The Butt of the Camp.



HE was a mean-looking specimen, this Simon Gillsey, and the Gornish Camp was not proud of him. His neck was long, his mouth was long and protruding, like a bird’s beak, his hair was thin and colorless, his shoulders sloped in such a manner that his arms, which were long and lean, seemed to start from somewhere near his waist.
    His body started forward from the hips, and he used his hands in a deprecating fashion that seemed to beseech so much recognition as might be conveyed in a passing kick.
    He was muscular to a degree that would never be guessed from his make-up, but the camp was [Page 76] possessed with a sense of shame at tolerating his presence, and protected its self-respect by reminding him continually that he was considered beneath contempt.
    Simon seemed quite unconscious of the difference between the truth and a lie. It was not that he lied from malice—the hands said he hadn’t “spunk” enough to know what malice was—but sheer mental obliquity led him to lie by preference, unless he saw reason to believe that the truth would conciliate his comrades.
    He used to steal tobacco and other trifles whenever he found a good opportunity, and when he was caught his repentance was that of fear rather than of shame.
    At the same time, the poor wretch was thoroughly courageous in the face of some physical and external dangers. The puniest man in camp could cow him with a look, yet none [Page 77] was prompter than he to face the grave perils of breaking a log-jam, and there was no cooler hand than his in the risky labors of stream-driving. Altogether he was a disagreeable problem to the lumbermen, who resented any element of pluck in one so unmanly and meagre-spirited as he was.

    In spite of their contempt, however, they could ill have done without this cringing axeman. He did small menial services for his fellows, was ordered about at all times uncomplainingly, and bore the blame for everything that went wrong in the Gornish Camp.
    When one of the hands was in a particularly bad humor, he could always find some relief for his feelings by kicking Gillsey in the shins, at which Gillsey would but smile an uneasy protest, showing the conspicuous absence of his upper front teeth [Page 78].
    Then again the Gornish Camp was waggishly inclined. The hands were much addicted to practical jokes. It was not always wholesome to play these on each other, but Gillsey afforded a safe object for the ingenuity of the backwoods wit.
    For instance, whenever the men thought it was time to “chop a fellow down,” in default of a green-horn from the older settlements they would select Gillsey for the victim, and order that reluctant scarecrow up to the tree-top. This was much like the hunting of a tame fox, as far as exhilaration and manliness were concerned; but sport is sport, and the men would have their fun, with the heedless brutality of primitive natures.
    This diversion, though rough and dangerous, is never practised on any but green hands or unwary visitors; but all signs fail in dry weather, and for Gillsey no traditions held [Page 79]. When he had climbed as high as his tormentors thought advisable—which usually was just as high as the top of the tree—a couple of vigorous choppers would immediately attack the tree with their axes.
    As the tall trunk began to topple with a sickening hesitation, Gillsey’s eyes would stick out and his thin hair seem to stand on end, for to this torture he never grew accustomed. Then, as the men yelled with delight, the mass of dark branches would sweep down with a soft, windy crash into the snow, and Gillsey, pale and nervous, but adorned with that unfailing toothless smile, would pick himself out of the débris and slink off to camp.
    The men usually consoled him after such an experience with a couple of plugs of “black-jack” tobacco,— which seemed to him ample compensation [Page 80].
    In camp at night, when the hands had all gone to bed, two or three wakeful ones would sometimes get up to have a smoke in the firelight. Such a proceeding almost always resulted in skylarking, of which Simon would be the miserable object. Perhaps the arch-conspirator would go to the cook’s flour-barrel, fill his mouth with dry flour, and then, climbing to the slumbering Simon’s bunk, would blow the dusty stuff in a soft, thin stream all over the sleeper’s face and hair and scraggy beard. This process was called “blowing him,” and was counted a huge diversion.
    On soft nights, when the camp was hot and damp, it made, of course, a sufficiently nasty mess in the victim’s hair, but Gillsey, by contrast, seemed rather to enjoy it. It never woke him up.
    If the joker’s mood happened to be more boisterous, the approved [Page 81] procedure was to softly uncover Gillsey’s feet, and tie a long bit of salmon twine to each big toe. After waking all the other hands, the conspirators would retire to their bunks.
    Presently some one would give a smart tug on one of the strings, and pass it over hastily to his neighbor. Gillsey would wake up with a nervous yell, and grabbing his toe, seek to extricate it from the loop. Then would come another and sharper pull at the other toe, diverting Gillsey’s attention to that member.
    The game would be kept up till the bunks were screaming with laughter, and poor Gillsey bathed in perspiration and anxiety. Then the boss would interfere, and Gillsey would be set free.
    These are only instances of what the butt was made to endure, though he was probably able to thrash almost any one of his tormentors, and had [Page 82] he mustered spirit to attempt this, all the camp would have seen that he got fair play.
    At last, however, it began to be suspected that Gillsey was stealing from the pork barrels and other stores. This was serious, and the men would not play any more jokes upon the culprit. Pending proof, he was left severely to himself, and enjoyed comparative peace for nearly a week.
    This peace, strange to say, did not seem to please him. The strange creature hated to be ignored, and even courted further indignities. No one would notice him, however, till one night when he came in late, and undertook to sleep on the “deacon-seat.”
    A word of explanation is needed here. The “deacon-seat”—why so called I cannot say—is a raised platform running alongside of the stove, between the chimney and the tier of [Page 83] bunks. It is, of course, a splendid place to sleep on a bitter night, but no one is allowed so to occupy it, because in that position he shuts off the warmth from the rest.
    The hands were all apparently asleep when Gillsey, after a long solitary smoke, reached for his blanket, and rolled himself up on the coveted “deacon-seat,” with his back to the glowing fire. After a deprecating grin directed toward the silent bunks, he sank to sleep.
    Soon in the bunks arose a whispered consultation, as a result of which stalwart woodsmen climbed down, braced their backs against the lower tier, doubled up their knees, and laid their sock feet softly against the sleeper’s form. At a given signal the legs all straightened out with tremendous force, and poor Gillsey shot right across the “deacon-seat” and brought up with a thud upon the stove [Page 84].
    With a yell, he bounced away from his scorching quarters and plunged into his bunk, not burnt, but very badly scared. After that he eschewed the “deacon-seat.”
    At last the unfortunate wretch was caught purloining the pork. It became known in the camp, somehow, that he was a married man, and father of a family as miserable and shiftless as himself. Here was an explanation of his raids upon the provisions, for nobody in the camp would for a moment imagine that Gillsey could, unaided, support a family.
    One Sunday night he was tracked to a hollow about a mile from camp, where he was met by a gaunt, wild, eccentric-looking girl, who was clearly his daughter. The two proceeded to an old stump concealed under some logs in a thicket, and out of the hollow of the stump Gillsey fished a lump of salt pork, together with a big bundle of “hard-tack,” and a [Page 85] parcel or two of some other kind of provender.
    The girl threw herself upon the food like a famishing animal, devoured huge mouthfuls, and then, gathering all promiscuously into her scanty skirt, darted off alone through the gloom. As soon as she had disappeared with her stores, Gillsey was captured and dragged back to camp.
    At first he was too helpless with terror to open his mouth; but when formally arraigned before the boss he found his tongue. He implored forgiveness in the most piteous tones, while at the same time he flatly denied every charge. He even declared he was not married, that he had no family, and that he knew no one at all in the Gornish district or that part of the province.
    But the boss knew all about him, even to his parentage. He lived about ten miles from the camp, across [Page 86] the mountains, on the Gornish River itself. As for his guilt, there was no room for a shadow of uncertainty.
    A misdemeanor of this sort is always severely handled in the lumber camps. But every man, from the boss down was filled with profound compassion for Gillsey’s family. A family so afflicted as to own Gillsey for husband and sire appeared to them deserving of the tenderest pity.
    It was the pathetic savagery and haggardness of the young girl that had moved the woodmen to let her off with her booty; and now, the boss declared, if Gillsey were dismissed without his wages—as was customary, in addition to other punishment—the family would surely starve, cut off from the camp pork barrel. It was decided to give the culprit his wages up to date. Then came the rough-and-ready sentence of the camp-followers. The prisoner [Page 87] was to be “dragged”—the most humiliating punishment on the woodmen’s code.
    Gillsey’s tears of fright were of no avail. He was wrapped in a sort of winding-sheet of canvas, smeared from head to foot with grease to make him slip smoothly, and hitched by the fettered wrists to a pair of horses. The strange team was then driven, at a moderate pace for about half a mile along the main woodroad, the whole camp following in procession, and jeering at the unhappy thief.
    When the man was unhitched, unbound, and set upon his feet,—not physically the worse for his punishment save that, presumably, his wrists ached somewhat,—he was given a bundle containing his scanty belongings, and told to “streak” for home. As he seemed reluctant to obey, he was kicked into something like alacrity [Page 88].
    When he had got well out of sight the woodmen returned to their camp. As for the wretched Gillsey, after the lamentations wherewith he enlivened his tramp had sunk to silence, he began to think his bundle remarkably heavy. He sat down on a stump to examine it. To his blank amazement he found a large lump of pork and a small bag of flour wrapped up in his dilapidated overalls.
    The snow was unusually deep in the woods that winter, and toward spring there came a sudden, prolonged, and heavy thaw. The ice broke rapidly and every loosened brook became a torrent. Past the door of the camp, which was set in a valley, the Gornish River went boiling and roaring like a mill-race, all-forgetful of its wonted serene placidity.
    From the camp to Gillsey’s wretched cabin was only about ten miles across the mountain, but by the [Page 89] stream, which made a great circuit to get around a spur of the hills, it was hardly less than three times as far.
    To Gillsey, in his log hut on a lofty knoll by the stream, the winter had gone by rather happily. The degradation of his punishment hardly touched him or his barbarous brood; and his wages had brought him food enough to keep the wolf from the door. He had nothing to do but to sit in his cabin and watch the approach of spring, while his lean boys snared an occasional rabbit.
    At last, on a soft moonlight night, when the woods were full of the sounds of melting and settling snow, a far-off, ominous roaring smote his ear and turned his gaze down to the valley. Down the stream, on the still night, came the deadly, rushing sound, momently increasing in volume. The tall girl, she who had [Page 90] carried off the pork, heard the noise, and came to her father’s side.
    “Hackett’s dam’s bust, shore!” she exclaimed in a moment.
    Gillsey turned upon her one of his deprecating, toothless smiles.
    “’Taint a-goin’ ter tech us here,” said he; “but I’m powerful glad ter be outer the Gornish Camp ter night. Them chaps be a-goin’ ter ketch it, blame the’r skins!”
    The girl—she was a mere overgrown child of fourteen or fifteen—looked thoughtful a moment, and then darted toward the woods.
    “Whar yer goin’, sis?” called Gillsey, in a startled voice.
    “Warn ’em!” said the girl, laconically, not stopping her pace.
    “Stop! stop! Come back!” shouted her father, starting in pursuit. But the girl never paused.
    “Blame the’r skins! Blame the’r skins!” murmured Gillsey to himself. Then, seeing that he was not [Page 91] gaining on the child, he seemed to gulp something down in his throat, and finally he shouted:—

    “I’ll go, sis, honest I’ll go. Yer kaint do it yerself. Come back home!”
    The girl stopped, turned round, and walked back, saying to her father, “They’ve kep’ us the winter. Yer must git thar in time, dad!”
    Gillsey went by the child, at a long trot, without answering, and disappeared in the woods; and at the same moment the flood went through the valley, filling it half-way up to the spot where the cabin stood.

    That lanky youngster’s word was law to the father, and she had set his thoughts in a new channel. He felt the camp must be saved, if he died for it. The girl said so. He only remembered now how easily the men had let him off, when they might have half-killed him; and their jeers and jeers and tormenting he forgot [Page 92]. His loose-hung frame gave him a long stride, and his endurance was marvellous. Through the gray and silver glades, over stumps and windfalls, through thickets and black valleys and treacherous swamps, he went leaping at almost full speed.
    Before long the tremendous effort began to tell. At first he would not yield; but presently he realized that he was in danger of giving out, so he slackened speed a little, in order to save his powers. But as he came out upon the valley and neared the camp, he caught once more a whisper of the flood, and sprang forward desperately. Could he get there in time? The child had said he must. He would.
    His mouth was dry as a board, and he gasped painfully for breath, as he stumbled against the camp door; and the roar of the flood was in his ears. Unable to speak at first, he battered furiously on the door [Page 93] with an axe, and then smashed in the window.
    As the men came jumping wrathfully from their bunks, he found voice to yell:—
    “The water! Dam broke! Run! Run!”
    But the noise of the onrushing flood was now in their startled ears, and they needed no words to tell them their awful peril. Not staying an instant, every man ran for the hillside, barefooted in the snow. Ere they reached a safe height, Gillsey stumbled and fell, utterly exhausted, and for a moment no one noticed his absence.

    Then the boss of the camp looked back and saw him lying motionless in his tracks. Already the camp had gone down under the torrent, and the flood was about to lick up the prostrate figure; but the boss turned back with tremendous bounds, swung Gillsey over his shoulder like a sack [Page 94] of oats, and staggered up the slope, as the water swelled, with a sobbing moan, from his ankles to his knees.
    Seeing the situation of the boss, several more of the hands, who had climbed to a level of safety, rushed to the rescue. They seized him and his burden, while others formed a chain, laying hold of hands. With a shout the whole gang surged up the hill,—and the river saw its prey dragged out of its very teeth.
    After a rest of a few moments, Gillsey quite recovered, and began most abject apologies for not getting to camp sooner, so as to give the boys time to save something.
    The demonstrative hand-shakings and praises and gratitude of the men whom he had snatched from a frightful death seemed to confuse him. He took it at first for chaff, and said, humbly, that “Bein’ as sis wanted him to git thar in time, he’d did his best.” But at length it dawned upon [Page 95] him that his comrades regarded him as a man, as a hero, who had done a really splendid and noble thing. He began to feel their gratitude and their respect.

    Then it seemed as if a transformation was worked upon the poor cringing fellow, and he began to believe in himself. A new, firmer, manlier light woke in his eye, and he held himself erect. He presently began to move about among the woodsmen as their equal, and their enduring gratitude gave his new self-confidence time to ripen. From that day Simon Gillsey stood on a higher plane. In that one act of heroism he had found his slumbering manhood [Page 96].