the big sixteen-ton cats, a slight, thin fellow anyway, looking even smaller with the caterpillar’s treads higher than his shoulders. His face was thin too, with a sort of sharp eagerness about it. He had on an old pair of army shoes and wrinkled khaki shirt and pants. Just another bum, I thought, waiting around for a handout from the cook.

But then he turned from the cat, and somehow he singled out Big Jim Yarnell.

There were others among us, the surveyors especially in their whipcords and puttees, who looked more like engineers than Big Jim did. It was his size that marked him, perhaps; a huge man, tall and broad with a stronglined brown face and the kind of drive in him that it takes to become a superintendent of highway construction before you are thirty.

“You the boss?” the road bum asked.

Big Jim halted. Roughly, he growled, “I am. What do you want?”

“A job.” The fellow grinned. He seemed pretty cocky about it as he kicked one heel back against the big machine. “I’m a cat-skinner.”

For a moment it was so quiet I could hear my watch tick in my pants pocket. Then someone whooped and we all gave him the laugh.

You have to see those giants we were using to understand why he sounded so ridiculous. This highway we’re building is up north in the mountains. Tough country, rocky and steep, it took tough men to cut a road through with giant graders, power shovels that could fill a truck in one bite, sheep’s-foot rollers taller than a man, and everything pulled by these mammoth cats. Besides, catskinners come up to their jobs the long hard way. They are a proud breed. Like railroad engineers or air-line pilots they know they rate tops, and here was this young punk saying he was in their class!

He didn’t look at us. When we quit laughing he said again to Jim, “I’m a cat-skinner, but if you haven’t got that job open I’ll do anything else. All I want—” He stopped short.

His eyes went past Big Jim and a look came into them that made us all turn our heads. Our new cook, Eva McBlain her name was, had come to the mess-tent door.

She was something special. We’d had lady cooks, of course, middle-aged ones who had been like mothers among the fifteen men in our crew. But this girl was young, a sweet kid, blond, with blue eyes and an open pretty face. She was not so young or green, though, that she didn’t know how to handle us, laughing as she gave back our talk in an easy off-hand way. And right off when Jim Yarnell had brought her out from town, it wasn’t hard to see how he had fallen. Without his having to say anything we knew we’d better not try any tricks. Big Jim was tough.

She stood there in the tent door only half a minute, staring, her lips pressed out thin and a hot-red flush coming into her cheeks. Then she moved back out of sight. When a man’s trying to make up with a girl who won’t

have him, there’s something in his face you can’t miss. It was like that with this drifter, a half grinning, half awkward look as if he expected she was going to bawl him out. We all saw it and understood it. He had followed her to our camp.

Jim Yarnell saw it, too. He brought his eyes back and his voice took on a misleading quiet tone. “So you’re a cat-skinner, but you’ll do anything else.” A sure-enough catman would never ask for another job. They don’t need to. “Maybe,” Big Jim went on, “it’s because you sort of like it in this camp. You just want to be around.”

“That’s right,” the road bum told him, still grinning. “Anything you’ve got.”

“I see.” Jim waited a moment. Of course he could have sent this fellow on. But you don’t cure a dog of sucking eggs by throwing a stick at him. He’ll come back for more some other time. A better way is to give him an egg with something in it he’ll never forget. We had that kind of an egg for any man who wasn’t wanted around our camp. Afterwards, this one wouldn’t have the face to show himself in front of the girl again.

“Okay,” Big Jim said and turned to me. “Put him on the trim gang. Out in front.”

I knew what that meant. And after I had written his name, Joe Ball, in my timebook and was walking along with him on the grade, I figured he would last until about the middle of the afternoon.

rT'HE GIANT machines can do almost everything nowdays in cutting out a road. But there’s plenty of hand work left, back-breaking work, the toughest on the job. Like on the fills. We had a gang working this afternoon on our biggest one, crossing a deep canyon, a ridge of dirt close to a hundred feet high. These men, six of

them, were in the middle, beneath where the carryalls dumped their tons of dirt and rock.

But Jim Yarnell had said, “Put him out in front.” That meant across the fill below a huge Diesel shovel that was gnawing at the opposite canyonside.

He was going to be alone. I led him down the steep embankment and showed him what to do. At the bottom, concrete for the long wings that would lead water into the culvert had not yet been poured. The trenches for these wings had been dug though, ten feet deep.

The trimmer’s job was to build a series of walls out of loose rock, like checkdams, to keep the shovel’s loads from slicing into the trenches. He had to work fast or get buried under. And the tough part was that whenever the shovelman up above him emptied his scoop bucket, a shower of boulders would come down.

Of course the shovelman could watch below and not dump his loads over the trimmer’s head, if he wanted to. If you’ve ever seen a good one you’ll know that his monster machine is like another arm and hand. This one of ours, Monk Kain, was good. But he had a streak of meanness in him.

Maybe his first dump while I was still there at the boitom with Joe Ball was an accident. Maybe not. It came from directly above us, jagged rocks tossed out of the scoop bucket sliding around our legs. A quick tight lock came over Joe Ball’s face. I got out of the dust and shook a fist up at the shovel. The Diesel’s noise stopped. Monk Kain leaned from the cab window, giving us a grin.

“What’s the matter?” he yelled. “Can’t he move? Got lead in his feet?” Afterwards, I knew who stuck the nickname, Leadfoot, onto Joe Ball.

How things went during the next two hours that afternoon would be an easy guess. My job checking supplies took me back a mile along the grade. So it was some time

before I returned to the big fill and saw that the trim men working in the middle of it were watching something on in front. I looked down to the bottom. Joe Ball was gone. It was plain enough he hadn’t kept ahead of Monk Kain’s dumped rock. A wide fantail of loose stuff had slid close to the wing trench.

Then in a moment I saw him. He was climbing the steep canyonside beneath the Diesel shovel, and by the way he was hauling himself hand and foot up that rock face you could tell he was fighting mad. With no stop as he scrambled onto the fill level, he made a rush at the Diesel cab’s door. A boot met him and sent him back sprawling. It was a dirty kick and must have choked off his wind. But he got up.

I was still some distance off and couldn’t see what it was he grabbed, suddenly, as he got onto his feet. An iron stake, maybe. At the same time Monk Kain was in his cab door again, and he had a spanner wrench. He wasn’t fooling. I yelled at them, walking on fast.

Joe Ball turned, saw me and dropped whatever he had picked up.. He stood there pulling up his shirt tails to let the gravel out. Then he must have said something pretty bad. For he ducked his head and made a clean jump down the fill slope with Monk Kain’s wrench following him through the air.

From his cab, Monk gave me a crooked grin. He was one of those dark skinned, boney-faced little men, with small, black, shiny eyes.

“What’s it all about?” I asked.

“He can’t take it!”

“Maybe he can take you, though,” I said.

“Any time he wants to try !” Monk went back to work.

The truth was, the bum did take it, at least he stuck through the afternoon without yelling lor help. But he could hardly drag himself back to camp that evening, and

when he didn’t come to the table for the night meal, we all thought he had quit and sneaked off in the dark. After we had eaten, just on a hunch I looked into the spare-bunk tent. He was there.

He lay flattened out with his head down in the bend of both arms. When he looked around into my flashlight his face had no color in it. It was drained white and every muscle in his body seemed to twitch with their ache.

That kind of exhaustion is no good. The next thing he’d have pneumonia. I felt a little sorry and said, “Look, Joe. You’re behind the eight ball here. There’s no use trying to stick in this camp no matter what you want. I'll pay you for this afternoon’s—’’

He jerked up. “You’re firing me? Say, why don’t you give me a chance!”

I íe wasn’t begging. His thin face had a defiant set. But it seemed the defiance of a fellow who’d been kicked around somewhere, and was ready to take it again. You’ve seen the look in a beaten dog who’ll snap at you, but wants to make friends if you’ll let him.

“No,” I said. “You aren’t fired.”

“Okay.” He lay back on the cot. "I don’t quit, either. Go tell that to your gang!”

TF IT HADN’T been for the girl, we might have eased A up on him the next day. I le didn’t try anything around her. There wasn’t much chance. Breakfast is always a rush meal and she hardly gave him a look. But his eyes couldn’t leave her alone as she hurried in and out the kitchen, and you know how it is with a bunch of men. They all had feelings about her themselves, an urge to protect her, or something. They’d cure this one of following her into road camps, at least into any more camps of ours.

That morning he was taken off the big fill and shot onto roustabout chores. That meant lugging heavy joints of iron pipe to extend our sprinkler line; lugging heavy planks for the cats to climb on when they got in dirt too soft; crowbarring boulders out of the machines’ way—all of it tough, and all the time you could hear someone yelling at him: “Come on, Leadfoot, pick it up!” “Not there, Leadfoot, here!” “Come on . . . come on!”

They rode him and he stood up to it. You couldn’t help but admire him. Some of the men began to grin a little when they yelled. Then about quitting time he was on the sprinkler hose, alone. Usually that’s a two-man job. Ask any fireman how it is to hold a nozzle under high pressure. It’s like wrestling with a full-grown South American boa. We didn’t want to kill him. So the pressure was not turned on full, just enough to make him spraddle his legs and clamp the nozzle under his right arm, and realize that now he had something he didn’t dare let go of.

At quitting time like this there’s always a lot of dust from tlie machines going back to the camp yard, and in that brown fog nobody could have seen all that happened. The pipeline for this sprinkler hose ran along one side of the grade. Its end and the turn-on valve were near the big fill, where Joe Ball’s job was to water down the last dry layer of dirt.

Perhaps someone saw Monk Kain coming back from his {lower shovel. I didn’t. But he was the only man ahead near that end of the pipeline and was the one. all right, who gave the turn-on valve a kick, just for the fun of seeing the hose come to life.

It did, like the boa. You could see the first sudden squirm jerk along it. Then all at once it was a looping, writhing thing three inches thick, with its heavy nozzle an angry head lashing back and forth at the end.

Joe couldn’t hold on. He tried, and that was a mistake. A whip of the hose lifted him clear off the ground. The next jerk tore the nozzle from under his arm and he went down in mud as slick as a soaped board. He floundered, trying to crawl away. And every time the steel nozzle swung past, in the mud now, too, it didn’t miss him by more than inches. One blow would have crushed any part of him it hit.

Someone yelled and men were running. But it was Big Jim who reached Joe Ball first. He bent and dragged Joe back and somehow got one boot on the nozzle, stopping it with his weight. A couple of men had run to the pipeline valve to close it. others of us had jumped onto the hose, so that most of the road gang was around there to see what happened next.

Jim Yamell started across toward Monk Kain. Joe Ball walked behind him. “Monk,” Jim snapped, “there’s a limit—” He never finished.

Joe Ball had taken a quick, weaving step around him. That was about all we saw. He knew how to throw a fast punch, hard. The next thing, our shovelman was lying on the grade, out cold, and Joe Ball with mud plastered over his clothes and face and in his hair, walked through the gang of us without a word, heading for camp.

By the time he had washed in the shower and changed his clothes, the rest of us were in'the mess tent halfway through with our meal. There had been talk at the table, ribbing Monk Kain whose jaw was swollen, and Eva, coming in and out to serve us, had heard it.

Then Joe came in. He was slicked up now in brand new

khaki shirt and pants, his hair combed, his face shaved. He didn t look much like a road bum. And there was something else about him. He walked in, not with a swagger, exactly, nor being cocky about it, either, but like a young fellow who just felt pretty good.

Our talk stopjXid when he sat down. Eva came in with his plate of roast beef, baked potato and peas. It was heaped up extra full, that’s the first thing I noticed. Then when she reached around him to put it on the table, I saw her arm brush his shoulder in a kind of slow motion while she stared down at the top of his head. It was a plain invitation for him to look up at her. Joe didn’t. He started in on the beef.

1 glanced at Jim arnell at the table’s end. Big Jim was watching Eva with a queer expression on his face. When she had gone back into the kitchen he looked at Joe Ball in the same queer way. He couldn’t have missed that touch of her arm on Joe’s shoulder. It must have stirred him up and made him wonder if this game hadn’t boomcranged. It. had. Instead of making Joe look small in her eyes, it had made him a man who could take everything we gave.

Monk Kain, too, was watching Joe from across the table. Maybe the rest of us felt we had carried our treatment far enough. But this wasn’t the end to what had happened between Joe and Monk. That was something we couldn’t stop.

PIRST thing in the morning Joe -*• was on the sprinkler hose again, going ahead with his job of wetting down the fill. The big machines were working back along the grade out of the mud. The hand gangs were back, too. That left only Monk Kain on his power shovel and Joe Ball on the hose, out in front. It was a sure setup for trouble, with Joe sprinkling across the fill, getting closer to Monk all the time. I could see them watch each other.

Then something called me to another part of the job and it was an hour before I wentto the fill again.

Big Jim was walking back with me. By this time Joe Ball had worked up almost within squirting distance of the shovel. In the shovel’s cab, Monk Kain had his head close to an open window looking out at Joe.

Perhaps that was what caused an error in his judgment. He may have overreached with his bucket and caught a pine root that didn’t give.

Or maybe—this can happen in spite of all precaution—the fill top simply began to slide.

Beside me Big Jim let out a yell.

The huge digger was tipping! There came a roar from the Diesel engine That was Monk getting into gear with his caterpillar treads. You’ll have to hand it to him, lie stuck.

The treads sent up a geyser of dirt as he tried to back away from the fill’s edge. But the giant machine with its bucket caught, far out in front went on over, like an elephant kneeling. In the last second Monk Kain jumped.

I íe hurtled out of the cab door on the down side and must have landed halfway toward the bottom of the steep embankment. We couldn’t see that part. All we could see was the shovel’s great weight shoving a mound of loose rock as it went down that hundred-foot slope.

Thinks happened faster than it takes to tell them. Ahead of us Joe Ball was where he could look below the fill, and all at once something stiffened him in his tracks.

Both Big Jim and I saw the one cat bulldozer that had been left idle on the fill top in front of Joe. But neither of us were catmen. Catmen are special. Oh sure, we could have driven it. But what for? As we saw Joe drop his hose and sprint toward this cat we started running, Big Jim swearing beside me, “What the hell !’’

Joe was climbing the cat’s treads when we reached him. Funny how men yell when they’re excited, as if everyone is deaf. Big Jim yelled, “What’re you doing?”

“Monk’s down there!” Joe yelled back. “He’s in the trench !”

“But what are you —” Big Jim made a grab for Joe up on the cat’s treads, and caught a sudden kick aimed at his chest. It sent him sprawling backward in the slick ooze. Before he could scramble up, Joe Ball was in the high seat,

the motor bursting out in full blast, and the way he yanked the big cat back and forth, getting traction in the mud, showed what he knew.

He shot her weaving past us, skinning her like a veteran. But it looked as if he’d gone stark mad when he drove along the fill edge and suddenly turned straight down.

Behind us men had shouted and were coming on the run. Yet all we could do was watch. There was the giant shovel, heeled over and building up a landslide that it was pushing toward the wing trench where Monk Kain was trapped. And there was Joe Ball.

He had lowered the bulldozer’s steel blade in front of the cat. Now with full power on he was cutting a deep groove close to the shovel. Too close. He was under the side that

leaned with the cab and its heavy machinery above him.

As he passed, his blade was almost beneath the shovel’s caterpillar treads, gouging dirt away from them. It took only a second, then he was in front and made a quick turn off at a downward angle.

Some time put a pebble on the side of a dry sandpile, then start a little channel ahead of it with your finger. You'll see what happens. You can make the pebble follow off in the way you dig. That’s what Joe Ball was doing, using the cat for a finger.

No doubt he knew what else he was doing. Even as he cut in close beside the treads, the huge machine had started to tip over. It moved in the way he intended, all right, off slantwise in a direction that would carry it past the end of the wing trench. But it fell too fast. He hadn’t got far enough in front. The long bucket crane caught him with a banging slam.

All of us must have been pouring down the slope while these things were happening, for we came into the mess with dust still rising. The shovel’s bucket had dug in deep when it hit soft gravel and had stopped the machine’s downward slide. The cat’s motor was dead. There wasn’t a sound, until someone called, “Here he is!”

We got him out of the dirt and it was Jim Yarnell who picked up the limp shape and started for camp. He sent me

on ahead of the rest to get the first-aid chest opened.

Eva heard me running in. She came to the mess tent door, saw the other men coming and gasped, “Who’s hurt?”

“Joe Ball.”

“Joe — !” 11er face went white.

“Get some water and clean towels,” I said.

We were in the small spare bunk when Yarnell came in with Joe, laid him on the cot and went to work like a doctor.

Ip a moment he said, “No bones broken. A chain must have hit him.” He bathed a bleeding wound across Joe’s forehead and taped on a disinfectant bandage.

Eva helped, holding the basin of water and cloths. I watched her, because of how white she had gone, hearing it was Joe Ball. The color had come back into her face; and something else had come there, too. A tenderness, maybe, her mouth soft. When the bandage was in place, she laid her hand gently on Joe’s forehead. “Jim,” she asked, “what happened?”

TDK FOR I? Big Jim could answer someone pushed through the silent crowd outside the tent. Monk Kain stood in the open flaps.

He said nothing; just stared at Joe Ball on the cot. He hadn’t been hurt much except for some scratches where he had slid on the rocks. But he must have known by this time why he hadn’t been buried alive in that trench.

Then Joe’s eyes opened. He looked around, puzzled, the way a man is when he’s knocked out. “What’s the matter?” His eyes moved, clearing. They found the girl.

She bent above him, reaching down to touch his forehead again. Her voice was choked. “How do you feel, Joe?”

He lay looking up at her for a long moment. “I’m all right. Swell. Sure.” Glancing past her, he grinned. “You here?”

“I’m here,” Monk Kain said. “Kid,” he began, but soft talk isn’t easy for his kind.

“Skip it,” Joe Ball said. He moved his legs to the edge of the cot and sat up.

Big Jim put a hand on his shoulder to push him back. “You lie down, Joe. No more work today. Maybe not tomorrow.” He gave the shoulder a hard grip. “When you get ready you can have anything you want in this camp !”

He must have seen instantly the double meaning behind that. Joe’s eyes went to Eva, and back again to Jim.

“No,” he said. “No, I can’t.”

He stood up, thin, his clothes loose on him, yet he held himself up square. “If it’s any kind of a job you mean, thanks. I’ve got a job to go back to. A cat job.”

He wasn’t talking to Eva, but he was telling her. “I won’t be hanging around any more. I guess a fellow who couldn’t hold steady work and then got himself into trouble for joy riding in a car that wasn’t his, can’t expect anyone to believe his promises now. I’d been drinking when I took that car. I swore off, begged for a chance. I meant it. So the court gave me a chance. They let me go on suspended sentence if I’d go back in the mountains to a job in a road camp. We’ve been building firebreaks. That’s where I learned how to handle a cat.”

Big Jim Yarnell, I think, saw right then how it was going to be. And it was a little hard for him to take. “So you came here to prove how good you were.”

“I came here,” Joe said, “to prove I could stick to any job there was.” He still didn’t look at Eva. “It’s too late, sure. I’ve seen how things are here. So this is the end of it. I know when I’m out.” He turned as if to go, and had to face the girl standing in front of him.

She didn’t speak at first. If you’ve ever se'-n the sun break slowly across a clear blue sky after grey weather, \rou’ll know how her eyes were then. No tears, but with a misty brightness shining in them. “Joe,” she murmured. “Joe ...”

“I haven’t touched a drink,” he said, “in seven months.”

Big Jim’s voice broke in roughly. “Come on !” he said to Monk and me. “Outside!”

He went out with us and pulled the tent flaps down behind our backs.— The End.