BY JASON LAWSON
Copyright is held by the author.
THE THUDS echoed through the woods, off of the snow-laden softwoods. With every swing of the axe, Jack ripped another piece of wood from the large spruce he was felling. Soon the wedge was finished. He paused, wiped the sweat from his brow and snugged up his suspenders. His breath hung around his head. He took off his hat, ran his fingers through his dark hair, then put it back on quickly. It was cold, and the work was hard, but he didn’t mind a bit.
He stepped through the ankle-deep snow to the back of the tree. Once again, his axe played a steady tune. Wood chips and pieces flew in the air. A few more resounding whacks, and a familiar cracking started. Slowly, the tree tipped forward. Then it picked up speed. Jack took a couple of steps back as it crashed noisily to the forest floor, sending clouds of snow into the air.
He admired his work, then set to limbing the huge tree. Will would soon be along with his grey percheron mare, Nell. He walked down the centre of the tree, expertly snapping off branches with one swing. As he reached the top and began cutting it off, the familiar sound of Nell’s corked shoes on the frozen ground caught his ear. Right on time.
“Yer sure flying today,” Will said as he turned the mare around to the butt of the tree, “everyone is. I kin barely keep up.”
“I wanna get as many as I kin. Maybe Joe’ll let us have an extra day off.”
“Ya better start cuttin’ with two axes. At the same time.” Will said with a grin as he hooked the chain from the whiffletree to the spruce. He paused and brushed some frost from his salt and pepper beard. “You know the deal. We go home on the 24th, be back on the 28th.”
“Well I ain’t been home since the first of October. Me kids must think I’ve been gone a year.”
“Yers are still little devils. As long as my six dollars a week keeps coming in the mail, mine ain’t gonna miss me one bit.”
Jack nodded and started towards another spruce that was a few feet from the one he had just felled.
“Ferget that. It’s lunch time.”
“Is it? Time flies when ya got no watch.”
Will chirped the mare and she strained in the harness. The big log slid ahead on the snow. Jack walked behind them, grinning at the sight. Will was a good horseman. He made sure Nell got plenty to eat, and her shoes and harness were always in top shape. He never beat his horse, and never asked her to pull more than she could. In return, she could yard more wood than any other horse at the camp.
Soon they were in the woodyard, which was beside the riverbank. Scores of logs were stacked stratiegacally for the spring breakup, when they would be rolled down the embankment and into the river. Will got his log in place, then unhitched the mare and took her over to a hitching post where there was hay and water waiting. “When I eats, she eats,” he said everyday without fail.
The two men started for the camp. It was a long building with cedar shingles on the walls and roof. Large icicles hung down the sides, smoke rolled out of the stovepipe on the end.
“I hear Len made beef stew again,” Will noted and rubbed his belly.
“Oh Christ, I sure miss me wife’s cookin’.” Jack grumbled.
“I’m sure that ain’t all yer missin’.” Will chuckled.
So did Jack. “Anyway, it’s the 22nd, one more day and we’re outta here.”
They opened the door, stepped inside and were greeted with the scent of beef stew and homemade bread. Len, a man in his sixties, was bent over the wood stove, stirring the meal in a large, steel pot. As he heard the door squeak, he filled two bowls, and handed them to Will and Jack.
They made their way over to the long, rough planked table and sat on the bench beside it. Other men were already seated, laughing and talking while enjoying their meal.
“Bout time you two got here,” Joe said, “I was about to send the dog to look for yas.”
“This Jack fella had an extra log for me, Boss. Thinks you’re gonna give us all an extra day off.”
Some of the men laughed. Joe did not.
“Now you know that ain’t happening. Spring’ll be here afore you know it.”
“Spring? It ain’t even Christmas yet , you old skinflint,” one man jabbed.
Much laughter. But Jack ignored it all. It was mail day and a fat envelope was waiting for him at his table setting. He ate the stew and read his mail at the same time. His daughters, Jenny and Myrtle, four and six years old, had written him a letter. Actually, Myrtle had done the writing; big, crooked letters that spelled We miss you Daddy. There were several pictures of horses and stick men in the woods. He smiled.
Next was a letter from his wife, Tammy. The usual news from home, then several paragraphs describing what they were going to do when he got home. His face got red.
“Must be good reading,” Will noticed.
“Too much pepper in the stew.” He tried to recover.
Howls of laughter from the men.
“I’d take that letter and show you all pepper,” Will continued. “But I can’t read a lick.”
“I kin,” said Fred, a chubby horseman, who was sitting next to Joe.
Jack stuffed the letters in his pocket. “Yer all a bunch of busybodies. Worse than women.”
A few more chuckles and it was time to get back to work. Jack watched Will stuff his pipe, then light it with an ember from the stove that was at the end of the dining room, next to the bunks. Jack put in a chew of tobacco and they started for the door. Instead of smiling his usual smile, Len looked disturbed as they walked past the kitchen.
“What’s the matter, old timer?” Will wondered.
“I got an ache in my bones. Must be a storm coming.”
“Sure you ain’t had too much whiskey last night?”
“I’m sure. A nor’easter. And a big one.”
Will shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t do much about the weather, now kin we?”
“Guess not,” Len agreed.
As they crossed the yard, Jack couldn’t help but think about it. It would take him all day to get home on the 24th, if the weather was fine. A storm would make it next to impossible. Once in the brush, he found himself continually looking up at the sky through the trees. The patches of blue that were predominant in the morning were now replaced by a dull grey. The dry cold was now a damp one. It was worrysome.
Will arrived to fetch another log. “Stop thinkin’ about it,” he said knowingly.
“I can’t help it.”
“Won’t do ya no good. That old codger might be wrong. Could be flurries.”
Jack nodded and set to work felling another tree. Will and Nell vanished through the trees. As the axe kept biting, he distracted himself with thoughts of home. The kids. Tammy, home cooking, Tammy. Crack went the tree as it fell forward, then away with the branches. Over and over again. Before he knew it, Will was singing his familiar song. “Quitting time!”
They hurried out to the camp, rushed inside and washed up. Len had whipped up a fine supper of meat pie and biscuits. While enjoying the meal, Jack kept looking out the four-paned glass window. Snowflakes. Small ones. A bad sign.
“I knew it,” Len guffawed as he set several apple pies on the table in front of the men, “it’s gonna be a real humdinger.”
The men stopped talking.
“What about getting home for Christmas?” Fred asked.
“Don’t get yerselves in a knot. It’s nothing but goddamn flurries,” Joe said gruffly, “You’ll all get home in time for Santy Claus.”
After supper, the men sat around playing cards and checkers by lamplight. Usually Jack was right in the middle of the games, but not tonight. He kept pacing, staring out the window at the falling snow.
“Calm yerself,” Will looked up from the checkerboard. “Yer like a long-tailed cat in a room full a rockin’ chairs.”
“I can’t help it. I never missed a Christmas with the kids before.”
Will shook his head and resumed playing. Jack resumed pacing. At 9 pm, Jack headed for the bunkroom. 12 rough bunks, each with a pillow and a blanket. Jack got into his bed and snuggled furiously, trying to warm up the straw-tick mattress and the blanket. Soon the rest of the men made their way into the room, making small talk as they got ready for sleep. Jack listened to their stories of horses, women and wine, trying to forget about the storm that was bearing down on the camp. After a bit, he fell into a restless sleep.
Bang! The noise woke him. And several other men.
“What the Jesus was that?” Fred asked from a top bunk.
“I think the goddamn door blew open.” Joe cursed.
Jack jumped from his bottom bunk and scurried out into the dining room. Sure enough, the door was wide open, whipping back and forth in the wind. As he pulled it shut and relatched it, his heart sank. It was snowing harder than ever, and the wind was blowing fiercely.
“Was it the door?” Joe asked as Jack got back in his bunk.
No one said anything else. They didn’t have to. They all knew they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
At breakfast, the men were sullen and withdrawn. The wind continued to howl, the snow kept falling. The trees were bending from the force, twigs and branches slid across the snow-covered yard like snakes in the sand.
“Look boys, there’s no work today. Too much wind and snow.” Joe broke the silence as he finished his eggs. “We’ll go home for New Year’s instead. That’s a good holiday too. We’ll be having a goose at my house.”
“To hell with that,” Jack blurted, “I want to go home.”
“Don’t be a fool.”
“Barometer’s still down,” Len said from the kitchen as he tapped the glass. “This ain’t over yet.”
“I don’t care. If we ain’t workin’, then I ain’t staying.”
“Are you nuts, boy?” Joe lit his pipe. “The road’ll be drifted in. It’s 10 miles out for Christ’s sakes. And another 10 to your house.”
“I didn’t spend all fall in here to be jammed up at Christmas.”
“No one wants ta be stranded,” Will interjected. “But it ain’t worth getting yourself killed over. Stay with us.”
“We’ll have our own party,” Joe continued. “I got a couple a bottles hid away. And Len’ll put up a big feed for us.”
Jack didn’t hear him. He was too busy putting on his coat and boots.
“Are ya listenin’, boy?”
“Yeah, I hear ya. Have yourselves a good party.” He smiled as he put on his hat. “I’m getting outta here.”
“Yer a damn fool,” Len said as he handed him a sandwich and a glass bottle of water. “At least take this with you.”
“Thanks.” Jack stuffed the goods in his coat pocket and headed outside.
The wind almost knocked him over. It stung his face. He pulled the earlaps of his cap down tighter and began trudging through the snow that was now up to his knees. As he left the yard and started down the trail that led out, he felt a twinge of fear. The trees were shaking. The snow was almost falling sideways. It was the worst storm he’d seen in his 28 years.
Thoughts of Tammy and the kids goaded him on. Left, right, left, right, his feet kept marching. Every step brought him a little closer to home. He tried to ignore the elements. Tried to ignore the ache in his legs from wading through the deep snow. He just kept wading and pushing forward. Hours passed. He began to feel winded. It was time for a rest.
As he reached a familiar bend in the trail, he got behind a big pine tree and fished out his sandwich. “Don’t know if it’s lunchtime, and I don’t much care. I’m hungy,” he said out loud against the howling wind. He took a couple of bites. It was good, but his bread couldn’t hold a candle to Tammy’s. He reached back into his pocket for the bottle of water. Then he heard it. A familiar sound. A cracking.
The pine he was leaning against started to fall. Quickly. Jack darted onto the trail and stumbled in the deep snow. Before he could get to his feet, it hit him. He felt the pain. Then darkness.
He opened his eyes. The snow was packed so tightly against his face he couldn’t breathe. Or see. He tried moving his arms. His right was pinned. His left was free. Frantically, he clawed at his face, then began gasping as his airway was clear. After he caught his breath, he tried to move. It was impossible. The trunk was on his back. His head was pinned to the ground, his face was freezing. His legs felt like they were tangled in branches. Only his left hand would move.
He struggled. Strained. Screamed. He scratched at the ground, trying in vain to pull himself out with his one free hand, clawing until he felt the skin coming off. It was no use. He was entombed above the ground.
Gradually, he resigned himself to the situation. Joe and the others were right. He should have waited. He just missed his family so much. As he lay there, the realization sunk in that he was going to die. He became frantic again, straining to get loose. It was no use. After a few moments, he gave up. Tears streamed down the side of his face, he thought of each girl, and Tammy. He closed his eyes and imagined Christmas. Having a drink with his wife after the kids were in bed. Then being woken up by two very excited girls. He relaxed. Sleep started to envelope him. Suddenly, it was like he was there.
“Look at this, daddy!” Myrtle screamed as she dumped out a knitted sock on the floor by the fireplace. Candies, hairpins, an apple and an orange.
Jenny’s held the same treasures. As the girls jumped around excitedly, he gave Tammy a hug, secretly thanking her for doing some good shopping while he was away.
Time to unwrap presents. Tammy gushed as she opened up a box that he’d purchased at the general store months ago and hidden in the stable. A fancy dress that he’d seen her looking at while they were shopping. New gloves and boots for him. Outfits for the girls. And a few dolls, of course.
Then the turkey was on the table, along with mashed potatoes, gravy and all the fixings. It smelled heavenly and tasted even better. As he reached for seconds, a terrible noise ripped through the house. The roof was coming off. The wind began howling ferociously.
“Jesus Christ! Get up, Jack!” Will was suddenly beside him.
Snow was filling the room.The girls began screaming, their plates fell from the table and smashed on the floor. “Stop it, Will! You’re scaring them!”
Will grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, “Wake up for Christ’s sakes!”
“I am awake!” Jack looked for the children again. They were kneeling beside the Christmas tree. A cracking sound filled the room. The tree, ornaments and all began falling towards them. “Get out of the way!”
The tree crashed to the floor. But there was no floor. No room. No girls. Just Will and Jack in the woods, beside a fallen pine tree. A long rope was hooked to it. Nell was at the other end.
“Come on, Jack!” Will was shaking him again, “You’ll die if you don’t wake up!”
“I’m awake.” He was. And shaking ferociously. Every part of him was frozen.
“I don’t think so.”
“Yer a lucky bastard. The snow and the branches kept that tree from crushing you like a bug. Come on.” Will half-dragged him to the sled, tossed him in the front seat, and covered him with a buffalo rug.
As he sat there shaking, Will hitched Nell to the sled. Then he was in the seat beside him. He grabbed the reins, chirped the mare and off they went through the storm.
“You stay awake!” Will hollered over a blast of wind. “We ain’t out of this yet!”
Jack nodded, but didn’t answer. The cold was getting to him. Suddenly, a flask was in front of him.
“Drink some. It’ll warm ya.”
He held out his hand, but couldn’t hold the container. Will’s burly fingers opened it, then it was against his lips. He drank deeply. Whiskey. It burned him to the core. After a few minutes, he began to feel a bit better.
Now on the main road, the drifts were like ocean waves. As they approached, Will would urge Nell on, and she’d jump right into them, sometimes the snow would be right to her belly. But she’d paw and scratch until they were through it.
After what seemed like hours, the wind began to lighten. The snow eased up. Jack could see he was getting close to his house.
“Why did you decide to go home?” Jack finally spoke.
“Aw, Joe’s party wouldn’t a been no fun.” Will chuckled, but his eyes told a different story.
“I don’t believe you.”
“I was afraid, okay? And I was right.”
“You were. You all were.”
Soon Jack’s house was just ahead. And none too soon as dusk was fast approaching. As they pulled up beside the building, two little faces appeared in the window of the log cabin. From outside, Jack could hear them screaming, “Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!”
“I hope you don’t think I’m foolish,” Jack said as he pushed the buffalo robe off of him.
“I think yer crazy,” Will said as he looked towards the house. “But I know why ya did it. Get in there. I’ll pick you up in a few days.”
Jack suddenly reached across the sled and hugged Will tightly. “Merry Christmas. And thank you.”
“Get out of here, you simpleton!” Will pushed him away. But as Jack left the sleigh, he failed to see the grin on Will’s face. He was too busy hurrying to the house. For some Christmas cheer.